Spanish Soccer Update: This is already a regular blog feature. Last weekend Barcelona squeaked out another cheap win, 1-0, over Villarreal, not an especially good team--their only real star is Martín Palermo, who once missed three penalty kicks in one game. Riquelme scored the only goal, a penalty kick awarded for no particularly good reason. Luis Enrique is out, injured, and will probably miss next weekend's Big Four match in La Coruña against Deportivo. (The Big Four are Barcelona, Real Madrid, Valencia, and Deportivo de la Coruña, the four Spanish teams that have qualified for the Champions' League during the last three or four years and have won the last several league championships. Any one of them can win the League this year and all of them have a shot at the Champions' League title as well. The two teams closest to the Big Four in talent are Betis and Atlético de Madrid. While Real Sociedad, Mallorca, Celta, and Málaga are currently high in the standings, they'll drop down eventually.) I would favor using Luis Enrique, when he finally comes back, in a limited role. He's a fine player, a real gutsy guy, like Pete Rose, Cal Ripken, or George Brett in baseball, a guy with merely good natural skills who is nonetheless a top star because of his intelligence, hustle, and effort. He is tied with Patrick Kluivert for the team lead in goals scored this League with five. He once played a few minutes at the end of a World Cup match against Italy with a broken nose. His nickname is "Lucho", which directly translated is "I fight". He's 32, though, and he's starting to be nagged by injuries. I would either start him and pull him out after 30-60 minutes, replacing him with an offensive or defensive midfielder depending on whether you needed to score or defend, or start Riquelme in his position and bring on Luis Enrique in the second half if you needed him. Whatever, he can't play the full 6 to 8 games that Barça plays a month. He wants to, but the coach, unfriendly Dutchman Louis Van Gaal, shouldn't let him. He has to realize that he is now a relief pitcher or a sixth man but that relief pitchers and sixth men are important players, too. Also in Barça news, young goalie Victor Valdés got mad and threw a temper tantrum when Van Gaal sent him back to the youth team, which is like being sent down to the minors. He refused to report for practice and everybody got extremely mad at him for being a rookie punk. He has been thoroughly chastised and is repentant. Madrid lucked out and beat Rayo Vallecano 2-3. Valencia tied Betis 1-1. Real Sociedad tied Deportivo 1-1. The game of the week was the two Atletis, Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao, who tied 3-3 with a double hat trick; Urzaiz scored three for At. Bilbao and Jose Mari, formerly of AC Milan, scored three for At. Madrid. The League standings after nine games, almost one-fourth of the season, are Real Sociedad 21 points, Valencia and Mallorca 18, Celta with 17, R. Madrid with 16, Málaga and Barcelona with 15, Betis and Deportivo 14. Español, Osasuna, and Recreativo are clearly the three worst teams so far; each has lost six games and has given up twice as many goals as it has scored. I would bet money now they're the three to go down to Second this year. Villarreal has had poor results but has more talent than these three; they've only lost four games and their goals scored-goals allowed difference is only -2, not -11 as in the case of Recreativo. Villarreal has also had a much tougher schedule; they've played Madrid, Barça, Real Sociedad, and Deportivo, all of which are good teams, and they beat Depor, tied Madrid, and lost 1-0 to Barça and Real Sociedad. That's really pretty good. Recreativo is getting beaten by bad teams; the only Big Four team they've played is Valencia, which stomped them 3-0. They also got stomped 3-0 by Celta, admittedly a good team. Wait till Recreativo plays some of the other good teams; we'll see a few 5-0 or 6-1 games.
I mentioned this several months ago, but thought I'd recap it. Soccer clubs in Spain often represent a political or nationalistic current. FC Barcelona, for example, is the representative of Catalan nationalism. It's always been a symbol of the left, especially during the Franco period. Real Madrid is its opposite, the representative of Spanish centralism. It was the team favored by the Franco regime during those dark days, or so at least say the Barça supporters. Real Madrid is often called unfairly a "Fascist team", and it's true that they have a big group of skinhead supporters called the Ultra Sur. They're also considered the right-wing team in Madrid, as opposed to Atlético de Madrid, which is the anti-establishment team. Barcelona's right-wing team, also unfairly called "Fascist", has always been RCD Español. Español has about one-fifth the number of fans as Barça and is usually thought of as anti-Catalanist and pro-Spain. They have a bunch of Fascist skinhead supporters called the Brigadas Blanquiazules. Ironically, though, the last deaths in hooligan violence in Spain were the murder by an At. Madrid hooligan of a Real Sociedad fan about four years ago and the murder by a gang of Barça hooligans of an Español fan about ten years ago. Both of these were unprovoked attacks on innocent, non-violent fans, and both were committed by hooligans loyal to "left-wing" clubs against fans of "right-wing" clubs. Both Valencia and Mallorca are also considered conservative, anti-Catalanist teams. In Valencia there's a second-division team, Levante, which wears the same colors as Barça and is the left-wing opposition to mighty Valencia CF. In the Basque Country Athletic Bilbao is the rad team and Real Sociedad is the conservative team. In Sevilla, historically, Sevilla CF was the conservative bourgeois team and Real Betis was the left-wing working-class team. Those roles have switched over the last few years, and now Betis is conservative and Sevilla has attracted the most hardcore left-wing supporters in Spain. Whether or not this is a coincidence, Sevilla is known as the team with the most violent, dirtiest players. At. Madrid has always had that reputation, too, as has At. Bilbao. I wonder if the fact that all these clubs are considered to be left-wing has to do with the stigma of being clubs that play dirty. In Asturias Sporting Gijón is the working-class team while Real Oviedo is the bourgeois team. In Galicia Celta de Vigo is the left-wing, Galician-nationalist team, and Deportivo de la Coruña is the conservatrive, pro Spain team. Teams that wear white--Real Madrid, Valencia, Sevilla, Oviedo--have historically always been considered conservative, though Sevilla has now gone over to the left.