Real Madrid’s postponed trip to Celta sparks a storm in La Liga

By 5 months ago

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Real Madrid’s postponed trip to Celta sparks a storm in La Liga” was written by Sid Lowe, for theguardian.com on Monday 6th February 2017 15.49 UTC

A storm tore through Spanish football this weekend – and for once that’s is not some mangled metaphor. Late on Thursday night it started, hitting Galicia hard. An average of 80 litres of water fell per square metre, 126 in the worst hit areas, and winds reached 120kph. The facade of a sports centre collapsed, an airport tower was damaged, rivers overflowed, dozens of trees were pulled up, two people died, and there were 640 calls to ‘999’ – which is ‘112’ here. A total of 49,378 people were left without electricity and the first division was left without two football matches. Which shouldn’t be what matters reading that list, but at times it seemed that was all that mattered. Certainly when it came to Real Madrid’s postponed visit to Celta de Vigo.

Forty-eight games were cancelled in Galicia including the match that opened the weekend on Friday night and the match that closed it 48 hours later, gone with the wind. On Friday Deportivo de La Coruña versus Real Betis was cancelled after parts of the stadium roof were torn by the wind, plastic sheeting broken and hanging open, screws and bolts coming loose, holes left in the roof, pieces falling, others at risk of following them. Down by the beach, right next to the stadium, Betis’s manager Víctor Sánchez del Amo was recording a video on his phone, waves crashing behind him. “Amazing,” he said, glancing out to sea. “Well, that’s it: there’s no game. We’re heading back to Seville.”

“It’s an inconvenience for lots of people,” the Deportivo president Tino Fernández said, “but we decided to put the safety of the players, fans and workers first.” And so Depor-Betis became the first primera game cancelled since Sevilla-Barcelona in April 2006, when a biblical storm rendered the Sánchez Pizjuán more public pool than perfect pitch. The first, but not the last. As the Depor president looked up at the stadium, which is municipally owned, he lamented: “We have the worst roof in Spanish football.” If many agreed then, a day later they didn’t. And if the cancellation in Coruña was accepted with little fuss as a fact of life – “a force of nature,” Víctor called it – it was a different story up the road.

One hundred and sixty kilometres south, the wind tore into the roof at Celta de Vigo’s Balaídos ground, which, like Riazor, is municipally owned. It left pieces scattered on the ground, in the stands and on the pitch. Outside the stadium too. A 20m hole was ripped into the roof, corrugated metal bent and precarious. An inspection was made by the fire service and council officers, who judged it unsafe to play. At 1pm on Saturday, the day after Depor and Betis had been due to play and the day before Celta and Madrid were due to do the same, the mayor Abel Caballero announced that the game was off. As for the league, the federation, and the clubs, they didn’t announce anything – not for hours. The only club to say anything publicly, was Deportivo Alavés, and they weren’t even playing.

The mayor said it was off, but there was no official confirmation. Instead there was a silence, swiftly filled with all the normal stuff: accusations, conspiracies, paranoia, shots fired from the usual trenches by the usual suspects. As if it was a dastardly plot and someone somewhere had made this happen; as if some sneaky individual had brought the wind and the rain. Or, from the other side, as if Madrid were villains for wanting to play a football match; or as if they were running scared, desperate to play a weakened Celta team while they could. Another week, another demonstration of that desperation to point an accusing finger, play the victim and find someone to blame. The same tedious, unpleasant war, taken to a new battlefield.

Madrid wanted to play. It wasn’t their fault the stadium was a mess; another game postponed would create a huge fixture problem, in which they had two games to make up; and this was probably a good time to face Celta, who have an historic Copa del Rey semi-final second leg against Alavés on Wednesday night and whose manager Toto Berizzo had already announced that he was going to make major changes. They suspected that Celta didn’t want to play – better to have a proper break and face Madrid another time when they could field a full side – although that was denied locally: their fixture list is cramped too and they’d rather get it out the way, the argument went, while wholesale changes meant that as far as the cup was concerned a break on Sunday made little difference.

The question now is: when on earth do they play this game? Spain has a 20-team league, a two-legged cup, and no spare space anywhere. It will be easy enough to find a day to play Depor-Betis at Riazor – that’s just one of the many reasons why the cancellation of that game didn’t cause the stir that the cancellation of this one did – but not to find a day to play Celta-Madrid at Balaídos. Madrid are still in two competitions, Celta in three, and there are no free midweeks left. If both teams continue in Europe, the only available Wednesday is 15 May, three days before the final day of the season. A solution must be found. In 2006, they pushed the entire season back a week – beyond the Fifa cut-off – and split the final day into three different parts. So expect the worst; expect a mess.

That was something that Madrid wanted to avoided. Despite the accusations, it is something that Celta would have preferred to avoid too, if less so. Madrid offered up solutions, said some. Madrid applied pressure, said others. And you can guess who said which.

There was still a day and a half to get the stadium fixed, but it was not safe to do so until the wind died relented, and that was not forecast in a hurry. Never mind, some declared: get someone up on the roof. It’s not such a big job; how hard can it be? As Roberto Palomar neatly put it: suddenly there were “46 million municipal architects in Spain” who all knew better. There was time to seek other solutions too, or at least to float them. Play at another ground in Galicia? Play behind closed doors? Move Celta’s cup game next week and play then, with the cup game shifted to another date? All of them presented logistical difficulties, none were great. And ultimately, none were taken up.

From the capital there were complaints – in some cases, accusations, and bitter ones – that none were even listened to, that there was no willingness to seek an alternative, a solution. Others complained that those who demanded it go ahead were not listening to reason and did not care for people’s safety. In one poll run by a Madrid website, 93.6% said the game could have gone ahead, which perhaps they would. On Monday, Marca claimed that Madrid felt that they had “been played”. They ran a match report, imagining how it might have been, with Danilo a hapless accident, Sergio Ramos going up for 93rd-minute header and a penalty being awarded only for the mayor to pick the ball up, declare it his and announce that he was taking it home. Sunday’s front page led on: “Cancelled, on the say so of Mr Mayor”, a loaded phrase that conveys caprice rather than caution.

“Putting at risk the lives of the fans would have been ridiculous,” the mayor said, complaining: “You would think I had been up there with a hammer, knocking the sheets down myself.” A more pertinent question, and one that is applicable to other stadiums in Spain, is why Balaídos was so vulnerable. And why hadn’t the mayor talked about safety before? Balaídos has not been renovated since the 1982 World Cup. As early as 2012 there’s a report describing it as a stadium “on the verge of ruin” and a year ago one Celta fan was hit by a chunk of stone that had broken away and fallen. In 2014, an inspection recommended a full renovation. Work began but was put on hold after it was challenged by the opposition. “This stadium is a ruin,” ran the cover of La Razón’s sports supplement on Monday, more than a little interestedly.

Vigo’s deputy mayor Carlos Font looks at the damage in the Balaídos roof.
Vigo’s deputy mayor Carlos Font looks at the damage in the Balaídos roof. Photograph: Salvador Sas/EPA

There is a difference, though, between a stadium not being in great condition and a stadium actually being declared unsafe, as it was on Saturday. There is a difference between a stadium that has been left to fall apart and one where renovation work has not yet been finished. And, above all, there is a difference between a stadium – two stadiums, in fact – in normal conditions, and a stadium facing the worst weather anyone can remember, the full, unleashed power of nature, a storm that ripped through Galicia; a stadium exposed to winds over 100kph. And so, in the end, amidst the proxy war, which still goes on, Sunday night’s match didn’t.

The decision had been made early but it wasn’t ratified until late. While some thought that they should wait as long as possible, trying everything to get the game on, others just wanted to know. The mayor’s announcement came at one, but no one else said anything until Alavés released a statement declaring them victims as well and saying that, if Celta were going to get the weekend off three days before the Cup semi-final, that should be cancelled too – even though Celta were going to rest everyone anyway, Alavés would play just two likely starters the following night and still win 4-2 at Sporting, and centre-back Alexis afterwards admitted, nah, he wanted to play on.

Meanwhile, there was nothing from Celta, or from Madrid who hadn’t yet cancelled their travel. Nothing from the league or the Federation, either.

Eventually, at 9 o’clock, the league announced that it was passing the safety reports to the Federation and cancelling the game the following night. At 11pm, the referee arrived at Balaídos to inspect the stadium and make the decision official on behalf of the Federation. He hadn’t been able to get there any sooner: his flight had been diverted because of the weather.

Talking points

• Fernando Torres was a skinny kid and his shirt was big, baggy and had a No35 on the back the first time he ran on at the Vicente Calderón. It was May 2001, there were 26 minutes left and Atlético Madrid were playing Leganés. On Saturday night, Torres faced them at the Calderón for the first time since that day, and the last time too. At the end of the season, Atlético will leave this stadium, 50 years later and Torres will probably leave Atlético, 17 years later. As for Leganés, they had made it just in time: this was the first, and only, time that they had ever been to the Calderón in primera – and it was, they said, “an honour to come here”.

They left defeated. Two days after he came on as a substitute and helped change the game against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey, Torres started here and marked the occasion with his best performance of the season and two goals, his first since September, to give Atlético a 2-0 victory and everyone else a bout of nostalgia, AS recalling “that little lad with freckles on his face and dreams in his legs”, Marca’s match reporter asking where you were that night. “Sorry for the personal touch,” he wrote, “but I don’t have to think much: I was right here where I am now – up in these uncomfortable seats in the stand.” His former team-mate Kiko insisted that Torres had “pulled a defibrillator from his survival pack”.

Antoine Griezmann missed a penalty – his fifth in seven for Atlético, prompting Diego Simeone to insist “even Maradona missed penalties” – but Torres followed up to make it 1-0 after just 15 minutes, before adding a second early in the second half, dashing through to dink it over Herrerín for his 114th Atlético goal. It had more than a touch of Austria 2008 about it, when he scored the winner in the final of the Euros against Germany, but most were looking further back. “Sixteen years are nothing, Kid,” ran the headline in AS. Marca went for: “Life goes by, but Fernando’s still there.”

The question now is: for how much longer? Torres’s contract is up at the end of the season. “Should they renew him?” asked Canal Plus. Simeone was asked too. His response suggested that, despite the last two performances, despite a revival last season too, prompted by his 100th goal for the club, the answer is no. “That depends on the sporting director, the manager … the results,” he said. Torres’s response suggested that the answer is no, as well. there was a knowing look when he was asked about his future. “I approach every game as if it was my last,” he said. “I’m just trying to enjoy every minute that’s left.”

Fernando Torres celebrates scoring against Leganés.
Fernando Torres celebrates scoring against Leganés. Photograph: Guillermo Martinez/Corbis via Getty Images

• “Super Asenjo!” the headline read. Villarreal’s goalkeeper made a superb save from Vicente Iborra and saved a Samir Nasri penalty to earn them a 0-0 draw at the Sánchez Pizjuán. The only team in Europe with a better defensive record than them is Bayern Munich and Fran Escribá was satisfied, insisting: “It’s not easy to get a point here.” As for Jorge Sampaoli, he was “frustrated”.

• It was all going a bit weird at Camp Nou against Athletic Bilbao, who actually started very well but ended up losing 3-0 in a game that ultimately felt quite comfortable. Paco Alcácer scored, Aleix Vidal scored (when are they going to stop laughing at that down on the bench?), Luis Suárez didn’t play at all and Leo Messi didn’t play the last 27 minutes – the first time he has been taken off for two and half years. “It was much closer than the scoreline suggests,” Luis Enrique said.

• Yeray was back on international cancer awareness day – six weeks after undergoing treatment for testicular cancer.

• The wind and the rain tore through Anoeta too, but Real Sociedad-Osasuna did go ahead, and it was great fun too. For all the slipping and sliding, the howling wind and the puddles, the football was good and it also had two wonderful goals, Willian José setting up Carlos Vela with an outrageous assist and Sergio León, again, somehow getting away from everyone to belt one into the net. Osasuna are reacting, but their opponents are reacting back: they’ve taken the lead three games running now, but not won any of them. “We had no luck,” the head coach Petar Vasiljevic said.

• “I don’t score many goals but they’re worth the wait,” Eibar captain Dani García said. Not half. He belted in a brilliant volley that tore through the air and past Diego Alves as Eibar destroyed Valencia. “Ridiculed them,” one headline said. Sergi Enrich – brilliant again – scored the first with a superb diving header so low it was a wonder his nose didn’t plough a furrow on the field and got the fourth too in a 4-0 win. In between that, Adrian got a penalty and García hit a shot almost as good as the one that Saúl Berjón scored for them in their first season up, among the goals of the season just as this will be. This was the first time that anyone other than Madrid or Barcelona had beaten Valencia by four or more at home since 1935. And that was Real Oviedo.

Eibar were excellent – yet again. They’ve won three from four now. “People don’t talk about Eibar much but we’re doing well,” Sergi Enrich said. People do talk about Valencia and they’re not. “After we won two games people seemed to think that this was going to win every game, but that’s not the case,” the Valencia manager Voro said. “I don’t know what people are thinking but the only target we have is survival.”

• Mario Kempes is no longer an international ambassador of Valencia, because he can’t do the job from the USA, or so they say. That’s international ambassador of Valencia – the club whose owner is in Singapore.

• Espanyol: one shot, one goal, one more win. And one more defeat for Málaga.

• “We’re horrible: all you have to do is watch us,” Carlos Castro said after Sporting lost 4-2 to Alavés. He’s not wrong either. Although Alavés are seriously impressive.

• Oh, and another thing: in AS (whose editor, incidentally, has a bit of a thing for the Madrid president Florentino Pérez), they claimed that after all of this Madrid were of a mind now to ditch the Spanish league and push for a European Super League instead – or, perhaps more accurately, of a mind to threaten that. Because it’s never windy in Europe, like?

Results: Deportivo-Betis: suspended. Málaga 0–1 Espanyol, Barcelona 3–0 Athletic, Atlético 2–0 Leganés, Valencia 0–4 Eibar, Sevilla 0–0 Villarreal, Sporting 2–4 Alavés, Real Sociedad 3–2 Osasuna, Celta-Madrid: suspended. Granada-Las Palmas: Monday.

Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Real Madrid 19 34 46
2 Barcelona 21 37 45
3 Sevilla 21 15 43
4 Atletico Madrid 21 20 39
5 Real Sociedad 21 4 38
6 Villarreal 21 14 35
7 Eibar 21 3 32
8 Espanyol 21 2 32
9 Athletic Bilbao 21 1 32
10 Celta Vigo 20 -2 30
11 Las Palmas 20 0 28
12 Alaves 21 -1 27
13 Real Betis 20 -10 23
14 Malaga 21 -7 22
15 Deportivo La Coruna 20 -7 19
16 Valencia 20 -11 19
17 Leganes 21 -20 18
18 Sporting Gijon 21 -21 13
19 Osasuna 21 -23 10
20 Granada 20 -28 10

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