Catalan clash going international as Spanish football feels the heat
The debate rages on over Miami fixture, four-day weekends, and new kick off times
Barcelona fans with their Catalan flags at Camp Nou. Photograph: Albert Gea/Reuters
At the one end of the ground that is an end and not just a wall, a small gang of Rayo Vallecano fans in bright high-vis jackets and yellow hard hats started leaping up and down, testing the foundations. Around them, drums beat, flags waved and supporters laughed as they took out their tools to fix the place up, bashing away with inflatable yellow hammers. If it looked silly, it was supposed to – and it was no dafter than the real thing – but at least they were here now. Rayo, promoted in the summer after two years away from primera, hadn’t been home since the opening day of the season. On Saturday, they returned in the way that only they seem to know how – and a way that felt appropriate somehow, this weekend more than ever.
That night, against Sevilla, a small boy fell through a gap and on to some rubble, while above him the stand literally shook. Long denounced by supporters, Rayo’s ground, which had gone six years without a valid safety certificate, was shut down by the council. Athletic Club were next in town and some of them came too – they’d already arranged their travel by the time the decision had finally been made, four days before it was due to be played – but they didn’t see a game and didn’t get compensation either, of course. There had been discussions about Butarque or the Metropolitano, while Getafe said no to using the Coliseum; instead the match was postponed and work got under way.
Three weeks in, a video emerged taken from the flats behind the wall of all the sand bags lined up in the stand and the workmen bouncing up and down, like a big bloke proving that this ice ain’t thin; it could have been the opening scene of Casualty and, as tests go, it wasn’t the most convincing, but at least it inspired. No one does protests or parody like Rayo – most don’t do them at all, in truth – so the fans who have donned Guantanamo prisoner boiler suits and fireman’s gear, paid for season tickets in coins carried there in bulging bags, and built a bed in the end, declaring 11pm kick-offs too late for football, became men at work. And though they were defeated 5-1, they kept hammering away.
After all, it was Saturday lunchtime, sunny, and football was back in Vallecas. In Vallecas, Vigo, Valencia and Villarreal; Getafe, Huesca, Madrid and Eibar; in Seville and Barcelona, but not yet in Miami – and maybe not at all.
This was the weekend in which Vallecas reopened and Spanish football flung open familiar conflicts. The weekend in which Getafe still couldn’t score against Diego Simeone’s Atlético – it’s 28-0 in 13 games now after their 2-0 win at the Coliseum, where the second goal was superb – in which Julen Lopetegui said Real Madrid “lost control” but didn’t lose the game, Marco Asensio getting the only goal against Espanyol; in which Valladolid, goalless so far, scored three, including a last-minute equaliser against Celta and Sevilla got six away for the first time ever, winning 6-2 at Levante to make it 11 goals in three days. To prompt Levante’s fans to ironically applaud their goalkeeper Oier when he made an easy catch, too, and him to spit back: “Oh, it’s funny is it, you sons of bitches?”
A few hours later, Betis manager Quique Setien said something similar, pleading with fans not to get on the team’s back, after there were whistles for Francis during their 2-2 draw with Athletic. “Sometimes, in some cases the ball burns their feet because they don’t feel backed and that’s very sad,” he said. “You have to think that could be your son out there.”
That’s not all. It was also the weekend for VAR, which caught out Ba and Lenglet and gave Asensio his goal back, which makes technology good over there and bad over there, and the weekend in which there were seven red cards and 33 goals – two 2-2s, a 3-3, a 5-1 and a 6-2. It was hot and it had Iago Aspas, Ibai Gómez, Thomas Lemar, Wissam Ben Yedder and Sergio Canales, it also had Lionel Messi and Cristhian Stuani – the only player to score a brace against Madrid and Barcelona this century. Most of all, though, it had two men: Luis Rubiales and Javier Tebas.
It was always likely that the president of the Federation and the president of the league would take centre stage this weekend, given the game that wrapped it up. And just in case, the weather made sure of it.
On Sunday night, Barcelona drew 2-2 with Girona. Leo Messi was denied a wonderful goal with a superb save early on but while Girona had Bono, Barcelona had the edge and the Argentinian who has now played more games here than any other foreigner ever, put them into the lead soon after. Yet with Lenglet sent off for an elbow on Pere Pons that no one had spotted but Gil Manzano went to see on the screen, and Busquets momentarily filling in at centre-back, Stuani equalised for Girona. Stuani then gave them a second-half lead, smashing his finish high into the net, and although Piqué got the second Barcelona were unable to find a winner, slipping back level with Madrid at the top. “Gironazo in the Camp Nou,” AS’s cover called it.
This time, the game was played at the Camp Nou. Next time, it will be played 7,555km away in Miami. That at least is the league’s now famous plan – but it’s looking more difficult all the time. And while protests [Catalan independence and free political prisoners protests] were conspicuous by their absence, elsewhere opposition builds: from the RFEF, from Fifa, from some fans, from the players’ union, and even from the government, who fear the political implications of a Catalan clash going international. Other voices are being raised too and what seemed a fait accompli looks much less certain now.
This weekend Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez, who would rather break the US alone than with La Liga and doesn’t trust Tebas or Jaume Roures, head of rightsholders Mediapro, and who was remarkably aggressive at the club’s assembly insisted: “I don’t know whose interests it is in, certainly not the fans’ or the clubs. We absolutely refuse,” he said.
But that was just the beginning: as temperatures rose, the conflict deepened. Athletic manager Eduardo Berrizzo, complained about the heat in Seville, saying: “Why don’t we worry about giving value to the actual content, which is the game of football that everyone wants to see, before embarking on the supposed conquest of other territories?” Betis defender Marca Bartra admitted that at times it was hard to swallow in the heat. At least that was at 8pm; in Vallecas they played at 1pm, at Levante kick-off was at noon and Villarreal-Valencia started at 4.15pm, where the temperature was reportedly close to 32 degrees Celsius with 80 per cent humidity. In the visitors’ section, high in the north stand behind a glass screen, it was up at 35. In Vallecas, Jordi Amat and Fernando Pachecho suffered dizzy spells. In Eibar, so did Kike García. In Villarreal, Alvaro vomited at half-time. “The TV companies pay for football so it’s bad to complain, but it’s bad to play at these times too,” he said.
It’s not always great to watch, either. Fourteen fans sought medical attention at Levante-Sevilla, while four more were attended to in Villarreal. Rubiales took to Twitter where he posted a picture of a woman lying down, drip attached to her arm at Levante, describing the kick-off times as a “disgrace” and announcing his intention to take back control of the timetabling. Tebas responded swiftly, sarcastically writing to his “pal Rubiales”, and accusing him of demagoguery – the argument so often turned to by those who don’t have an argument – and insisting he had been at the motorbike grand prix that afternoon where there were “114,000 people in the sun, at 32 degrees, and no complaints”.
And so, it started; the radios called, offering platforms and taking sides as the two men laid into each other for control of the game, and the conflict got wider. Back and forth they went, chests puffed out and pettier with every passing minute, eclipsing everything. Rubiales declared his intention to take back control; this was not just about the heat, this was much bigger: no more Mondays, no more four-day weekends, no more 10 different kick-off times, no more of Tebas’s plans. No more Tebas if he had his way – and the feeling is most definitely mutual.
“He can get Miami out of his little head,” Rubiales said. “He’s not in control; he’s a prisoner of the television companies. They call him and tell him what to do and he bows his head.” Tebas said all Rubiales wants is revenue because sponsors are leaving the Federation in droves and he’s getting desperate. “He’s rung everyone except the Pope asking for money, he sniped. Tebas also accused people of acting. The feinting was fake, apparently, the medical reports made up. Meanwhile, from the Federation came a promise there is more to come, heavy artillery wheeled out. “I’m not scared to meet him face to face. I don’t want conflict, but nor will I hide,” Rubiales said.
And that feels pretty much how this might end now. Rubiales v Tebas, fighting it out. Which might not be such a bad idea after all. Maybe they can take that to Miami instead and leave everyone else to get on with doing the thing Spanish football does best: play football.