The shout went up: "Run, Pedro, run!" So Pedro Rodríguez ran. Fast. Across the concourse, beyond the baggage check, down the escalator and along platform two, security guard puffing away behind him as if his name was Marcelo da Silva. From the train, Pep Guardiola peered out anxiously as he approached and the warning sounded. Beep-beep-beep. Run, Pedro, run! Skidding across the polished floor, spinning on his heel with a cartoon screech and turning, Pedro finally hopped through the door just as it closed with an airy whoosh. Standing there on AVE 03162, the FC Barcelona delegate Carlos Naval breathed a sigh of relief and looked at his watch.
It was 4.01pm on Saturday afternoon and Barcelona had a match to go to.
Trouble was, that match kicked off in four hours time. Four hundred and eighty-nine kilometres away. Time was ticking. And so it was that Barcelona became Odysseus heading for Ithaca, Jake and Ellwood wearing sunglasses in the dark, Del Griffith finding that those aren't pillows. There were no planes, at least not yet, so trains and automobiles would have to do. It became a mad dash, Lola sprinting across Berlin, desperately trying to reach the Aktiv Markt before Manni pulled a pistol. Only, as well as the thumping sound of Tom Tykwer, the theme to Benny Hill sprang to mind – a sped-up, silly soundtrack punctured by accusation and recrimination.
This was an episode of comic incompetence, with a little posturing, pressuring and politics thrown in. Not just from Barça – although they got it wrong – or the media – although the reaction was often astonishingly bitter – but from the usual suspects. The country's football "authorities". As one writer put it simply: "La Liga: played by geniuses, run by idiots."
It all started on Saturday morning at 8.45am. And that was the first problem, the first accusation. For many, it should have started the day before when Spain's air traffic controllers – average salary: €350,000 (£296,000) – declared a wildcat strike that, on a bank holiday weekend, left more than 650,000 passengers grounded. Unlike other coaches, most of whom bring their squad together for a night in a hotel even before home games, Guardiola prefers his players to rest with their families and meet up on the morning of the match, even when they play away. It was risky, sure, and there was always a chance that one day it would bite them but with late kick-offs they'd never had any major problems.
This time, though, Spain's air space was closed on Friday. This time, they said, Barcelona would make alternative plans. Everyone else had: Sporting Gijón travelled 861km by coach to play Espanyol; Sevilla took a train to Ciudad Real, 331km away, and a coach the remaining 407km to Vila Real; Atlético ditched their plane and travelled to Valencia by coach; Racing Santander drove to Madrid and caught a train from there to Málaga, covering almost 1,000km. Barcelona have a super-duper team bus, complete with WiFi connection, card tables, and luggage racks big enough for Lionel Messi and Pedro to sleep in. And in Spanish terms, 489km to Pamplona isn't that far. But Guardiola was conscious of Barcelona's previous road trips – defeat in Milan and defeat in Soria – and there was no need. He wasn't, he insisted, avoiding it. "We would have gone by coach," he said. "If we had known." The Barcelona president Sandro Rosell had spoken to Aena, who run Spain's airports and he claimed that they had assured him that air space would be reopened. There would be no problems.
Yeah, like you can trust them.
And so it began. At 8.45am on Saturday, journalists and players' families gathered at El Prat airport, while the players arrived at Camp Nou. At 9.30am, the players got on the bus to go to the airport. And at 9.45am they got off again. At 11am, they were told air space would reopen at 1pm. At midday the vice-president and interior minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba announced a state of alarm – for the first time in 30 years – and the military took over. Air traffic controllers were forced back to work in a kind of reverse A-Team: instead of BA Baracus arriving in an armoured personnel vehicle, armoured personnel vehicles arrived in Barajas. At 1.50pm Camacho named his squad. And at 1.16pm the inevitable happened: it was finally announced that flights would be cancelled until at least 7pm.
At around the same time, and for the first time, Spain's footballing authorities appeared. No one had thought to contact Barcelona before or remind them of their obligations. Rosell spoke to Jorge Pérez at the Spanish Football Federation. To ask what to do, said Barcelona's defenders; to tell the federation what to do, said their attackers. Nothing was put in writing but Pérez agreed that if there were no flights, the game would be played on Sunday at 5pm. At 1.25pm, the RFEF postponed the game. At 1.32pm Guardiola told his players to have lunch, get home and come back at 4.30pm ready to catch a 5pm train. They would get the AVE to Zaragoza and take the coach from there to Pamplona, stay the night and play the following day.
There was just one problem, one that sadly speaks volumes: no one asked Osasuna. And when Osasuna found out they didn't think it was a good idea. Their players were hanging around the team hotel. "If we don't play it's a disgrace," complained Juanfran. "We're furious," said Walter Pandiani. The coach José Antonio Camacho paced the foyer muttering: "They're not coming, eh? Ha! You'll see: they'll be here by seven." The president Patxi Izco agreed. His phone was ringing: as he admitted, other presidents – he wouldn't say which – phoned him to "encourage" him to resist. Unlike just about everyone else, the fans – you know, the people who actually go to games, the ones always dumped upon by those who "run" it - were on his mind. We'll wait for Barcelona, he said. But we won't move the game until tomorrow.
At 2.55pm, Osasuna released a statement to that effect. In the meantime, Guardiola and Camacho spoke. At 3.05pm, the federation changed its mind. They called Barcelona back and told them they would be playing at 8pm as planned. If they didn't show, they would lose 3-0 and be docked a further three points. At 1.06pm, Barcelona began phoning their players, while RACC – the travel agency that Rosell has ditched – put the wheels in motion on a Plan B no one had thought of preparing before. The train would depart at 4pm, not 5pm. At 4pm, the RFEF formally announced the game would go ahead at 8pm, or as close as possible. And at 16.01, a sprinting Pedro boarded the train.
At 16.37 it stopped in Tarragona. At 16.37 it stopped in Lleida. And at 17.49 it stopped in Zaragoza, where Real Zaragoza were boarding an AVE to Madrid for their match with Getafe the following day. At 6pm Barcelona's coach collected the players and set off on the 180km to Pamplona, tracked every step of the way, breathlessly reported on, like OJ on Interstate 405. At 6.45pm Barcelona released a statement saying the REFF forced them to play at 8pm. Time was running out. Would they get changed on board, dashing straight onto the pitch in their kit, Sunday league style, stubbing out their fags and downing the dregs from their tea? Although they knew Osasuna would wait, they could have done. Just. Barcelona arrived at the Reyno de Navarra at 19.59 to chants of: "¡Tontos! ¡Tontos!" Stupid! Stupid!
And then their bus was made to trundle round to the other side of the ground.
At 8.03pm, Barcelona's players left the bus. At 8.04pm Naval was in the referee's room agreeing a new kick-off time. And at 8.45pm, the match began.
Some declared that Barcelona should have lost, insisting that the regulations state that if a team is not on the pitch within half an hour of kick-off, it counts as a no-show. They are condemned to lose 3-0 and have a further three points docked. But with Barcelona having been in contact with Osasuna and the match officials, that is not the case: the referee has the authority to delay the game, in agreement with both teams. And at least this time it was because one of the teams wasn't there – not just because one of the team's kits wasn't there like in one Seville derby. "I understood that we had to be flexible," said Patxi Izco – the one man to have come out of the affair with his reputation enhanced.
Well, him and Barcelona's team. Instead of losing 3-0, they won 3-0. At 8.59pm Osasuna should have had a penalty. At 9.11pm the man who caught his train by the skin of his teeth, Pedro, sneaked behind the defence to make it 1-0. At 9.49pm it was 2-0, through Messi. And at 10.08pm, it was 3-0, Messi again. In the Madrid media they were furious: Guardiola was attacked as the "Ayatollah", "the man who runs the federation," in Marca. Much was made of Barcelona's previous: an infamous cup game in which they came to the edge of the pitch, shook the referee's hand and refused to play, the pig's head and the five past midnight kick-off against Sevilla – none of which, ultimately, drew punishment. Here was yet more "proof" of the conspiracy – "evidence" that Barcelona run Spanish football.
But the truth is even worse: no one runs Spanish football. Not even the federation itself. On Thursday, the Iberian bid team for the 2018 World Cup insisted that they could organise the tournament "tomorrow". It was just a pity that they couldn't organise their own league; that there was no authority to impose a decision or propose a solution – whether right or wrong – and force it through; that on a match day there no clear channel of organisation. At the weekend the Spanish league set a new record: not only did they fail to fix a kick-off time until the day of the match, they didn't manage to fix it until the hour of the match.
Singled out as the Bad Guy, Guardiola could take no more. Sick of being attacked, often viciously, and presented as the man who "laughed at Spanish football" despite essentially just following what the game's governing body told him, he was spitting blood. And turning on the patriotic paranoia.
"We're just another victim of the strike, one of the 400,000. We had no intention of arriving late. I am sorry for Camacho and Osasuna but what power do I have?" he shot. "I don't decide these things. The RFEF told us the game would be put off until Sunday and then they get pressured – we know this country works through pressure – and they change their minds. If we had been told this morning we would have left at 9am, it's that simple. If we had been told we would lose the points we would have come, just as we did when we went to Milan. We know what this country is like. I don't have any power. We are just a small country called Catalunya, from way up there in a corner – and we don't have any say at all."
"I know that this is not the story," Guardiola added, "but my team has played fantastically well again." And with that, he got up. Barcelona left the stadium, got back on their bus, drove to the airport and caught a flight home. They had been in Pamplona less than four hours. Soon, they were back in Barcelona. Their plane was the first to land at El Prat all day.
• "If it's not the referee, it's the referee," moaned Manolo Llorente on Saturday night. Llorente was a director back in 2004 when a ludicrous last-minute penalty looked like costing Valencia the league title only for them to go and win it anyway. (Although the penalty itself was nowhere as ludicrous as AS's on-going insistence that it was a quite right, Marchena having apparently performed a judo hold called an Ushiro-Nage). Now, Llorente is the president and he was back in the Santiago Bernabéu and back complaining after David Albelda was sent off for two yellows – the second of which was for a handball when the ball appeared to have actually hit his chest. At the time it was 0-0. Down to ten men, Valencia eventually lost 2-0 with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring twice. The second was as brilliant as it was comic: Ronaldo screamed at Lass Diarra to overlap him for the pass and when the Frenchman didn't he shrugged as if to say: Sod it I'll score it myself. So that's exactly what he did.
• After a four-year delay, the Basque derby was back. And it was brilliant. Well, it was brilliant in the stands anyway. Up there, there was loads of noise and Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad supporters sitting side by side. On the pitch, it was fast and aggressive but not all that: la Real won 2-0 thanks to a silly penalty and a sillier own goal – both of them gifts from the former Liverpool centre-back Mikel San José. It was the first penalty that la Real have been awarded, in the same weekend that Barcelona got their first, meaning that every side in Spain has now been given at least one. The match, which brought together the two teams with the greatest number of youth teamers in their squad in La Liga – Athletic have 15, la Real 16 – saw Athletic failed to score for the first time and newly-promoted la Real climb to a brilliant and unexpected sixth place. "Keep a copy of the league table," smiled coach Martín Lasarte.
• Atlético are in big trouble. They have now lost three times in a week – including a Europa League defeat against Aris Salonika – and the president Enrique Cerezo is promising to "take action". Which is always dangerous.
• Racing Santander are in the relegation zone after a 4-1 thumping by Malaga and Miguel-Angel Portugal is doing his nut. "I'm going to start leaving people up in the stands," he vowed, "you'll see how they pull their fingers out then." Malaga scored two brilliant goals: Eliseu's crisp volley in particular was superb. But the best goal this weekend was Getafe's brilliantly worked third against Mallorca.
Results: Levante 2-0 Atlético, Osasuna 0-3 Barcelonal, Real Madrid 2-0 Valencia, Getafe 3-0 Mallorca, Almería 1-1 Zaragoza, Espanyol 1-0 Sporting, Málaga 4-1 Racing, Villarreal 1-0 Sevilla, Real Sociedad 2-0 Athletic Bilbao. Tonight: Deportivo v Hércules.