Wednesday, 18 April 2012


“I’m not one of…‘of the bottle’.
I’m a s– I think I’m a special one.”

And so the Champions League semi-finals are once more upon us, European football’s greatest stage, where reputations—and indeed myths— are there to be forged. On one side of the draw, facing the Bavarian behemoth of Bayern and on terra very much cognita, is José Mourinho; on the other, taking on Guardiola’s blaugrana thoroughbreds, is Roberto di Matteo, occupying the same semi-final bench where another cocksure Portuguese manager, the deposed André Villas-Boas, may feel he ought to be rightfully perched. Having left the “beautiful blue chair” at the Dragão Stadium clutching a fistful of medals just as had his compatriot, this is certainly the arena in which AVB wishes to operate and be judged. However, had the protégé studied his mentor’s arrival in West London (particularly its myth-building aspects) with greater attention to detail—an arrival when explicit, inevitable, superficial and probably unhelpful comparison was made between the two—then he may well have been pitting his wits against Dr. Pep this week. 

Certainly, one cannot imagine Mourinho making such elementary political mistakes as did Villas-Boas—publically admitting he feared following Scolari and Ancelotti’s path to the guillotine; explicitly comparing a misfiring £50m striker to Czar Abramovich’s previous flunking mega-money vanity signing—since his uncanny political instincts, his grasp of how to surf institutional situations, extend from the boardroom to the players. Both men experienced dissent from the troops earlier this year; yet where Villas-Boas, with his high defensive line, proved to be tactically rigid and was eventually confronted over it at Cobham by Ashley Cole and other senior players, the ever-streetwise Mourinho demonstrated his resourcefulness and adaptability. Faced with discontent from Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas over his apparent negativity against Barcelona (especially in last year’s Champions League semi-final second leg, when he instructed them to play for a 0-0 that would have eliminated them), Mourinho responded pragmatically, retreating a little (though not forgetting the ‘insolence,’ you imagine) and selecting an ultra-attacking line-up for the league fixture against Athletic Bilbao (won 4-1). By comparison, AVB reacted by leaving Cole, Frank Lampard and Michael Essien out of the team that was beaten in Napoli in the first leg of the Champions League last 16 tie, his personal authority by then fatally eroded.

Laying bare his soul when he needed to box clever, being dogmatic and idealistic when he needed to be pragmatic—demonstrably, Villas-Boas lacks the nous, and therefore perhaps the leadership and authority of Mourinho. But what exactly is authority and how does it connect to leadership? When a coach is prowling his technical area, or sitting in a press conference, or behind a desk in contract negotiations, or walking across to have a look at training, from where precisely does he draw the sort of authority that can establish order (not timorous subjugation, which even Alex Ferguson admits is a thing of the past), the authority that, increasingly in the age of player power, is required to motivate millionaires?


As just about all my friends know (don’t know about yours), celebrated German sociologist Max Weber defined authority as power accepted as legitimate by those subjected to it, and discerned three basic types, ‘pure concepts’ that are rarely embodied by one person or situation. These are: charismatic, traditional (or sacred), and rational-legal (or bureaucratic).  

Briefly, the traditional or sacred leader avails himself of inherited qualities conferred by customary beliefs that are established through rituals of succession. It is “the authority of the eternal yesterday” and often has supernatural anchorage, as with a king or shaman. Loyalty derives from culturally embedded allegiancestraditionsand the feeling of having a common purpose. Examples of sacred authority are hard to find in football, although the Liverpool ‘Boot Room’ is perhaps closest: figures like Shankly, Paisley, Fagan, Dalglish, and Evans steeped in a methodology and attributed a kind of sanctity afore the Kop. 

Rational-legal authority, which predominates in modern society, is seen in football in technocratic cultures of continental clubs. Here, the system itself is venerated and legitimate authority is exercised through rationally accepted functions through which are transmitted the norms and decrees to which people consensually submit. By contrast, charismatic authority is acquired through a dynamic personality, legitimized through success, and commanded by acquiring personal loyalty and obedience. As a result, it is potentially highly unstable. Perhaps the best examples of this charismatic leadership in British football have been Ferguson and especially Brian Clough, the occasionally demagogic figure with whom Mourinho is most frequently compared and whose teary valediction was relegation from the top-flight in front of a nevertheless eternally grateful Forest flock.

Now, since there is little football parallel with sacred leaders, we can assert that there are fundamentally two types or ‘poles’ of leadership in football: personal and institutional. These forms aren’t mutually exclusive: it is possible to use an institutional position to acquire personal authority, and personal authority can solidify your institutional position, lest a reshuffle be on the cards. History is not short on leaders who emerge with only personal prestige (rather than institutional mechanisms or traditions) to draw upon and end up commanding vast imperial structures (Genghis Khan), at which stage they usually attempt to reconstitute their authority as sacred (the Kim dynasty of North Korea).

Given AVB and José’s more or less identical institutional situation at Chelsea (working under an autocrat happy to foist strikers on his manager), the charisma of the coach is determinant. To this end, it is crucial for the would-be charismatic leader that they not miss any opportunity to augment and cement their personal authority. Nothing is too trivial to redound to the magnificence of their powers. Thus, Mourinho’s celebrated tendency to put himself in the spotlight, widely construed as an attempt to protect his players from undue attention, is also a means of accruing personal authority. Wherever an event happens in which they are somehow implicated, the charismatic leader will be seen attempting to appropriate and get back behind the fountainhead from which the events flowed—in sum, to turn the product or effect (charisma) into a cause. As Elliott Turner has perceptively illustrated, they have the wheels of this charisma machine greased by a media that ascribes too much (often bogus) power to them. Ferguson only has to raise an eyebrow and it’s a ‘mind game’ of some kind. But, as with the Heisenberg principle, what the journalists believe they are objectively and neutrally reporting, they are in fact directly causing. They act as amplifiers.


Mourinho’s now mythical—and the word is not idly chosen—first press conference as Chelsea boss back in July 2004 constitutes as exemplary an illustration of the fabrication of charismatic authority as you will see (how all the scribes twitched afore the Emperor) and should become compulsory viewing for any new coach taking their first steps in England, special or otherwise. After all, given hypothetically equal resources, effective communication—be that to players in a man-managerial or tactical mode, or to the media in a strategic or political mode—is undoubtedly what separates the good from the great coaches. Villas-Boas may well be supremely gifted in this regard, a great thinker, but those gifts will remain virtual unless the communication side of the job enables people (staff, board, media) to buy into his methods and, ultimately, him.

Admittedly, Mourinho strolled into Stamford Bridge with an impressive swag and its attendant prestige (AVB only having the Europa League, of course, which José had snared the season previous to his European Cup triumph), but in and of itself this presser was the quintessential instance of Mourinho benefiting personally from a series of contingent, and thus obviously uncontrollable events—among others, Paul Scholes’s dubiously anulled offside goal, Costinha’s winner at Old Trafford—so as better to inflate his powers. There was little point in him apologising for any of this, or in pointing out how different it all might have been (and might be today), how he might have arrived in London without the Champions League (assuming he would even have been offered the job at all) and thus how he would have been denied the opportunity to use his beautiful phrase, sketchily recalled by the hacks in the fuzz of the morning-after. I am not one of… ‘of the bottle’. I am– I think I am a special one.

Again, a cursory glance through history’s slideshow of charismatic leaders will repeatedly elicit this device of self-mythologization: the proclamation of inflated powers through the appropriation of others’ energy, creativity, and force, always accompanied by the effacement of the messy, complex origins behind their pre-ordained emergence. The birth of Empire is always the obliteration of real history by myth: the Beautiful Blue Chair (and the most expensively constructed squad in Portugal). However, what did Villas-Boas the rationalist say when he arrived in SW6 some seven years later (again with the caveat that he was following Mourinho so was perhaps consciously trying to be different)? “I benefit from good players and when they are not here, I am … ‘The Shit One’.” Technocratic to a fault, he entrusted far too much faith in player discipline being engendered by System. Essentially, he misread the culture. Much as England struggled with Fabio Capello’s officious style and now seem to yearn for the genial, knockabout touch of a Harry Redknapp, so did AVB’s perfunctory bureaucratic approach fail to sit well with players who were too partial to charismatic Gaffers, too long in the tooth, too Mourinhified. 

As for the puto amo of the presser, José understood the impression-forming debut encounter with the English media as a huge opportunity to buttress the kudos and authority gleaned from Porto’s 3-0 victory over Monaco in Gelsenkirchen, veritably thrusting that success in the faces of the press. Thus came his famous statement, the one that has bequeathed him a famous nickname—the Special One—earned through (perhaps wilfully, perhaps unconsciously) false reporting and the credence given to his powers. 

However, as Grant Wahl has observed (albeit without drawing out the full implications), what Mourinho said that day was “I think I am a special one.” Not ‘the’; just ‘a’. As any student of the Romance languages will tell you, the phrase “a special one” is a simple example of the common habit of using a noun where we would use an adjective: ‘I am special,’ not ‘I am The Special One.’ An important difference. But if the English media are intent on making a myth of him, far be it from the arch-pragmatist to set them straight over this subtle semantic slippage.

Given the proper meaning of ‘special’ as simply ‘out of the ordinary’ (extraordinary in its strict sense, not what it has come, hyperbolically, to mean)—a meaning that is better understood in Iberia than it is in Britannia—Mourinho is merely saying ‘I belong to the general category: special.’ I am not table wine. And if there can be objective measure of that specialness (which there isn’t, really, not absolutely, because all coaches have different resources), then winning the Champions League would be part of it: they are the ‘capital assets’ of his reputation (it being borne in mind that, while undeniably successful, he has won trophies with major clubs in big leagues with enormous budgets, capitalizing on his past exploits to earn this spending power). So, to spoil the conception behind a hundred rudimentary video montages and thousands of excitable, charisma-swayed devotees of this luso-winner, he never did say the unambiguously messianic “I am the special one”—a phrase that only cult leaders and members of Oasis are wont to say (or perhaps José in the bathroom mirror, occasionally).


We have, then, undoubtedly the most significant ‘the’ in the history of football, the most wilfully, libidinally misquoted definite article, and the one that permitted the English media to portray him as, well, the Definite Article. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, he duly became a (sort of) prophet: the Messiah and a very naughty boy (although, no matter how special ‘one’ is, one runs the team, not the club).

However much authority the figure that walked into the press conference on that warm July day could mobilize, the one that walked out was—precisely because of the sentiments he could arouse—one of rare, maybe unsurpassed authority who had literally seduced (literally ‘literally’, not Jamie Redknapp literally) most of the press pack. Thereafter, The Special One™ would have his Anglophone audience—which, again, prefers its caudillos to its technocrats—largely eating out of his hand for the remainder of his three-and-a-bit years in charge, the most enjoyable period of his managerial career to date. The experience of Italy, in particular, made him uncomfortable, with its persistent scrutiny of the minutiae of the coach’s decisions. And if leadership is about drawing on sources of authority and making good decisions—decisions whose effects often feed back to affect authority—then scrutiny tends to demystify the coach’s powers.

The conclusion to all this, then (and one that André Villas-Boas might be well served to remember), is that charisma is less an innate property of the body, there from birth and manifest to all, so much as an aura or spectre that surrounds it, an active layering of cultural meaning that can be stitched together from anywhere, like a cuckoo’s nest. It is, finally, less a once-and-for-all property than a continual process of production, the apparently inevitable effect of a singular, contingent and sometimes chaotic history in which we are all bricoleurs seeking to shroud ourselves in prestige, charisma, and gravitas. And if the charismatic leader is to stabilize this aura into a truly sacred form of authority, then no source of glory should be overlooked. Not even a simple ‘the’.

This piece was first published by The Classical. 

Friday, 13 April 2012


There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a young (and undoubtedly high) Ozzy Osbourne earning a living in Berlin in the 1970s by being on call for an eccentric German aristocrat (if that is not itself tautologous) whose highly particular fetish involved lying beneath a glass coffee table while someone – Ozzy, in this instance – perched above it and – …well, there’s not a sufficiently delicate way to put it – defecated atop the hitherto transparent surface. Whatever turns you on, I guess.

For any workshy young deviant, one for whom the last vestiges of ‘self-esteem’ have long since flown the roost, that is truly a gig to inspire envy. Getting paid for dumping – unbelievable, Jeff! (Mind you, I’m not entirely sure one could get away with listing it as a legitimate ‘job goal’ when signing a Jobseeker’s Agreement.) It is not that I am workshy per se: much as with anyone else, footballers included, work is fine provided it is adequately recompensed and/or its ‘texture’ is not too onerous. I’m sure that for Ozzy, beyond having to work out which of his narcotic pharmacopeia affected his ability to ‘empty’, this wouldn’t exactly have been the most strenuous of jobs – no pun intended.

Of course, we don’t need Ozzy Osbourne or footballers’ wages to tell us that the entirety of late capitalism, and not just its peculiar forms of employment, is, strictly speaking, insane. Unhinged. Demented. One only need know, say, that orthodox (non-coprophile) pornography is an $8b industry in the United States, and that one of its many niches is the punting of latex moulds of the vaginas of your favourite actresses fitted inside what look like torches – all of which indicates not only that posh wanks have come a long way, and quickly, but that we have little chance of escaping a world in which people take steps to the detriment of their ‘subjective’ desire but for the furtherance of their/our ‘objective’ interests (it being in most of our interests that we not live in a world in which footballers earn £150k/week, for instance). 

Anyway, I mention Ozzy only to illustrate the fact that the modern world is full of cushty sinecures and chancers blagging it in easy billets, all of which brings us to Damien Comolli and the fact that the equivalent position in football to Ozzy’s Berlin gig, erm, attending to tables is undoubtedly that of ‘Director of Football Strategy’, from which he (Damien, not Ozzy) was promoted to Director of Football in March 2011, a post he vacated this week having done about fuck all for approximately a while. 

Comolli: Beane counter

But seriously – what did he do, exactly?

His remit was everything on the football side excepting first team training and selection. At the time of his promotion, he summarised this as “a day-to-day relationship with the manager and his coaching staff. It’s also medical and sports science, performance analysis, player liaison, team travel, scouting and negotiating transfer contracts. A big part of it is the academy.” Less an executive role, then, than a factotum who takes the strain off the manager.

However, I’ve studied all this at length and it seems to me that he was, in essence, a glorified professional shopper. A money spunker. For his job. He looked at half-baked stats, extrapolated from context with all the dexterity of a man playing Jenga in oven gloves, then went online and, when not looking at funny shit on YouTube, purchased footballers. The key institutional problem with all that is there has been no real responsibility or accountability over signings (a point made by Liverpool’s lay ideologue and managerial apologist-in-chief, Paul Tomkins), a situation in which, should a player fail to have much of an impact, each could in theory blame the other. Of course, for football managers, ‘failure’, such as it can be properly quantified beyond points, is usually rewarded with a multi-million payoff…

Anyway, whether or not he was given a shopping list by the manager (who would probably only stonewall the fact, anyway, since he appears to have sailed past self-parodic cantankerousness to the point of denying his own name: “Kenny–” “No I’m not”), liaises with the finance department, then nips out to get the appropriate player is neither here nor there. It patently hasn’t worked, as anyone reading between the lines (not a place habitually occupied by Damien’s signings) of Tom Werner’s PR blancmange-sprach will have deduced: “We have a strategy that needs implementing and we felt Damien was not the right person to implement that strategy”. Translation: we need to win matches and that guy is buying not very pretty players for a not very pretty penny.

Ought they not have seen the signs when they brought him to the club in November 2010? At the time, it was widely reported that opting for this path derived from John Henry and Fenway Sports Group’s desire to employ the same Moneyball-inspired principles that had succeeded so spectacularly at their sleeping giant Boston Red Sox baseball franchise, copying Billy Beane’s trailblazing savvy thrift with Oakland A’s. In essence, this approach (sometimes called ‘Soccernomics’ in a football context) involved picking up undervalued players at cheap rates about whom statistics reveal hidden qualities. (Also, players that can be sold on at profit.)

Why Damien, though? Well, before becoming a high-level networker and mediocre talent-spotting talent, he played some (not much) youth football at AS Monaco – as Sacchi said, no need to be a horse before becoming a jockey – then got a law degree and coaching licence, at which point Arsène Wenger employed him at Arsenal for 7 years. In 2005, after a stint at Saint-Etienne as Technical Director, he went to Spurs, replacing Frank Arnesen. His work here was often at odds with the vision of coach Martin Jol, who, when sacked in October 2007, complained of the Frenchman’s “profit-driven” signings (Bent, Kaboul and Boateng for £30m) and that the short-term was being sacrificed – ironic, then, that he should wind up at Anfield, as Liverpool have recent experience of this, when the second-place finish of 2009 was followed by a failure to supplement Alonso, Mascherano, Torres, Reina and Gerrard, the lost momentum still a long way from being recovered.

In September 2008 he blames “agent activity” for failing to land the experienced striker required by Juande Ramos – it was the usual last-minute brinkmanship from Levy – and both were sacked the following month, Comolli returning to Les Anges Verts in November that year, leading to the almost immediate departure of the coach. Consecutive seventeenth-place finishes, one spot above the trapdoor, ensued. They have improved dramatically since he left. In November 2010 he was at Liverpool, FSG having failed to heed the Damien omens… 

His first spree at Liverpool was the double purchase of Luis Suárez and Andy Carroll for a net spend of around £1.5m once the sale of Torres and Babel had been taken into account, a much-parroted datum that construes this as a self-contained transaction, missing the crucial point that it sent a message to the market about Liverpool’s behaviour – essentially that of a gullible, amiable fiftysomething couple from Towcester (him in biscuits, her a legal secretary) accidentally separated from their tour group deep in the Rabat souk. In the summer they picked up Bellamy, José Enrique, Charlie Adam, Doni, Sebastian Coates, Jordan Henderson and Stuart Downing – the latter two, perhaps sabermetricked by some hidden statistical indicators, especially pricey – the whole lot on his watch costing £113m. 

FSG watch Downing and Henderson, forgetting their £40m price...

What perhaps brought home the profligacy to FSG and set off all their Sound Businessman Alarms was the game at Newcastle a couple of weeks ago. Take the £41m Toon received from Liverpool for Wor Andy and Enrique, then go and buy Ben Arfa, Tioté, Obertan, Cabaye, Santon and Cissé (with Ba, Marveaux and Abeid all freebies), and you’ve still got £8m in the kitty to pump into sports leisurewear (not a situation at which many Scousers would complain*) – that is, slightly less than the cost of the Cabaye-Tioté axis; £30m less than Henderson and Downing. And all that done with just contacts, scouts, and the cutting-edge notion of fitting parts together sympathetically in a team-building project, rather than pseudoscientific method punted as expertise to justify a salary.

We shouldn’t be surprised at Comolli’s presence in the oak-panelled upper echelons of European football. History is full of its overreaching courtesans, after all. But with Liverpool’s signings misfiring, with just 5 of 16 games at Anfield won, 2012 a car crash and the whole season a huge missed opportunity given the outlay and lack of European football, perhaps it’s time, finally, to ditch Moneyball and Soccernomics and to seek out some new reading material. A coffee table book, maybe. Although, on second thoughts…  

* Any scousers reading this, do not take offence; the structure of the gag is such that I would happily substitute any regional identity

This was originally published by the FCF

Sunday, 1 April 2012


If you’ve visited this blog in the last month or so, you’ll know that I have previously written about the frisson of – I shan’t be coy – pride and satisfaction that I felt in having an article accepted for the excellent and beautiful one-year-old football quarterly, The Blizzard. To receive the two complimentary copies of Issue Four in the post was just as much of a thrill.

A week back, the team up there in the Sunderland office asked me if I would mind a segment of the article being pushed online so as to help raise general awareness of the publication, and so it was that the excellent Spanish football blog-cum-website El Centrocampista carried an exclusive extract (the one below). Not long after, the passage was picked up by none other than the FC Barcelona website itself, which carried the link on its English language version. I eagerly await the autograph requests from Messrs Iniesta, Guardiola, Messi et al.

Anyway, if I haven’t already made it obvious, The Blizzard is a magnificent publication, not only for the variety and breadth of the stories it carries, but also because of its ethos: namely, a profit-share among the writers (which means Gabriele Marcotti and myself making the same cash from it, if and when it comes to turning a profit) but also its pay-what-you-like pricing model – from as little as 1p for a .pdf or Kindle version, to (minimum of) £6 for the hard copy (it has a £12 RRP, which is what I paid for the first three: no point taking the piss). You can even pick it up in Waterstone’s now.

The extract on El Centrocampista is the first third of the article, which nestles alongside a couple of other Barça-related pieces: a profile of Xavi written by Sky Sports’ Revista de la Liga talking head and author of Barça: The Making of the World’s Greatest Team, Graham Hunter, and a beautiful short essay comparing tiki-taka to bullfighting, written by David Winner, author of the genuinely exceptional book on the Dutch footballing psyche, Brilliant Orange.

Also in Issue Four are, among others:

  • An excellent interview with Sir Alex Ferguson, by Philippe Auclair; 
  • Editor Jonathan Wilson on Zambia’s redemptive Africa Cup of Nations victory; 
  • The Guardian’s Scott Murray on eight iconic football strips; 
  • Ian Hawkey with an interesting piece on why the capital cities of democratic European nations have peformed so poorly in the European Cup; 
  • David Lynch (no, not that one) on the role of Egyptian ultras in the downfall of Hosni Mubarak; 
  • Brian Phillips of the exquisite Run of Play on how to revive the Europa League; 
  • Sam Kelly of Argentine football blog Hasta el Gol Siempre on PSG’s young number 10, or enganche, Javier Pastore. 

Here’s the extract:


There are some rivalries — those ferocious cross-town antagonisms of, say, Istanbul and Cairo, Athens and Rome, Belgrade and Buenos Aires, or the multifarious, volatile Latin American clásicos and superclásicos — that are hewn for the ages, it would seem: a self-perpetuating, endlessly renovated symbiotic loathing in which each new supporter is compelled, as a kind of initiatory sine qua non, to adopt a bone-deep, acid-sweat hatred of the Other Lot. Now, while a modicum of intellectual modesty and smidgeon of philosophical rigour ought to preclude us from asserting with absolute certainty that these tête-à-têtes are, despite appearances, fixed and eternal (yes, even the Auld Firm), the fact that they rumble forward at glacial speed — nourished by an animosity so viscous and seemingly implacable that fans on both sides of the divide never escape the gravitational pull of their compulsory mutual abhorrence — indeed creates the sense of a de facto permanence from which the supporters henceforth appear to derive their rigid identity. I might not always be sure of what I’m for, exactly (because beneath the Holy Shirt we seem ever to mutate), but I know damn well what I’m against

Then there are others, lacking the fetid cheek-by-jowl antipathy of the metropolitan derbies, going by way of personalities rather than institutions and thus less durable, but that nevertheless attain, for a period, an intensity every bit as vehement and consumptive as those seemingly primordial antagonisms before then ebbing away. In West Germany in the late 1960s and early 1970s, for instance, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Bayern Munich were fervid adversaries despite possessing between them most of the national team, while the same period in England saw bloodshed every time the Chelsea of ‘Chopper’ Harris locked horns with Don Revie’s notoriously nefarious Leeds team. Indeed, the 1970 FA Cup final replay, watched by an incredible 28 million people, the second highest figure ever in the UK for a sports broadcast (eclipsed by the 1966 final alone), was arguably the most savage football match seen on these shores. When reviewed by David Elleray in 1995 through the lens of contemporary refereeing standards, he concluded that Leeds would have incurred seven bookings and three dismissals (Johnny Giles, Billy Bremner and Jack Charlton), while Chelsea deserved thirteen yellows, including three each for Harris, Dave Webb, and Charlie Cooke. As it was, so lenient was Eric Jennings, in his swansong as a referee, that only Chelsea’s Ian Hutchinson saw yellow.

A similarly foul and fierce yet ultimately temporary rivalry emerged during the early 1980s in Spain — that heterogeneous nation of somewhat precarious unity and internecine squabbles (always, until recently, offered as the fundamental cause of their failings in tournament football, of course) in which the extraordinarily tenacious cultural and historical roots of Barcelona’s face-offs with Real Madrid have of course engendered the mightiest oak of a feud (one whose acrimony seems to have been ratcheted up still further by José Mourinho’s pantomime villain shtick and the fact that there are no other serious top-dog candidates, the twin titans’ financial power creating a positive feedback loop continually reinforcing their hegemonic duopoly). However, despite the Barça-Real antipathy, for a short time an enmity every bit as spiteful settled between two of the country’s most potent institutional symbols of minoritarian nationalism, beacons both of the autonomous regional identities emerging groggily from under the jackboots of Falangist Spain after Franco’s death in 1975. In the blaugrana corner, there was the Catalanism embodied by FC Barcelona (self-avowedly més que un club), which tended to express itself and any hankerings for independence through comparatively moderate and mature assertions of its economic power and cultural advancement, the extrovert city of Barcelona long having prided itself on being the habitual sluice through which vanguard artistic, philosophical and scientific currents arrived from elsewhere in Europe. In the rojiblanco corner stood the standard bearers of Basque identity, Athletic of Bilbao, the only club aside from Barça and Real never to have been relegated from the Spanish top flight, a club whose reserves, Bilbao Athletic, often pull 10,000 spectators from a city that Phil Ball says “smells of football” — a throbbing industrial Glasgow to Barcelona’s well-heeled, sophisticated Edinburgh. 

Given that early-eighties Spain was still at the dawn of its tentative transition to democracy, one could be forgiven for assuming that Franco’s assault on indigenous Catalan and Basque culture might have united these two clubs against the ‘imperial’ Real Madrid, occasional propaganda tool of the ultra-centralist Generalísimo (who of course invited the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion to bombard the symbolic cradle of Basque culture, Gernika, on 26 April 1937). However, for a short time their rivalry — fructified as much by specific personalities involved as by geography or history — really did surpass in fervour el clásico’s historically sedimented enmity. And at the heart of it all were two men more than familiar to students of the sport’s annals of infamy… 


Although the club has distinctly British roots — a fact borne out by its name (Athletic not Atlético although Franco did insist on the Spanish orthography, as indeed Barça were obliged to call themselves CF Barcelona, rather than FC) — it has nevertheless fielded an all-Basque team since 1912, which remains the case to this day (the current central defender Fernando Amorebieta plays for Venezuela, the country of his birth, but was raised in the Basque Country, where he has lived since he was two years old, while both of his parents are Basques, too, who simply happened to be working in Venezuela in the mid-eighties). So, this year marks a centenary without any Spaniards, let alone ‘proper’ foreigners in the Athletic ranks, unlike their neighbours from San Sebastián, Real Sociedad, who relaxed this rule in 1989 with the arrival of John Aldridge and then in 2001 signed a first non-Basque Spaniard when Boris joined from Real Oviedo. The whole question of the codification of ‘Basqueness’ is a complex one; however, if it is not, strictly speaking, wholly a question of birth, parentage, or upbringing, then neither is it entirely an ethnic or racial matter, since the criteria have long stretched to include maketos (non-Basque speaking immigrants), while in 2011 Jonás Ramalho became the first black player to represent the club. At any rate, as Sid Lowe has pointed out, “the policy has never been written down — to do so might even be illegal — and over the years it has undergone changes in interpretation, shifting with society, policy-makers and presidents.” 

Whatever the precise criteria of Basqueness, and there is bound to be some vagueness for a stateless nation, there is a conspicuous sense of cultural uniqueness across the Basque homeland (Euskal Herria), which straddles the Spanish-French border to subsume the provinces of Labourd, Basse-Navarre, and Soule in the Département du Pyrénées-Atlantique, Aquitaine, and in Spain encompasses the three provinces of the Basque Autonomous Community (Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa, Álava) as well as the region of Navarre. While a good deal of their historical self-esteem is drawn from the fact that they were never subject to feudalism and have always been a people of individual smallholders based on the inalienable baserri as the basic social unit, the present feeling of vasquismo is of course in large part anchored by the language, euskara, which, famously, is unrelated to all modern European tongues and thus continues to confound philologists and historians of linguistics.

Howsoever dynamic and difficult to define it may be, Basques clearly feel a sense of separateness. When that has been challenged, the extreme end of the spectrum has turned to terrorism:  ETA, the paramilitary Basque nationalist group, is officially held responsible for 829 assassinations since the early 1960s, including, in 1973, the car-bomb that killed the Spanish Prime Minister Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco. That event gave rise to a somewhat grisly ditty among football-going Basque nationalists, containing the refrain, “He flew, he flew,” a reference to his vehicle being so heavily dynamited that it actually came to rest on the roof of a nearby building. Yet the Basque sense of uniqueness has also spawned a more moderate face: a distinctly passionate and proud footballing culture, one whose members flock, come rain or shine (and it is very often shrouded in a billowing Atlantic rain up there), to the pulsating, steep-sided San Mamés stadium, the country’s first purpose-built footballing amphitheatre, widely and affectionately known as La Catedral . And the near-40,000 bilbaínos who congregate there come in particular to see those Basque players forged in the fabled cantera (‘quarry’), a mine so rich that it has provided more Spain internationals than any other club save Real Madrid as well as bringing eight league titles, a self-sufficiency and history of achievement that is the source of no little local satisfaction. Indeed, as the chant has it: “Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación…” (“With cantera and support, we need not import”). 

Among the strongest teams ever seen at San Mamés — literally, for they were an overtly rugged, muscular side — was the one assembled by Javier Clemente, an ex-player whose career had been curtailed by serious injury and who took up office in the summer of 1981 after an apprenticeship served first at the local sides Getxo and Biskonia, then Athletic’s reserves. The truculent, chain-smoking, often foul-mouthed Clemente — who would go on to coach the Spain national team from 1992 to 1998, arguably the height of Spain’s dark-horse fetlock-pulling — was not exactly a coach renowned for his teams’ sparkling football; indeed, he is widely credited with having coined the term tiki-taka, though not in admiration, it should be said, but pejoratively, a typically brusque and dismissive depiction of what he considered pointless or aimless passing for its own sake. As Sid Lowe has illustrated, in Spain the feisty Basque will “forever be associated with the phrase ‘patapún y p’arriba — ‘bish-bosh, up it goes,’ a kind of Spanish ‘’Ave it!’ — and with defensive, devious and downright dirty football.” Clementeteams were usually resilient, functional and robustly physical, playing a high-intensity, unashamedly ‘English’ game based around the bloque: two defensive midfielders screening two centre-backs and, behind them, a sweeper (famously, he once picked Miguel Ángel Nadal and Fernando Hierro for Spain in combination… in central midfield).

In a sense, this style suited the city, a largely drab and charmless industrial sprawl (until the titanium cubist sheen of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim sprouted up, at least) centred on mining, iron and the shipbuilding that had first attracted Athletic’s English founders at the end of the nineteenth century. Clemente’s ascent to the dugout in 1981 coincided with the high watermark of Basque football, a period of four straight league titles — Real Sociedad had won the Primera that May, and would do so again at the end of Clemente’s first season in Bilbao — and the team he built in the 1980s was as unyielding as the steel in the shipyards cleaved into the banks of the Nervión. From the cantera he took the future goalkeeping legend Andoni Zubizarreta, the full-back Santi Urkiaga, the midfielders Ismael Urtubi and Miguel de Andrés and the winger Estanislao Argote, adding them to the veterans Andoni Goikoetxea, Manu Sarabia and the skipper, Dani. Above all, this team played to their strengths — the San Mamés public taking a sort of perverse pleasure in Clemente’s ‘anti-football’ — and were perfectly happy to ruffle more illustrious plumage in order to win. Having come ninth in 1980-81, a respectable fourth-place finish was duly achieved in Clemente’s debut season, with Barcelona coming second to Real Sociedad, having blown a five-point lead with six to play. 

As the Mundial rattled round that summer, Barcelona were still celebrating having expunged their collapse in La Liga from memory by way of winning the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, goals from Allen Simonsen and Quini securing a 2-1 victory over Standard Liège at Camp Nou. After the tournament, they welcomed from Boca Juniors indisputably the world’s greatest player, Diego Armando Maradona. However, after scoring with a direct free-kick on debut against Valencia and netting six goals in his first thirteen games, El Pelusa (‘Fluff’) would have a debut European season to forget, contracting hepatitis and thus being sidelined for almost three months, this contributing to a patchy season for Barça in which they lost home and away to Athletic (1-0 and 3-2, respectively) and slipped back to fourth in the league. They could nevertheless content themselves with a dominant but ultimately narrow 2-1 Copa del Rey victory over Real Madrid in Zaragoza, achieved thanks to a 90th-minute header from Marcos Alonso. Their coach by then was Maradona’s compatriot, César Luis Menotti, who had arrived in March that year following the sacking of former Bayern coach, Udo Lattek, largely because of the slump in form brought about by Maradona’s long illness.

While Maradona recovered — and after recovering, partied — and Barça underperformed, the main prize went to Clemente’s sophomore Athletic, who edged Real Madrid by a single point (and beat Barça by six) after the merengues lost 1-0 in Valencia on the final evening while the Basques won 5-1 in Las Palmas to bag a first crown since 1956. They retained the title in Clemente’s third season (1983-84) by beating their local rivals Real Sociedad 2-1 at San Mamés in the final game (a reverse of their 2-1 defeat at the Anoeta two years earlier when La Real themselves successfully defended their title). By then supremely confident and driven, refusing to be cowed by either of the metropolitan behemoths, in 1983-84 Athletic had pipped Real on the head-to-head rule and Barça by a single point, despite the blaugranas’ somewhat pyrrhic league double over the Basques (partially avenging the previous season’s results). And it was during the course of that season that the incremental morbo between Barcelona and Bilbao — simmering at least since a tackle by Goikoetxea on Bernd Schuster in December 1981, in Clemente’s first game against the Catalans as coach, had left ‘the Blonde Angel’ with a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament, his nine months on the sidelines forcing him to sit out the World Cup — finally, and spectacularly, ignited.

The Blizzard 

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