Friday, 28 September 2007

TV or not TV

The Media wars that have been affecting Spanish League football this season intensified last night over the broadcasting rights for the Real Madrid - Betis match. Two rival media companies: Sogecable and Mediapro are currently in dispute over who has the right to show certain matches. Sogecable maintains that that Mediapro must first accept a contract on joint football rights signed by the two groups in 2006 and pay Sogecable a pending fine of around 70 million euros. Once Mediapro accepts these conditions, Sogecable said it will renew the broadcast of a television signal for the producer's use. Mediapro claims that the contract is no longer valid and denies that it owes Sogecable any fees. The latest salvo in this war ended up with the game being shown on Sogecable's pay per view channel, rather than on a free-to-air channel.

Real Madrid is caught in the middle of this dispute because it signed a deal with Mediapro last November for all its broadcasting rights until the 2012-2013 season. However, it has a still-current contract with Sogecable until the end of this season and is therefore legally bound to abide by its decisions on how matches are broadcast. To this effect, the club issued a communiqué yesterday deploring the current dispute, announcing that it had allowed both sets of TV cameras into the stadium in expectation of an agreement being reached and claiming that it had no choice but to comply with their contractual obligations to Sogecable.

The plot thickens because this match had been billed as the one free-to-air game that Spaniards have guaranteed by law (21/1997, if you must know) per round of the league. As the game was broadcast on PPV, this meant that no game was broadcast for free and the law has been broken. Real Madrid are probably unlikely to face any legal proceedings as they allowed both sets of cameras onto the stadium and it was Sogecable's insistence that they had the rights to the game that prevented it from being broadcast by Mediapro on their La Sexta channel. Sogecable's argument is likely to centre aruond the fact that they proposed other games for the free-to-air slot and it was Mediapro's intransigence that meant no games were broadcast. It's getting uglier by the day and will likely end up in the courts, as the stakes are very high for both sides.

The match result? 2-0 for Real, and very tedious it was too, so those who paid to watch it must feel even more disappointed. The only highlight, other than the fact that Real stay top was Julio Baptista's impressive overhead kick for the second goal. Let's hope he gets a few more minutes this season.

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Thursday, 27 September 2007

The dangerous legacy of attacking football

A fascinating tactical analysis in today's El País uncovers some of the historical reasons for Real's defensive woes, typified in recent games by the squad's inability to maintain possession. This is aggravated by the fact that the midfielders do not push back to help defend and the central defenders stay too close to Casillas's goal. The Real Madrid technical team is trying to rectify the situation but "it is not easy because this squad is accustomed to have possession. When a team is constructed for attack, the players get out of the habit of also performing defensive duties."

Back in 1999, the then Real Madrid captain and central defender, Fernando Hierro (confirmed on Tuesday as the new sporting director of the Spanish FA and officially presented earlier today), perhaps conscious of the fact that his speed was not one of his best attributes, argued with the defensive midfielder of the day, Fernando Redondo, about how far back the central defenders should stay. With the arrival of Florentino's era and the emphasis on attacking galáctico signings, Hierro found an ally in Iván Helguera (not a particularly fast footballer either), who argued that "with so many players attacking, you have to be very coordinated at the back to push forward. If you leave too much space behind you, they can hurt you on the counter."

That worked fine when Real with Zidane owned the midfield and kept control of the ball, but three trophyless years brought Capello back to the Bernabéu and a renewed rigour to the squad's defensive duties. This was mostly accomplished by keeping defenders and midfielders in the Real half waiting for the opportunity to counter-attack. This also explains why Real Madrid had a much worse home than away record, given the fans' expectations when playing at the Bernabéu.

The new manager now finds that he has a problem. He wants to be able to play attacking football, but still be solid in defence. This poses problems for the midfield, who have far too much ground to cover, as the defenders play too close to Casillas. Diarra complains that "The space between defenders and midfielders is too great. When we lose the ball it is very hard to get it back."

Schuster's challenge is to convince his defenders that they can play further forward and not put additional pressure on Casillas to perform his usual heroics. Barcelona, who have been playing the same way for five years, have far better defensive statistics: Touré steals a ball every 12 minutes, compared with 18 minutes for Diarra. Similarly, Iniesta has better numbers than Guti, and Xavi is far more effective defensively than Sneijder. The transition won't be easy, if it happens at all, but it may go some way to explain the curse of the central defender which has plagued Real Madrid for years.

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Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Paying the price of rotations

"We have to think about every player's physical condition in every match", said Bernd Schuster ahead of Sunday's game against newly promoted Valladolid. While not in Rafa Benítez's league when it comes to squad rotations, Schuster was as good as his word and left out Sneijder (replaced by Drenthe). Injuries to Pepe and Metzelder forced Ramos to join Cannavaro in the centre of defence, with Salgado on the right and Marcelo on the left (why not Torres?). Since the start of the season (including the Spanish Supercup), the only players still to get some time on the pitch are Soldado and reserve keepers Dudek and Codina. however, if Sneijder was in no condition to play (and he didn't come on when things turned sour), why was he on the bench? Why not Soldado, or better yet, Baptista?

Valladolid started very strong, putting the Real defence under a great deal of pressure in the first 20 minutes of the first half. Drenthe was ineffective on the left and Guti was not getting enough deliveries to feed to the front line. Diarra thankfully, was strong, despite his Ramadan-induced fasting, but he's not the type of player to link up with the forward players. Robinho was perhaps the most aggressive in the first half, with several jinking runs nearly undoing his markers. Salgado gave away two handballs in the area and Valladolid can count themselves unlucky neither of them turned into a penalty. He is really off form (I'm not the only one who thinks so), and Schuster should consider giving youngster Torres a run out.

The second half was more even, particularly when Robben came on for Drenthe on the one-hour mark. Things can only improve when he's fully match fit. However, first blood was for Valladolid, with a tremendous strike by Pedro López which Casillas, with his soon-to-be insured hands, had no chance of reaching. Casillas later claimed this was the second best goal ever scored against him.

With five minutes to go, Schuster decided to throw caution to the wind and brought Saviola on for Salgado. The little Argentine had only had a couple of touches when a through ball from Guti to van Nistelrooy beat Valladolid's offside trap. The Dutchman unselfishly laid the ball off to Saviola who merely needed a tap-in to score Real's equaliser. On the balance of play, a point was probably more than Real deserved and they'll be much happier with the outcome than Valladolid, who, like Almería, so far have shown they have what it takes to stay up this year.

In other news, the New York immigration service mistook Ramón Calderón, travelling on leisure, with a similarly-named criminal and detained him at the airport for over two hours while they checked him out. Unfortunately, telling tall stories to the press about the football club you run does not warrant a custodial sentence in the U.S., so they had to let him go.

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Thursday, 20 September 2007

When there's no unrest, make it up

Bernd Schuster is going to have to learn quickly how things work when you are in charge of a big club. And number one on his list is to realise that every word he says will be scrutinised minutely for meanings, even where none exist. Take for instance his interview with German TV channel Premiere following Real's 2-1 win over Werder Bremen in Tuesday's Champions League match:

"I have got to wait and see if this is what I really want. I have to see if I enjoy the way things work at Real Madrid in the long-term. You see all the people who come to training, and that really is a big responsibility for somebody who has previously only worked at small clubs. At Real you only get opinions, not facts. This is not good and I am not yet used to it. I will have to just see how this year goes."

I've not seen the interview, and even if I had I could not comment on it as my German is nonexistent. The above translation is taken from the Spanish version on Marca, so something may have been lost on the way. German tabloid Bild and Marca itself believe it signals a desire for Schuster to leave at the end of the season. As, on the other hand, has completely ignored the story and is keener on trying to sell the fact that Bremen's Brazilian midfielder Diego is on his way to the Bernabéu next summer. The likelihood is that these are the unguarded words of someone whose life and way of working has changed radically since his last job and is saying he needs to take stock after some time to see how he is doing. I think it unlikely that he is sending a message to his employers this early in the season, and when things so far are going his way. But what Schuster has to learn, and learn quickly, is that everything you say can and will be taken out of context by a press desperate to get their angle of the story onto their front pages. And this can contribute to a destabilisation in the club; not by itself, of course, but if other factors also come into play.

Schuster must have realised that he had to provide some context, which is what he did the following evening on the Spanish Antena 3 TV channel: "Of course I'm happy. Just being in Real Madrid makes me happy because I have finally arrived at a big club and the results are going my way. I cannot ask for more. If I'm not happy now I don't know when I would be".

Some think that Marca is just causing trouble because, coincidentally, one of their favourite coaches, José Mourinho last night decided to leave Chelsea and they would like him at the helm. Personally, I find this a little far fetched. Others think, like I do, that this is just an easy way for Marca and Bild to fill their front pages.

In other news, BBDO consulting, a unit of the world's largest advertising agency, published a ranking of the 25 most valuable teams in Europe. Real Madrid is top with a brand value of 1,063 million euros, followed by Barcelona with 948 million and Manchester United with 922 million. The report also says that Real's three-year jersey sponsorship with online gambling company Bwin is worth more than 60 million euros.

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Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Unopposed, yet ineffective?

What a difference a year (and two league titles - in football and basketball) makes. All through last summer, after the disputed election result, and even into the AGM in December, Ramón Calderón's authority, and even his legitimacy as president of Real Madrid was constantly called into question.

On Sunday, Real Madrid held their AGM and approved, by an overwhelming majority, the accounts for last year, which showed the club had a healthy balance sheet, although also a significant amount of debt (not necessarily a major issue in an entity of this size). However, only 654 out of the 2,106 socios compromisarios made an appearance for the initial speeches by the president and the board, and a mere 353 remained for the voting. By the time questions from the floor were allowed, only about 100 socios remained, a worrying level of interest (or perhaps overcomplacency) in how the club is run.

I've written before about the voting process at AGMs and how I feel that it is an undemocratic way of doing things, and one which has little transparency. In most democratic institutions, the lack of participation would be seen as a source of concern, because it directly affects the validity of the mandate the leadership has over that institution. This sort of thing promotes cronyism and corruption and should be reformed as a matter of priority, but, of course, it's not going to happen unless the members attend in numbers and demand it.

A number of announcements were made regarding the building of a new High Performance Centre to be managed by the club physio Walter di Salvo, a new residence for the players to spend time together before matches, and a new arena for the basketball team. However, nothing was said about any upgrades to the Santiago Bernabéu to make it one of the best stadia in the world, something the "richest club in the world" should aim for. Contrast this with Barcelona announcing that they have engaged one of the most prestigious architects in the world, Sir Norman Foster, to do with the Nou Camp what he did for Wembley stadium.

My personal bugbear with this AGM was the inability of the management to reform the statutes of the club to ensure the postal voting debacle at the last presidential election does not happen again. After all this time, they are still working on them and they did not furnish a date when they would be presented to the members for approval. The club has entered the 21st century as a business that makes rather than loses money, but the same cannot be said for the transparency and fairness of its processes.

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Monday, 17 September 2007

Sneijder shows his worth

It wasn't pretty, but it was a win. That's not a standard summary game review for last season, but a fair reflection of Saturday's outcome against Almería. The newly promoted side set out to prove that their 3-0 season opening win at Deportivo was no fluke and took the game to Real Madrid, who floundered for the first half hour or so.

Saviola, in for Van Nistelrooy who was presumably not 100% after his international duty for the Netherlands, had a goal disallowed for a clear offside before picking up a rebound off the post from a Raúl strike and neatly putting it away. In the second half, Schuster brought Drenthe in for Heinze and Higuaín in for Robinho, like-for-like substitutions which preserved the tactical line-up. Almería, however, were uncowed and rightly protested a disallowed goal soon after the restart, as Higuaín was clearly playing Uche onside.

In fact, Almería are to be congratulated for their fighting spirit, which should be rewarded with retaining their top division status at the end of the season. After Sneijder doubled Real's lead with a sublime free kick worthy of David Beckham (his fourth goal in three matches), Almería received a further blow when Crusat was sent off for bringing down Saviola as the last defender. Still they kept on coming, harassing the Real defence, making Casillas look shaky on the high balls, and finally getting their reward with a fabulous finish by Uche, after he got the better of Cannavaro. They even had a penalty appeal turned down (it looked like an accidental clash between Metzelder and Natalio, rather than a deliberate trip). This is the sort of stuff that will have Sport and El Mundo Deportivo claiming biased refereeing, while Marca and As will say it was just human error, the opposite of what either side said after Barcelona's last game. Naturally.

Higuaín made it safe a few minutes later, with Saviola in an offside position (was he or wasn't he interfering with play? You decide) and Real are now the only side with three wins out of three, although Sevilla are 2/2 with a game in hand and looking as good as last season.

The Champions League group stages kick off this week, with Real hosting Werder Bremen on Tuesday, and the fixture list is starting to look its usual congested self at this stage of the season.

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Friday, 14 September 2007

General Disassembly

At last December's AGM, Ramón Calderón managed to avert a coup to his fledgling presidency but could not deliver a reform to the entity's statutes, especially regarding the management of postal voting in presidential elections. It is essential that the controversy which dogged the early months of his presidency and which was finally resolved in the courts cannot happen again.

The club is bullish about the club's performance over the past year, claiming it as "the best fiscal year in its history" with €351 million in ordinary revenue (20% up), €83 million in earnings (EBITDA, 43% up) and profit of €44 million before tax. It seems clear that the club's finances are sound and the structure put in place by former president Florentino Pérez to run the club as a modern business is reaping the rewards. However, there is concern in the Real Madrid blogosphere (see El Triangular Madridista in particular) that good results should not overshadow a number of questions that need answers, aside from the reform of the electoral process:

  • Accurate transfer figures (including commissions) for players arriving and leaving this season.
  • Detailed explanations on the allegations of electoral corruption in a Telecinco documentary last June.
  • Clarification of the club's sporting management structure. Who is in charge of what? Mijatovic? Portugal?
  • Plans to make the Bernabéu stadium once again fit to host the Champions' League final.
  • Detailed accounting of the board of directors' expenditure, which supposedly has matched in 6 months that of the administration of the previous 6 years.

More details next week.

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Wednesday, 5 September 2007

This is no time for euphoria

Coming back from a week's holiday to find that your team is the best thing since sliced bread (which, let's face it, was never that great an invention) always brings out the cynical side in my nature. Granted, winning 5-0 away from home doesn't happen every week (last time was over 11 years ago, on 24th January 1996 against Athletic Bilbao), and Villareal had not lost in 18 games.

Perhaps Bernd Schuster has it right, calling for an attitude balanced between joy and caution: "I'm not worried about the feeling of euphoria because there's a 10-day gap until the next game and in that time nobody will remember what happened here. That's why we're going to enjoy the result, which is a thing that happens only rarely. What I liked the most was the team's attitude; they're all working together at the highest level. We can undoubtedly improve on certain things because not everything was that great." Real Madrid looked good, balanced and playing more exciting football than under Capello, but let's not forget the 120 million euros that have been spent building this squad and all the jogo bonito in the world will not save Schuster from the chop if the trophies don't come his way.

There are some positives to take away, of course. Guti and Sneijder seem to be complementing each other in midfield better than could be expected (though of course it's still early days and Guti has a propensity for 'disappearing' from a number of games every season). Phil Ball argues that Drenthe and Sneijder have given the side the balance they sorely needed and Diarra is doing all the dirty work behind Guti and the little Dutchman. Heinze debuted at left back, coming in for Raúl(!), and freeing up Drenthe to roam further up the pitch, where he prefers to play. Cannavaro and Metzelder were solid in the centre of defence all evening, especially in the first half when Villareal had most of the possession and the attacking play. Ramos continues to impress on the right wing and his tribute to the late, lamented Antonio Puerta, who collapsed during Sevilla's opening game of the season, suffered a number of cardiac arrests and finally passed away a few days later, was spoiled by an officious yellow card from the otherwise fine refereeing of Medina Cantalejo. In a rare display of humanity, the Spanish Federation annulled the yellow card as they considered the tribute to be "sincere" and made in "exceptional circumstances".

However, some of the other news of the past week have not been so positive. Schuster took six canteranos with him to Austria for preseason training: Granero, Balboa, De la Red, Adrián, Codina and Bueno. None have any room in the current squad, given the influx of players, and in the hours before the closing of the transfer window on August 31st, De la Red and Granero moved to Getafe (transfer and loan, respectively) and Adrián was loaned to Celta for a year. Soldado does not seem to feature highly on Schuster striker list and may opt for a move at Christmas.

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