It is with a slightly goofy glow of pleasure that I write this. Today, I took delivery of Issue Four of The Blizzard – at present the most highly-regarded publication in the UK for ‘proper’ football writing – and there, on page 28, is a piece penned by yours truly, nestled in a Spain-themed segment alongside the work of such distinguished football scribes as Graham Hunter, a regular on Sky Sports’ Revista de la Liga and author of Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, and David Winner, the man behind definitely the finest football book I’ve read up to yet in Brilliant Orange: the Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football. My piece is followed by an interview with Sir Alex Ferguson conducted by Philippe Auclair, who has written acclaimed books on Cantona and Blair(ism) and must have a degree of clout to get the russet-bugled one in a one-on-one. Meanwhile, previous issues have featured, among others: Gabriele Marcotti, often seen on ITV’s Champions League highlights show with Gordon Strachan and/or Andy Townsend, and author of Fabio Capello’s biography; Sid Lowe, The Guardian’s Spanish football correspondent and regular talking head on Revista de La Liga; as well as several colleagues of Lowe’s on the forementioned newspaper: Raphael Honigstein, Rob Smyth, Scott Murray, Jacob Steinberg, the brilliant Barney Ronay, and the esteemed editor himself, Jonathan Wilson, author of the acclaimed history of football formations and tactics, Inverting the Pyramid.
The honour of this Blizzard appearance – which came about after reviewing Wilson’s latest book, a biography of Brian Clough, for the Nottingham-based LeftLion – was the dimly hoped-for outcome of a vague and improvised idea I had to help me have my voice heard above thousands of ‘competitors’ in the blogosphere – some with genuine expertise; fewer (although still a good few) with writing talent – and to get my stuff to the type of readers (and commissioning editors, more importantly) who might appreciate it. Getting busy getting busy! It remains to be seen whether this will pay off, but this is certainly a fair dollop of kudos.
Originally, I had approached the excellent In Bed With Maradona website, telling them I had a piece that might interest them, one that germinated from a YouTube surf and worked back from there to create a genealogy of the event captured in the clip at the foot of this piece. Yet the further I got into researching it, the more I felt it had more than enough meat on the bones to merit a broader platform (also, good as it looks, IBWM do not pay their contributors, and the Internet is not the best place for 6,000-word articles). Around this time I was alerted by an acquaintance, Gary Naylor, on Twitter that Wilson had read, and liked, my review of Nobody Ever Says Thank You, so I thought I might as well pitch him the article I was writing (and – why not? – a few other ideas while I was at it).
Even though it might have lent itself to being theory-heavy, to using some of the philosophy with which I’d grown conversant over the last decade of postgraduate study (since you ask, Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy of desire and radical materialism found in Capitalism and Schizophrenia, particularly Volume 1, Anti-Oedipus), the final article deliberately steered clear of such an approach; if not quite in at the shallow end, it certainly didn’t require a glossary of terms. Understandably given such a background, a fairly theoretical standpoint – albeit one that seeks to open up these strange ideas to everyday matters – will be a leitmotif of my work as I aim to find a niche in the vast virtual landscape of words on football that gets churned out on a daily basis (The FCF have shown great faith and indulged some of my, um, less commercial efforts)... So, my doctoral thesis was an arduous, if ultimately rewarding, engagement with Peronism (via Deleuze and Guattari), the Argentine political movement named after the husband of Evita, and if that effort is not to prove a colossal waste of time beyond the war medals jangling bashfully on my chest, then I have to apply some of its concepts and remarkable insights to everyday life, football included. Thankfully,
is keen on this approach and has accepted my pitch for another piece for Issue Six, out in September. Wilson
Anyway, the article I have in the current issue – which can bought in .pdf form for 1p or in hard copy for £6 min. (RRP is £12) – is the story of the curious short-term rivalry that took hold between Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona at the start of the 1980s, a fairly fraught time in Spanish history as the nation made the transition to democracy after 40 years of Francoist dictatorship. Basque terrorism was at its height, and this no doubt contributed to the Spanish military plotting for a restoration of dictatorship, Colonel Antonio Tejero famously storming the Spanish parliament in 23 February 1982 and holding the nation’s políticos hostage for 24 hours – a tragicomic, almost Fawltyesque episode, which was captured on State TV.
Against this agitated backdrop, a rugged and highly motivated Athletic Bilbao side assembled by the crabby Javier Clemente – who would go on to coach the Spanish national team from 1992-98, of course – won back-to-back La Liga titles, this following the twin titles of their neighbours Real Sociedad. These four straight championship victories constituted the high watermark of Basque football, and happened at a time when both clubs still operated a Basque-only playing policy – something which remains the case with Athletic, although the criteria as to what constitutes ‘Basqueness’ is slightly malleable (aren’t all nations?) but at any rate territorially incorporates not only the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country, but all of the Basque-speaking provinces in both Spain (thus Navarre as well, with current star striker Fernando Llorente having been born in Pamplona) and south-western France, these together forming Euskal Herria – the Basque homeland.
Thus it was that two of Spain’s oldest professional clubs – clubs that ought to have shared an affinity, having both been the target of Franco’s repression of regional cultures and languages (Basque, Catalan and even his own galego) in an effort to impose totalitarian, centralized government across the land – became locked in an unseemly short-term squabble, akin to that which engulfed Chelsea and Leeds United in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a rivalry that also hit a nadir at a domestic cup final, coincidentally. With several factors adding to the simmering bad blood (what Spaniards call morbo), the Copa del Rey final of 1984 was a fractious affair won 1-0 by Athletic to secure a double, their last domestic silverware. At full-time, pandemonium engulfed the field as Maradona kicked off with his erstwhile tormentors – his last act in the famous blaugrana colours before being sold to
Coincidentally, this May, some 28 years later (no, not another movie in the Danny Boyle franchise),
and Athletic, the competition’s two most successful clubs, are due to meet
again in the final. Real Barcelona
have this time declined to offer their stadium – roughly equidistant from the two cities and the
largest neutral venue for the game – as host venue. Atlético Madrid’s
Vicente Calderón has instead been chosen by the Spanish Football Federation. Madrid
Anyway, if you are interested in the back story to this brawl, why not pick up a copy of The Blizzard and peruse ‘The Other Rival, Another Way’ – much better than the mouthful of a reluctantly conferred title I had given it: ‘Briefly en contra: Barça, Bilbao and the Battle of the Bernabéu’, incorporating the Spanish language and the theme of short-term rivalry via a pun on a famous film). I’m glad the editor saw fit to change it.