Real Madrid still haven't worked out what they're trying to do
The best in the world off the field...
When in doubt, it's always worth drawing on what the greats of the game had to say. The incomparable Helenio Herrera used to remark that Italian football was the best in the world from Monday to Friday, and from Monday to Friday only. He wasn't wrong. Italy's boisterous sports dailies relayed the news as if the world were about to end, with hyperbolic headlines and no shortage of exclamation marks, but when the whistle blew on Saturdays and Sundays, it was a different story: catenaccio and hardly any goals. Looking back over this summer, it is the Spanish game that appears to have had no equal when it comes to off-the-field noise: the conflict between LaLiga and the Spanish Football Federation over kick-off times; Atlético Madrid and Barcelona's dispute over Antoine Griezmann's transfer fee, with FIFA involved; the never-ending, will-he-won't-he, how-much-will-he cost saga involving Neymar and his return to Barça; the surreal boardroom crisis at Valencia; the continuing fall-out from the Oikos match-fixing investigation... However, on-the-pitch football always comes to the rescue with its capacity for the unexpected. Adrián Sán Miguel, a 32-year-old native of Seville, pulled off the decisive penalty save that won the UEFA Super Cup for Liverpool. Two weeks earlier, the goalkeeper had been training with a lower-league team in Andalusia as he looked for a new club. From unemployment to adding to the European champions' trophy cabinet.
Joao Félix looks like being a star
There have been plenty of encouraging details to be gleaned from the pre-season games taking place around the world over the past few weeks: the unmistakeable sensation that Joao Félix is going to be a real star, coupled with the good general impression made by Atlético Madrid's summer signings; Frenkie de Jong's supreme ability to take care of the ball and the upbeat look of Barcelona's forward line with Antoine Griezmann added to their ranks; Espanyol's welcome return to Europe... Real Madrid's pre-season, the worst of all the clubs in LaLiga this year, has been little more than a continuation of their pitiful end to last term, and has merely confirmed that they are a team without a clear idea of how to get themselves out of their negative spiral. There have been some nice glimpses from Takefusa Kubo and Rodrygo Goes, neither of whom seem to occupy a very prominent position in Zinedine Zidane's thoughts, and one fine goal by Eden Hazard. Overall, not a lot. Madrid still haven't worked out what they're trying to do. Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona get the ball rolling today, Friday - an unusual day for an age-old fixture that always proves interesting. Never mind. We can, at least, finally throw the spotlight onto the actors, and the stage, that deserve it the most: players and pitches, not boardrooms and beaches.
Neymar: time to demonstrate his talents once more
Returning to the wise words of the greats of soccer, Johan Cruyff used to say that football is a game of mistakes; that what happens out on the field is, to a large extent, a succession of errors. As was often the case with 'El Profeta', there is profound truth in such a simple reflection. It helps us to understand what it means when we witness a player outside of the norm, who's unique, special; who not only makes fewer mistakes than the rest, but also gets things right in a different way, who breaks the mould and finds ways forward that others simply cannot see. There are very few of these players around. Neymar is one of them. Yet something must be going seriously wrong when you struggle to remember the last match report, video highlights or photograph devoted to a truly sparkling performance from the Brazilian. We've heard plenty about the problems he's got himself into with the justice system, with female acquaintances and with the taxman, and about the court of fawning acolytes that he surrounds himself with. In terms of talent, Neymar is a man touched by the almighty. Now, if he signs for Barça or Madrid, he has the opportunity to show us he can still be a major player on the footballing stage.
The fight to control the future narrative
What is happening with Neymar is a prime example of a phenomenon that has emerged in the football of today. A player who Paris Saint-Germain paid 220 million euros for decides the French capital's not for him, and immediately two of the five biggest clubs in the world, Real Madrid and Barcelona, are scrabbling to find a way to do a deal which, if you look at it in the cold light of day, doesn't make a whole lot of sporting or financial sense for either. Both clubs are more afraid of the star ending up at their arch rivals than anything else. The clubs' respective presidents, Florentino Pérez and Josep María Bartomeu, find themselves pushed into brokering what, in every sense, would be an excessive transfer, in an attempt to control now what the future narrative will be if Neymar does finally return to Spain. Something similar is going on with the signing of young prospects, like the Japanese teenager Kubo. Top clubs are paying exorbitant fees for players who have shown no more than the potential to be stars, simply to avoid the next Lionel Messi exploding into life at a rival club. It's said that, back in the day, the publisher and writer Carlos Barral turned down Gabriel García Márquez's masterpiece One hundred Years of Solitude. No-one wants to be football's answer to Carlos Barral.
It's so easy to make things difficult
Cruyff also used to say that there's nothing harder than keeping it simple. The powers-that-be in Spanish football seem determined to apply that maxim the other way round: there's nothing easier than making things difficult. The fans want to see football, top football, either at the stadium or on TV (those who watch from their sofa are also supporters), and choose to pay for the privilege. They are, therefore, stakeholders with a voice that counts. They're not there just be used for the sake of this or that narrative when it suits, or disregarded when they complain. If they really cared about the fans, the administrators of the game would sit down, talk, and agree on the best way forward for an activity of global interest that many people live off. The average supporter is not all that bothered about who is in charge at LaLiga or the Federation. They just want them to do their job efficiently and effectively, with the goal of making this the best league in the world with the best players in the world. Anything outside of that is just noise and self-interest. Sometimes, you get the feeling that the latter is willing to bring the whole house down just to have the territory all to itself, and that the former is unable to deal with any kind of opinion that isn't 100% aligned with its own. It's a fact that Javier Tebas has taken the Spanish league to a level that was unthinkable a few years back; Luis Rubiales should be pleased about that. It would be a disaster if the pair's inability to come to an understanding - the courts should be the last resort, not the first - undoes everything that has been accomplished.
The role of the media
The place for fanatics is the stadium; in the offices and boardrooms, there should be professionals. And being professional also means understanding the role of the media. The arbiters of our game want the media to take part in their battles and to position itself in a question of minutes on conflicts created by them, which have remained unresolved for years and end up being decided in the courts. And, of course, each expects that position to be in their favour. They forget that this is not the job of the press. AS works to support competition, fair play and the wonderful spectacle that sport can be. AS' aim is to publish front pages featuring the likes of Messi, Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, Joao Félix, Kylian Mbappé, Paul Pogba and Mohamed Salah; to recount the finest goals and the finest games. And if we're to do that, Spanish football needs money, stability, sustainability and shared interests and objectives. The name of whoever is in charge of the Federation or LaLiga is of rather less interest to us all. The identity of Real Madrid's number seven, or Barcelona's number 10... now that does get pulses racing.
Yes, Mr Robinson, it was a goal
Another legendary figure, Michael Robinson, tells the story of a game he played for Liverpool in the English top flight. The Reds conceded a goal which, in his view, should't have counted. Without hesitation, he approached the referee and complained: "That wasn't a goal, ref. That wasn't a goal." The man in the middle very calmly replied: "That wasn't a goal, you say? Are you sure? If you buy the newspaper tomorrow and have a read of it, I think you'll find that it was." Everyone has their role to play in football. And everyone is necessary. The referee gives or doesn't give goals, the media report on it and the administrators ensure that there are suitable stadiums, pitches in a fit condition, competent match officials, sensible kick-off times and clubs in good health. But without the players there are no goals; and without goals there are no stadiums, pitches, match officials, kick-off times or clubs. As those in charge each fight their corner, they should think of Robinson's anecdote and remember the game's rightful order of influence, that football isn't theirs. If it belongs to anyone, it is to people like Adrián, who saved a historic penalty for Liverpool on a warm summer night, and to those who, in the stands or in their living room, jumped up in celebration or put their head in their hands in despair.
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