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October 2004
Spanish Eyes









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 merchant.'

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 up front.

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.'

How sad.

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 list.

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 an Englishman.

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 later.

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 to pass.

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 castle.

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 occasion.

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.




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