Wednesday, August 29, 2007

ETA Set The Agenda

In the end it was hardly surprising that it was ETA who managed to bring the summer political break to a close. Their bombing of a Guardia Civil barracks in the Basque town of Durango at the end of last week reminded us that it was only a matter of time before they would be able to carry out a successful attack. Fortunately the success of the attack was limited to its headline grabbing capacity, nobody received more than light injuries despite the use of an estimated 80-100 kilos of “homemade” explosive. In spite of the success of recent police operations against them, the limitations of a strategy based entirely around policing are demonstrated by a group that may be weakened but which still retains the capacity to act. It's hard to know whether the recent successes in stopping ETA attacks are down to fortune, inexperience on the part of the newest ETA recruits, or inside knowledge.

As predictable as the attack itself was the political reaction to it. The government called for unity in the face of the threat of more attacks, and secure in the knowledge that such a united front would never be joined by the main opposition party, the Partido Popular (PP). The PP came out with even more predictable statements that they could not even claim to have written in response to the bombing, this was a script that was written months if not years ago, and whose objective is to place responsibility for any actions by ETA at the door of the government. They continue to follow their leader Mariano Rajoy’s catch-all formula that if ETA don’t place bombs it is because the government has made concessions; and if they do place bombs it is because the government has not delivered on these concessions. They have also intensified their calls for those parties who refuse to condemn the bombing to be made illegal – a proposal that would definitely get interesting if we started to apply it to all politically provoked violence and not just that of ETA.

Meanwhile there is interesting movement in Basque politics; a rift seems to be growing inside the conservative nationalist party (PNV) that dominates politics in the region. The divide seems to be between pragmatists who believe in looking for progress based on agreement with the governing PSOE, and those who favour a more openly nationalist course which would include an attempt to hold a referendum on independence. At the same time there are clear signs of a new anti-nationalist party being formed from what remains of the supposedly anti-ETA organisation Basta Ya, which enjoyed its greatest success before 2004 when the PP and PSOE joined together in a remarkably unsuccessful attempt to unseat the PNV from the regional government. The new party, expected to be unveiled in early September will feature at least one well known refugee from the PSOE, Rosa Diez. Its anti-nationalist perspective will of course be aimed at regional nationalism only, criticism of flag waving Spaniards in Madrid will not be forthcoming. The model being followed is that of Ciutadans, the new party that so far has enjoyed a very brief moment of glory in Cataluña. The Basque version will have bigger names, with philosopher Fernando Savater also involved, but will end up hunting for votes in the same pond as the PP and the PSOE. Apart from an anti-nationalist stance already covered by the PP, it’s hard to see what they can offer.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

La Liga 2007-8....The Return Of The Big Spenders

It’s been a tough summer for sport, filled only with drugged up cyclists trying to climb mountain passes, and pijo tennis players grunting their way around Europe; but it doesn’t matter because the Spanish football season starts again today! The close season has seen huge amounts of money being spent by a handful of the major clubs. Meanwhile, I look back at the incorrect predictions I made for last season, and I don’t see much reason to change them greatly for this one – even though I will probably be wrong again.

The great divide between a handful of clubs competing for the top spots and the rest is more evident than ever as the spending by many smaller clubs is clearly designed to do no more than just keep them afloat in the top division. So once again it looks like a competition between Barcelona, Sevilla, Valencia, Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid. Who else could possibly be added to this list? Zaragoza had quite an impressive season last year, but I’m not sure if they have invested in improving the squad to make a bigger impact. The Getafes and Osasunas can prove tough teams to beat, but don’t usually keep the momentum going for a whole season. Meanwhile, Villareal finished very strongly last season after a dismal beginning, and they are a well run team but we will see whether the loss of Forlán as well as Riquelme dooms them to mid-table status. Perhaps Rossi will fill the gap left by Forlán.

Champions last season more because of the inconsistency of their rivals than because of any of their own virtues, the inevitable and overdue clear out has happened at Real Madrid. They have spent a fortune this summer on new players and despite the German trainer it seems they are looking more to Holland as a source of new talent than anywhere else. However, the big spending does not seem to be at all focused, and the prices they have paid for some players are astonishing. Schuster can’t complain that he is forced to work with a team he has inherited, but neither does he have the team he wants. What has been very interesting is the incapacity of Madrid to attract the really big names, despite an apparent willingness to spend whatever is necessary. The early signs are not good, and this being Real Madrid there are already rumours before the first game of the season that the club is searching for possible alternative trainers. Even by Madrid standards this seems a bit premature, but poor pre-season performances topped by the double defeat they received in the Supercopa at the hands of Sevilla is more than sufficient to provoke murmurs of discontent in this club.

Atlético Madrid may have lost Fernando Torres to Liverpool, but they have invested a surprisingly large amount of money in the team, considering the other interests of those who run the club. The combination of Forlán and Agüero both looked very good in a UEFA Cup game that I watched the other week, and if these two players maintain form then they could be much more effective than an attack based solely around the overrated Torres (an opinion obviously not shared by Rafa Benitez). There will also be the erratic contribution of Reyes and Luis Garcia. So when their new acquisitions are on song we can expect some decent football, the question – as always with Atlético – is whether they will be able to maintain any consistency. They start against Real Madrid today.

Valencia have become more of a Spanish team, in the sense of their squad rather than just their location. They now provide the backbone of the national squad, whether that is as much of a distinction as it sounds is open to debate. They were very fitful last season, but when they were on form with everyone fit they were as good as anyone else in the top group of teams. Sevilla were really the Spanish team of last season, taking the UEFA Cup for a second consecutive year as well as the Copa del Rey. If they hadn’t suffered from vertigo every time they went top of the league, they would have added that title to the list as well. Despite the almost inevitable loss of Alves, they have maintained most of their squad (and more importantly their coach) and show every sign of being one of the main contenders again this season. Behind the scenes, an efficient scouting system seems to be a major part of their recent success.

Which brings us to Barcelona, the team that disappointed so much last season as they seemed to lose their way after a triumphant couple of seasons. Much has been made of the addition of Henry, and it will be interesting to see if he combines well with Eto’o. He’s not a young striker any more, but then nor is Van Nistelrooy in Madrid. Perhaps just as important could be the addition of the Argentinian Gabi Milito in defence, he certainly looks a much better deal than Pepe, the Portuguese defender that Real Madrid brought in at a much higher price. If anyone is going to shine, this should be the year of Messi. Their offensive capabilities should be beyond doubt, it’s the rest that has to work as well if they are going to recover their dominant position.

Of the other teams, the only newcomer that appears to have money to spend is Murcia, whilst it remains to be seen whether “big” clubs such as Betis or Athletic Bilbao can turn things around enough to avoid being caught again in relegation battles. So let’s go for a prediction, neither Madrid nor Barça will win the league; the title this year will end up in Sevilla or Valencia. The advantage of not having many readers is that I won’t have loads of people reminding me how wrong I was come May 2008.

Meanwhile in the background there is the bizarre television war over rights to matches, which could see us having no televised live games this weekend, or having more than we expected to see! Behind it all I suspect the beginning of a deeper battle between rival media groups that will extend well beyond the issue of who shows Sevilla against Getafe. It’s a game of two halves, following a chaotic first half, soothing wads of money will be applied in the right places and normal service will be resumed. If not, there is always the Premier League – with 2 live games every weekend on Spanish TV.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Where's Oli?

This game of spot the difference is fast taking over my blog, but with the football season about to begin in Spain it would be a shame to let this one pass. Here we see some of Barcelona's star players in one of their pre-season training sessions. First of all we see Messi, Eto'o, Henry, Ronaldinho and Oleguer posing proudly for the cameras:

Then in our second shot, play close attention now, we see Messi, Eto'o, Henry, Ronaldinho and....and....but where's Oli?

I would like to suggest that the exclusion of Oleguer from the photo has been because of his tendency to express political opinions that do not please the Barmy Army (pseudonym of the Partido Popular in my sporting posts). However, the reality is probably more prosaic, the people preparing the piece were not prepared to concede him a place in the Fantastic Five. Stalin would have been proud of this work, although he wasn't a big Photoshop user.

via La Libreta de Van Gaal

Friday, August 17, 2007

Pulp Friction

With politics in Spain finally taking what will probably be a very short summer break, let’s turn our attention to consumer affairs. A couple of weeks ago I noticed a very aggressive example of attack advertising in the press. The company behind it was Don Simón, justly famous as sellers of cheap wine that is so bad it doesn’t even justify the price of a bottle; so it gets sold in cartons. That, however, is not their only business; Don Simón are heavily involved in one of the fastest growing markets in Spain, the sale of “fresh” orange juice. As sales of other longer life juices have declined, the market for the more genuine article has boomed in recent years and competition is becoming fierce. I have to say that the quality of the juice sold by Don Simón is significantly higher than that of their wine, and I do buy it occasionally although it is not my preferred brand.

Which brings us back to the advertisement placed by Don Simón. Basically, it was an attack on their rivals Pascual, alleging that they were selling an orange juice as if it was fresh when in reality it is not. The basis of the complaint by Don Simón is that the product sold by their rivals is always stored in the cold cabinets in supermarkets even though there is actually no need for this, as it is a product that does not require constant refrigeration. Now this is not a new trick. Anyone who is familiar with a product called Sunny Delight will have come across the pioneers of the idea that getting your product into chiller cabinets convinces consumers that what they are buying is somehow “natural”. Sunny Delight was a particularly artificial, high sugar and almost orange juice free, product that had the sort of bright orange colour that you never get from the fruit itself. The scam got uncovered in the UK, as it became clear that Sunny Delight had such a low content of natural ingredients that placing it in cold cabinets was just pure marketing. It was even alleged that high consumption of the product could turn the skin of the person consuming it a colour not too different from that of the drink itself; because it was full of artificial colouring. As if that wasn't enough, its effect on fish was frankly frightening.

In Spain, Sunny Delight became bizarrely popular – when you consider the quantity of the natural fruit that the country produces – and is still to be found on sale here. The absence of the kind of consumer awareness about products that you get so much of in the UK now, makes it easier for this kind of marketing to succeed. This lack of awareness is something I put down to the fact that the Spanish have not had such a long period of highly processed industrialisation of their food. They are used to products where the origin and content of what you are consuming seems to be clearer. That is now changing as the big supermarkets and food processing companies become more powerful, although the country has still not reached the point where “dinner” is bought in a supermarket box whose contents can be placed directly in the microwave. The growth in the market for fresh orange juice that you buy off the shelf is in itself a reflection of this change in shopping and eating customs. Because the brand of orange juice that I prefer to Don Simón or any of their rivals is this one, and it’s widely available.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Has Barcelona Lost Its Shine?

There is an evident sensation of crisis surrounding Cataluña this summer, and particularly Barcelona. The city that seemed to have entered a bright new era with the holding of the Olympics in 1992 now seems threatened by imminent collapse if we believe all that we read in the press. The electricity supply to whole areas of the city is kept going by a series of temporary generators following the collapse of a badly placed cable in a substation. The commuter trains are not working well, with passengers being left stranded by repeated train failures. The airport seems to be close to collapse, and there are tremendous traffic jams stretching along the Mediterranean. Couple this with a view that Madrid has overtaken it as the centre of economic power and it might seem that the city is passing through hard times

Well, not quite. It does appear that the electricity supply for the region is held together by sticky tape, paper clips and strategically placed chunks of chewing gum; but that’s not a new situation and nor is it unique to Barcelona. In my first job in Madrid I worked in an office where we had some servers with uninterruptible power supplies, notionally because they were going to be used in Asia. In reality, this feature became much more useful in Spain in a summer when virtually every major thunderstorm seemed to bring a power cut as an inevitable by-product. The companies responsible, Endesa and Red Electrica de España engage in mutual finger pointing whilst admitting that there are serious problems with the network.

The AVE arrives in Barcelona....

The airport is clearly operating at full capacity, but that is because air travel has increased enormously, we are in peak season and the construction of new terminals can hardly keep pace. When a new runway was opened to increase capacity at Madrid airport a few years back they said that it was operating at full capacity from the first minute it came into operation. A new terminal is due to open in Barcelona in 2009, but surely we are reaching the stage where continual airport expansion has to be seen as undesirable. The same applies to the roads, building new roads just encourages more and more people to take their cars everywhere they go. Madrid is surrounded by relatively new stretches of road, but I don’t hear many people talking about how quickly they get to work in the mornings, nor does the road going to Valencia and the Mediterranean become any easier to negotiate in summer.

Which brings us to the trains. The regional commuter system in Cataluña does have problems and seems to lack investment, and is an area where action should be taken because it relieves pressure on the road system. At the same time, some of the delays and problems are being caused by the arrival in Barcelona of the long awaited high speed train connection (the AVE), which will make Barcelona-Madrid by train seem like a good idea.

The nationalist parties in the region have predictably attempted to suggest that all of these problems occur because Cataluña is discriminated against when it comes to investment. Creating a sensation of victimisation is a key part of their political practice, indeed without it there would be little basis for much of what they preach. Yet, apart from the issue of the commuter trains, there is no real sign that this is the case. The electricity companies are private organisations who hate having to invest if they can avoid it, preferring to spend their money on promoting takeover bids and making sure that their senior executives want for nothing. They need to be forced to maintain the network instead of just dreaming about their share price. Real or not, the sensation of crisis will worry the government as Cataluña remains a key source of votes for them. So ministers are being despatched to Barcelona, and holidays are interrupted as damage control operations commence. Summer can be a dangerous time for a government with a general election just around the corner.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Hey Dude, Give Me Back My Logo!

Another chance to play spot the difference on South of Watford. No sooner has the Spanish government proudly unveiled its new logo than someone has to go comparing it to those used by other countries - like that of Germany for example! Judge for yourselves whether it was worth the €12,000 it cost to cop...sorry, I meant to say design - I wonder what the hourly rate was:


Monday, August 13, 2007

Flamenco Nights

I'm not a big fan of flamenco music and I buy relatively little of it, but the full force of the music truly comes across when you see some of the finest perfomers live in concert. This weekend I saw both José Mercé and Carmen Linares performing on consecutive nights in the Jardines de Sabatini in Madrid. The music aside, Sabatini is one of the best places in Madrid for concerts during the summer. If there is any air moving in the city on a hot August night then at least some of its effects will be felt in this place, as it overlooks the descent down to what used to be the River Manzanares. Even the royal palace (almost) looks beautiful as a backdrop to the stage where the concerts are held.

After the concert by Carmen Linares on Saturday night, I crossed over the Viaducto, formerly Madrid's favourite spot for committing suicide, to watch Antonio Carmona perform en Las Vistillas as part of the fiestas currently taking place in the centre of Madrid. Carmona is well known as one of the leaders of Ketama, a group that have produced some of the most interesting fusions of "new" flamenco with other music. I'm not sure if the group is formally dead, or if they are just resting, but on the evidence of Saturday night I think Carmona would be better off getting them back into action. His newer material is nowhere near as good, too smooth and bland for my liking, and after seeing a superb performance by Linares the contrast was even greater.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

It's A Vole, Not A Mole

There is a plague of topillos covering much of central Spain this summer. It doesn't seem very Biblical, they sound far less threatening than locusts for example, but the little beasts are steadily munching their way through a high proportion of crops in Castilla and Leon; and the menace is still spreading. So what is the difference between a topo (mole) and a topillo? That was the question I put to a couple of Spanish people I know last weekend. The answers I got were not very convincing, suggesting that it's been a while since the last plague. Having seen a picture of one in the paper, I didn't really buy the suggestion that the topillo was just a smaller version of the topo, it looked too mouse like. Fortunately there is always Wikipedia, and given that there are thankfully still no conspiracy theories concerning the common vole, the online encyclopaedia contains a decent account of Microtus Arvalis. Nothing to do with blind Mr. Mole at all.

All the farmers in the affected areas are currently clamouring for the use of poison to deal with the plague, presumably any subsequent ecological consequences are entirely accidental. They are also starting to use “controlled” burning of fields to try and hold back the advance of the vole army; which doesn’t strike me as being very wise considering how dry much of Spain tends to be at this time of year. Anyway, now its time to play spot the connection, and the key word for today is poison. Because voles are not the only victims of poisoning in this part of the country. If you take a look at the Wikipedia article I have linked to, you will see that el topillo has quite a distinguished list of predators. The problem is that those who seek to keep natural predators out of the hunting grounds of Castilla and Leon make frequent use of poison to kill them all off. One bad decision breeds another, and maybe the idea that the plague results from an unusually warm winter is just a poisonous rumour?

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Navarra's Loyal Opposition

The worst fears of those hoping for a change in the regional government in Navarra have now been realised. After hovering in the shadows during the futile coalition negotiations of the last two months, the national leadership of the PSOE stepped out into the open last week to make clear they would not support a government between their Navarran section (the PSN) and the Basque nationalists of Nafarroa Bai (NaBai). The PSN’s candidate for the regional presidency, Fernando Puras, has already resigned; after all there is little point in being a candidate if you will not be allowed to form a government when you have the chance. More resignations are possible and there is even talk of splits in the party and a rebellion when it comes to the vote on electing the new president. Because the new president of the region is going to be the same as the old one; Miguel Sanz of the UPN (the Partido Popular in Navarra) looks likely to be elected this weekend by the regional parliament because the PSN is going to abstain and allow the formation of a minority administration.

The PSOE nationally have left little doubt that the reason for the decision was their fear of the PP exploiting the coalition with nationalists to try and win votes elsewhere in the country. Their campaign on the issue would undoubtedly be ugly and hysterical, and the PSOE have decided they don’t want to have that hanging over them 6 months before the general election campaign formally begins. Even if you think the reasons for not reaching an agreement with NaBai are sound, the way in which the issue has been handled is appalling. To engage in weeks of negotiations with a party that you have no intention of forming a government with might work if you have alternatives, but here the only alternative available is to put the PP back into power. PSOE national organiser Jose Blanco was quoted as saying that the agreement with NaBai had gone further than he would have liked. This begs the question of where the hell he has been for the last 2 months. I suspect the PSOE believed that NaBai would not agree to their tough demands on the government program and composition. However, NaBai called their bluff by agreeing to park any nationalist demands, and accepting a tiny presence in the proposed new government. At that point the PSOE pulled the plug very abruptly.

If you take Blanco's position at face value then what he is saying is that the PSOE will never govern in Navarra unless they win an absolute majority of the votes; or perhaps if they can form a majority with Izquierda Unida. Now, we have to assume that this is not really the case, and that they will be willing to form a coalition with NaBai at some point in the future when the national leadership decides it no longer damages them to do so. Otherwise, the PSOE needs a political earthquake in the region to stand any chance of governing; they are currently only the third largest party in votes. In the meantime Prime Minister Zapatero has promised “firm” opposition to the regional government they are helping to power. Presumably, this firm opposition will not include voting against the new administration on any major issue, as that would undo the whole operation by leading to a vote of censure. The PSOE members and supporters in the region are understandably demoralised; “vote for us and we’ll make sure our opponents govern” is not the sort of slogan that gets anyone leaping out of bed and running to the nearest polling station.

The national PSOE leadership veers wildly between some quite astute politics, and some completely incompetent politics. Navarra falls into the latter category, as did Madrid for the municipal elections. They have shown a smart recovery from that one, the whole Madrid party leadership has been smoothly replaced with a fresh new team; the road back to recovery in Navarra looks a bit tougher.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

A Caballo Vamos Pal Monte

Eliades Ochoa, one of the surviving members of the Buena Vista Social Club, seems to have turned his August residency at Clamores jazz club into an annual event. So in his honour, here's the canción del verano - at least for those of us working all of August in Madrid. Let's see if I can write in Cuban:

Yo trabaho sin reposo....

Monday, August 06, 2007

Fireman Zapatero

Fireman Zapatero isn't having an easy summer. Next year he's up for re-election as Chief Spanish Fire Officer, and he doesn't want anything to spoil his chances while everyone is relaxing by the beach. Fireman Zapatero goes to the Canary Islands. They have been having big fires, and huge areas of Tenerife and Gran Canaria have been burnt. However, by the time Fireman Zapatero gets there the locals have managed to extinguish the fires that other locals had started. "So the fire is out" says Fireman Zapatero, "Good. Here's a big bag of money to make sure its stays out; must rush, things to do and places to go".

Fireman Zapatero goes to Barcelona, the city is not on fire apart from the odd electricity substation or two; but the lights are blinking on and off, the trains are not working, the traffic jams are piling up and maybe some people will start looking for a new Chief Fire Officer if things don't improve. "I see you're having problems", says Fireman Zapatero, "Here's a big bag of mone.....oh sorry, I seem to have given all my money to those nice people in the Canary Islands! Never mind, I'll write you a note promising big bags of money from next year; things can only get better!".

Fireman Zapatero is on holiday now, but he is still watchful. He lies in his hammock and seems to be asleep, but he keeps one half-opened eye on the neighbour's barbecue in case it gets out of control.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

MMore PPoverty!

I know I have stretched the compassion of this blog's readers almost to breaking point with these sad tales of hard times for prominent members of the Partido Popular, but new cases continually come up. I've just noticed this evening that retiring IMF president Rodrigo Rato is expected to get by on the meagre pension of USD 80,000 a year for the rest of his life. This is ridiculous, this man has dedicated 3 long, hard, years of his life to ensuring that nobody in the developing world gets free health care or education, and yet he is expected to scrape by on this pittance! I hate to think another appeal for help could be on the cards, but I don't see an alternative. Have a heart, think about Roddy.

Spanish Football For Beginners....The Recovery Of The Pelotazo

When I wrote about the complexities of the pelotazo a few months ago, I mentioned Atlético Madrid as being one of the clubs most interested in using this new tactical manoeuvre that is revolutionising the modern game here in Spain. Well the last few days have confirmed this as plans have been announced for the club to leave its current stadium, and for massive redevelopment to take place on the site it currently occupies.

The idea is that Atleti will get as a new stadium La Peineta, situated on the other side of the city from their current home, the Vicente Calderón. The catch is that the new stadium must be substantially refurbished and that this will be paid for out of the profits of the pelotazo, and it will not become their property before 2016. Now what is the significance behind the choice of that year? Well, having failed to get the 2012 Olympics, the city administration now hopes to be a candidate for the 2016 games. Given that the city budget is more or less used up for the next few years thanks to the burial of the M-30 ring road, the idea that Atleti pay to refurbish La Peineta as their new 70000 seat stadium means that Madrid does not need to bear the cost of an Olympic stadium should the city be unfortunate enough to be offered the games.

The pelotazo gets ever more complicated, and that is before we mention the brewers. It's not just the Vicente Calderón that is involved in this huge redevelopment; a sizable part of the land involved belongs to the Mahou beer company and was the site of their old factory. When they moved to a new installation outside of the city they annoyed the regional government of Madrid by placing the new factory just over the border in the autonomous region of Castilla La Mancha. So for years they have been unable to do anything to redevelop the old site, worth a fortune given its proximity to the centre of the city. As part of the deal, they will have to make a contribution, along with Atleti, to the burying of the stretch of the M-30 that currently runs under one side of the Vicente Calderón. In return Mahou are guaranteed a fortune from development of their property.

I read the other day that the club has a debt of 400 million euros, which if true is an incredible figure for a club with the support they have and with the amount of money that is floating around in the game these days. The officially admitted debt is around 130 million which is still not bad going. It is of course be a tribute to the magnificent way in which the club has been run by the Gil family, whose other most notable success was the conversion of Marbella into the most corrupt municipality in the country. Perhaps not surprisingly, Marbella is also heavily in debt. The simple fact is that the club is run as a private affair, and that is what separates this deal from the one which Real Madrid achieved. Of the 250 million euros which the club could potentially receive from the deal, about 90% will soon disappear as part of the continual revolving door at the club where money enters and promptly exits through the other side. Between the cost of the new stadium, the development carried out at the old site, and the contribution to burying the M-30, the club itself will see virtually nothing out of it all. Not that this will worry the current owners in any way, the club belongs to a property company and evidence is already emerging of links between their directors and the companies who will receive all of this money.

So it goes without saying that we are not about to see a new era of galacticos at the club, despite the fact that they have been spending quite heavily this summer. Real Madrid were able to use the pelotazo to wipe out their debt completely, it looks like Atlético could redevelop half of the city and still not achieve a similar objective. Their long suffering supporters can make the long trek to San Blas from 2010 onwards, and reflect on a deal which gives them a hugely expensive new stadium that they neither asked for nor needed. The whole deal seems to sum up the way in which both club and city work these days, with a project that only benefits a tiny group of already wealthy people. No wonder it plays such an important part in today’s game; ¡viva el pelotazo!