On Saturday afternoon, I saw something remarkable when I tuned into the second half of the Real Sociedad v. Almeria match. The pitch was sodden, soggy and pockmarked with puddles as the rain fell in thick, ponderous sheets. Still, these La Liga players were able play with a considerable degree of their normal precision and pace, skillfully placing passes and crosses on the feet of their streaking, slashing teammates as the downpour turned into a deluge. Eventually the pitch became so wet that the ball would stop dead as if impelled by magnets in the grass; a perfectly weighted ball in normal times and climates, would finally slow and wobble to a stop 5-10 steps before its intended target could, and normally would, gather it and dash into the 18-yard box to shoot or set-up the attack. But the first 25-30 minutes of the second half, before the elements took over completely, were a phenomenal testament to the skill, balance and athleticism that makes La Liga so superlative and special.
Speaking of Real Sociedad, ESPN columnist Phil Ball has an excellent column regarding the legacies of La Liga that is one of the most interesting and engaging pieces of writing I’ve read in a long time. Besides the awesomely beautiful football played in La Liga, perhaps more than in other nations La Liga sides are closely associated with and embody cultural and political traditions, acting as battling, balletic signifiers for, in Sociedad’s case: Basque pride, primacy and potency. Ball uses the recent Villarreal v. Real Sociedad match to set up the discussion of legacies and how once constructed and solidified over time the perception of certain legacies remain fixed in the minds and collective consciousness of supporters, even though reality dictates that legacies often can and do evolve. Ball writes:
“What is interesting here is the extent to which the Spanish retain fixed beliefs about their teams, and how that comes to influence the way these teams develop, or otherwise. Walking towards the door on Sunday night as the barflies dispersed after the final whistle at Villarreal, an ageing but vocal Real supporter who had his team shirt rolled tightly over his alarming beer belly, addressed the bar with, ‘They’re alright Villarreal. But who the hell are they? In ten years’ time, they’ll be playing Alcorcon in Segunda B, and we’ll still be in the top flight.'”
Ball goes on to elaborate on why this dismissive attitude toward Villarreal exists in older supporters:
“Villarreal are a popular side in Spain, and their political neutrality (they do not hail from any strongly identifiable urban scene), their pretty colours, their low-key support and their attractive football make them difficult to dislike. The present young generation in Spain accept them as one of the major clubs – which historically they are not, of course. But they are an example of an institution that is not particularly established in the national psyche. Others are not so lucky.”
Coming into world football as a blank slate, I had no conception of Villarreal’s perceived cosmopolitan, nouveau riche, johnny-come-lately status in the minds of many old guard supporters, such as those of Real Sociedad’s Basque diehards, who view them as fluky, garishly colored Primera division usurpers. Just as Ball writes, I was completely taken in by the ultra stylish and attractive way Villarreal play on the pitch. But, again, I am unencumbered by cultural, regional and political baggage and biases in ways that no supporters in Spain could possibly be when I look at La Liga matches. To use a North American equivalent, as a lifelong fan of the National Football League, I laugh with scorn at the New York Jets and their lack of history, tradition and accomplishment in the exact same manner that this Sociedad supporter used to dismiss Villarreal. But that’s because I was born with a whole different set of regional and political baggage and biases that express themselves in my fandom. The men that own American sports teams often wield their considerable financial power behind the scenes (some are more openly active than others) in one way or another, but American sports franchises themselves are almost never overtly identified with cultural and political movements the way clubs like Sociedad and Barca have been in Europe. Ball’s observation that Villarreal “are an example of an institution that is not particularly established in the national psyche. Others are not so lucky” is fascinating.
Real Sociedad–The Royal Society Football Club of San Sebastian–certainly do not have the same luxury. In Basque the club is known as Erreala. Founded in 1909, the club used only local Basque talent nurtured through their youth system until 1989. According to The Rough Guide to Cult Football, Sociedad’s policy in this regard was even more strict than a similar one employed by their Basque neighbors and rivals, Athletic Bilbao, because Sociedad “only took players from the immediate province of Guipuzcoa while Athletic were prepared to twist their own rules by recruiting from French Basque country.” The pride and fervor of the Basque national identity, embodied in this football club, was such that in 1989 when Real Sociedad was forced to sign outside talent, signing a Spaniard would have been unthinkable, so–they signed an Englishman named John Aldridge. Real Sociedad’s long tradition of asserting Basque nationalism has fixed their identity and position in the Spanish national consciousness, no matter the reality of 2011, with a permanence that, Ball argues, Villarreal, in many respects, is lucky to have escaped.
Ball refers to these fixed identities as parts of a “historical memory.” He ponders what effect if any this “historical memory” may or may not have on La Liga officials:
“Referees are human, and have politico-cultural opinions and backgrounds. But more importantly, they have this historical memory to which I’m referring. They have grown up with a certain view of Spain’s teams. Real Sociedad are the easiest example, because much of Spain still associates them with Basque nationalism. Are the referees influenced by these national configurations, to the extent that they unconsciously discriminate against certain sides? Maybe.”
Ball posted this column on January 24th and in the next paragraph he goes onto discuss the perception/reality that Real Madrid have often enjoyed favorable treatment from referees. I’m using that as a segue to discuss yesterday’s stunning Osasuna v. Real Madrid match. The home supporters, the match commentators, the co-writers of this blog—it was apparent to us all that the ghosts of the past had possessed the official who dealt out bizarre, inexplicable calls and cards that all seemed to favor Madrid. As Ray Hudson said, “the official better have the cab waiting right outside the stadium, ready to jump in…” Ball writes of the “famous chant that emerged around Spain, once Franco was dead and his police state began to fracture, was Asi, asi, asi gana Madrid! (That’s how Madrid win).” I don’t want to ignorantly wade too far into painful historical realities, but yesterday’s match was the closest I’ve ever been to the legendary and infamous accusations of bias that have surrounded Real Madrid. Phantom offsides during Osasuna attacks, yellow cards for ‘dives’ after blatantly ugly, late Sergio Ramos challenges, cards for complaining without warning et.al–it was absurd. I also hesitate to wade into the diving debate, but Cristiano Ronaldo really is hard to respect sometimes. My wife sometimes harkens back to that Playgirl-esque Vanity Fair cover that Drogba and Ronaldo did where they showed off their WWE caliber physiques. With that picture in mind-it’s hard to stomach and/or fathom the legitimacy of Ronaldo’s endless tumbles to the ground whenever a defender grazes him or breathes heavy in his general vicinity (whereas a great player like Palermo’s Javier Pastore does appear so slim and slight of physique that he could be knocked down by a gust of wind and a glancing challenge, yet Pastore is fearless and hardly ever dives). This aggravating tendency was on full display yesterday and it appeared that it would inevitably cost Osasuna by resulting in a penalty or crucially placed free-kick. Thankfully, miraculously, it did not. I would say that Osasuna played hard, but clean, and, in the end, deserved every bit of the victory they eloquently ground out on their home pitch. Never was there a more pure, perfect testament to the towering absurdity of football/soccer inequality that during the second half of this match when Jose Mourinho was able to, and actually did, substitute Xabi Alonso, Kaka, and Emmanuel Adebayor into the match in a ludicrous mega-substitution that instantly seemed to caricature itself as a perfect expression of the latent, subliminal desperation emblematic of the new galacticos era. Despite the atrocious officiating, this match had a frenetic, what we Americans refer to as “playoff,” intensity that never dissipated and actually built to an incredible crescendo in the second half. Easily the most exciting match of the weekend, in my view. More soon.