It was a routine Saturday morning in Spain. Rainy in the north and quite cold, as I nipped out for the papers – people buying bread, joggers jogging and shoppers scurrying. There, in the newsagents, the headlines on the laid-out sports tabloids (apart from the Catalan editions) were all focusing on the same thing, namely the 46 million euro ‘fine’ that the Brazilian tax authorities had imposed on Barcelona’s Neymar, for a dizzying variety of fiscal irregularities.
Neymar had just coughed up 14 million for the tax office (because he can) and was facing further demands for payments, avoided over the last three years by those who look after his financial affairs. Neymar, like others before him (Javier Mascherano, Lionel Messi) will claim that he has no knowledge of fiscal loopholes, that he is a footballer and unable to control such matters – and he may be right.
But the point to this introduction is that I wandered over for a coffee in my local barrio (neighbourhood) – still a great pleasure on Saturday mornings in Spanish towns and cities, where the butcher, baker and candlestick-maker still exist – and opened my copy of the local paper to find out that Recreativo de Huelva, the first side to form an official football club in Spain (in 1889) were on the verge of folding. Their home game on Saturday against Granada B in Andalucía was being touted as the possible last breath of the ‘decano’ of La Liga, literally the ‘dean’, or ‘senior member’.
Supporters were urged to attend the game and a brief explanation was offered by the journalist for the dire state of affairs of the club, now playing in Spain’s Segunda ‘B’ division, and lying fifth from bottom. This was the same side who were in the top flight as recently as 2009, and although they have only been in the First Division for a total of five seasons since their foundation, the news came as a shock.
Worse still, as I sipped my café con leche and turned to my copy of Marca, Spain’s top-selling newspaper, I could find no mention of Recreativo’s plight. Three pages on the Neymar affair, yes, but nothing on the potential disappearance of the team that started it all, way back in the 19th century. It seemed depressingly symbolic of how far football has become unhooked from its roots, and the way that we nevertheless care far more about how much Neymar owes the Brazilian tax authorities than of the death of a football club and the community it has served for 125 years.
Of course, Recreativo’s own troubles also stem from financial mismanagement and alleged corruption, which only goes to show that the game is not only troubled in its higher echelons. Nevertheless, it was difficult to avoid the thought, sitting there in the café, that just a fraction of the 14 million payment that Neymar made last week in indecent haste would help Recreativo’s cause, and others like them. Hey Neymar, lend us a dime!
Neymar is most probably innocent. He signs the documents, but the coterie of personnel who now represent the employees of any single multi-million earning footballer is so extensive as to convert these players into small proto-industries. Money can be made at a variety of levels from a single player, as it can also be made from a modest club such as Huelva. But whereas no-one will weep for Neymar as his legal friends extract him from the mire so that he can concentrate on his next match and put his headphones back on, they may well weep for the death of Recreativo.
Their supporters were urged to attend en masse at the weekend, and the entrance fee to the Nuevo Colombino stadium was fixed at one euro. Nineteen thousand turned up, not to witness a wake but to protest about the circumstances and call for the president’s head. The team won 1-0, courtesy of an 89th-minute goal by Rubén Masa, which was just as well because it lifted ‘Recre’ (as they are known) to a few places clear of the relegation zone. If they were to fall into the dreaded Third Division, the financial implications would also close a club that has not paid its employees for the past three months.
Recreativo are not the architects of La Liga’s greatness. They have won no major trophies and made few waves in the top flight. They didn’t discover football, since at their inception (encouraged by British workers in the Rio Del Tinto mines) the game was already up and running in Britain. If they hadn’t been first, somebody else would have been, as the March Hare said in Alice in Wonderland. But the significance of their folding would in a sense be greater than the result of the upcoming Champions League clash between Atlético and Barcelona. The whales continue to swim, but the plankton on which they feed must not be allowed to disappear. Indeed, in its Sunday edition, Marca finally dedicated a small section of page 30 to the Recreativo game, but gave it no more than two small columns. If I’d been the editor, I’d have put it front page.
Elsewhere, in the better-stocked oceans of La Liga, Atlético de Madrid were losing 2-1 to Sporting de Gijón, in a match that should probably have been played on Sunday, given Atlético’s heroic feats midweek in their Champions League game against PSV. It was the first time in 30 league games that an opposing team had scored more than one goal past Jan Oblak, Atlético’s excellent goalkeeper. Carlos Castro’s 89th-minute winner was also greeted with some pleasure over in Barcelona, for it took some of the pressure off the champions, facing a tricky trip to Villarreal where neither Atlético nor Real Madrid had prospered this season. Sporting were very happy too, of course, because the result lifted them to within a point of the safety zone. It was certainly an odd result, since it pitched the side with the worst home record against the side with the best away statistics. But football’s a funny old game.
Barcelona went further ahead courtesy of a rare draw after Villarreal stormed back from 2-0 down in El Madrigal. It was a fantastic game, worthy of its billing, and just goes to show why six Spanish teams are still around in European competition – three in the Champions League and three in the Europa.
The news that Barcelona and Atlético had been drawn together in the quarter-finals was seen as a double-edged sword. It guarantees the presence of at least one side in the semis (although Real Madrid shouldn’t have too much trouble dispatching Wolfsburg) but disables a semi-final Spain fest. Similarly, Athletic and Sevilla have been drawn together in the Europa League, but Villarreal stand a good chance of progressing, drawn against Sparta Prague.
The league now takes a break due to international games, which has itself been newsworthy. Vicente Del Bosque appears to have finally succumbed to public pressure and included 35-year-old forward Aritz Aduriz in the squad for the two preparatory games against Italy and Romania. Since Diego Costa, Fernando Torres, Pedro and Paco Alcacer had scored fewer goals between them than Aduriz had managed single-handedly, Del Bosque finally saw sense. It’s not a long-term bet, of course, but meanwhile it might help to secure the long term for others. Besides, the Athletic Bilbao forward simply deserves it.
Real Madrid defeated Sevilla 4-0 at home, with the BBC back and all of them scoring. Sevilla thus continued their appalling away form and Madrid warmed up for the really crucial clash when the league resumes, namely the clásico at the Camp Nou. Nobody expects Barcelona to blow the league title now, but Real Madrid wouldn’t half pick up on morale if they could pull off an unlikely result. It would also serve them well in their European quest, still very much alive after the draw handed them the more benevolent of the ties. And finally, one hopes that Recreativo de Huelva will still be playing, a fortnight from now.
The stand out player of the group is undoubtedly Spain’s all-time leading scorer David Villa who was a revelation at Valencia, netting 107 goals in 166 appearances.
His achievements outside of Los Che are even more impressive, winning two European championships and the World Cup with Spain.
He was joined by an array of stellar names at the Mestalla Stadium, including David Silva who has gone to play 250 times for Manchester City, winning the Premier League twice and earning the nicknaming Merlin for his magical ability on the ball.
With some of these star players springing to mind, Sport360 takes a look at the ten best Valencia exports.
Can you think of anyone that has been overlooked on the list? Tweet us using #360Fans.
Barcelona extended their lead at the top of La Liga to nine points despite blowing a two-goal advantage to draw 2-2 at Villarreal on Sunday.
The sides held a minute’s silence before kick-off in memory of 13 people killed in a bus crash carrying foreign exchange students in Spain earlier on Sunday.
However, the sombre mood didn’t affect Villarreal’s start as they hit the woodwork inside the first minute when a Manu Trigueros effort was turned towards his own goal by Arda Turan.
Claudio Bravo then blocked Bakambu’s effort from a narrow angle as Barca struggled to contain Villarreal’s pace on the break.
Yet the visitors still struck first with some fortune as Lionel Messi’s free-kick ricocheted off Luis Suarez and fell perfectly into the path of Rakitic to rifle home.
The hosts were then furious when Gerard Pique was pardoned a second yellow card for clearly stopping a Villarreal attack by handling the ball on the ground after just 23 minutes.
2 - Villarreal are the 1st side to come back from a 0-2 at halftime against Barcelona in La Liga since Real Sociedad on 2011 (2-2). Effort.— OptaJose (@OptaJose) March 20, 2016
Villarreal boss Marcelino was expelled from the touchline for taking his protests too far.
And worse was to come for the hosts when referee Jose Maria Sanchez Martinez pointed to the spot despite Sergio Asenjo clearly playing the ball as Neymar tried to round the goalkeeper.
Neymar put Barca’s recent troubles from the spot behind him to dink home the penalty for his 27th goal of the season.
Pique was replaced by Mathieu early in the second period as Luis Enrique looked to ensure his best defender was not suspended for the game against Madrid just after the international break.
But that proved to be the turning point as Mathieu was constantly caught out.
Bakambu halved the deficit with a simple finish after Bravo had parried Denis Suarez’s initial effort.
Mathieu then gifted Bakambu the ball straight from kick-off, but the Congolese forward tried to tee up Roberto Soldado instead of going for goal himself and Javier Mascherano intercepted.
Soldado then missed a huge chance to level as he haded wide when unmarked from point-blank range.
Asenjo also made a crucial contribution to Villarreal’s comeback with a stunning save to stop Neymar making it 3-1.
Moments later, Villarreal were level when the hapless Mathieu turned a corner into his own net.
Barca regained their composure in the final quarter to ensure their unbeaten run in all competitions stretches to 39.