Sunday, September 12, 2010

Giving the old bag her P45

After a good twenty years, quite possibly even more, the time has eventually come to say farewell to a companion of mine who has shared all of my ups and downs, and didn't complain once because the latter heavily outnumbered the former. The best partners don't do they? Bless her, she's had to put up with muddy football boots, heavy books, a laptop that was far too big for her, (ooh I say), various cameras, sand from all manner of European beaches and hours sitting by herself at strange football grounds in allsorts of weather, not all of it nice.

When you first see someone you quite like the look of you make excuses to go back and catch a glimpse don't you? I'm no different, I think I went back to Debenhams in Ipswich four times before taking the plunge. Once I plucked up the courage, the pair of us never looked back and for years you couldn't squidge a fag paper between us, we were tight. All kinds of travel adventures soon followed and rarely was she far from my right shoulder. Thing is, the longer you're with someone the more you take them for granted and, more to the point, ignore their faults because, (you think), you love them. I'm no different.

With the march of time, people and feelings change, but only the bravest do something about it. That'll be me then! Thing is, it's perfectly acceptable for you to think, or even once or twice mention to a mate that she's looking a bit tatty or seen better days, but the second someone tells you that then boy are you pissed off. You know though that the rot has set in and it's only a matter of time. Somehow, somewhere, something changes and things aren't the same, however hard you think you're trying. At this point the eyes begin to wander and a guilty conscience isn't really an issue.
For Debenhams Ipswich circa 1988 read El Corte Inglés Alicante 2010 and a big old Déjà vu. Forty nine euros later and my old Nike rucksack was a thing of the past, replaced by something I couldn't keep my eyes off. At least I had the good manners not to road test the new one before discarding the old, even if somebody has spelt QUIKSILVER wrong.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Pre-season 2010/11 in a 1000 odd words

In contrast to the same time a year before when I saw an embarrassing number of practise games, preseason 2010/11 for me consisted of just three and a bit matches, punctuated by almost three weeks in the UK as an escapee from the relentless August sun, in fairness the first of my five Spanish summers I'd actually done so. Whilst I was elsewhere and wearing jeans and a pullover and not shorts and T-shirt, Iberian football continued without me. I don't think we missed each other. Before I left, an immensely indifferent blog author fidgeted through Santa Pola versus newly La Liga Hercules, probably looking at my watch more than what little was occurring on the pitch. In the end, I think, Santa Pola equalised late on to earn a creditworthy 1-1 draw and I scurried away to get sorted for my flight the next morning.

The special one
Upon my return, the guilty smirks of the Hercules players had died away amidst all the furore of the "Totegate" tapes and the club proceeded apace with their pre-season plans as though nothing had happened. Such is the way with Spanish football, which, even when confronted by a guilty as sin verdict, tends to adopt an "oh well, worth a try" kind of facial expression, just like those worn by AC Milan and Juventus not so many years ago. Curiously, with a week to go before commencing league action proper, Hercules chose to forego any number of decent quality local sides in preference to, err Real Madrid believe it ot not, for their final pre-season outing, seven days exactly before hosting Athletic Club de Bilbao.

Estadio Jose Rico Perez in Alicante
Herc's home ground, the Estadio Jose Rico Perez in Alicante, really puts me in mind of the old and knackered Wembley, which, in front of the TV cameras invariably looked full with an immaculate grass playing surface. Behind the scenes though the place is a bit of a shit bin, or was, until promotion was secured.
In anticipation of being soundly thrashed once a fortnight by Spanish football's big boys, Hercules, bless 'em, have spent some money and put a little bit of effort in, chiefly on cosmetic things unseen by the majority of fans. I'll give you a few examples. Last year, the playing surface a metre beyond all four touch lines gave way to a manky earth and stone walkway, this season the dirty and dusty earth gap has beautiful and immaculately trimmed, plastic grass right up to the edge of the sparkly, spangly new electronic advertising hoardings. The dugouts too now cater for pampered Primera posteriors with a little more of that ubiquitous plastic grass on the floor in front of each seat to hide another dusty dirt strip. Rumour has it too, the club employed a local unemployed bod to spray paint each and every sun bleached seat a fresher shade of blue.

Tote, conscience clear, addresses the crowd
For the visit of Madrid in a meaningless pre-season friendly, so much was different for the press boys from the season just past. Not wishing to expose their VIP guests to the riff raff with microphones and cameras, the photographic corps and radio reporters were banished to a side entrance, far away from their usual door near to the changing rooms of both sides and extendable tunnel. Perhaps it was only the nature of the evenings high profile opponents, but, personally I was already pissed off with being considered an afterthought, sentiments which weren't about to improved by the security detail as Real Madrid emerged one by one to warm up in front of six thousand or so early arrivals an hour before kick-off. Eventually, super star coach Jose Mourinho left his players to it and took a seat on the bench flanked by his burly assistant José Morais. At this point the security operation swung into effect, marshalled by a massive goon, reminiscent of an Israeli commando, the assembled photographers were denied the opportunity of a decent shot of the man himself and had to make do with snatched photos of Madrid's main man. Yours truly included, although my shot turned out okay.

Super Bowl night
What followed was even more laughable as Hercules football club attempted to turn their final preseason friendly - for which they paid all of Madrid's travel, security and hotel costs and even gave them all the gate receipts - into an evening akin to the Superbowl. Fanning out from the players tunnel young girls in blue and white uniforms formed a guard of honour, as, accompanied by fireworks from the stand roof and ridiculous flame effects, one by one the first team squad were introduced to the expectant crowd. Eventually, some semblence of a football match began and, with Hercules a goal to nil up at half time, I left. Real Madrid replied with three unanswered second half goals to win the thing 1-3

Uluru - Redován style
Meanwhile just down the road, Santa Pola wound down their, by all accounts, quite good pre-season sequence with a trip to Mutxamel and two days later away again at Redován. Interesting choice of friendly was Mutxamel, especially since it was arranged after the Preferente fixture list had been published and matched Santa Pola and Mutxamel, in the opening game. I needn't have worried, a very much second string Santa Pola side equalised late on to grab a 2-2 draw against a pretty physical side who, I think, will be contenders next May. Two days later to avoid clasing with the start of the town's fiestas, 'Pola made the hour long cross country trip to Redován and one of the most attractive little grounds in the region. The last time I came here about three years ago, Santa Pola failed to score against the eight men of already relegated Redován and in the process blew a play-off opportunity by only drawing nil-nil. Under a quickly setting sun which turned the massive sloping mountain less than a kilometre away a gorgeous shade of orange and put me in mind of Ayers Rock, Santa Pola, featuring their likely starting eleven, were twice behind but still emerged 2-4 winners with a ruthless second half performance.

With a ten day wait to start their season proper, Santa Pola's players then had plenty of time to rest up between training sessions.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Hercules sweat, Cadiz complain & Real Betis look on with interest

Barely had everyone connected with Hercules CF begun their promotion celebrations before rumours began to circulate about "extra-curricular" activities during the season just passed involving payments allegedly made to secure wins. Before very long these rumours gained traction and appeared in print, forcing one or two of those featured prominently in the allegations to issue public denials.

Tote pictured recently
The embarrassing distraction for Hercules CF began some weeks earlier, when, a wider investigation into political corruption in and around Costa Blanca cities Orihuela and Alicante unearthed taped recordings of the football club officials discussing payment of large sums of money to opposing players to throw crucial games. Majority shareholder of Hercules, Enrique Ortiz, was apparently captured on tape at least four times talking about bribes and how they could be made available. In addition, various text messages between Ortiz and team captain Jorge López Marco (Tote) and senior player Abraham Paz also emerged and make incriminating reading. Leading up to the promotion chasing Alicante side's match last season against Cordoba, opposing goalkeeper Raul Navas allegedly trousered 100,000 € to throw the game, Tote is alleged to have said, amongst other things "get the money ready for this lot, we have to pass it to them on Sunday"

In addition, Ortiz is also alleged to have offered 20,000 € apiece to two Gimnàstic de Tarragona players to win matches against Hercules direct promotion opponents. On this occasion, Tote allegedly demands "Enrique (Ortiz) pay 'Nastic all the money tomorrow, they're going to screw everything up" On another occasion one message reveals an un-named team refused to take a bribe and Tote is recorded suggesting Ortiz pay his Hercules team-mates using the words "give something to this lot so they play their best, the others won't take it because they're ready on 300,000 € to beat us"

Tote leads the promotion celebrations
In the midst of all the press reporting of the case, a beligerant Tote broke cover to say "Let them prove it if it's all true. And if they do, they can punish us, but they won't because there's nothing in it" He went on “I don’t know what the judge’s latest decision is and I don’t care,” said Tote. “I’m not a politician and none of it interests me. When they feel like it the talk will end and meanwhile, we’ll attend to our business, which is to play in La Liga. We earned it by being better than the rest.”

Relegated Cadiz lodged a formal complaint with the Spanish football association, (RFEF) citing “a supposed infraction of article 75 of the RFEF disciplinary code, consisting of predetermination of results.” The RFEF  began their own fact finding investigation with a request for the tapes and transcripts of the text messages. This request was denied by three High Court Judges who refused to allow the tapes to be sent to the RFEF and the Spanish Higher Sports Council (CSD) because those same tapes "breech the fundamental right to privacy of the individual, one of the most important components of the Spanish Constitution" Without them as evidence any CSD/RFEF investigation would have been completely toothless.

The full story, including legal argument is here

Football fans in the provincial capital enjoy a civic reception for the team
Meanwhile, Cadiz resigned themselves to starting the 2010/11 season in the Segunda A, and Real Betis, the principle beneficiaries of any points deductions for Hercules, who appear to have got out of jail, maintained their discreet silence as the matter was gently swept under the murky Machiavellian carpet of lower league Spanish football.

The photographs in this article were reproduced courtesy of

Monday, August 23, 2010

Can Hercules do it?

As Elche wound down their campaign with a defeat on the road and a last day victory, rivals Hercules ended their own home campaign with a nervous looking victory in front of a massive crowd numbering twenty seven thousand. Their opponents were Madrid based Rayo Vallecano, who with nothing to play for, could easily have put a gigantic spanner in Hercules' works.

Hercules fans celebrate at a packed Rico Perez
A goal-less first half belied the Hercules dominance, try as they might, the Rayo back four held firm and at times rode their luck, especially after fifteen minutes when a decent penalty shout for a foul on Tiago Gomes was turned down by Canaries referee Hernández Hernández. Inside the first three second half minutes, both sides found themselves on the scoresheet, and it was the visitors who silenced the expectant home support when rthe dangerous Coke fired in a shot from just insidde the box. Hercules immediately responded when Portillo headed home to even things up. In the end the visitors gave it a darned good go and stayed level at one apiece until almost the final whistle. Almost was close but but not quite enough for Rayo because Portillo notched his and Herc's second with less than two minutes remaining.

A brave effort or not by Rayo Vallecano, the delirious local support cared not, a crucial 2-1 victory ensured promotion was still within reach, and, crucially was in their own hands, depending solely on a Hercules win in their final match away to lowly Real Union. Elsewhere on the second last match day of the season, Real Sociedad secured the Segunda A title with a routine two nil home win over Celta Vigo and the only two teams still in with a shout of overtaking Hercules enjoyed mixed fortunes. Levante cruised past already relegated Castellon and Real Betis could only manage a 1-1 draw away at mid table Salamanca, two wasted points which were to prove vital to both Levante and Hercules.

Three weeks into June and a week after the start of The World Cup the season eventually came to a thrilling conclusion and the permutation was simple, two promotion places remained and three clubs were in contention Hercules started game day 42 in second place closely followed by Levante and then Real Betis.
I'm not certain how the fixture computer manages to do it every time, but way back in August 2009 guess which two teams were drawn to play each other in the final games of the season? In the end, Real Betis hammered Levante 4-0 at home and their whole season hinged on the relegated Real Union and Hercules result from the northern city of Irun.

A 0-2 win for Hercules at the smallest ground in the league, watched by four hundred travelling supporters ensured the Alicantinos headed home happy and Real Betis, despite finishing on the same number of points as both Levante and Hercules, finished fourth. Tough on the men from Seville but here's some interesting statistics, the head to head records of the three protagonists

Betis 1 - 1 Hercules      Levante 2 - 1 Hercules      Betis 4 - 0 Levante   
Hercules 3 - 2 Betis     Hercules  2- 1 Levante      Levante 1 - 0 Betis

                                                                                            Goals        Goals
                                   Points Played  Won   Drawn   Lost    For           Against
1 REAL SOCIEDAD  74     42         20      14         8         53             37

2 HERCULES             71     42         19      14        9         61             34

3 LEVANTE               71     42         19      14        9         63             45

The final table looked like this, and, after a nine year gap to their previous adventure in Spanish football's top division, Hercules were back. Or were they?   TO BE CONTINUED

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A couple left and Elche finish their season.

Having given up trying in the dismal home defeat against Murcia, and with that any pretence of quite liking top flight Spanish football. Elche had two further fixtures to endure before dropping the curtain on 2009/10, an away trip to Gimnastic de Taragona (Nastic) and finally hosting Real Sociedad at home in their final game.

Nastic scramble home their opener
Way down near the bottom of the classification, on paper Nastic looked beatable, but, such is the way with clubs scrapping for survival, three points are never a foregone conclusion, especially where Elche CF are concerned. Having blown the opportunity to contend for promotion, our heroes had nothing to play for except pride and the possibility of a few more euros for gaining a place in the final table. Nastic on the other hand were desperate to stay in the division and the way they played it showed. Elche, with something very close to a full strength side, slipped to a disappointing 3-1 defeat by conceding twice, halving the deficit and conceding again five minutes after scoring. Even with these three very welcome points, Nastic still weren't out of the shit and would have to wait another nailbiting week to secure their Segunda A safety.Centre Back Samuel notched the single Elche goal on 73 minutes.

Real Sociedad fans soak up the Elche sun
A week later on a balmy Saturday evening, Elche closed out their season with the visit of Champions elect Real Sociedad from the Basque country. Those that bothered to turn up witnessed a clinical dissection of quite a decent Jorge Molina, the Elche centre-forward who helped himself to all four goals as Elche ran comfortable 4-1 winners. In the process, the six foor three striker from just down the road in Alcoy ended up comfortably the top scorer in the League. A goal to the good at the break, Elche turned on the style in the second half and the sizeable away contingent left disappointed, it mattered not because other results elsewhere fell kindly for them and one of the best supported teams in the league were crowned worthy champions. Full time 4-1

Top scorer Molina
From a fairly dismal start to the 2009/10 season, culminating in the sacking of manager Claudia Barragan after a lifeless performance in the local derby, Elche turned things around and eventually finished in a noteworthy sixth place and ahead of outfits such as Rayo Vallecano and Villarreal B. To put things in perspective, immediately above them sat long term promotion hopefuls Real Betis and Cartagena. On a personal note I've watched the Elche B side for two or three years now, and two younger players stood out  some months ago as being a couple to watch. As the season neared completion both tall lanky midfielder Javi Paños and his one time Elche Ilicitano colleague, blonde centre back Raul, both got games in the first team and didn't remotely look out of place.  Paños especially appears to have a bright future

Final statistics - Elche CF

Played 42 Won 18 Drew 9 Lost 15  Goals for 67  Goals against 57
POINTS 63 - Sixth place


Sunday, July 25, 2010

And, Murcia against Valencia

Just about a year or so ago Cartagena FC were scrapping it out in a promotion battle for a place in Spain's Segunda A division, one level below the national elite. Having achieved that tough objective, all concerned with the football club could have been forgiven for resting on their laurels and accepted a mid-table finish and decent consolidation as the club strengthened their newly acquired status. Over the following year, a great many people were to be surprised.

Fast forward twelve months and Cartagena were still at it. With Real Sociedad assuring themselves of the first of three promotion places the day before, four clubs were still in with a decent shout of climbing into La Primera from a notoriously difficult division, Segunda A, these two included. Whether or not they continued their upward progress with a second successive promotion, fans of the club had clearly loved the ride and continued to turn up, rain or shine, to support their favourites. As you'd expect then, quite a few locals made it for the visit of Hercules, one of Cartagena's nearest and very much NOT dearest Segunda 'A' rivals, both geographically and in the classification. The visit of Hercules seemed to provoke outright hostility, perhaps something like, but not quite matching, the animosity shown towards the utterly despised Real Murcia from just down the road. I think that the winner take all nature of the fixture with three crucial promotion points up for grabs had a lot to do with it, because, in my experience Cartagena football fans are passionate and at the same time very knowledgeable and kind.

It mattered not for the home supporters, Hercules and their fans were in town and stood, like a bloody great obstacle, in the way of the Cartagena promotion effort. Eventually, I made it pitchside despite the best efforts of one of the stadium employees who tried, unsuccessfully, to point me in the direction of a commentary booth in the stand miles away from the action. I wasn't too disappointed when I got there, for such a small ground, barely fifteen thousand when completely full, just like the original Den at Millwall the Cartaganova stadium generates a pretty scary atmosphere.Once the mess from about a million paper serviettes had been blown off the pitch by a gusting late evening breeze, Cartagena and Hercules kicked off their must win league battle, and quite a good one it was too.

Just like the Geordies, football fans in Cartagena have an unbridled passion and a unique accent too, I've never been to St James Park in Newcastle, but, with every third seat in the ground occupied by a bloke or a bird in a black and white striped shirt, this six pointer of a game could well have been taking place in the North East. Inside five minutes, the suitably attired local hordes should have been screaming obscenities at the 1500 or so travelling Alicante fans, in the end they had no need to as Hercules' Romanian striker Danciulescu spurned a golden chance to settle any early nerves by shoving a decent chance past a Cartagena post. This was tense stuff and mistakes were plentiful from players from either side, you could perhaps excuse them given what was at stake, but the referee endeared himself to neither set of supporters in rapid succession.

Two decent penalty shouts just minutes apart, one for either side were denied, the second of the two for a clumsy looking shove on Hercules forward Tote, had the look of a the referee trying to atone for an earlier blunder by evening things up. Not long previously, livewire Toche for Cartagena was bundled to the ground inside the box and then prevented from gaining his feet by a non too subtle Hercules centre back. Of the two, Cartagena had every right to feel the more aggrieved. Half time 0-0

The tension continued with neither side able to make the crucial breakthrough in an equally absorbing second period, Cartagena, spurred on by their raucous support, probably had the better of things with neater approach play but no cutting edge upfront. Chelsea reject, Enrique de Lucas, who was brilliant all night, grazed the Hercules bar with a fantastic long range effort that saw Calatayud rooted to his line before Danciulescu could and should have done far better on at least two occasions.

Predictably, the game ended scoreless, a result that probably helped neither team, both of whom were aware of the degree of difficulty of the encounter and importance of three points. Afterwards, in a sweltering and far too small press room, both managers were discretion personified, respectfully praising their opponents whilst gently bemoaning the lack of a penalty apiece.  Full time 0-0

In the end there was one winner though, all season long Liga Adelante sponsor BBVA bank has been running a competition for their clients, which, in the great tradition of SoccerAM, involves footy fans hoofing a football into an empty net from the centre circle during the mid-game interval. Tonight, one lucky punter managed it and walked off with a cheque for forty grand under his arm, the jammy cunt. I was itching for a go.

Top - Tote (top totty, geddit)??
Middle - The excellent Farinos
Bottom - How you should you look having just trousered 40 grand

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Valencia versus Murcia

There is never an opportune moment to aggravate season ticket holders, who, through thick and thin turn up to watch throughout the year and frequently find themselves freezing cold, sunburnt, neglected or simply pissed off by a shite performance. Personally, I'd tolerate all of those, and have done at various times during the season because every single one of the above grievances goes with the territory. However, ask me to chip in twice for any combination of those dubious privelages and I'd probably say "Piss off, have I got mug tattoo'd on my forehead?"

Clearly, the probability of that verbose reply was discounted by officials of Elche CF, who still went ahead with a ridiculous plan to charge existing season ticket holders for entrance to the local derby, and potential money spinner, against Real Murcia. The upshot was, areas of the ground normally populated by the more vociferous element ( Peñas) of the home support were empty and the healthy travelling contingent made the most noise in a woefully poorly attended match that had so much riding on it for both Elche and Murcia. Considerably more was occurring outside the ground with protests galore occupying the local law enforcement as resentful season ticket holders (abonados) made their grievances known.

Amidst all the politics, a football match took place and what a good one it was for the visitors who looked sharper upfront and in midfield and really took the game to their hosts. A dismal 4900 bothered to turn up, a gate swelled by at least a thousand Murcianos who left delighted as their heroes avenged a home defeat back in January against today's opponents. In fairness, at times Murcia played like a team struggling for their lives in the 2a basement, for their part Elche, were considerably worse and made their red shirted guests look good. Twice Real Murcia went ahead and only once could Elche respond as they gifted their near neighbours three very welcome points.

Argentine goalkeeper Willy Caballero singled handedly defied Murcia for forty minutes, at which point he was left badly exposed by his back four, as they appealed in vain for offside, Aquino was allowed acres of space and just as much time to pick a spot to open the scoring. The heart rate of Willy boy again went through the roof two minutes later when the same Murcia forward burst through under no sort of challenge to fire a shot just wide. The bollocking that followed from the shaven headed goal-keeper left his defenders in no doubt as to his opinion on their concentration levels thus far. Half time 0-1

I'd hazard a guess that Willy Caballero did the interval team talk in the dressing room because, having failed to come up with a single chance worthy of the name throughout a one-sided first half, Elche, with ears  ringing, got themselves on the scoresheet for the only time in the match two and a bit minutes after the re-start.  Midfielder Perera charged forward and kept on going, riding tackle after tackle to bludgeon his way into the Murcia box to even things up. Perhaps now the difference in league positions would become evident, not a chance!

As Elche scratched their arses in, it must be said, pretty clueless fashion, Murcia regrouped and carried on as before, only that man Caballero kept the red shirts at bay as over and over again the four men supposedly playing in front of him went AWOL. For the final time in the game on seventy eight minutes, at least two of the Elche players erroneously designated defenders, politely said "after you" and Chando rounded the Goucho goalkeeper to make it 1-2. The Murcia coach, subs and technical team went fucking spastic, clearly believing they'd just witnessed a momentous moment in their fight for Segunda A survival. Full time 1-2

At about this time last season, the Elche President Jose Sepeulcre and his Rayo Vallecano opposite number, Maria Teresa Rivero, engaged in a war of words in the press following Elche's 1-2 away win which effectively ended the Rayo promotion challenge for 2008/09. Señora Rivero did not mince her words when openly suggesting that Elche CF had accepted a "prima" (cash incentive) from a Rayo promotion rival in return for defeating the Madrid outfit.

Today, the Elche performance had the same sort of look about it, nothing to play for so why not help out a struggling neighbour in return for some financial assistance!!!!