Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Hay Liga....But For How Long?

Until now I hadn't even bothered with the thought of doing a half-way summary on the Spanish Liga because, let's be frank, it all seemed a bit boring with Pep Guardiola's Barcelona seemingly running away with the title. Then, in the space of a week, Real Madrid manage to cut Barça's advantage by 5 points and the Spanish media shouts in unison "¡Hay Liga!". We'll see, there's no real sign yet that Barcelona are going to throw the rest of their advantage away, but it tells you everything you need to know about the advantage they built up that Real Madrid can win 9 consecutive games and still trail their rivals by 7 points. As for the other "contenders", it looks as if this year there might be a place available in the Champions League for teams that finish 20-30 points behind the real champions. As I'm about to go out and watch Real Madrid play Liverpool I think I'll focus on the Madrid club for this post.

The most remarkable thing about this season is that Real Madrid are able to put together such an impressive run given the way they started and the chaotic way in which the club is run. Having lost one coach and one president, nobody really imagined that Madrid would be a contender for anything this year. The departure of Bernd Schuster was already being predicted before the season began, he made little effort to hide his disenchantment with the club's choices on signing new players he didn't want and an unwillingness to accept the way the club operates just meant it was a matter of time before he was axed. His (temporary?) replacement is Juande Ramos, a much better coach than his unhappy spell in the Premier League suggests. Then there was the departure of the president Ramón Calderón, who was elected in murky circumstances and left following revelations about how the club's annual assembly was fixed in his favour.

We are left with a reasonable suspicion that the team works better when there is no president to mess around with it. Because Real Madrid does not have a team manager, in the Alex Ferguson sense of the word. Instead, most of the decisions concerning recruitment of new players are taken by the president and whoever he appoints to oversee the current coach. The latter often seems to exist merely to take the rap when things go badly, and even before Schuster's dismissal I noticed that Madrid had averaged more or less one coach a year since 1997. Calderón's sporting director, former player Pedja Mijatovic, was the main thorn in Schuster's side but is now said to be a dead man walking as he continues to occupy his post but exercises no power following the departure of his mentor. Even if Ramos was to pull of the miracle of winning the title this season, there is no guarantee that he won't be replaced by the next president. Both of his predecessors in the job, Schuster and Capello, were sacked shortly after winning the title and there will be fresh presidential elections in the summer.

The club is left as something of a prestigious wreck, having been the plaything of egotistical businessmen for too long. The fans should never complain about this situation, at Real Madrid they elect the president and their choices in recent years have shown a clear tendency in favour of people who have done very well out of Spain's construction boom. All of those mentioned so far as candidates seem to fit the familiar profile of figures who regard their economic success as proof of their fitness to run a football club; but it rarely works out that way. Amazingly, it seems that one of the candidates this time around will be former president Florentino Perez, despite his having walked away from the job when things weren't going to plan. Another potential candidate is Juan Villalonga, best known for having presided Telefonica a few years back; a job he got because of his extensive telecommunications experience and because he went to school with Jose Maria Aznar. Villalonga just seems to want to run a football club, and any one will do. Last year he was briefly given a role at Valencia, to do with economic exploitation of the club'ss assets, but then got quickly shifted out again as part of the infighting at that club - which is apparently struggling to pay its wage bill at the moment. Now there are even rumours that Aznar himself might form part of a candidacy, I assume that to be Villalonga's. A frightening thought but better than having him in charge of the country. All of this suggests that little will change, and that a club which has again succeeded in becoming heavily indebted despite its pelotazo a few years back will continue its erratic progress, with the silverware won unlikely to match the investment on expensive but mismatched players that underpins it.

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