Phil Ball: Messi, Madrid continue to soar but off-pitch issues plague La Liga

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Lionel Messi enjoyed a remarkable 7 days but La Liga was blighted by off-field problems.

Whilst the football, as ever, has been interesting this week on the pitch, it has been even more eventful off it. Starting with the more positive inter-mural stuff, records continue to tumble. It must be something in the alignment of the stars, but in the space of a week the La Liga all-time goalscoring record was surpassed by a certain Barcelona forward, only for the same chap to score a hat-trick in the midweek Champions League fixture in Nicosia and overtake Real Madrid’s ex-icon Raúl’s scoring record in that competition. Raúl managed 71, but Messi now has 74 and climbing. Interesting to note too, that the Madrid man managed 71 goals in 142 matches, whereas Messi now has 74 from 91 – a far more impressive ratio, with a tally that should continue to rise. It’s not that Raúl wasn’t galactic, but that Messi is ‘supernoval’, or something along those adjectival lines. His most favoured victim has been Milan, (8 goals) and since 2008 he has always scored 8 goals or more in each season’s competition. Is he the best player of all time? It’s often a fruitless and sterile debate that ensues, but he certainly isn’t far off. No World Cup to his name? There’s still time.

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Deportivo fan dies after violent clashes with Atletico Madrid ultras

Curiously enough, at the weekend neither Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo managed to score, a rare event indeed. Both of their teams won, though – the Catalans sneaking the points at Valencia (although they played well) in the 93rd minute, and Madrid winning 2-1 at Malaga, thus breaking the week’s other record. The win down south was Madrid’s 16th consecutive, having dispatched Basel in midweek, and it broke the record previously established by José Mourinho in 2011-12 and Miguel Muñoz in 1960-61. They have scored 59 and conceded 9 during this run. It seems bizarre that after the negative results early in the season against Atlético and Real Sociedad, the club was allegedly immersed in some sort of crisis. Now they’ve even forgotten the Iker Casillas-related drama, and all seems tickety-boo in the White House. Now, of course, they’re up for the real record, established by Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona team back in 2005-06, when the Ronaldinho-inspired squad won 18 games on the trot. Looking at their next two league games (Celta and Almería) and the Champions League fixture at home to Ludogorets, you have to say that their chances are more than decent.

Gareth Bale was on the scoresheet as Real Madrid won their 15th successive game.

David Moyes made his home managerial debut for Real Sociedad on Friday night at home to Elche, and the 3-0 win sent him home fairly happy, although the hosts didn’t play particularly well. Moyes complained that there were too many empty seats, but didn’t seem to realise that the Spanish (and the Basques) like their Friday nights in the bar (especially at 20.45), that the game was live on TV and that these fixtures are never wonderfully attended (there was a 17,000 turn-out). He’ll learn, as he will regarding over-fussy refereeing, about which he also complained. His advice to his players, stated at the press conference as “I want them to get stuck in” was interpreted to the full by the team, but Spanish referees don’t tend to like too much physical contact. It’s a problem, but Moyes will learn.

Onto extra-mural matters, and the tragic events in Madrid on Sunday morning when a 43 year-old Deportivo supporter died, seemingly after a mass altercation with Atlético Madrid’s ‘Frente Atlético’ ultras. He thus became the eighth mortal victim since the 1980s, in Spanish football-related violence. Mobile phones captured the scenes of the morning’s fighting, whilst the victim, Francisco Romero, was pulled out of the Manzanares river by police before dying of a heart-attack on the way to hospital.

The Deportivo ‘ultras’, as certain sections of Spanish football followers like to call themselves, are no angels themselves, and the ‘Riazor Blues’ from La Coruña do not have a great reputation, but the Frente Atlético have long been one of Spain’s most notorious groups. A previous affiliate, the far-right group ‘Bastión’, were behind the murder of Real Sociedad supporter Aitor Zabaleta in Madrid in 1998, and although Enrique Cerezo, Atlético’s president, disassociated himself on Sunday from the Frente Atlético by saying that they had ‘nothing to do with the club’, that hardly explains Atlético’s tolerance of these groups over the years, and the seemingly absolute liberty with which fans in the Calderón regularly chant outrageous stuff to visiting fans. Cerezo’s statement comes too late, and it will be interesting to see what the club does now, assuming that the police make any significant arrests. The Deportivo fans involved are hardly innocent either, but at the time of writing the facts are unclear.

Deportivo La Coruna fan Francisco Romero was tragically killed after clashing with Atletico Madrid ultras.

The other topic to stain La Liga’s image this week has been the simmering issue of the alleged match-fixing between Levante and Zaragoza on the final day of the 2010-11 season. Zaragoza won the game 2-1, and stayed up, with Levante already safe. Zaragoza’s two goals were scored by the current Atlético Madrid captain, Gabi, and the two teams’ entire squads (from then), managers, presidents and others implicated were officially summonsed on Saturday – a total of 30 people in all.  Levante have been under suspicion before, specifically for the 4-0 home defeat by Deportivo in May 2013. Eight other matches are apparently under investigation but it is the 2011 game that seems to be about to release a Pandora’s Box of issues.

The evidence looks pretty grim. Days before the game the Zaragoza players received 90,000 euros each, paid by their own club. The then president, Agapito Iglesias, under suspicion for other separate fiscal offences, claims that the payments were made to the players as a ‘favour’, so that they could then return it to him in cash – with the transactions neither explained nor the nature of the ‘favour’ defined. The suspected destiny of the money, to Levante, has not been established, but it doesn’t look good. Javier Aguirre, the Mexican manager currently in charge of the Japan national team, was the manager of Zaragoza at the time, and is another high-profile figure implicated. Possible jail sentences would range from six months to four years, but there may be further twists to come. There usually are in Spain.

Let’s end on a positive note. Rayo Vallecano, along with Eibar the least moneybags team in La Liga, pledged to help an infirm 85 year-old woman (Carmen Martinez) who had been evicted from her flat in the district of Vallecas because her son had used her flat as security against a 40,000 euro loan, after which he had lost his job and failed to keep up the payments. Rayo’s manager Paco Jemez, flamenco guitarist and already something of an urban legend in his own right, pledged before the cameras to help Carmen pay her rent by announcing spontaneously at a press conference that the club and the fans would make donations. More of that sort of stuff please, because apart from the Rayo affair, it hasn’t been a good week for Spanish football.

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