It was the biggest party Madrid had seen in a decade but it might not even have been the biggest party Madrid saw that week. Atlético Madrid celebrated their first league title in 18 years one Sunday evening in May, their 10th in total; less than seven days later and barely 400m up the road, Real Madrid celebrated their first European Cup in 12 years, their 10th in total. From one God to the next, from Neptune to Cibeles, it had been a long wait. For Real, it felt like an eternity, becoming an obsession. For Atlético, it was not so much the impossible dream as too impossible to be a dream at all. But, somehow, they had made it. Both of them had.
At the end of the European Cup final, a handful of Real Madrid’s players ran into the press room and leapt on Carlo Ancelotti, chucking water around, bouncing up and down and singing: “How could I not love you?” Ancelotti had succeeded where a dozen coaches had failed and among his team only Iker Casillas had won the European Cup for the club before; when Casillas had come down the steps of the plane with the trophy 12 years ago, fans were already chanting for the ‘10th’ but they had not even reached a final since Glasgow. Gareth Bale watched it on the television, just a kid. This was a liberation.
Soon after Ancelotti had left, Diego Simeone appeared. He was asked what he was going to do next. He said he would watch the World Cup, although the next game he watched was actually Atlético’s youth team, and then he said he would prepare his team to “defend the league title we have just won”. The remark was a pointed one. The European Cup inevitably eclipses all else and as Jorge Valdano puts it: “For Real Madrid the only summit is the European Cup.” And yet six days before, Simeone’s team had achieved something astonishing, arguably greater, that should not be forgotten and probably defined this season even more than what happened in Lisbon.
Fate had been cruel to Atlético. They had played two European Cup finals 40 years apart and a combined total of under two minutes had cost them both. Both times, a defender, the No4, had defeated them. But the fact that Simeone was sitting there at all was an achievement; that his team had come so close was even more of one and that they had won the league was bigger than both. This was a glorious year for them too. It may just be the most impressive, most difficult league title-winning achievement in Spanish history and it felt like La Liga needed it. Spain was all the better for this, even if it would be wise not to suddenly think everything’s fine.
It is a decade since anyone else had won the league and in the last five years the nearest a team outside of the big two has got to the title was 17 points. Every team in Spain’s top half was weakened in the summer, their best players departing, while Barcelona and Real signed the two most expensive footballers in the market. This is what this column wrote in the season preview: “Madrid and Barcelona … long since disappeared into the distance. And no one is even trying to chase them any more.” Oh.
Atlético chased and somehow they chased them down. Many were swift to note that they had been unfairly written off right to the last. They forgot that Simeone himself had described the league as “impossible” and “boring”. Instead, it was fascinating and unexpected; tense all the way to the finish, the country suffering a collective coronary.
That usual head-to-head battle, boring with their brilliance, fighting among themselves and obliterating all others became a three-way thing. A Saturday in week 14 expressed it best: at 4pm Barcelona beat Granada 4-0, at 8pm Real Madrid beat Almería 5-0 and at 10pm, Atlético Madrid beat Getafe 7-0. But mostly the results were not so huge, the victories far from easy, and the final weeks showed that the smaller teams could compete too. With a week to go, the top three did not manage a win between them in seven matches. The champions had 10 points fewer than last year or the year before.
Simeone later admitted that the first time he thought Atlético might actually win the title was when they won in Bilbao but the song remained the same. Atlético went “game by game” until the game: away at Barcelona on the final day. By then Madrid had slipped out of the race. Xabi Alonso’s reaction following defeat in Vigo suggested that it might have been a mistake for them to have effectively given up, as unexpected results elsewhere showed that they had had a chance after all; Alonso’s reaction to Gareth Bale’s goal in Lisbon suggested that it no longer mattered much.
Meanwhile Barcelona stumbled through crises, losing their religion. “You lot only ever talk about results,” Tata Martino complained one day, but that was pretty much the last thing they talked about. There was so much else to focus on, so much else happening: from judges to taxmen, and then the tragic death of Tito Vilanova. And the style, of course. For the first time since May 2008, they had less than 50% of the possession when they played Rayo Vallecano and although they won 4-0, something was not quite right and they said so. Results? No, this was deeper: Barcelona no longer looked much like Barcelona.
“We’ve left the dentists’, now it’s someone else’s turn,” Levante’s coach Joaquín Caparrós had said after his side were hammered at the Camp Nou on the opening day. It turned out that going there was not as painful for opponents as he expected.
It had all started with the signing of Neymar, a signing that cost Sandro Rosell more than he could have ever imagined and more than he would ever say. With so much going on, a “strange” season in Andrés Iniesta’s words, perhaps the surprise was that Barcelona got so close. Certainly no one expected them to be playing for the league on the final day. A fortnight after publicly conceding the title, having already lost the Copa del Rey final to Real Madrid, they found themselves back in it through no merit of their own. Win at home and they would be champions.
Atlético had been a fingertip away from winning the league on the penultimate weekend, their players departing the field with a haunted look in their eyes. So they did have to get a point in Barcelona and Barcelona did have something to play for and no Real Madrid-related doubts to diminish their commitment. Alexis Sánchez put them 1-0 up, on course, but they did not win. It looked like Atlético would be cruelly denied. Instead, that particular pain would wait a week after the domestic season closed. This time, in the league, Atlético hung on. In fact, they fought back. Atlético went a goal down and two men down, Diego Costa and Arda Turan forced off injured and in tears, but still they did it. “Pure history,” Simeone called it.
Barcelona ended with nothing for the first time in six years. The Spanish Cup and the European Cup were Madrid’s. The league was Atlético’s. Athletic Bilbao returned to the Champions League and brilliantly; Villarreal returned to the top flight and to Europe. At the other end, Real Betis, Valladolid and Osasuna went down. The latter had been in the first division for 14 years, a painful way for Patxi Puñal to end his career. As for the Europa League, that was Sevilla’s in Turin; in a season marked by drama, with all four of the trophies won by Spanish clubs going to the last game and in the balance until the last minute, they had defeated Valencia with a late, late goal, then beaten Benfica on penalties.
So, Spanish teams now hold the European Cup, the Europa League, the World Cup and the European Championships. But who cares about that? The medals that really matter are these. If anyone can be bothered to turn up and present them, that is …
Atlético Madrid picked up Martín Demichelis for free, sold him for €5m without him ever having played a match for the club and still won the league. But the winner has to be Neymar’s dad: a bargain at just €40m.
Best new contract
On the eve of the final match of the season, Barcelona proudly announced that Leo Messi had signed a new deal at the Camp Nou. A new deal in which he became the world’s best paid player in return for agreeing to stay at the club for another five years, to increase his buy-out clause to €1,000m, and hand over his image rights. Oh, wait, no sorry, that should read: “In which the length of the contract and the size of his buy-out clause did not change, in which no commitment was given, and in which he gave Barcelona exactly 0% of his image rights, and after which, just two days later, he said he would walk away if they wanted him to.” Still, at least it was the motivation he needed to win the league for them, eh?
“Neymar, superstar. Bale, disaster,” “Neymar, a leader whose value is rising all the time; Bale, an injured man who doesn’t justify his price.” Good work, Sport.
Most painful headline
After Barcelona had stuck it up Madrid in the first clásico of the season, Sport shouted: “Take that!”, while the Catalan daily El9 decided to take a step further. Their front page read: “With Vaseline.”
Most extended metaphor
AS. A photo of Celta Vigo’s manager Luis Enrique in cycling gear was all it took for them to pedal a line, saddling the reader with a load of wheelie bad bespoke cycling puns. “Levante is the first summit in Luis Enrique’s mountain stage,” the headline ran. “Right now the Celta manager is at the back of the peloton and there are tough climbs on the horizon … he needs to move up the pack.”
No, not the report from Valencia newspaper Provincias, who got hold of a full list of the first-team salaries and published them for the world to see (Ricardo Costa was the top earner on €3.7m a year, in case you’re wondering), but the Getafe fan who provoked Diego Costa into missing a penalty … by flashing his arse at him.
Barcelona presented an agreement with Black and Decker in which the blurb really did describe them as “more than tools”. But the best was probably the full-page advert for Barcelona-branded Japanese knives – “the best team on the pitch, the best team in the kitchen” – in which Cristian Tello cuts mushrooms, Pedro Rodríguez slices tomatoes and Víctor Valdés is busy taking a meat cleaver to a courgette in a picture that makes you wince in anticipation and screams “opening scene of Casualty” at you.
Here’s Víctor Valdés reacting to Barcelona’s defeat at Valladolid. If you listen carefully, you can actually hear their season being flushed down the toilet.
“At no stage has it looked like we won’t go through. I knew we would score, but the impressive thing has been not conceding and it has never looked likely to happen. I don’t want to jinx it, but … Oh, you’re fucking joking. Fuck. Don’t fucking do this. How unfair, man. Mother of God.” The former Valencia captain and now radio pundit David Albelda starts talking with less than a minute to go and his former club heading to the final of the Europa League … and finishes talking with his former club heading out, their season in tatters.
Most optimistic club
Athletic Bilbao, who decided to test the PA system at their new San Mamés Stadium … by playing the Champions League anthem. Very soon, they’ll be playing it for real.
Most pessimistic club
Rayo Vallecano, whose manager Paco Jemez announced: “No one hurts us as much as we hurt ourselves. We’re the ones slitting our wrists every day. It’s enough for our opponents just to wait for us [to kill ourselves].” It turned out they needn’t have worried. Mind you, they needed a dose of realism first. “We’re the smallest, shittiest team in the league and unless we get that into out heads, we will not compete,” Jemez said.
Ctrl C, Ctrl V from last year: the LFP of course … and someone really needs to invent an irony font for that ‘P’. Hang on a minute … Actually, this year it’s not the league (LFP) who wins the award. Not because they’re not rubbish: in fact, they were their normal mix of crushing cynicism and characteristic incompetence. They gave four different official kick-off times for the game that decided the league and did not finally stick to one until six days before. They enraged three sets of fans to pay homage to one set of fans who, frankly, had done nothing special. And their president, the man who told Uefa that they would enjoy football in Gibraltar more “when it’s given back to us”, published a novel of murder and match-fixing called “Football is NOT like this.” Of course not.
But, you see, this year there was someone even worse. So, this time it’s not the LFP, it’s the Federation (RFEF) who get this award after they let a load of suspended players off for a week because it was a bank holiday and their competition committee couldn’t be bothered to meet, and left Atlético Madrid trophyless as they won the title against Barcelona because their president had a prior engagement and couldn’t make it to the final game. Mind you, how was he supposed to know when it was going to be played?
It was just after midnight soon after Real Madrid had beaten Elche thanks to a ludicrous late penalty and Spain’s national police force were overrun with people reporting a robbery, so they responded with a tweet: “We’ve had over 120 mentions about football in the last 10 minutes. Remember, we’re here to help you on questions of SAFETY :-).” But the best has to be this one after Athletic Bilbao beat Barcelona: “List of teams who have won at the new San Mamés: ”
Best goal celebration
Cristiano Ronaldo responded to Sepp Blatter’s infamous drunk granddad at a wedding turned robotic dinosaur whose batteries are dying routine at Oxford University by celebrating a goal against Sevilla with a commander’s salute.
With one week still to go, Almería had secured survival and so they went to celebrate with their fans by throwing their shirts, shorts and boots into the crowd. There was just one small problem: they were not safe at all. And the following day they had to appeal to supporters to give their boots back for the final week. Where, this time, they did secure survival and they could do it all over again.
Real Betis in late October, early November. On the Sunday, an 18-year-old kid who’d never started a game scored against them after 13 seconds, setting up a 5-0 defeat; on the Monday their manager felt the need to hold a press conference to insist he wasn’t going to abandon ship, while up in the boardroom someone muttered: “more’s the pity”; on Tuesday, the ultras turned up at the training ground to abuse them, soon heading off to the coach’s office for an impromptu private meeting; on Wednesday, the team slipped into the relegation zone; on Thursday, they missed a penalty, twice; on Friday, the club published an official communiqué blaming the training ground incident on the coach; on Saturday, their most expensive summer signing went into hospital with appendicitis; and on Sunday, their centre-back broke his jaw. Still, things could only get better, right?
Wrong. It’s another award for Betis. This season really couldn’t have gone worse. They had three managers, one of whom was Juan Carlos Garrido, who was sacked after 47 days. He was still in the job when he called his time at the club “pointless” and he was almost right: Betis had collected just one point under him. He’d had just one point, but three bosses: first there was Vlada Stosic, the sporting director, but then he was sacked; then there was José Antonio Bosch, the court-appointed administrator, but then he was sacked; and then there was the president Miguel Guillén, who has now gone as well. Asked if he feared the sack following a 5-0 defeat, Garrido said: “They’ve already tried that.” So they tried it again. Betis finished the season relegated, their centre-back a broken man pleading to be taken off. Oh, and Sevilla won the Europa League.
Speaking of which, best banner
“My peace, your grief.” Sevilla fans slip the knife in during the derby.
“Now what?” journalists asked Ivan Rakitic after Sevilla had beaten Real Madrid at the Sánchez Pizjuán. “Now?” he said. “Now for a beer”. But Carlos Vela is even cooler. He scored a hat-trick in a 4-3 victory, was given the match ball signed by his team-mates and promptly announced: “I’ll give it to the dog so he can play with it.”
Ronaldo apologised for hitting a Rayo-supporting 12-year-old girl with a shot by giving her his shirt, only for some of those around her to chant for her to burn it and eventually force her to give it up, handing it over to a security guard. And when you’re holding out for a hero it’s hard to look beyond this photo of Alfred N’Diaye after a barrier collapsed in Pamplona on the final day. But the winner is none of them. Instead, it’s Almería’s 38-year-old goalkeeper Esteban, who reckons he has missed just two training sessions in a 20-year career. He is not retiring but he is leaving, despite being ever-present this season and being the goalkeeper with the second most saves in the division and being more than good enough to continue. He is dropping down to the Second Division B to play for the team where he started his professional career and the club he supported as a kid: Real Oviedo. “I have a friend who I thought I could help,” he said.
While Dani Alves was preparing to take a corner against Villarreal, someone threw a banana at him. He picked it up and ate a bit and so a campaign began which, at long last, has had an impact. Barcelona were losing 2-0 and won 3-2. After the game, Alves insisted: “I don’t know who threw it down but I’d like to thank them: that bit of potassium was what I needed to deliver the crosses for the goals.”
Tata Martino admitted that his wife bought his lucky pistachio polo shirts from the local El Corte Inglés on the day they arrived in Barcelona. “Maybe it’ll start a fashion,” he said. Or maybe it won’t. Meanwhile, the Valencia manager, Juan Antonio Pizzi, turned up at his presentation wearing a suit that belonged to someone else – someone quite a lot bigger than he is. But there can be only one winner. Sevilla’s appearance in the Europa League final meant that the whole continent got to enjoy Unai Emery’s blazer in all its red elbow-patched glory.
Javier Aguirre. Not so much I shot the sheriff but I did not shoot the deputy as I shot the sheriff, the deputy and the deputy’s dog. Espanyol’s manager was sent off for calling the referee an hijo de puta, a son of a bitch, prompting a fabulously foul-mouthed post match press conference in which he bemoaned that the referee had gone for the obvious target. Or, ante la duda, la más tetuda, as he put it. “If in doubt, the one with the biggest tits.” “I said hijo de puta but I say that 10 or 12 times a game: that’s the way I talk,” Aguirre admitted, going on to say hijo de puta rather a lot to reinforce the fact that he does indeed say hijo de puta rather a lot. Out came a magnificent stream of Mexican mouthing off, his accent getting stronger with every smirk and every swear word. “Chingada madre, hijo de puta, puta madre,” he went on, “I say things like that all the time. If you look, there’s even a banner with hijo de puta written on at the stadium. Some referees are a bit more of a laugh, some are more serious. So, yes, I was rightly sent off but … well, I could have been sent off 162 times.”
During one Second Division B game this season, an announcement went out on the PA system. “Is there a referee in the house?” As it turned out there was too. And so it was that a punter ran the line for Racing Santander.
“You talk about Pedro León as if he was Zidane.” So snapped José Mourinho. But has Zidane ever done this? Bartlomiej Pawlowski controlled, turned and volleyed in against Valladolid. Diego Costa’s overhead kick against Getafe was pretty tasty. And Ibai Gómez had only been on the pitch for 30 seconds when he thumped in this one against Real Madrid. The season’s best solo effort was down a division or three, although if it’s three nutmegs you want, how about Iago Falqué? Carlos Bacca’s goal against Madrid is worth watching if only for the astonishing assist from Ivan Rakitic, who flicked it over Pepe. With his heel. On the volley. And speaking of backheel volleys, the best of Ronaldo’s large collection of lovely goals was probably the 92nd-minute backheel against Valencia. But ultimately, the goal of the season probably belongs to Gareth Bale. Not this shot that travelled at over 100kph against Elche, or this one against Real Sociedad first time round, but the winner in the Copa del Rey final. Of course.
Ramos versus the Ref. Sergio Ramos was on four yellow cards and he had decided that he quite fancied being on five yellow cards; that way he would get a game suspension, sit out against Elche and come back against Atlético with the slate wiped clean. So he went looking for the fifth in the final 15 minutes against Getafe. There was just one problem with the plan: the referee Pérez Montero was wise to it. Ramos committed five fouls and those were the ones that were given; there were as many again that weren’t. However hard Ramos tried – and he tried pretty hard, handballing and kicking and pushing and protesting and flying in, getting wilder with every one, a mental soundtrack of cymbal crashes accompanying each tackle – Montero stubbornly, and comically, refused to pull out the card. When the whistle went, the best man had won and covering his mouth to avoid the lip-readers, close to breaking into a giggle, Ramos could only offer his hand and his congratulations. Well played.
Best actual match
Getafe v Real Sociedad was cold, wet and great fun; it finished with a 2-2 draw. After Atlético and Real Madrid drew 2-2, AS’s match report noted: “This was football, the way the British invented it in the middle ages … get the ball from one town to the other: whoever falls, the ball rolls and so do heads.” It was the way we invented and it was the way we like it too: a largely lawless match that Ancelotti called violent but was utterly compelling and furiously fast. Almería beat Real Sociedad 4-3 in a crazy match that was the start of their bid for survival: the victory pulled them out of the relegation zone and was decided with a 91st-minute goal by an 18-year-old kid called Hicham Khaloua, who was making his debut and had only been on the pitch for four minutes. The second clásico of the season finished 4-3 to Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabéu and might just have been the best so far this century.
Better still was Sevilla’s trip to the same stadium. Afterwards Carlo Ancelotti noted: “It lacked balance”. Sod balance. It had everything else: more than 30 shots, one red card, three penalties, none of which were, three very particular celebrations, points proven, and 10 goals. 10. The highest total at the Bernabéu in almost 50 years, even though both goalkeepers had been superb. Sevilla scored three and, for the first time in history, two penalties were given against Madrid at home, but still the visitors lost by four. It finished 7-3, but it was not finished until the very end and it was much more even than that makes it sound. When the final whistle went, they almost collapsed with exhaustion. And that was just the fans.
Team of the year
OK, OK, team of the year
GK: Thibaut Courtois (Atlético), RB: Juanfran. (Atlético), LB: Filipe Luís (Atlético), CB: Diego Godín (Atlético), CB: João Miranda (Atlético), M: Ivan Rakitic (Sevilla), M: Gabi (Atlético), M: Luka Modric (Real Madrid), M: Ángel Di María (Real Madrid), F: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), F: Diego Costa (Atlético). Subs: Koke, Raúl García and Turan (Atlético), Bale, Alonso, Benzema and Ramos (Real Madrid), Iniesta and Messi (Barcelona), Rico, Gurpegui, Laporte, Aduriz (Athletic Bilbao), Trashorras and Larrivey (Rayo Vallecano), Navas (Levante), Bacca (Sevilla), Bruno, Gio and Musacchio (Villarreal), Vela (Real Sociedad).
Manager of the year
Diego Simeone. The only doubt is whether the word is ‘year’.
Player of the year
Third: Diego Costa
Second: Cristiano Ronaldo.
Cristiano Ronaldo was consistently brilliant, finishing as top scorer in La Liga and top scorer in the Champions League, with a record 17 goals in that competition, including one in the final. Diego Costa was the most outstanding performer as judged against expectations and arguably the most decisive player in the league – although he, like Ronaldo, missed much of the final weeks, including the draw at the Camp Nou that clinched the title. A case could be made too for Thibaut Courtois. But after a historic season in Spain marked, perhaps more than any other in the last decade or more, by a team it feels more appropriate to chose a man who symbolises that team, even if he personally was talked about all too infrequently. And no one symbolises that team more than Atlético Madrid’s captain Gabi. Absolutely impeccable.
And finally, some of the season’s choicest quotes
• “If you haven’t got balls you can’t play for Valencia at Mestalla … if you haven’t got balls, you can’t be their manager either” – Miroslav Djukic talks balls.
• “All you need to play football is one ball and two bollocks” – so does Rayo coach Paco Jémez.
• “I would like to congratulate the players’ mothers, they gave them huge balls” – and so does Diego Simeone.
• “If we took 50 million off Madrid and Barcelona would they be able to keep Ronaldo, Messi or Neymar? Would the stars stay?” – Javier Tebas forgets about Juan Mata and David Silva, Fernando Torres and Álvaro Negredo, Radamel Falcao and Santi Cazorla and many, many more.
• “I agree with the labour reform of this government. We’re more competitive with lower salaries” – wonder if Florentino Pérez has told his players that?
• “Ramos kicks me and I kick him, but that’s part of the game” – Diego Costa.
• “I’m just like everyone else: if it’s in my area I don’t think it’s a penalty; if it’s in theirs, I do” – Athletic Bilbao manager Ernesto Valverde nails it.
• “Some people are being ridiculous when it comes to referees” – and again.
• “We live in a country where after a spectacle like [the 4-3 clásico] people try to explain it through the referees” – so does Gerard Piqué.
• “Football. You know, it’s a game where you have to get a ball between the posts and when you go you get a point, or a ‘goal’, and then you start again and you try to get some more ‘points’ and so it goes …” – Pepe Mel explains the basics.
• “No matter what, Djukic will end the season” – Valencia president Amadeo Salvo didn’t say when. Djukic was sacked on 16 December.
• “I voted for the Spanish players [Xavi and Iniesta] … because I don’t want to get into any Madrid-Barcelona war” – Vicente del Bosque rather tragically says it all. All kinds of wrong.