The Strange Duality of Isco

“A certain bandy-legged bearded beauty who couldn’t be a more perfect fit for this lofty ideal; and at the same time looks out of place at Real Madrid.”

By Rohan Kaushik

If there is one thing that has come to characterise the Spanish National Team’s play over the last decade or so, it is ‘Style’. Winning may be important but doing it with panache and a style that’s easy on the eyes can elevate sport to a different level altogether. At Real Madrid, winning in an emphatic manner or with style so to speak is of prime importance. Over the years, legendary players and coaches who couldn’t fit into this spectacular brand of football at Real have been shown the door (Fabio Capello and Claude Makelele are prime examples). Yet for all the emphasis placed on style, there is a certain bandy-legged bearded beauty (Yes, Isco) who couldn’t be a more perfect fit for this lofty ideal; and at the same time looks out of place at Real Madrid.

Isco’s performances and fortunes at Real throughout his time at the club have been stop-start. There always seems to be an aura about him that suggests he could go on to become one of the legends of the game. Creative attacking midfielders however, require a certain freedom, continuity and a well-defined role in order to express themselves fully. For some reason though, this role seems to constantly elude Isco, at least on a consistent basis.

During the second half of the 2016-17 season, Isco played a starring role in helping Real retain the UEFA Champions League and win the league as well. He further asserted his rising star status at the club with stellar performances against Barcelona and Manchester United to help Real win the Spanish and UEFA Super Cups. The stage finally seemed set for the midfield maestro to stake his place among the world’s elite in club football. And yet…

To put all of this into further perspective, his fortunes with the national team couldn’t be more contrasting to those of his club. Under Julen Lopetegui, Isco has been nothing short of spectacular and has been one of the prime catalysts in the national team’s renaissance. So what’s up with him?

The Season So Far

Unfortunately for Real and more so for Isco, the first half of the season turned out to be one of Real’s worst in quite some time. It is quite interesting to note that this terrible run had come on the back of the team’s best season in the Champions League era. Whatever the reason for Real’s lacklustre showing in the first half be it the poor finishing of the forwards, a poor transition defence, an over reliance on crosses or general complacency; Isco’s stock certainly took a hit. While he may have been one of the team’s standout performers in the first 3 to 4 months along with Varane and Nacho, Real’s general gameplay looked stagnant and devoid of inspiration. In spite of the team’s poor form, the general consensus was that Isco was playing well on an individual level and his performances for Spain in the world cup qualifiers were terrific. Then came the match against Sevilla…

Zidane decided to rest Isco for this game and out of the blue, Los Blancos put in an imperious performance against the Andalusians and shipped 5 goals past them. Sevilla might have been in poor form at the time but the speed, incisiveness and direct nature of Real’s attack stood out. In particular, Asensio and Lucas Vazquez had a great game. It was around this time that a strong case started building up against Isco that he slows down play and doesn’t release the ball quick enough. Although such things have been pointed out about his style of play before, the evidence in favour of these aspects of his play suddenly seemed very strong.

To be fair to Isco, it wasn’t as if he was directly responsible for Real’s poor play. Even though Isco may not be lightning quick and his decision making in the final third can sometimes be sub-optimal; his general qualities are extremely favourable to the flow of the game. That said, his performances started fading and soon enough, he found himself on the bench. Despite this, it came as quite a surprise to many when he was benched for the El Clasico against Barcelona. Even though Real played well in the first half, they were convincingly beaten 3-0. It must be noted here that his absence here made no difference to the team’s gameplay. Soon after the turn of the year though, Real’s performances gradually picked up and they even managed to convincingly beat PSG in the Champions League against all odds.

As strange as Real’s disastrous first half was, their uptake in form in 2018 has been even stranger. Among the hall marks of this resurgence have been the dominant play of Asensio and Vazquez, Gareth Bale’s return from injury and Benzema & Ronaldo’s stunning return to form. Their play has been very clinical and direct. Put this in contrast to Isco and everything seems stacked against the midfielder.

In order to present a complete picture, however, his role within Zidane’s system must be examined more carefully.

Isco in Zidane’s Scheme

What Zidane has done for the team in his tenure so far has been nothing short of brilliant. No one expected him to be anything more than a short term interim appointment. It is then safe to say that he has blown everyone’s expectations away. In particular, his exemplary man management skills and ability to motivate players for the big occasion in the Champions League have stood out.

In the midst of all this, there is the curious case of Isco. Initially not a regular under Zidane, he won his place in the side on the back of some superb showings in La Liga. Many have often said that Isco possesses qualities similar to that of Zizou. In fact, Zidane has himself admitted this on a number of occasions. He has even gone on to state his admiration for the Spanish midfielder several times in the media. This mutual trust and relationship between the two has largely held true and it is quite likely that Zidane’s belief in Isco eventually translated to his great performances on the pitch. So what’s gone wrong or ‘appeared’ to have gone wrong for him?

Real Madrid diamond Formation

During Real Madrid’s unprecedented defence of their Champions League title, Zidane had innovated his own version of the ‘Diamond’ formation. This would involve Isco at the tip of the diamond just behind Ronaldo and Benzema while Modric, Kroos and Casemiro would form the remaining part of the diamond. In essence, Isco would roam all over the pitch creating positional overloads in different parts of the pitch, thus outnumbering the opposition at all times. At times, he would drop deep to act as a passing outlet when the defence was under pressure. Most importantly though, in the attacking third, his extra presence in midfield and in the forward line made him impossible to pick up. Therefore, the opposition never had a reference point and had a hard time marking Real’s attacking players. What made this system work so well though, was the fact that the defensive coverage for Isco’s roaming role was extremely good. As a result, whenever the opposition counter attacked Real Madrid, his presence in different parts of the pitch didn’t confuse the other players.

This season however has been a totally different story. Many teams in La Liga and even Tottenham Hotspurs in the Champions League seem to have done their homework on Zidane and his use of the diamond. A strategy that has often been employed by La Liga teams this season has been to sit back deep in their own half and absorb all the attacks from Real’s more possession based play with Isco. Due to this, Real Madrid often resorted to hitting in crosses (often of poor quality) to try and break down the opposition defence. Following this, the opposition would then slice open Real with a few vertical passes due to the lack of defensive and positional coverage for Isco’s unpredictable movements.

Zidane finally seems to have understood this and has switched to a more conventional 4-4-2 with the use of 2 wide midfielders that often seem to be either Asensio and Vazquez. This move has largely proved to be successful and Isco seems to have been relegated to the bench once again.

Julen Lopetegui and Isco

Spain plays a different style from that of Real Madrid. It has often been stated that Isco’s playing style is more compatible to that of FC Barcelona’s due to his more possession oriented game. Although Spain’s playing style has evolved and become a bit more direct under Lopetegui, it has largely remained true to its World Cup winning roots. Under Lopetegui, Isco often plays upfront as a part of a 3-man forward line. Most notably though, Spain doesn’t currently play with true forwards. Although the likes of Iago Aspas, Alvaro Morata and Diego Costa are regularly part of the national set-up, only one of them is usually employed in a game. On other occasions though, none of them starts for La Furia Roja.

Strangely enough, Lopetegui uses Isco in a very similar role to his diamond at Real Madrid. He roams all over the pitch, creates positional overloads and helps Spain dominate possession. In a stark contrast to his general performances with Real this season, his play with Spain is always full of confidence and swagger. His goal creation rate of one in every 327 minutes with Real doesn’t make for great reading when compared to a goal every 75 minutes with Spain.

It might seem puzzling to the unacquainted but the difference between these two versions of Isco is not hard to understand on closer analysis. Lopetegui’s emphasis on using several supremely talented passers in midfield along with another 2 midfielders in the front-line makes it very hard for the opposition to mark these players. All these players keep roaming in midfield and are extremely good at interchanging positions. This style of play has been imbibed in these players through all the age group national teams in Spain. Hence, it is not difficult to see how Isco could confidently nutmeg Marco Veratti or score a hat-trick against Argentina.

The Low-Down and the Future

Upon completely viewing the whole picture, it is hard to fault either Zidane or Isco for this situation. As Zidane rightly points out, he greatly admires the midfielder’s abilities but at the same time he can only pick 11 players out of a 25-man squad. Also, despite a stop start 2018, Isco did have a fantastic game against PSG where he helped Real dominate possession against the deadly front-line of Neymar, Cavani and Mbappe. At the same time, it might be time for Zidane to come up with another in-genius way of bringing out Isco’s best qualities to help Real win games. His other use of Isco as a pressing machine clearly isn’t helping his confidence.zidane-isco

Isco currently has many suitors including the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United. Coincidentally, 2018 also happens to be a World Cup year and Lopetegui sees Isco as integral to Spain’s chances of winning the title. While Isco and Zidane have both hinted that they would remain at Real Madrid, rumours have been circling around of a squad overhaul at Real. Whatever happens, it sure promises to be an interesting summer for Isco and company.


Groundhopper: Fútbol in the Spanish Capital

Following a recent trip to the Spanish capital of Madrid, Gethin Boore recounts his visit to Alcorón’s Estadio Santo Domingo, AD Union Adarve’s Poli Deportivo Vincente Del Bosque and Atlético Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano.

By Gethin Boore

A few months after a great weekend in the Basque Country, it was time to head over to one of the biggest footballing cities. Some might think Real and Atletico Madrid are the only teams from the city, but as you flick through other names such as Getafe, CD Leganés and Rayo Vallecano, you wouldn’t necessarily know they are based in the capital. This time I watched three games, one in the Primera Division, one in the Segunda Division and one in the Segunda B.

My first game was on the Saturday as I went south of the city to Alcorcón for their Segunda Division game against CD Tenerife. They were formed in 1971, and first reached the Segunda in 2012. They are well known for thrashing their community neighbours, Real Madrid, 4-0 in the Copa Del Rey in 2009, who included Raul, Karim Benzema and Marcelo in their team. They have remained in the Segunda since that first promotion in 2012.

The town is around twenty minutes from Madrid’s Atocha train station, and it was pretty quiet when I arrived with my Dad. There was about four hours till kick off, and we needed to make sure that we had tickets. As we arrived at the Estadio Santo Domingo, it struck me how many 3G pitches surrounded the main stadium.

When we arrived at the ticket office, it was closed, so youth games was our entertainment for half an hour or so and one game involved a Real Madrid Peña, in which they seemed to concede at least 12 goals within the first five minutes! Although all of the surrounding pitches were 3G, there was one which was basically just sand, and which was occupied by South American immigrants.

We got our tickets, and headed to an Alcorcón Peña, and it was more of a Tenerife territory. In amongst the supporters from the Canary Islands were English supporters from Manchester, who follow the Blanquiazules across various cities in Spain. They were with the rest of the Tenerife fans, and they were in full voice at the stadium too.

As soon as we sat in our seats, Tenerife were awarded a penalty, which was tucked away nicely in front of the away fans. The home atmosphere heated up a bit, and Alcorcón were awarded one as well, and it was 1-1. The second half was full of bad crosses really, and neither side threatened to score, and a draw was a fair result in the end.

Coming into the game, both sides were battling in mid-table, so the match itself always wasn’t going to be incredible. The ground was compared to Hereford’s Edgar Street, where one stand has two tiers, and that you can’t see the touchline. Everyone knows that the Primera’s style of football is much slicker than the Segunda’s, but what was comic was the awful standard of crossing.

The Sunday after featured two games. The first game was in the Segunda Division B Grupo 1 between AD Union Adarve and the leaders Fuenlabrada. That league is in the third tier of Spanish football, as there are four different regionalised divisions spread across the country, and neither of these sides have played in the Segunda. The name of the ground is Poli Deportivo Vincente Del Bosque, named after… yes, the Vincente Del Bosque. It is located in Madrid’s business area, where the only stand faces four gigantic towers, which gives it a surreal setting, as it’s also not far from Plaza de Catilla and further on the Bernabéu.

It was a free entry to get into the game, and everyone had to squeeze into one stand facing the towers. Marca gave the crowd 1,000, including 200 odd Fuenlabrada fans and ultras, including one guy wearing Atletico Madrid’s infamous ultra group Frente Atletico t-shirt. The game itself definitely wasn’t the best, as it finished 1-1 with Fuenlabrada scoring first in the first half, before the home side made it all square in the second period.

AD Union Adarve’s Poli Deportivo Vincente Del Bosque.

We then had a Metro ride to the north-east side of the city to the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano, Atletico Madrid’s new ground, as they faced Athletic Club Bilbao.

This is a fixture that goes back to 1903, when Atletico were founded by a group of Basque students. Their colours were blue and white, before they changed to their traditional red and white strip, and they became known as Los Colchaneros due to their kit being compared to mattress covers. The two giants of Spanish football battled it out in the 2012 Europa League final, in which the capital side won 3-0, and Athletic were the last away team to play at Atletico’s old ground, the Vincente Calderon. The move to the new ground wasn’t something the fans agreed with, because of their switch from their traditional neighbourhood to the other side of the city.

The game itself promised not to be the best because of Atletico’s defensive style of play, but there was no need to play defensive, as the Lions were without their top scorer and legend, Artiz Aduriz. Los Indios won the game 2-0, with goals from Kevin Gamiero and the mad-man himself, Diego Costa. It was a significant win for Atletico, as they played with class, and if felt like they could catch the leaders, Barcelona.

Atlético Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano.

I’m someone that likes old-school stadiums, but I have to admit that the Wanda is something else. The atmosphere was brilliant, and so much better than what you experience in the Premier League. The one man that definitely helps the atmosphere is the manager, Diego Simeone, as he rarely stops bouncing around on the touchline.

So, Madrid, the capital of this football mad country, definitely didn’t disappoint. We ticked off three grounds, all at different levels, all completely different. However, there are loads of grounds to tick off in the city. Clubs like Fuenlebrada, Rayo Vallecano and Leganés are apparently all worth the visit, and I do highly recommend visiting the Advare and Alcorcón, and of course, the magnificent Wanda.

Again, another brilliant trip in Spain. On to the Community of Valencia next.

Also, if you want to know more about football in Madrid, head over to watch YouTube vlogger Roddy Cons with his channel TheTeamOnTour, where he goes groundhopping to various games in Madrid, from La Liga to the Tercera.

Rayo Vallecano: The Pride of Vallecas

Rayo Vallecano are Madrid’s third team behind Real and Atletico, but it is a football club with an marvellous story. The club and their fans are true credits to the Vallecas community.

By Gethin Boore

When you think of Spanish Football, the first thing that comes to your mind is Real Madrid and Barcelona. When you think of Madrid, the first thing that comes to your mind is Real & Atletico Madrid. Yet if you think of Vallecas, the first thing that comes to your mind is Rayo Vallecano. A unique, special football club located in southern Madrid, who have a history of controversial figures coming in and out of the gates of the Campo de Fútbol de Vallecas. Managers, players and owners. But as well as that, Rayo have a passionate, strong support within the community, and even around the world, and that is when the political side of the club comes to the fore.

Rayo have never been a world super-power, but they are not just any football club. They are a club with supporters that are deeply involved on the left-wing of the political spectrum. Their infamous ultras group, the Bukaneros, who are well-known all over the world for their protests, are a group of Rayo fans who welcome refugees into Spain and tackle homophobia, racism and fascism within football. Other left-wing ultra groups in Spain admire the Bukaneros. Also, the club, fans and players help the neighbourhood; their neighbourhood.

A perfect example of this is Carmen’s situation. Carmen is an old lady that’s a Vallecas resident who was kicked out of her flat for financial reasons. The players took notice of it, and helped her to get her a new flat. This was an incredible touch and people started to realise what Rayo does for their people.

Historically, they aren’t a very big name. They were formed in 1924, in a house a few meters away from their current home, but they didn’t have an easy first few years. Numerous players left the club for military service around 1926, and were not even playing in a proper league. They properly re-formed after the Spanish Civil War, and reached the Tercera Division (the fourth tier of Spanish Football) for the first time in 1949.

They are often referred as Spanish Football’s “yo-yo” club. They have been relegated and promoted on 17 different occasions, and have spent most of their history in the Segunda Division. They were first promoted to the Primera in 1977-78, and in total, they have spent 12 years in the first tier. During the 80s and 90s, they were hovering around the Primera and Segunda Divisions, but in 2001, they first appeared in a European competition. They were knocked out in the Quarter Finals of the Uefa Cup by eventual finalists, Alaves, beating the likes of Bordeaux on the way. Despite gaining promotion to La Liga in 2012, they currently play in the Segunda, following a relegation in 2016 after their longest spell in the top flight in their history.

Despite various relegations, the pride remains.

Money is always in short supply, and their fans know that, and it’s part of their self-identity. Once, before a game, the Bukaneros displayed a banner saying ‘We are poor, but we are proud’.

They have a history of financial crisis. In 2011, they were in a deep one. For years and years, Rayo were owned by the controversial Ruiz Mateos family. Firstly, the family took over the club in 1991, and for the first few years, the mad-man was the owner of the club, who is famous for turning up to court in a Super Man costume once. In 1994, he backed out, and his wife, Teresa Rivero, took his place. To begin with, she was actually quite loved by the Rayo faithful, and even the stadium was named after her for a time, before opinions started to change.

Eventually in 2011, with the club in deep financial trouble, they were forced to sell, and the current, unpopular figure, Raul Martin Presa took over. The fans have been protesting for years that he should leave, but, he’s still there, and there’s a big friction between the board and the supporters.

The controversial Jose Maria Ruiz Mateos as superman.

Rayo made the headlines recently in probably the most politically charged transfer ever made in Spanish football history.

In January 2017, they signed Ukranian striker Ramon Zozulya on loan from Real Betis until the end of the season, but he didn’t last very long. Fans carried out some research, and quickly, the word was out. He appeared to have ultra right-wing connections linked to the Ukranian army. He denied it all, but the fans weren’t having any of it, as they made it clear that ‘VALLECAS IS NO PLACE FOR NAZIS’.

As well as hating fascism, they’re also against racism. Their former Nigerian keeper, Willy Agbonavbare, who recently passed away, is a legend in Vallecas. He played for El Rayo for six years, and he was a cult-figure not only in Vallecas but in Spain. People liked him. He was the complete gentleman, and it’s very worth remembering him for what he did. Agbonavbare overcame racism and poverty to become one the most loved players among Rayo fans.

A tribute to Willy following his death. Image: Twitter

Vallecas is a massive part of Rayo Vallecano’s identity. The club represents this small, working-class neighbourhood in south-east Madrid. You have clubs such as Celta who represent the city of Vigo and Sporting who represent the city of Gijon, and you have Rayo who don’t represent the city as such, but this particular neighbourhood. But, as well as not representing Madrid, they are willing to accept that they are the capital’s third team.

As well as symbolising their barrio, they’re well known other quirky characteristics. They’re famous for making fairly catchy kits like their away kit with a stripe of the rainbow flag running down the length of the shirt. Their home kit is called ‘La Franja‘ which stands for The Stripe, and imitated it from River Plate, as they admired their unique playing style. Also, their stadium only has three stands. The fourth one is behind one goal and it’s known as the back wall, where there is no seats

There aren’t many clubs like Rayo. It’s a common thing to see Spanish clubs with special identities but there are none quite like this one. Atletico Madrid players Diego Costa and Saul Niguez have all worn La Franja, but most importantly, they understand Rayo’s uniqueness.

A truly difficult but special club.


El Clásico: More than a game

The El Clasico is a rivalry teeming with historic significance, from tempers flaring to moments of brilliance, Barcelona and Real Madrid have both produced the goods over the years. Here we take a look at the rivalry and how it developed.

By Gethin Boore

Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. The two biggest clubs in the world, and when they face each other, it usually means a battle. Today, football fans associate El Clasico as Messi v Ronaldo, Suarez v Benzema, Rakitic v Modric and so on, but in a true sense, these clubs represent completely different things. To begin with, they represent completely different nations…

Barcelona was the first to form out of the two in 1899 by a group of Swiss, English and Catalan footballers, whilst Real Madrid were formed as Madrid FC in 1902, but changed to Real Madrid in the 1920s after gaining the permission of King Alfonso XIII. The first ever meeting between the two was in 1902, the year Real Madrid was formed, in which Barcelona won 3-1 at the old Hipodromo de la Castellana stadium in Madrid. Barcelona won the first ever La Liga title in 1929, but it wasn’t until the year 1936 when the rivalry began for real.

1936 saw the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and football was a big part of it all. Many people say that it was in 1936 the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona truly began. The man who was at the heart of it all was the dictator Francisco Franco. The reason football was a big part of the civil war was because Real Madrid was Franco’s team and the team of the right while the democrats and the team of the left was Barcelona. In 1936, Barcelona president Josep Sunyol was assassinated by Francoist troops just outside Madrid, which caused controversy between the left wing and the right wing. Franco hated Catalonia as well as the Basque country, and banned the Catalan flag from being flown and didn’t allow the Catalan language from being spoken.

The war finished in 1939, and in 1943, the most infamous game in the fixture’s history was played. 13th of June, the semi final of the Copa del Generalismo, the forerunner of the Copa Del Rey named after Franco, Real Madrid beat Barcelona 11-1. This had such a political feel to it.

The famous scoreboard.

One member of that Barcelona team was still alive when he told Sid Lowe in his book “Fear and Loathing in La Liga” in 2013 what happened. He tells the story of a police officer coming into the Barcelona dressing room saying something bad must not happen. Not that they don’t have to lose but that nothing bad should happen. His name was Fernando Argila and he was Barcelona’s reserve goalkeeper at the time, and it was after this game that the people of Barcelona considered Real Madrid as Franco’s team.

In 1947, Real Madrid moved from their old Charmatin stadium to a new stadium named after the man that was Real Madrid, Santiago Bernabéu. He was the president at the time, but also a former player and manager as well. He had an idea of transforming Real Madrid into a global attraction by signing the best players and being recognised by the world. The 1950s became Real Madrid’s golden era, and in 1953, the man that turned out to be Real Madrid’s greatest ever player arrived to the Spanish capital. His name was Alfredo Di Stefano.

Di Stefano was a player that impressed both Barcelona and Real Madrid in his time at Millonarios of Colombia, and Barça were the favourites to sign him. Both clubs claimed to have his signature, but Barcelona’s president resigned, forcing them to cancel the signing. This saw Di Stefano catching the train from Barcelona to Madrid and signing for Los Blancos.

Di Stefano in Barcelona colours with Kubala

In 1955, the European Cup began, and Real won the first ever tournament in 1956. Incredibly, they won it five times in a row, and are considered the best ever to have played the game. They had incredible players who came and went between 1955-1960 such as Raymond Kopa, the rapid Paco Gento, Di Stefano of course and the outstanding Hungarian forward Ferenc Puskas. Real Madrid’s finest hour came in 1960 when they thrashed Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 at Hampden Park. Di Stefano scored a hat trick while Puskas scored four and some experts say it’s the greatest final ever played.

Real were dominating Europe, but not so much in the league. During that period of dominating Europe, they won the league twice while Barcelona won it twice as well. The El Clasio remained tight, despite Real Madrid dominating Europe. However, Di Stefano once said that Real’s football rivals were their cross city rivals Atletico de Madrid. Barcelona were managed by ‘the magician’ Helenio Herrera. He was appointed as the manager of Barcelona in 1958, and won two league titles. The only thing that was missing was the European Cup, and he was sacked in 1960 after Real Madrid knocked Barcelona out of the competition they wanted to win the most.

Again in 1960, Barcelona and Real Madrid faced each other in the European Cup. This game is mostly remembered for two things. One, Real Madrid knocked were out of the European Cup for the first time in their history and two, the Eenlish referee Arthur Ellis. The Real players were furious with the all the decisions going against them and they also tried to beat him up after the game. The players knew that it was decided that Real Madrid couldn’t win another European Cup. Instead, it was their arch-rivals who came closest to winning it, reaching the final in Bern before losing to Benfica.

Barcelona hadn’t won the league since 1960 under Herrera. That was about to change. Step forward, the Dutchman, Johan Cruyff.

Johan Cruyff as Barcelona captain

He joined Barcelona in 1973, and changed the club forever. A legend at Ajax, he moved to Barcelona in the middle of a pretty gloomy time at the Camp Nou. Franco was still alive at the time, and still, Catalonia was a country depressed. The only place that the Catalan language was spoken and a key place to express Catalanism was at the Camp Nou. Cruyff came to the Camp Nou and brought smiles to the faces of the Barcelona supporters. He carried Barca to their first league title in fourteen years, beating Real Madrid 5-0 at the Camp Nou along the way. Cruyff came into the 1974-75 season with a World Cup runners-up medal. At the ’74 World Cup, Holland were best remembered for the famous style of play ‘Total Football’ and Cruyff duly brought it with him to the Camp Nou.

As soon as Cruyff arrived in Catalonia, he was a fans favourite, and tried his best to fit into the Catalan culture. In 1974, he called his newly born son Jordi after Saint Jordi, the patron saint of Catalonia, which put him in a bit of a mess. Under the dictatorship of Franco, newly born babies had to have a name in Castillan Spanish. A year after Cryuff’s arrival, Franco passed away at the age of 82.

The 1980’s proved to be a strange decade for both clubs in a successful and un-successful way. In 1980, Real Madrid won the league title, but for the next four years it stayed in the Basque Country when Real Sociedad won it in 1981 and 1982 before Athletic Club Bilbao won it in 1983 and 1984. It was an incredible few years in the Basque Country, but the next five years was memorable in Real Madrid’s case.

A team known as ‘Quinta del Buitre’ which translates to ‘The Vulture Squad’ included five players who came through the youth squad at Real Madrid. The five were Miguel Sanchis, Rafael Martin Vazquez. Michél, Miguel Pardeza and the main man and striker, Emilio Butrageño. They won five league titles in a row, yes, five. They were a great side, but like the Barça side in the late 50s, they’re not that well-known for winning one thing; the European Cup. The European Cup is a trophy that Real Madrid will forever want to win. It’s always their aim at the start of every season. It’s what signifies them as a club.

For Barça meanwhile, the end of the decade was turbulent. They won the league in 1985, and tragically lost the European cup final against Steaua Bucharest in Seville. They lost on penalties, and the Romanian keeper saved four penalties. It was a sour evening in Barcelona’s history, and it’s a game that most fans would like to forget. Also in that year, they lost to Real Zaragoza in the Copa Del Rey final, a change was needed, and in 1988, the man that changed the club as a whole, returned to the Camp Nou, Johan Cruyff.

Johan Cruyff in the Barcelona dugout in 1988

When he arrived in 1988, Barcelona were a club in debt and crisis. They had just won the Copa Del Rey, but Cruyff brought in new players, and a brilliant team was starting to emerge. He signed Ronald Koeman and Michael Laudrup as well as giving local boy, Pep Guardiola a first team place. He started developing young players at Barcelona academy, La Masia.

In 1990, Cruyff brought in Bulgarian striker Hirsto Stoichkov, and a year later, Barça finally won the league title again. They won it again the next year, but in 1992, an even bigger thing was about to happen. A Champions League final at Wembley against Sampdoria.

It was huge. Barcelona just needed to win. After coming so close in 1986, this was a massive chance to forget about the heartbreak in Seville, and to finally put their name on the trophy. The game was 0-0 as it went into extra-time, but in the second half, Ronald Komean’s free-kick flew into the Sampdoria net, and it’s a picture that is still famous to this day. Finally, Barcelona were European champions, and it was down to Johan Cruyff. It was an incredible evening, up there as one of the special evenings in Barcelona history.

A controversial figure in El Clasico history is Luis Figo. After a successful period at his childhood club Sporting Lisbon, he moved to Catalonia in 1995. He was an instant hit, and the fans adored him. He was part of a terrific attacking partnership alongside Rivaldo at Barcelona. It was a strange period, Barcelona had a good team, but in 1998, Real Madrid were European Champions for the first time since 1966 as they defeated Juventus. They then won it again in 2000 after beating Valencia.

That team featured Roberto Carlos, Fernando Hierro, Steve McManaman and one of the greatest players to ever wear the famous white shirt, Raul, having signed from Atletico Madrid after they shut down their youth system. He joined in 1994 and is the all-time record appearance holder at the club with 741 games as well as the second highest scorer in the club’s history with 323 goals. Also in 2000, a new man took over the presidency of Real Madrid, and transformed the club into a global attraction. His name was Florentino Perez.

He had a vision of signing the best players in the world. He called them the ‘Galacticos’, and still to this day, the Galactico policy is ongoing. He said publicly that the first singing he will make will be from Barcelona, and that signing will be Luis Figo. Incredibly, he left for Real and the Barça fans were way more than angry, they were absolutely livid. When he returned to the Camp Nou on several occasions, he was taunted with abuse, and there missiles such as knifes, cigarette lighters and bottles were flying all over the place. In 2002, a pig’s head was thrown by a supporter onto the pitch, and still to today, it’s the most iconic image in the Clasico’s history. Even his old team mates were trying to hurt him, and the players had to be blocked by riot police. He was attacked outside his house 2004 by two members of the ultra group, Boixos Nois.

Luis Figo taunted by Barcelona fans

With the Galactico policy, in 2001, Zinadine Zidane moved from Juventus to Real, and was followed by Ronaldo in 2002. In the same year, forty years on from the club’s finest moment in the 1960 European cup, they won it again against Bayer Leverkusen, at the same location, Hampden Park. What is best remembered from that game is Zidane’s superb volley into the top corner, and is arguably the greatest goal ever scored at a European final. They were still signing players from all over the world, as David Beckham left Manchester United for Madrid in 2003 and Michael Owen moved as well in 2004.

Meanwhile in Barcelona, they had their own policy. Although, they didn’t have to sign as much as they used their famous youth system, La Masia. They had a new president, Joan Laporta, who was the most politically driven president in Barcelona’s history. La Masia was used often, and many young talents came through such as Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique, Perdo, Victor Valdes, Carlos Puyol, Sergio Busquets and Csec Fabregas. Most of the players who came through were Catalan born and bred.

Though a certain Lionel Messi wasn’t Catalan, but whilst playing for Rosario, he impressed the Barcelona scouts and moved over when he was young. Messi was given his first team debut in 2004, and from then on, he is the greatest player to ever wear the Blaugranna shirt. An incredible team was being built, and in 2006 under the guidance of Frank Rijkaard along with the talent of Brazilian, Ronaldinho, Barcelona won the Champions League for the second time in their history.

The Spanish national team was developing brightly as well, and La Masia was a massive part of that. 2009 came around, and it was the greatest year in the history of the club. Managed by former player and La Masia graduate, Pep Guardiola, incredibly, they won six major trophies in a calendar year – a record. They won the Champions League again that year with a 2-0 win against Manchester United in Rome, as well as the league title, the Club World Cup, Spanish Super Sup, Uefa Super Sup and Copa Del Rey. It was an incredible achievement, and La Masia was the reason behind it.

The 2010-11 season was another season that will go down in the history of famous El Clasico fixtures. In November 2010, Barcelona thrashed Real Madrid 5-0 at the Camp Nou, in a first game out of many that featured fights between the players and the managers. The Real Madrid manager at the time was Jose Mourhino who had just won the Champions League at Inter Milan, as well as beating Barcelona in the semi-finals.

In April 2011, they faced each other four times in the space of 11 days, once in the league, once in the Copa Del Rey final and twice in the Champions League semi-finals. In all four games, many players were arguing with each other for various things and the managers were a big part of it.

A big incident occured in the Champions League semi-final first leg when Pepe was sent off for a challenge on Dani Alves. Some people say it is a red, some say it is not, and still, not really many people know if it’s a red or not. Barcelona won the two legs 3-1 on aggregate, and they faced Manchester United again, and at their hallow turf, Wembley. The Catalans won it again for the third time, and it’s up there as the greatest team performance ever seen at a European final. The Spanish national team were gaining success as well. When they won the World Cup in 2010 for the first time ever, seven players La Masia gradiuates started that game, six were Catalans. The only one that wasn’t Catalan was Iniesta, who is from Albececete, scored the winner in extra time.

El Clasico is a fixture that attracts the whole world. Billions of people watch it, and it’s always entertaining on and off the pitch, but, the history behind this fixture is amazing. Politics was a big part of the game, but it’s not all about thatt. For supporters and players, this is the game they want to win.

Marcelino reignites Valencia flame

They’ve had La Liga triumphs, Champions League finals and utter disasters. But now it seems as though Valencia are on the way back. With Marcelino doing things in his effective own way, Los Che are on the march.

By Gethin Boore

28 October 2017, Alaves 1-2 Valencia. This may not be the most eye-catching result, but it followed a 4-0 trouncing of Sevilla at the Mestalla, where Valencia rubber-stamped their growing authority on this season’s La Liga. Yet their narrow win at the Mendizorrotza Stadium is the type of performance success-aspiring sides churn out regularly throughout the season. The type of performance where you fail to hit top-form, but still manage to come away with three points.

Ahead of Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off against fellow high-flyers Leganes, Valencia find themselves unbeaten and second in La Liga with seven wins and three draws. This equals their best start to a La Liga season, and follows a few abysmal seasons that included 4-0 home defeats, several managers that were not really managers, low attendances and fans visibly disagreeing with club owners. For a club of their size, it was not right seeing them in such a state, but all of that is seemingly on the change.

Normally, when you first think of Valencia CF, you’d associate them among not only Spain, but one of Europe’s biggest clubs. They have a glorious history, with glorious players and managers, but where did this club start?

Football arrived in the city in 1909, where you would find British sailors kicking a ball in Valencian ports, but the club was founded ten years later in the so called Bar Torino. They moved to their legendary Mestalla stadium in 1923, and were first promoted to the newly created Primera Division in 1932. Following the Spanish Civil War, the club entered their first golden era. In that period, they won La Liga in 1942, 1944 and 1947 and the Copa Del Rey in 1941 and 1949.

valencia cf bar torino
Bar Torino, where it all began.

As they emerged to be one of the biggest clubs in Spain, the founding of Uefa in 1954 meant they could be a threat in Europe. They won the Inter Fairs Cup against Barcelona in 1961 and beat Dynamo Zagreb in 1962. A year later, they reached the final again, however there was no hat-trick was they were denied in the final against fellow Spanish side Real Zaragoza. Their next piece of silverware was in 1966-67 as they beat Athletic Club Bilbao in the final to win the Copa Del Rey.

In 1970, arguably Real Madrid’s greatest ever player, Alfredo Di Stefano, took the job to manage Valencia, which lasted four years. During that period, the club managed to win their first La Liga title since 1947, and they reached the Copa Del Rey final three times in a row between 1970 and 1972 but, they lost all three. Following Di Stefano’s departure in 1974, they won the Copa Del Rey in 1979, and shone in Europe again as they won the 1980 Uefa Cup-winners Cup, defeating Arsenal on penalties in Brussels.

1980 UEFA Cup-winners Cup winners. Image:

In the 1985-86 season, Valencia were relegated to Spain’s second tier, the Segunda Division. The club website re-called it as the toughest moment in the club’s history. Di Stefano returned to the dugout at the end of this season to try and save Los Che with four games to go. They had a slight chance of surviving, but, however, following wins against Sevilla and Hercules, they were relegated at the Camp Nou as they lost 3-0, as other results also didn’t go their way, with Cadiz and Betis drawing.

The club returned to the top flight at the first time of asking as champions. After their season away from the Primera, they finished 14th in the league with Alfredo Di Stefano in the dugout for the third and last time. Fifteen years later under Héctor Cúper, the club entered their modern day era dorada.

To start it all off, they beat Atletico Madrid 3-0 in the Copa Del Rey final to win Spanish Football’s cup showpiece for the first time in twenty years. A year later, the club reached their first ever Uefa Champions League final, their opponents, Real Madrid. This was Los Blancos’ eleventh European Final, and it was their eighth win in the Europe’s greatest club competition. Yet it was a 3-0 win for Real. The following year, however, they reached the final again, this time against German giants Bayern München in Milan. Valencia heartbreakingly lost on penalties, and the club found it hard to re-build.

Then came the Rafa Benitez era, as they won La Liga for the fifth time in 2001-02, before winning it for the sixth time in 2004. This illustrious side had a spine of veteran Los Che goalkeeper, Santiago Cañizares, Argentina captain, Roberto Ayala, Spanish midfield duo, David Albelda and Rubén Baraja, and Norwegian giant, John Carew, as the target-man.

Rafa Benitez celebrating his first La Liga win at Valencia

Following that era, a disastrous spell awaited. In 2013-14, they missed out on a European spot, having finished eighth in the table, but that was only the start. Their worst season came in 2015-16. Their controversial owner, Peter Lim, a Singaporean business man, took over the club following the 2013-14 season. When he bought the club, the Valencia fans admired him, but it did not last.

Things came to a surreal halt in 2015-16. They had four different managers. Following a 1-0 defeat against Sevilla, their first manager of the season, Nuno Espírito Santo, resigned. He had been at the club the previous season, and guided them to the Champions League. Their next manager was interim man, Salvador Gonzalez Marco or better known as Volo. He took charge for only one game, which actually ended up in a 1-1 draw against Barcelona. Then a day later, their third manager of the season was confirmed, former Manchester United and England full-back, Gary Neville – yes, Gary Neville.

His brother, Phil, arrived at the club at the start of the season, so his brother decided to join him. He couldn’t save Valencia from departing the Champions League, nor the Europa League, as they lost to Athletic Club Bilbao. In his time at the club, they only managed to win two games, and he was sacked following a defeat against Celta Vigo. His failure at Valencia led to countless debates on Sky Sport’s Monday Night Football and on twitter as Jamie Carragher teased Neville about his time at Valencia. That was their worst part of the season, and it was his first ever experience as a manager. Their fourth and final manager of the season was assistant manager Pako Ayestaran, who steadied the ship until the season’s close.

Off the field issues definitely didn’t help, and going into the 2016-2017 wasn’t looking very glamorous. Although, they did manage to sign Nani, who had just won Euro 2016 with his country, Portugal. They sold key players as well such as Paco Alcacer and Andre Gomes, both to Barcelona, and Alvaro Negredo to Middlesbrough. This was another season where managers came and went, but it was their last, for now…

Another dismal season followed, that included a 4-0 home defeat against Eibar; fans boycotting and protesting; three different managers in charge and no European qualification. It was clear they needed a change, and quickly.

Step forward, Marcelino Garcia Toral.

Marcelino upon his arrival at Valencia. Image: @ValenciaCF twitter.

A former midfielder who used to play for Sporting Gijon, Racing Santander, Levante and Elche, the 52 year old from Asturias is making himself popular amongst the Valencia faithful. He retired from professional football at the age of 28 due to a serious injury so he’s been involved in the managerial industry for a long time. A former manager with the likes of Sevilla and Villarreal, he was out of a job for an entire season, following his sacking at Villarreal a few days before the 2016-17 season. They’ve also had a new president – Anil Murthy, a former Real Mallorca president, and a West Ham supporter.

They also changed their squad. Countless signings were made, including Simone Zaza from Juventus, who had been on loan with Los Che the previous season, along with West Ham. The Italian striker has been absolutely vital this season. He’s scored nine goals in ten games and is second in the La Liga top scorer chart behind Lionel Messi, of course. One of the on-field problems that they’ve had in recent years is a prolific goal-scorer, and that’s a problem that Marcelino has fixed.

Another key player is Goncalo Guedes. He came to the Mestalla with something to prove, as he rarely had game time for PSG. He was sent on loan after being bought for 30 milion Euros, and has already won a player of the month award this season. Many people hadn’t heard from him till he arrived, but he’s definitely making a name for himself. He fits Marcelino’s style, and he’s very quick. Another player that has been key for Valencia this season is Rodrigo. He’s been at Valencia for three years, and has scored three goals every season, but this season, he’s already scored five. The captain is Daniel Parejo, who’s been at the club since 2011, and a former Real Madrid player. He was criticised last season by the club for being unprofessional and that he should say sorry to the supporters. How times have changed for Dani Parejo an co.

Their start to the season has been frantic. The first sign of good football came in the second game of the season, drawing 2-2 against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. More eye-catching results game included a 5-0 win against Malaga, a 3-2 win against Athletic Bilbao and a 6-3 win away to Real Betis. And in October, following a 4-0 win at home to Sevilla, a team they’ve had many ups and downs against, Valencia, alongside Barcelona, were the only unbeaten teams in La Liga.

From Champions League finals to utter disaster, the club has had a turbulent few years. But now, it seems as though Valencia are on their way back. Marcelino has done things in his own effective way right from the beginning of his reign. By keeping a close eye on player diets and imposing a new dynamic style of play, it all seems to be coming together for this exciting Valencia side.

Marcelino’s Los Che are on the march.

Los Verdiblancos reach high on the yo-yo string

As the Santiago Bernabéu fell quiet, Real Betis players and staff celebrated ecstatically. Yet, don’t expect complacency from the fans, as history shows them a high is so often followed by a low.

By Danny Wyn Griffith

The Santiago Bernabéu is a daunting place to visit. Zinedine Zidane’s all-conquering Real Madrid are the first side in UEFA Champions League history to retain the famous trophy and are also reigning La Liga champions. Therefore, when Real Betis left Andalusia for the Spanish capital on Wednesday 20 September 2017, they knew they had their hands full. Real Madrid had knocked three past Real Sociedad at the Anoeta Stadium the previous Sunday. In doing so, they equalled Santos’ 50-year record of scoring in 73 consecutive matches across six different competitions. They had the Los Verdiblancos in their sights to surpass the historical feat. Quique Setién and his determined Real Betis Balompié side however, had other ideas.

They defended their ground patiently throughout the match, yet when the ball broke, they had enough about them to counter fervently. True, they rode their luck as Real Madrid posted 22 shots at goal and dominated possession. Yet, any side would need to against Cristiano Ronaldo and co. Sometimes you have to applaud a defensively brave, counter-attacking performance. This was certainly one of them moments.

Antonio Adan played a blinder in goal as he brilliantly denied Ronaldo, Kroos, Modric, Ronaldo again, and lastly, Gareth Bale as he attempted an audacious flick at the near post which seemed destined to be played over and over, for years to come. Instead, it was Adan – the former Real Madrid goalkeeper – who savoured the moment.

As Real Madrid attacked, throwing players forward in true gung-ho style looking for the goal which would make history, and more importantly give them three crucial points in La Liga, the ball broke. Former Barcelona man, Cristian Tello, countered down the left, waited patiently before playing the ball across the Real Madrid half towards Antonio Barragán. He looked up, swung a curling ball in over the head of Sergio Ramos, who looked on helplessly, onto the head of on-loan Paraguayan forward, Antonio Sanabria. It all seemed to be playing out in slow motion as the ball was headed downwards by Sanbria past Keylor Navas. 94 minutes was on the clock; Real Betis had just scored. The Bernabéu fell quiet. Quique Setién and his team celebrated in raptures on the touchline. They’d done it. They’d just beaten Real Madrid on their own patch.

This was an ultimate high in Real Betis’ recent history. Although, as their fans know too well, highs for Betis are normally followed by lows – and bad ones at that. They have record for it and their history is filled with such moments. Yet, their fans wouldn’t have allowed for such moments to be dampened by such thinking. This win was to be rightly relished.

Football is known to have hit Andalusia for the first time towards the end of the 19th century. It is thought British expats brought the game over with them when they came to work in Seville’s expanding manufacturing industry. The club, originally founded by students in 1907 as Seville Balompié, took time to find their spot within the game. The students chose Balompié as they wanted to avoid the anglicised name of ‘football’ or fútbol, as embraced by local rivals Seville FC.

The club enjoyed early success. They won the Copa del Andalusia in 1910, ’11, ’12 and again in 1915. In 1909, however, a third team was born in the city of Seville; Betis FC. Due to intense competition and financial issues, their stint within the game wouldn’t last past 1913. Yet, their mark on football would be prolonged as they resurrected and merged with Seville Balompié in 1914. Not long after both clubs merged, the ‘Seville’ was dropped as they took up ‘Betis’, therefore becoming Betis Balompié. The ‘Betis’ was procured from the Guadalquivir river that flows through Seville into the Atlanti, and in ancient times, the Romans knew the river by the name ‘Betis’. Royal patronage was then sought by the club and granted by King Alfonso VIII.  Finally, we had Real Betis Balompié as we know them by today.

Despite initially playing in the blue and white stripes, they switched to the renowned green and white around 1920. This was in no small thanks to Glasgow Celtic who donated their famous green and white hooped kit. To make it their own, club owners, including Betis co-founder Manuel Ramos Asensio, decided to change the hoops to stripes.

Having joined La Primera in preparation for the 1932/33 season, it wasn’t long before Real Betis Balompié left their mark on the Spanish domestic scene. In 1934/35, under the guidance of Irishman, Patrick O’Connell, and with 13 goals from Basque-born Victor Unamuno, Real Betis pipped Real Madrid to the title on the final day.

O’Connell is a curious figure in footballing history. Well-attributed as Barcelona’s saviour from bankruptcy, his playing career took him from Belfast Celtic to Manchester United, via the First World War. During his time on M16, O’Connell captained Manchester United, yet his stint is shrouded in mystery. With United needing a win to stay up on the final day in 1915, they came up against a Liverpool side comfortably placed in mid-table. The match finished 2-0 to Manchester United as they stayed in the old First Division, and that should have been that. After the game however, bookmakers reported an unusually large amount of money had been placed on the 2-0 result at 7/1 in favour of the Red Devils. Seven players were later found guilty by the Football Association of fixing the match (three United and four Liverpool), but O’Connell wasn’t one of them. Despite curiously missing a penalty, so badly wide that play didn’t resume for several minutes as match officials deliberated whether he should be made to retake it, he was deemed innocent of any wrongdoing. O’Connell, despite indications suggesting otherwise, got away lightly.

Pat O’Connell remains the only coach to lead Real Betis to Primera Division glory

His success at Betis came at the end of a three season stint as manager. Barcelona came calling and he swapped Andalusia for Catalonia. His La Liga triumph – still Betis’ only one to date – lives long in the memories of Los Verdiblancos fans, despite the O’Connnell name being more associated with Barça than Betis.

Betis from then onwards became the yo-yo team as they switched regularly between the La Primera and La Segunda – and the La Tercera, even. Consistency became an issue, as did financial issues, on many an occasion. This was until 1977, as they triumphed in the Copa del Rey at the Vicente Calderón, beating Athletic Club de Bilbao on penalties following a 2-2 draw. Yet, once again, they found themselves back in the La Segunda the following season as they were relegated.

Real Betis players celebrating the 1977 Cope del Rey win

Despite a 10-year stint in La Primera towards the end of the 1980s, yet more turbulence awaited them in the 1990s. They found their finances under scrutiny, and they teetered closely to yet another relegation, which could have tipped them over the edge towards bankruptcy. Cue Manuel Ruiz de Lopera to mark an infamous start in Real Betis’ history.

Taking over, and thereby securing the club’s future, fortunes took a turn for the better. They managed a third and fourth placed La Liga finish under the guidance of Lorenzo Serra Ferrer in 1994/95 and 1996/97. Yet the latter season was tainted by a harsh Copa del Rey final defeat against Barcelona thanks to a 115th minute extra-time goal by Luis Figo.

Manuel Ruiz de Lopera started making a right name for Betis towards the end of the 1990s as their mercurial behaviour came to the fore. In 1998, following a decent showing in a Brazil side which reached the World Cup final only to be defeated by home favourites France, Betis splashed an audacious world-record £21.5m sum on Denilson from Santos. Things never worked out however, as Denilson flopped and found fitness issues constantly rising, Serra Ferrer departed the club in 2000. Soon afterwards, Real Betis once again found themselves gracing La Segunda – but not for long as they soon got themselves back up the yo-yo string and into La Liga.

In 2004/05, the constant highs and lows of the previous two decades were forgotten as Real Betis beat Osasuna in the Copa del Rey final. The triumphant team included former AC Milan striker, Ricardo Oliviera, a younger Joaquin on the wing, Marcos Assuncao as the chief string-puller and Denilson, although only good enough to be on the bench by that time. Nevertheless, it was Dani Martin who found himself the hero as he came off the bench to score the winner in extra time, after Australian cult-figure, Jon Aloisi, had equalised for Osasuna in the 82nd minute.

The triumphant Real Betis side in 2005

The following season they became the first Andalusian side to turn out in the UEFA Champions League, where they faced Liverpool, Anderlecht and managed to beat José Mourinho’s Chelsea thanks to another winner by Dani. However, their appearance on the big stage was short-lived and quickly followed, unsurprisingly, by another low.

In 2006, Manuel Ruiz de Lopera was found guilty of financial irregularities by Spain’s tax authorities. During his time at the helm of Betis, he is alleged to have taken €36 million from the club. He is known to have contracted Betis’ employees and services to his own personal companies and properties, for huge fees. A couple more stints in the La Segunda propped up in the following decade, although much of this will have felt like a long time ago when Antonio Sanabria scored that precise late header against Real Madrid.

The Real Betis Balompié side that triumphed at Santiago Bernabéu had come a long way from their humble beginnings as Seville Balompié in 1907. Made up of the young, old and the unwanted, the side contained the young on-loan scorer Sanabria, well-travelled Mexican, Andrés Guardado, former Manchester City and Zenit anchor-man, Javi Garcia, former Liverpool and Middlesborough full-back, Antonio Barragán, and veteran Betis idol, Joaquin – at the grand-old age of 36. Yet despite experiencing such ecstasy as the ball bounced past Keylor Navas, the Betis fans will know complacency can hardly be be afforded.

As for the Los Verdiblancos, history shows that a high is so often followed by a low.

Remembering an Él Colchonero

A visit to the Vicente Calderon in 2016 gave quite the unexpected insight into football fandom as an Él Colchonero was remembered.

By Danny Wyn Griffith

Considerable amounts of time and effort goes into following a football team. Weekends are swallowed, despite the game only lasting for 90mins. You also spend vast amounts of money supporting your beloved over the years, without taking any extra-curricular activities into account. You experience highs and lows, perhaps one more-so than the other dependant on where your loyalties lie. Furthermore, you go through life supporting a team, only to pass away with the men in power hardly ever noticing the time, money and energy you devoted to the cause.

Actually, all of this depends on who you class as the men in power. Do you believe these to be the Middle Eastern sheikhs, Russian oligarchs, American debt-loaders or numerous low-profile shareholders? They might hold the power at club level, but do they hold the power at fan level? Some owners might say they do, but deep down they’d reluctantly accept not. The ones that hold power over the fans are other fans. These might be battle-hardened individuals or someone that hasn’t missed a game in donkey’s years. They might not command respect, but they certainly deserve it. They’ve been there, seen it and done it – no matter what level your team plays at.

This leads me to being outside the Vicente Calderon in September for a La Liga match. Atleti were playing Sporting Gijon on a sweltering Saturday afternoon. Around an hour before kick-off, many had gathered outside a bar opposite the grand stadium. Chanting could be heard, smiles could be seen. Atleti had started the season in decent fashion, immediately picking themselves up from a second Champions League final defeat in three years to their cross-town rivals, Real Madrid.


Atleti fan with a Diego Simeone printed home shirt.


Diego Simeone’s name echoed around the Madrid streets. That previous day he announced the 2016/17 season would be his last with the team, meaning Atleti would head into the new 70,000 Estadio la Peneita with a new manager. The news spelled disaster to an outsider like me, but the Atleti fans seemed proud to have had Diego Simeone lead their team since 2011.

It is no coincidence that Atleti have seen improved fortunes with El Cholo at the helm. He’s a true warrior and wears his heart on his sleeve in every meaning of the phrase. He’ll be remembered in the same breath as other Los Colchoneros managerial greats like Ricardo Zamora, Helenio Herrera and former Atleti player and four-time coach, Luis Aragonés. They are part of the Atleti history and so will Diego be.

Nevertheless, a sudden spell of silence engulfed the previously joyful fans. Something wasn’t right. The street opened like the Red Sea being parted by Moses. Around 40 fans took centre-stage, standing still with flares lit above their heads. Tears were shedding down some of the faces. They began chanting but not like previously heard. This was actually a remembrance.



I normally despise the modern society element of taking your phone out to film everything a tad out of the ordinary, but that is exactly what I did. Despite the back-tingling atmosphere which struck each and every one in the surrounding area, this was actually a moment to behold in a rather sinister way. It showed what fan culture truly meant.

The flares eventually died out but the embracing continued. An emotional fan by the name of Alby approaches having seen me video what had just taken place. He asks if I could send it over to him, given the person was an Atleti ultra and one of his best friends who had died a fortnight earlier. He mentions that the crowd included the deceased’s girlfriend and sister.

He emphasises: “He was taken too early and this is how we celebrate his name.”


Fans gathered outside the Vicente Calderon stadium.


At times during the football season, you spend more of the week with your friends and fellow fans than you do at home with your family. Perhaps you go from watching your team at home on a Saturday, to seeing them play a midweek European fixture and play a domestic away the following weekend. You might not have handpicked the individuals you spend this vast amount of time with, but you share more highs and lows with them than any outsider could care to imagine. You look out for each and every one because you all believe in the same thing. Together you celebrate or anguish, sing and shout, laugh or cry.

The match played out a 5-0 victory for Atleti against an awe-struck Sporting Gijon side. This was an appropriate celebration of a lost life. From what my limited Spanish gathered, the deceased wasn’t mentioned once by the stadium operator. His family, friends and fellow fans wouldn’t have been bothered in the slightest though – they had just given him a better send off than anyone could hope for and his team had also delivered.

That day, an El Colchonero was remembered.

The Third Clásico

Here we have Luke Rees with his preview of this Saturday’s top-of-the-table clash between Atlético and Barça at the Vicente Calderón Stadium.

By Ed Wade.

Although Atlético Madrid v Barcelona may not hold the same glamour as the official El Clásico, it is now a game which some consider a title decider due to the form shown by both sides this season.

Barcelona were victorious in the reverse fixture having claimed a 1-0 victory and could go six points clear at the top – if they win their game in hand.

The contest on 30th January is one neither team want to lose, but even more so for Atlético Madrid as this will be a serious test for their title credentials come the end of the season.

Atlético were last crowned champions of Spain in 2013-14 by earning a point on the last day of the season in a crunch-match against Barcelona as well as reaching the UEFA Champions League Final.

Many thought that Atlético’s success would be a one season wonder. However, they are currently level at the top of La Liga – behind Barcelona only on goal difference with Diego Simeone being applauded for some shrewd investments in the squad.

The club continued their steady progress following the title win despite the loss of major players, such as Diego Costa to Chelsea and the recent departure of Arda Turan to upcoming opponents Barcelona.

Arda Turan
Arda Turan in his new colours.

The return of Los Colchoneros favourite Felipe Luis from Chelsea has been a big boost and he’s been a constant threat down the left.

Despite suffering from the cliché slow start following his move from Villarreal, Luciano Vietto looks a promising young player who could be vital for the future – or sooner if any of Atlético’s stars move on in the summer.

Last year, they finished the league campaign in third place and managed to make it into the last eight of the UEFA Champions League. However, this time around they look more like the old battle-hardened Atlético that Diego Simeone’s sides have become renowned for.

They are capable of grinding out results when they need to, having won 1-0 seven times and scored a relatively mediocre 30 league goals so far this season.

Incredibly, this amounts to fifteen less goals than Messi, Neymar and Suarez’s combined total.

Catalan giants Barcelona on the other hand had a contrast in fortune. Having lost out on the title in 2014, the club invested heavily the following summer. They brought in Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and the less successful Thomas Vermaelen, which resulted in them winning the treble for the second time in their history.

The trident of attacking prowess through the likes of Messi, Suarez and Neymar was enough to blow most opposition out of the water – registering an astonishing 122 goals in all comps last season.

Barça have coped admirably despite not being able to play their two major summer signings Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal until January due to the much-publicised transfer ban. Both players could give them that edge during the run-in – something Luis Enrique seems to agree with.

“Arda can play in the middle or out wide, and I dare say Aleix Vidal could play in any of three positions, either at full-back, centre-back or even out on the wing.” Said Luis Enrique early in December whilst discussing what each player would bring to the current fold.

With only two defeats all season, they’ve built on their successful 2014-15 by displaying some impressive form and winning the FIFA Club World Cup and UEFA Super Cup and they look in fine-shape heading into the latter stages of the campaign.

Whilst there have been a number of classic meetings between both sides in the past; the last five games have been very tight with the winning team having won by more than one goal, on only one occasion.

Diego Godin has been a real leader at the back for Atlético once again this season, having seen him command a defence that has only conceded a mere eight league goals. On top of this, he normally seems to relish the challenge of keeping out his compatriot and close friend Luis Suarez.

Suarez Godin
Suarez and Godin during international duty.

On a sour note, Diego Simeone had to admit this week that they could lose their prized-possession in Frenchman Antione Griezmann.

He said: “Of course he’s a very important player for us, but we can’t hold him here with chains.”

The cultured left-footer remains the most focal point of attack for the Madrid outfit and the forward will want to justify any potential big money move with a showing at the Vicente Calderón Stadium.

On the other hand, newly crowned Ballon D’or winner Lionel Messi has pledged his future to Barça by stating his desire to end his career with the club and continue winning trophies:

“My idea is I want to finish at home, and my home is Barca.” He said.

The Argentine captain is starting to get back to full fitness after scoring his 11th league goal of an injury-hit campaign and will surely lead the line for Barcelona on Saturday.

It remains to be seen if ‘The Third Clásico’ will ever be as big as the original, but there is no doubt that Saturday afternoon’s top-of-the table clash will prove to be the biggest European football has to offer this weekend.

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