Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Spain. Unlike the French, big domestic championship, big money, big fuss… like the French, no World Cup finals. But the fuss! The mega-transfers in 1973! Europe buzzed about it a long time, enlarging them – after all, it was really Cruiff and Netzer and nobody else – wildly. In Spain the noise was big too... in Madrid there was puzzlement. Netzer was difficult to judge – great player surely, but the attitude? Real Madrid wanted spirited man, at least when speaking to the media. Netzer said little about ‘the dream of my life’, and even less about ‘many titles to come’. Instead he said that he was 28 – meaning getting old – and coming to Real was his chance to get real money at last. He was talking salary, not trophies. He was extremely laid-back on the pitch, which was another puzzlement: the German did not run much. In his book on Real Madrid Phil Ball writes that Santiago Bernabeu never figured out Netzer – the guy was somehow doing nothing, except for the moments when he was delivering great 40-meters long passes, leading to goals. Ball is most likely right – the Spaniards expected fighters of which breed Netzer was not. If so, the Netzer episode is a sad comment on football culture – in less than 10 years it was completely forgotten that stubborn fighting was not ‘traditional’ quality of Spanish football. The great Real Madrid had one Ferenc Puskas – a player not exactly known for mad 90-minutes running on the pitch and kicking viscously whatever is in sight. If Netzer did not move, what was doing Puskas? They still adored him in Madrid by 1974. Anyway, Netzer’s ‘crime’ was misunderstanding on a large scale – he was representing modern football when Spanish football was not modern at all. Netzer only ‘appeared’ lazy, disinterested, and immobile – he was a playmaker, a great organizer, a conductor of the game. He scanned the field, looked for opportunities and used them by passing a surprise ball to a teammate in a position to score, or, failing that, at least to sharpen the attack. As a German, Netzer had no problem with massive running, but the football was so different in Spain, that there was no point of running. In West Germany they run to find open space, to create open space for attack, or to close the space for the opposition – in Spain the running was to get close to a player of the opposition and slash him. There was no creativity, but a war. Netzer found out that running is pointless – he had to look and try to shape a shapeless battle. His teammates did not understand him and most of his passes were lost, for when it was time to run for position nobody run. It may had been one of the biggest cultural clashes in football history – Spanish players (the imaginative ones, the legend tells us) bewildered by a German (no imagination, only dull strength, according to the same legend) who wants them artistic. Real Madrid had terrible season, crowned by humiliating loss at home to hated Barcelona 0-5. Madrid finished 8th – which sums it all. Cruiff scored one and set up three of the five goals Barcelona spat at Real in Madrid. One may say that they are more easily forgiving in Catalonia, or that football infects people with amnesia. Depending on opinion, either view will do… the soap opera of Cruiff’s transfer ended in triumph, the Dutch star making sure to say the right words in public even when in the back room he was saying the opposite. It was his dream to play for Barcelona, he was saying publicly. Forget having me, if my financial demands are not met, Cruiff was saying in the closed negotiations. He loved Ajax, and not leaving, naturally. He loved Barcelona and joining it, naturally. But his public relations skills never failed him: he took sides early and never changed that – he was never to play for Real Madrid. He also new very well the order of importance: to speak of freedom is great, but ultimately business tops freedom – when he was told that he has to don old-fashion number 9 and using his favourite number 14 is out of the question, the great Cruiff obeyed without protest. No wonder the Catalonians loved him from the first minute they heard he was coming. It was very slow coming – he missed almost two months of the championship because of mysterious administrative problems. It was some nasty Madrid’s plot, as ever, grumbled Barcelona fans and officials, for in the great Spanish divide Barcelona is the eternally oppressed club, suffering injustice after injustice. When finally Cruiff stepped on the pitch melodrama ended – unlike Netzer, he delivered. Barcelona won its first title since 1960, finishing 12 points clear from second placed Atletico (Madrid). The team also had the best attack – scoring 75 goals – and the best defense – allowing only 24 goals – in the league. Real Madird took revenge by beating Barcelona 4-0 at the Cup final, but nobody in both Madrid and Barcelona really counted the Cup this year.
Life is sweet when the big cup of the Spanish league is in Catalonia. As it is only proper, real fighters do not smile much – tough men winning a tough champioship. In the great noise something was entirely forgotten – Barcelona did not play vanguard total football, although both high priests of the style were here. Rinus Michels did not start changing the way the team played, but rather used traditional Spanish habits more intelligently. In Madrid they failed to use Netzer’s qualities by placing him in the team instead of organizing the team’s play around him. Michels did not make the same mistake – Barcelona was to be orchestrated by Cruiff. He was free to play as he saw best, but the rest were to be on disciplined alert for his passes, to provide support, and to help and protect the star in every possible way. As grand rich club go, Barcelona was star studded squad, almost everybody a national player (Spanish, Dutch, and Peruvian), but the real strength of the team was midfield. Cruiff himself moved further back, taking playmaking role and no longer real striker. Asensi and Rexach provided iron to his artistic lightness. The defense was typically mean Spanish line with plenty of murderous inclinations. Sotil, underrated from the start, had his own moments of greatness now and then, but particularly he distinguished himself during the 5-0 victory in Madrid.
Sotil’s header ends with yet another goal in Real’s net. However, the winning Barcelona did not have much potential – Sadurni was already over the hill, some other players were not getting younger either. Barcelona was not Ajax, not a squad for the future, but a squad in need of improvement, shaping, and new players. Real Madrid had younger and hungrier players and was better positioned for the future. Michels and Cruiff took the Spanish league by storm, but were not capable of changing the whole Spanish football overnight. It was rather the opposite – both adapted themselves to the realities, changing themselves, but not deeply entrenched attitudes. When the dust settled Spanish football remained exactly where it was before – dull, mean, warlike game, where tugs aimed at players legs rather than at the ball, and the arts of simulation, complaining, arguing with the referee, wasting time, were prime movers and shakers.