Occasionally (and not often enough) this column gets
a little break and takes itself off to sunnier climes from where
it keeps one beady eye on the world of Scottish football.
In the past we've noted how little our game is regarded in France,
Italy and Spain. And it was in that latter location -
Barcelona to be precise - that we found ourselves once more.
This time things were different. All the major sports papers carried
regular reports on the SPL. While we'd like to think this
is because the stunningly high standard of the Scottish game has
impinged itself on the consciousness of those used to the fare on
offer in La Liga, we're realistic enough to acknowledge
it was simply down to the fact that Barcelona and Celtic
are in the same Champions League group.
We won't go into the details of Celtic's comprehensive home defeat
by Barca, save to say that it was a mite depressing being the only
Scot watching among several hundred Catalans. There was one person
wearing a Celtic shirt but he turned out to be the local 'squeegee
What was interesting though was the press spotlight on the local
team's opponents. There was excellent coverage of not only Celtic's
domestic season but also AC Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk.
The local papers even covered Celtic's League Cup match with Falkirk,
comparing (flatteringly and totally inaccurately) the Scottish First
Division to Spain's Segunda A.
Contrast that with the approach of the Scottish media. Sure, there's
been plenty about the stars of Barca and Milan but scarcely a word
about Shakhtar. The Scottish press are happy enough to focus on
the superstars of the Champions League while paying scant attention
to the side with whom Celtic are now effectively involved in a dogfight
with for a UEFA Cup place.
Anyone would think our hacks love swanning off to Barcelona and
Milan but don't quite fancy a trip to the Ukraine.
That can't be right, can it?
Nor is that the only difference. While the Scottish press focused
on the return of Henrik Larsson to Parkhead, the word on
the carrer a week before the game was that the Swede
would be benchwarming at Parkhead.
Difficult for the fawning acolytes of our domestic game to admit
but painfully true nonetheless that the one real star our game possessed
is a bit-part player with his new employers.
At the Camp Nou the superstar is Ronaldinho.
It's his face that adorns the posters, his injuries that make the
front pages and leave fans sweating over his fitness. His is the
name supporters want on the backs of their shirts.
That's not to say that Larsson is unpopular. Far from it, a recent
poll showed the socios to prefer Henke to Samuel Eto'o
But it's Brazilian teeth rather than Swedish tongue
that entices the cameras out to play.
So, if any Celtic fans still want to grab a 'Larsson 17'
shirt when they're over for the return they'll find plenty of them
- buried under the Ronaldinho ones. Incidentally, there are actually
piles of Larsson Barcelona shirts with his old Celtic number 7 on
the back on sale in the club shop.
While this won't exactly be a journey into the unknown for Parkhead
punters - it's only a few months since they were there in the UEFA
Cup - we'd still issue a word of warning regarding hostelries. There
are two bars in Barcelona which are Scottish-sounding. One, the
Bar Escoces, has no relation whatsoever to Scotland other
than a hideous portrait of a cartoon piper on the wall. And the
other - The Clansman - is the venue for regular meetings
of the 'Barcelona Bears.'
All in all it might be best for Celtic supporters to stick to the
fake 'Oirish' bars with which Barcelona, like all
big cities, is plagued.
One sad footnote to the Catalan view of Scottish fitba' is that
the Old Firm's reputations precede them. It isn't at all unusual
to read about 'Los Conjuntos Catolicos' or 'Los
equipes de protestantes de Glasgow.'
Naturally we took the chance to compare at first-hand the differences
between the Spanish and the Scottish game. If you think TV rules
the roost here, you've never been to Spain. Games are moved at will
to accommodate several TV channels and the notice given is often
appallingly short - as little as 48 hours.
Because of the distances involved, travelling supporters are few
in number so the TV companies can get away with this with comparatively
little complaint. During this column's sojourn there were three
La Liga matches scheduled to be played in Barcelona.
All three were played on a different day to that on the fixture
At least in Scotland we generally know the televised games a week
or more in advance. Over there, in the space of a fortnight, one
Barcelona and one Espanyol match were brought forward 24 hours and
one Barcelona match put back by a similar amount of time.
This leads to tickets only being put on general sale 48 hours or
less before kick-off. An annoyance for local fans, a proper pain
in the butt for visitors.
TV commentary is similar to the Brazilian style of 'GO-OOO-OOOO-AAAAAA-LLLLLLL'
which punctuates every effort that hits the net. One of the best
commentators is Michael Robinson, formerly of Preston, Man
City, Brighton and Liverpool. Robinson's Spanish is so flawless
(to these ears anyway) that only his name on the credits
alerts the viewer to the fact that they've just been listening to
Build-up is good too. There was no 'panel' for the Celtic
match, just the Spanish equivalent of Des Lynam with 'Picchi'
Alonso to give the ex-player's view. Considering the delay in kick-off
in Glasgow they performed admirably, even able to produce old footage
of Celtic's 1967 campaign and, thanks to Robinson, translate interviews
with Billy McNeill and Bobby Lennox.
It was Bill Shankly who told Jock Stein John,
you're immortal when Celtic won the European Cup that
year and Shankly too who once celebrated his wife's birthday by
taking her to a reserve game!
Bill Shankly was a much braver man than your columnist who, when
realising that a Barcelona home game was scheduled for the evening
of his wife's birthday, decided diplomatically that he had always
wanted to see Barcelona's 'other' team in action a few days
Espanyol's relationship to Barcelona is a strange one. They
are undoubtedly the smaller of the two clubs yet it would be unfair
to characterise them as playing Partick Thistle to Barca's Old Firm.
This is a club which has won the UEFA Cup and averages over 20,000
spectators per game. Imagine, if you will, a Glasgow with just one
'big' team and a 'second' side the size of Aberdeen and you'll be
pretty close to the mark.
In the match this column took in - against Real Madrid -
Espanyol were well-supported. There were so many blue-and-white
shirts on display that for a moment it looked like Killie on
their way to the Scottish Cup Final in 1997!
Real had a large following too. Yes, we said earlier that away fans
don't travel in numbers but Real Madrid, like the OF, Man Utd and
a few others, have large numbers of supporters in every city in
Europe and Barcelona is no exception. The local Madridistas
helped swell the gate to 39,500.
But even that figure meant 15,500 empty seats. These were
neatly covered up by hanging giant advertising flags over the nine
empty sections of the ground so that to all intents and purposes
the stadium looked full. Garish? Yes. Tawdry? Undoubtedly. But better
than rows of empty seats by far as well as earning the club some
cash. And they need it. While Barcelona have a shop on two floors
at the Camp Nou and a further store in the city, Espanyol sell their
souvenirs from a portakabin outside the ground.
At any rate, the advertising idea is one Heart of MidLithuanian
should investigate should their proposed move to Murrayfield come
The Lluis Companys Olympic Stadium in Barcelona
Espanyol play in the Olympic Stadium in the
Montjuic (Jewish mountain) area of the city and thereby
hangs a tale. The stadium also bears the name of Lluis Companys,
an heroic but tragic figure in Spanish history. Companys, the democratically
elected President of the autonomous Catalan Republic, escaped to
France at the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. A year later
France was occupied by Nazi Germany and the Gestapo sent Companys
back to Spain at the request of the dictator Franco.
A show trial, lasting less than a day, found him guilty of treason
and Companys was shot the following day in the grounds of Montjuic
Today, the visitor can gaze down from the castle and see the
stadium which bears the name of Lluis Companys. The same visitor
will search in vain for any monument to the Franco regime.
The stadium itself is an absolute delight and one of the most magnificent
settings in the world for football. High above the city, surrounded
by museums and lavish parkland yet nestling underneath Tibidabo
mountain there can be few more spectacular places in Europe to gaze
on the fast-setting sun.
The altitude also allows for a better playing tempo as temperatures
at Montjuic are considerably less stifling than in the Camp Nou.
Real Madrid take the field at Montjuic. Note the adverts hiding
the empty seats.
However, even this incredible venue has a drawback
- and it's a major one. The stadium, originally built in the 1920s
then rebuilt in the 1980s, hosted the 1992 Olympic Games. There
is an eleven-lane athletics track between pitch and stands.
Consequently, even the most hawk-eyed of spectators has difficulty
in making out players, even from the most advantageous positions.
Admission prices will come as a shock to those Scottish fans who
reckon they're being ripped off if they have to fork out over £20
for a game. The CHEAPEST seats for Espanyol v Real Madrid
came in at over £30 and top whack was a wallet-crushing
£70. Yes, you read right, those are the charges in
POUNDS, not euros.
Those prices are way above most English Premiership clubs, let alone
the SPL. And even Chelsea wouldn't dare charge seventy notes for
a plastic seat.
At least the match programme was free.
Probably because of the opposition there was a fair smattering of
foreign visitors at the match. German, Dutch, Danish and English
voices could all be heard in the queue to get in. Though regrettably
a few of the latter appeared to be interested solely in the performances
of Messrs Owen and Beckham.
And the local fans made a night of it. By 5pm several thousand had
already assembled for a match which kicked off three hours later.
The game itself was an entertaining one. Neutrals
felt a keen sense of disappointment not being able to see the injured
Zidane and Figo. And with Raul, Morientes and
Beckham all on the bench there was a distinct lack of the
famed galacticos in the Real line-up.
Although settled by a single goal from Espanyol's Maxi three
minutes from the interval, the match abounded with incident. Real
keeper Iker Casillas injured himself in the warm-up which
gave a rare outing to understudy Sanchez Cesar. The deputy
distinguished himself by saving a penalty twice, a re-take ordered
after Roberto Carlos dashed to the six-yard line by the time
the initial kick was taken. Although the Brazilian was equally fleet
of foot at the second kick, no infringement was spotted on that
Real had the chance to equalise when they were awarded a soft penalty
early in the second half but Ronaldo's spot-kick (his
only shot on target all evening) was well smothered by Cameroon
international Idriss Kameni in the Espanyol goal.
Madrid's misery was compounded when Walter Samuel - making
his La Liga debut - was shown the red card fifteen
minutes from time. He was joined by team-mate Michel Salgado
just before the final whistle. Eight players received a yellow card
during the course of what was never a dirty game.
It's not just Scotland where refereeing standards are questionable.
Real benefited too from what is best described as
Man Utd syndrome whereby six extra minutes
were inexplicably fashioned from a largely injury-free game to be
added on at the end.
To no avail. 1-0 it remained, sending Espanyol to the top of the
table and Jose Antonio Camacho to the job centre.
So, expensive certainly, but how many games this season will
see three missed penalties, two sendings-off, one team hit the top
of the table and the other lose their manager after he leaves some
of the biggest names in world football sitting on the bench?
An indication of how far fans are from the action
All in all, an experience to savour for home fans
and foreign visitors. Less so for Madrid supporters and that small
gaggle of cheap flight, cheaper drink-fuelled fans who only had
eyes for Sven's men.
How did the dynamic duo fare? Far be it for this site to criticise.
We'll leave that to the Spanish press. You don't need to hablo
mucho espanol to understand what they meant when they said
of substitute Beckham who came on for the last 35 minutes
that he no funciono or that Owen,
withdrawn with 25 minutes remaining was mediocrido.
And mediocrido is a fair - some would
say generous - assessment of Scottish clubs European performances
so far this season. Celtic have clearly gone backwards and
no one should expect a repeat of last season's run to the last eight
in the UEFA Cup, never mind their thrilling run to the Final in
2003. Indeed, the Parkhead club face a struggle even to reach the
UEFA Cup this season.
As for Rangers, to see their players celebrate
a penalty kicks victory over an unheralded and previously unheard
of Portuguese side as if they had just won the European Cup demonstrates
just how far the Ibrox club has fallen. Their supine dismissal from
the Champions League can't be erased from the memory that easily.
Rangers need to improve if they are to flourish in the new mini-league
format of the UEFA Cup.
Yes, it was a good result for Hearts to beat
Braga, but not the marvellous achievement some commentators made
it out to be. Like Rangers, Hearts were the seeded team and beating
modest Portuguese opposition is only to be expected.
Coming on top of Dunfermline's disgraceful
exit to Icelandic opponents, the victories from Hearts and Rangers
have simply prevented this season from being our worst ever - no
more than that.
Our TV commentators and their predilection for exaggeration
never cease to amaze. All our teams have done is beat opposition
they were expected to beat.
If, by the end of the group stage, Hearts and Rangers
are still in the competition and Celtic have joined them in the
last 32, then maybe, just maybe, we can start to think this might
be a good season for our teams in Europe after all.