Sunday, 23 December 2012

Osasuna or later

We went to the Osasuna v Granada match last night, the first game I've been to in the Spanish top division. It cost less than a fiver to buy an Osasuna scarf but 35€ each for two tickets in the Tribuna Alta. With a good view, mind, albeit mostly a good view of Granada, since Osasuna disappeared for all but the first and last few minutes of a match they lost 2-1. It doesn't matter: whether I like it or not, they're my team now. Alea jacta est.

I was talking about belonging: it has taken me nearly seven years to find a team to belong to. In England this would be much more straightforward: find a place to live, go and watch the local team, carry on forever. You can do this because English football has, in all probability, the strongest lower-league football culture in the world. You don't have to pick out an elite team, one that you can't afford to go and watch, one which may be too far away to travel to. You can go and watch the nearest professional football club and the people all around you will lend the match all the seriousness you want, simply because they will treat it as the most important match going on in all the world. Other games may have world-class players on the pitch and sixty thousand people in the stands, but they are of secondary importance. The game you are watching is the most important one. That is what constitutes a proper football match.

I went looking for one in Huesca, when I came over in 2006. SD Huesca were playing at the time in Segunda B (the third tier, split into four regionalised divisions) and I went to watch a few games at El Alcoraz, though it didn't suit me much, the crowd more detached that I'd expected, almost seeming to talk among themselves while a football match went on in the general vicinity.

Fine, I thought, for a while at least - this is Spain, this is how they watch their football. So when Huesca reached the promotion play-offs at the end of the season, and the first leg, the ida, was played in Córdoba, I went along to the central Huesca bar where it was being televised on a gran pantalla. It was the biggest game the club had played for many years. The bar was full, rather than packed, but it is a very big bar and SD Huesca are not a very big club.

Córdoba scored early on, but it was only 1-0 at half-time. Then, just after the second half started, I could see radios being held to ears around the bar, because Barcelona, in some other game being played far away, had scored. People started discussing the Barcelona match. This, evidently, was what the fans were really interested in. Fine, I thought - but if you're not interested, neither am I. Córdoba scored a second and I left the bar, in no particular order. I left the bar and didn't go back to El Alcoraz for about three seasons.

Of course nearly everything in Spanish in football revolves around Barca and Real, something which I've always known, even if the extent of it, and the consequences of it, have surprised me. It still raises my eyebrows, and my hackles, to see news reports covering their training sessions - still more, to see these reports on a Thursday, when neither side may even be playing until the following Sunday (or have played since the previous one). Barca and Real, Real and Barca, the rigorous balance between the two obscuring the fact that all the other clubs in Spain are thus being obscured. To me it seems absurd, and damaging, and out of all proportion. But I am not Spanish.

There are other cultural differences too, a crucial one being that far fewer fans travel to away games. Partly because Spain is a much larger country, partly for other reasons (for instance, that the days and kick-off times for matches are not known a long time in advance) such a culture has not developed in Spain. In El Sadar last night there appeared to be no room allocated for away fans, no group of fans wearing different colours to the home fans and no section of the crowd which cheered when the home fans were silent. (There were, in fact, two people supporting Granada in the two seats immediately beside us, but they were in fact French. How they came to be supporting Granada, I didn't ask: nor did they ask us why two English people were there supporting Osasuna.)

Away games play a crucial part of forming the English fan's sense of attachment to their club, the sense that every weekend your club's game is the important one, the sense that your club is what matters, win or lose. That sense exists, in Spain, for sure: but not much in Segunda B, as it would in the third tier in England. Or even in Segunda A, the second.

It exists in Zaragoza, all right, Real Zaragoza being in theory at least one of the leading clubs in Spain, best known in England for winning the UEFA Cup in 1995.

I might have gone to Zaragoza - the nearest major city to here and the most convenient by far to get to - were it not that first impressions matter. A month before I moved to Spain - on a weekend when I happened to be over - Samuel Eto'o was all but forced from the pitch in Zaragoza by a cascade of monkey noises.

I couldn't go and cheer for Zaragoza, after that. Far from it - for a long time I wanted them to lose every game. It may be different, now, and I might view them differently too. (I found myself reluctantly siding with them as they rose from bottom place to miraculously escape relegation at the end of last season.) But the damage was done. It couldn't be Zaragoza.

But it could be Osasuna. It is two and a half hours' drive to Pamplona, but I work there a lot and have grown fond both of the city and of the journey there, past Los Mallos de Riglos and alongside the Pyrenees. Pamplona is the Spain I recognise, in the mountains, cold much of the year, a long way from Madrid or Barcelona and a long way from the beach. And when I was in the bar before the game, a proper football bar, before a proper football match, it felt, for the first time ever at a match in Spain, like I understood what was happening around me..

I cannot get to see them easily though, nor can I see them much on television, since this season, for the first time, games are no longer available on terrestrial TV, and I neither have satellite TV nor live in a village with a bar. A small connection made, with Spanish life and culture. A small connection lost.

They are knackered, of course. The present season, their thirteenth consecutively in the top division, will presumably be their last, if the absence of pace or skill of confience which they displayed last night, or the ease with which they were beaten at home by a side in the relgation zone, is anything to go by. They owe, if I understand it, forty million Euros to the local government, and their chances of keeping to an agreement, just made, to pay that off within ten years, strike me as non-existent if they are not even in the top division.

But if they are knackered, so is nearly every club in Spain, and if they owe silly sums of money, so does nearly everybody else. It is a proper club all the same, and now, it is my club too.

On the way home we stopped at Liédena on the way home, to eat some soup in the car park of a restaurant, and as I went to use the toilets, Zaragoza, who I have spurned, were winning 1-0 at Athletic on the TV. As I came out, they scored a second. But to be mocked by life is the football supporter's function.

The programme at Osasuna is handed out free, and is turned by their supporters into paper planes, which were launched from the Tribunal Alta all through the match. Two at least were miracles of aeronautical engineering, travelling from halfway along the stadium to make a gentle landing in the corner stand. Another, less impressive, landed by me, so I folded it anew and sent it on its way. It dipped over the front row of the stand - I was in the second row - and headed straight downwards, the trajectory it described thus resembling Osasuna's probable direction in the future. Or a graph of Spanish economic prospects for the next several years.

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