Not so long ago Roger Federer visited Rafael Nadal in Mallorca, where they talked about playing an exhibition match. They weren’t much use for anything else any more, they joked, and as it turned out they couldn’t even do that. “I was on one leg and he had a wrist problem,” Federer said.
Yet three months on, there they were walking out for the final of the Australian Open. Three hours, 37 minutes later Federer had won his first tennis Grand Slam in five years – the final, decisive point decided by technology. The ball was in, it showed. And so the title was his. “Roger deserved it more,” Nadal said.
Around about the same time – late Sunday evening in Melbourne, early Sunday afternoon in Seville – the ball flashed across the Real Betis penalty area. Neymar was hauled to the ground, it rebounded off Germán Pezzella and shot towards the goal. The score was 1-0 to Betis but, with 15 minutes left, Barcelona were about to equalise. Sliding in, Aissa Mandi got to it a moment too late, deflecting it up against the bar and away. Standing nearby, closer than anyone else, Luis Suárez leapt. This ball was in too. But this was different – and the contrast was cruel. In Seville, they were 17,487km away and a world apart. Australia is 10 ahead; 10 hours and the rest.
Play continued. Suárez wagged his fingers liked he’d trapped them in a drawer. Afterwards he insisted “it was in by a metre”. Neymar postage a screengrab showing the ball well over the line, with the caption: “HAHAHAHAHAHA”. The Catalan daily Sport – a Catalan daily called Sport; not a Catalan version of the Daily Sport, although it’s not so far off – said: “It was a goal. And it could decide a league.” A league they called “adulterated”, “a robbery”, “a colossal hold-up”. El Mundo Deportivo declared it “another scandal”, their cover running with Suárez’s words: “in by a metre.” It might have been too, but the referee didn’t see it and nor did the linesman. So that was that.
“I’ve seen a photo, yes,” Luis Enrique said afterwards. “Referees need help, whether that is cameras or whatever, and whether that benefits us or harms us. This is a clear example of something that could be done, something that could change.” Barcelona full-back Aleix Vidal said: “With Hawk-Eye, this would have been resolved easily.” Even with the human eye, it probably should have been – it was a long way over the line and, if nothing else, the angle of the ball flying back off the bar should have given it away – but he was right. With Hawk-Eye, that ball would have been revealed to be in. Another one barely a minute later, again cleared by Mandi, again not given, would have been revealed not to be.
But the Spanish league doesn’t have Hawk-Eye. Unlike the tennis. And unlike football pretty much everywhere else. Unlike the English, German, French and Italian leagues. Since yesterday lunchtime, one phrase kept coming up: “If we want to be the best league in the world …” And while there are other things the best league in the world needs to do – treat fans half-decently, for a start – they had a point. There is a worthwhile discussion to be had. Beyond the usual debates, the conspiracy and the crying, the paranoia and the trenches, there was a simple question, and a genuine issue to address. Why not? It’s not like it’s difficult to do; it’s not like others don’t do it.
The Spanish league has a system developed by the company that owns the television rights, not so much a client of the league and its president as a partner, but that system is not formally endorsed by Fifa. The two systems that are cost around €4m. It’s expensive, the league’s president Javier Tebas says. An eighth of Fábio Coentrão. More to the point, refereeing issues depend not on the league but the federation – and Tebas and his federation counterpart, president Ángel María Villar, hate each others’ guts, in more of a hurry to blame and bury each other than talk. So it’s left to everyone else to talk, lots of words, gone with the wind.
Sometimes you can’t help but wonder if, actually, that’s part of the point: they actually want the usual disputes, the conspiracy and the crying, the paranoia and the trenches, people playing a preconceived role, the faux anger and the confrontation. “If there was technology, there’d be nothing for us to talk about,” another candidate for cardiac arrest said on one of those ape-house mass debates, as if that was a bad thing.
Anyway, nothing to talk about? There’s always the thing the Spanish league does do well: the actual football. And on Sunday the football belonged to Real Betis Balompié. Barcelona were denied the equaliser then but did eventually get it when Luis Suárez scored in the 90th minute – and they were grateful for that. “I feel like we won a point,” Luis Enrique said. “It was a goal, but we didn’t play well,” Suárez admitted.
Betis, on the other hand, did. Thirteenth in the table, for 70 minutes they battered Barcelona with a team that included only one player who had ever beaten them before – new signing Rubén Pardo. Yet it shouldn’t have come as such a huge surprise. Since Víctor Sánchez del Amo took over as manager from Gus Poyet, Betis have not been beaten at home. A table of results since he was in charge would see them just two points off fifth. They had gone three games in a row without conceding at the Villamarín, Suárez finally ending a 366-minute run – their best in over a decade – and there’s an intensity, speed and intelligence about them that was missing before.
There is a communion too: one group of Betis fans had written to the club saying that they would refuse to go if they didn’t sack Poyet, while there were whistles and chants for the Uruguayan to go; on Sunday the stadium was packed, roaring them on.
When the goal arrived on 75 minutes, it had been coming. They’d hit the post and the bar. Six minutes later, Rubén Castro passed up a one-on-one that would have ended it. Him missing was “strange”, goalkeeper Antonio Adán said – he rarely does. Betis pressed Barcelona high, forcing errors – 144 times they passed up possession – and by the end the home side had taken 17 shots, nine of them on target. Marc-André ter Stegen had made six saves. “They has us locked in at the back,” Luis Enrique admitted, “They deserved more.” His Betis counterpart added: “At the end of a game like that, you feel furious. It was a great game. You hurt Barcelona more pressuring them and we created maybe 15 or 16 chances. It feels like two points have escaped us.” Adan put it simply: “We were better.”
The goal was scored by the brilliantly named Alex Alegría – Alex Happiness. “This Betis team does bring happiness,” cheered the cover of local paper Estadio Deportivo. He had been superb, going at Barcelona; the back five were solid, the full-backs turning wing-back when possible; and in the middle, Pardo gave control, a moment of pause, thought. That released Dani Ceballos, who was everywhere, almost ridiculously good. No one ran more, won more possession or created more. No midfielder completed more passes, and he it was who smashed one off the bar.
Ceballos – Ceballo on his birth certification, after someone left the S off – was born in Utrera, Seville, where his parents ran a churros stand. He joined Sevilla at the age of eight before being released at 13, a skinny kid who had suffered bouts of bronchitis. Picked up by Betis, he jumped straight from the juvenil to the first team, making his debut at the age of 17 on the day they were relegated to the second division. Only 18, he was their outstanding player in winning back promotion. Hugely talented, he was trouble at times too, revealed by some of his tweets, which were frankly unpleasant, aggressive and insulting. On the pitch, there were moments too.
After Ceballos confronted Getafe’s Juan Cala, telling him: “I hope you go rot in the second division and the club disappears,” his coach Juan Merino publicly admitted: “He has to learn to respect his opponent. He has to improve various things to be a better professional but also a better person.” He also had to be taken off before he got himself sent off against Barcelona last season, when he appeared to have decided that he was going to try to cram as much bad behaviour into 90 minutes as he could, twice pretty much assaulting Gerard Piqué and confronting opponents at every turn, completely out of control.
There was background there, above all a visceral hatred of Catalonia. Ceballos had attacked Cesc Fàbregas and Piqué on Twitter for carrying the Catalan flag as Spain celebrated winning Euro 2012, declaring: “Catalans, out the country!” The day Barcelona and Athletic fans whistled the national anthem at the Copa del Rey final he tweeted his desire that a bomb would go off in the stands to “kill those Catalan and Basque dogs”. And when Piqué had expressed his pity that an Andalucían derby between Sevilla and Málaga had not filled the stadium, his reply read: “Don’t you talk about Andalucía, shitty Catalan.”
The doubts about him remained but they insist that he is trying, maturing, settling. They have worked with him, looking after him and guiding him. There was no doubting the talent. Poyet was unsure – he gave Ceballos just one start in the league this season – but when Víctor took over immediately put him in the side and the impact has been huge. On Sunday, especially. “We’re happy with Dani, the way he is growing,” Víctor said. “He’s an asset that we’re trying to improve. One of the great satisfactions you can have as a manager is seeing players get better.” On Sunday, he could hardly have been much better. He could hardly have been happier either.
Barcelona might not have got a goal they should have got but Ceballos insisted: “They got a goal they didn’t deserve” and described it as the “perfect game”. “This,” he said, “was the kind of match you watch back again on video.”
Maybe one day they’ll let the referees do the same.
• “The hunt begins” ran the headline on the front cover of El Mundo Deportivo. Sport shouted: “Pressure them!” The atmosphere had changed at Madrid, which pretty much means that the atmosphere changed at Barcelona, and vice versa. “This was like the waiting room at the crematorium, now it’s quite the opposite,” Luis Enrique said. “It’s impossible for things to be going well for both teams at the same time.” And now it was their turn. Madrid had started losing, Barcelona had started winning and this weekend, the beginning of the second half of the season, was all set up to be the weekend when the title race opened up again. Madrid were playing fifth-placed Real Sociedad and could even have gone into their game in third.
Instead, they watch everyone else slip up and that, Zidane admitted, gave them “extra motivation.” Barcelona dropped two points at Betis; Sevilla, a man down and a goal down in the second minute, were beaten 3-1 at Espanyol; and Atlético dropped two more points, this time at Alavés. Madrid then defeated la Real 3-0, for whom having lots of the ball ended up being pretty pointless. “Playing well is not just having the ball,” Eusebio said. “Control has to translate into chances and goals.” Mateo Kovacic scored the first and was the game’s outstanding player as Madrid climbed four points clear – with a game in hand.
• “Sometimes people want goals for it to count as a great game, but today showed that a game without goals can be a great game,” Atlético goalkeeper Miguel-Ángel Moya said. Yes, and sometimes two 0-0s can be a great week; just ask Alavés, the team that Moya’s Atlético had drawn with. In midweek, they drew 0-0 with Alcorcón to reach the semi-final of the Copa del Rey, where they have avoided Barcelona and Atlético, and on Saturday they produced perhaps their best performance of the season against the latter.
“The point was better than our play,” Diego Simeone admitted; Alavés’s play, on the other hand, was superb – Camarasa especially. Alavés had 62% of the ball, 19 shots, and the best chances. But for Moya, they would surely have got a victory too. “We’re very proud,” Pellegrino said. “Alavés were the wind, Atlético the leaf,” El País said. “Alavés eat Atlético,” ran one headline. If they did, they spat them back out again. Well, rubber-legged, cheeky grinned, off-the-wall wind-up merchant Deyverson did, anyway – he spat on Diego Godín who, big disgusting string of spit dangling from his chin, spat on him back.
• “I love it here,” John Guidetti said. Not Saturday night in Leganés, particularly, but life in Spain. Johnny G, a cult hero in Vigo, rounded off Celta’s great week with a penalty as the Cup semi-finalists, who knocked Madrid out on Wednesday night, beat Leganés 2-0.
• As for Leganés, they could well find themselves in trouble, despite the bottom three being the bottom three for what sometimes feels like the entire season. They haven’t won in nine now and their next eleven games are against the top five – games that no one really expects them to win, in other words – and the six that are nearest them at the bottom. An opportunity, perhaps, but an obligation too.
• What was that about being the best league in the world? This weekend’s fixtures have been moved around. Sporting-Alavés has gone from Monday to Sunday, via Saturday. Granada-Las Palmas has gone from Saturday to Monday, and Atlético-Leganés has gone from Sunday to Saturday. What about the fans, you say? What about them?
• Marc Navarro did it again. Time to take Espanyol seriously.
• Welcome back, Yeray. The Athletic Bilbao player, who was successfully operated on for testicular cancer, was back in the squad this weekend.
Results: Alavés 0–0 Atlético Madrid; Athletic Bilbao 2–1 Sporting Gijón; Eibar 3–1 Deportivo La Coruña; Espanyol 3–1 Sevilla; Leganés 0–2 Celta Vigo; Osasuna 1–1 Málaga; Real Betis 1–1 Barcelona; Real Madrid 3–0 Real Sociedad; Villarreal 2–0 Granada.
Monday: Las Palmas v Valencia.
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