Only a game?

by Phil Ball

No prizes for guessing the topic of this week's column. But let's start with the politics. As the moving fingers tap out this column it is thirty years to the day since General Franco drew his final breath – an event mourned by some, and celebrated by many.

The fact that Madrid were playing Barça the night before this anniversary was a spooky coincidence, so spooky in fact that it led certain journalists to question the alleged neutrality of the computer program that sorts out the Liga fixtures each season.

Whatever the truth, the events in the Bernabéu on Saturday night will have left the old dictator turning in his grave. Barça's 0-3 win will probably rate alongside the famous 'manita' (little hand – five goals) that Barcá proffered their eternal rivals in the 1973-74 season, with the recently imported Johann Cruyff directing operations. Franco was still alive then, of course, but had been too ill to attend the game.

Cruyff had famously declared from the safer lands of Holland the year before that he could never play for Real Madrid (they had originally wooed him) because he couldn't contemplate turning out for a team 'associated with fascism', to use his phrase. Signing for Barça soon afterwards, his famous declaration went down like a lead balloon in Madrid, and he was never forgiven for it.

The fact that he scored in that game, set up another three and generally drove the Madrid defence to distraction has never been forgotten, and the result (0-5) remains a stain on the Bernabéu's history.

But Cruyff was never so bold there as a manager, winning only once, despite his fabrication of the wonderful Dream Team. Frank Rijkaard has now won there twice, and has shown himself, in many ways, to be a bolder manager. But more of that later.

The most startling fact about Saturday's game was not so much the two wonderful goals scored by Ronaldinho but rather the fact that after the Brazilian's second and Barça's third, several sections of the Bernabéu began to applaud him, and by implication, the whole team. Florentino Pérez looked on from the Director's box in stony silence.

Madrid experts have been speculating all Sunday on this one, but the last living memory that any journalist has of the Madrid supporters applauding the eternal enemy was back in 1983 when Maradona ran Real's defence dizzy in the clásico of that year. Was this a sign of Madrid's sporting supporters, or was it just their way of protecting themselves psychologically?

The idea here is that by applauding opponents a supporter temporarily kids himself that the fault lies not in the poor performance of his own team but rather in the brilliance of the opponents.

Madrid's newspaper 'Marca', unable this time to blame the result on referees, injuries or adverse stellar constellations, went down the same path, headlining their Sunday edition with the relatively calm:

'19-N. The night Barça were applauded out of the Bernabéu. A stratospheric Ronaldinho pensions off the galácticos'

It's difficult to understand all this stuff unless you live here for a while, but suffice to say that this win is possibly as significant as that result way back in 1973.

Why? Well back then Franco was still alive, and the possibility still remained that his ultra-right mateys would carry on matters regardless after his death, bolshy Catalan and Basque nationalists notwithstanding. Madrid's 0-5 collapse that night, engineered by a player who had nailed his colours to the anti-fascist mast, spelt out the vision of a future Spain in which both football teams and citizens of previously oppressed regions would finally get a fairer crack of the whip.

It was to prove true as well, when Basque teams won the league titles from 1981 to 1984 consecutively, something unthinkable whilst the General and his cronies were around. Madrid came back, however, and proved their colours in the second half of the 1980's with one of their most mythical teams.

But on Saturday night, there was a definite feeling of history in the air, and it cannot be denied that Barça chose their moment perfectly, particularly owing to the fact that only three weeks ago the Catalan Autonomous Government pushed through their parliament a reform of the Spanish Constitution which has remained untouched since the official ushering in of democracy in 1978.

There has been much predictable wailing and gnashing of teeth with regard to this 'Estatut', with the right-wing opposition PP Party – the one that used to be run by an ex-Real Madrid devotee – denouncing it as a 'federalist fantasy' and claiming that it is illegal because it challenges the Constitution. 'Precisely', say the Catalans, many Basques, and the more liberal wing of the ruling PSOE Socialist Party, whose leader, Zapatero, is a Barcelona fan – just to top it all off nicely.

It's all juicy stuff, squeezed out further by the fact that the LFP, the equivalent of the Football League authorities here, proclaimed Barça's signing of the starlet Lionel Messi illegal last week, overturning the FEF's previous decision and challenging either the club, the Federation, or both to challenge the verdict or stop Messi playing until January.

The result of all this? Rijkaard put out Messi from the beginning, throwing down the glove to the League chiefs and surprising Luxemburgo, who'd been expecting Giuly to be facing Roberto Carlos on the right flank. The papers had speculated on whether Messi would play, those hoping he would claiming that it would be interesting to see the 'New Maradona' play against the 'New Pele' (Robinho).

By the end of the game, hard though Robinho tried, there was only one player who was living up to the hype, and that was Messi. The Lord help any more defences this season that have to come up against Messi, Ronaldinho and Eto'o in full flight. It would be interesting to see if Chelsea could cope, this time around.

Whilst Pablo Garcia did his best to elbow and hack both Deco and Xavi out the game – the game-plan presumably being to stifle Barça in their engine-room – the Muse was simply transferred to three others. Between them they terrorised Madrid in the first half, Eto'o once again scoring past his old team-mates and drawing the ire of the packed crowd.

In the second, Ronaldinho scored two sublime solo efforts, but to soften the blow somewhat, it has to be said that on both occasions, poor Sergio Ramós was sold out entirely by a lack of back-up from his team-mates. You simply cannot allow Ronaldinho space in front and space behind, for that's where he will surely go. If allowed to accelerate into space, he'll leave any solo defender sprawling.

The trick is not to get too dispersed, but with García substituted for the more offensive alternative of Baptista, the middle opened up and with it the game went inevitably to Barça. Ronaldinho, the best player in the world, needed no second invitation. The two goals he scored will play forever in the rewinding nightmares of Real Madrid's fans.

And Etoo's too – especially given the fact that he could easily have been wearing a white shirt had the marketing folks seen fit to include him in the brave new world of the Bernabéu circa 2003. But he wasn't pretty enough, it would seem. Becks was, and last night was rumoured to be somewhere out on the pitch, though the sighting cannot be confirmed for sure. Had he gone to Barça as Laporta had wanted, Ronaldinho would have gone to Old Trafford, presumably. Funny old thing, destiny.

It only remains for us to speculate on whether this result will mark out the rhythm for the rest of the season to come. Are Barcelona really as good as they look? Are Real Madrid the rudderless mess they appear to be? Return next week for the next instalment. You know it makes sense.


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