Monday, November 14, 2005

Garcia is Raul's successor

Thousands of spanish jokers’ hats worn by Spain supporters bobbed up and down as a Mexican wave swept around the Vicente Calderón Stadium on Saturday, a great night when World Cup qualification was all but secured with a 5-1victory over Slovakia in the first leg of their play-off. Yet these antics occurred long before victory was assured; in fact, the party was in full swing three hours before kick-off.

The whole event was a joy to behold yet there was a lack of tension in Madrid that seemed incongruous with a match in which the stakes were so high. The locals certainly celebrated heartily at the final whistle, but it was hard not to recall the regular observation that the national team is far from an obsession. There seemed a lack of intensity among the crowd that meant Spanish fingernails remained unbitten.

Concerned as he was with the fortunes of Luis Aragonés’s team, José, the Real Madrid-supporting taxi driver, was more occupied with how his team would fare against Barcelona in the Spanish league next Saturday. He is unlikely to be alone among his fellow Real fans, while many Barcelona followers are so detached from the national team that they would rather throw their weight behind a Catalan XI. Some Basques would favour a team of their own and such views prompted a banner at the Vicente Calderón that proclaimed in response “Una bandera, una nacion” — one flag, one nation.

Spain steer clear of Barcelona’s Nou Camp for this reason and they chose Atlético Madrid’s 55,000-seat arena in the belief that they could not fill the much larger Bernabéu across the city. The game was announced proudly as a sell-out although many empty seats were visible, perhaps because some people didn’t fancy a soaking in the largely uncovered stadium on a night when rain fell incessantly from early evening.

It was, though, a Catalan, Luis García, whose hat-trick set Spain on the road to Germany. The Liverpool midfield player even had a role in a fourth goal, worrying Roman Kratochvil into handling the ball in his own penalty area, after which Fernando Torres scored from the spot and Marian Had was sent off for protesting, for which he earned a second yellow card.

There was no animosity from the crowd towards García — even when his dreadful back-pass allowed Szilard Nemeth to pull Slovakia back to 2-1 shortly after half-time — but it was interesting that he received a quieter ovation when substituted than the one afforded his replacement, Fernando Morientes, a former Real player.

Morientes, a team-mate of García at Anfield, quickly cemented his hero status by heading the fifth goal as the clocked ticked towards midnight. As often happens in Spain, the match kicked off at 10pm; in a country with a culture of mañana, football seems keen to take the word literally.

Luis Aragonés, the Spain coach, has observed that “we’re not as physically strong as other sides”, but his men’s resolve was barely tested by a meek Slovak team. Raúl, another player with Madrid connections who was welcomed with particular affection, linked attacks skilfully on the slick surface, while Xavi, a rival in Real-Barcelona matches, showed glimpses of the form that tore apart Chelsea last season.

José Antonio Reyes, of Arsenal, had a decent game on the wing but he was outshone by Vicente, his replacement, who set up the final two goals. The result placed a triumphant spring in the step of Manolo, the roving drummer at Spain matches, who cheerfully stirred up the crowd while paying no attention to the action. There may be greater concentration on events on the pitch when Barcelona visit the Bernabéu next week.


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