Thursday, 30 October 2008

Calderón accused of living off the club

How much more can Ramón Calderón take before he decides that enough is enough and he packs his bags? It's not been an easy few days for the president of Real Madrid, continuously dogged by issues that have nothing to do with the team's sporting results.

Last week he had to contend with the announcement by Juan Villalonga that he would seek the presidency of the club at the next election, scheduled to take place by 2010. You may remember this same Villalonga was looking to poach Calderón's right-hand man José Ángel Sánchez back in July to head his proposed take-over at Valencia.

After Villalonga's attempt fell through just ten days later, nobody could predict that the man who used to run Spain's Telefónica before having to leave over accusations of insider trading would next try to take over an even bigger football club. Over at La Liga Loca there's an excellent review of the background to this story.

There followed then rumours that Florentino Pérez, the architect of the galácticos was seriously considering returning to the post he voluntarily resigned from in February 2006.

None of this should perhaps worry Calderón too much. After all, a lot can happen in two years, and the club has had sporting success with two consecutive league championships. However, it is the president's personal financial affairs that are now taking centre stage.

On Wednesday, business newspaper Negocio published an article detailing Calderón's income and tax statements since 2004. Without specifying how these details were obtained, the surprising news is that Calderón has declared no income and paid no tax between 2004 and 2007, and yet somehow managed to buy a flat in the centre of Madrid valued at some 800,000 euros.

This was followed that same next evening in José Antonio Abellán's personal crusade against the Real Madrid president in his radio programme El Tirachinas. Abellán claims that Calderón is charging personal expenses using two club credit cards for items as varied as cups of coffee, fuel for his car, rounds of golf and visits to health spas. He even published copies of these card statements on the radio station's website, blanking out some of the amounts. Abellán extended his accusations to the rest of the club's board members, saying Calderón was merely the figurehead.

In my opinion, the "documents" don't look very official and could have been knocked up very quickly. Also, some of the expenses are in locations that Calderón is known to have visited with the team during the preseason in Irdning and the Algarve. However, the allegations are extremely serious and have been echoed widely in the Spanish press.

Whether they can be justified as legitimate business expenses will presumably be addressed by Calderón himself at a press conference tonight at 19:00 local time (18:00 GMT).

Update: At his press conference, Calderón blasted his accusers, saying they had obtained information illegally and supplemented it with lies.

"Sadly I have to stand here before you to make a formal declaration to answer these very serious accusations, which this morning I have put in the hands of they police so they can initiate the relevant investigation."
"Most of the items mentioned were of my daughter Leticia and the rest are false. None of those items has been paid by Real Madrid. The situation is so serious and so brutally damaging to my prestige and the honour of Real Madrid that I could not remain silent."

He then went on to present documentary evidence from the banks to the effect that those credit cards had not been used by him for any personal motive and that most of the transactions that were published by the various media were from a debit account in the name of his daughter. He also showed copies of his tax statements for the past 4 years, in reply to the article from Negocio about his apparent lack of income.

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Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Ferguson still bitter over Ronaldo

Alex Ferguson has a right to be remembered as one of the best club managers the world has ever seen. His list of trophies (22 in 22 years) at the helm of Manchester United, including a treble (League, Cup and European Cup) in 1999 helped earn him a knighthood. He even won the now defunct Cup Winners' Cup with Aberdeen back in 1983, beating, you've guessed it, Real Madrid.

He is also a controversial media figure, and has not spoken to the BBC since they broadcast a programme over his son's alleged involvement in the football transfer market, an allegation that was never proved.

Ferguson is known for his clever use of psychology on both his players and on opponents, most famously when he completely unsettled Kevin Keegan, then at Newcastle, for the 1996 league title. However, he is not above showing his frustration when things don't go his way, and frequently criticises referees when he feels his players aren't properly 'protected'.

In an interview with GQ Magazine published in The Times, he gives vent to some of his annoyances over the whole summer saga regarding the transfer of Cristiano Ronaldo.

"I knew it was coming, so I wasn't surprised. When we sold Gabriel Heinze to Real Madrid [the previous summer], we knew it was going to happen, because Ronaldo was very close to Heinze. I knew what they were doing. I don't believe they were interested in Heinze – good player though he is. The endgame was to get Ronaldo.

What made it really obscene was that Madrid, as General Franco's club, had a history of being able to get whoever and whatever they wanted, before democracy came to Spain."

OK, you can perhaps forgive Ferguson being annoyed that his star player was the target of one of the biggest clubs on the planet, and that they made few bones about making it known (even though appearances were more or less maintained). The player and his advisers, who must surely shoulder a large part of the blame for the whole media circus, also unsurprisingly escape Ferguson's wrath - one wonders whether he would be so understanding had Ronaldo made a stronger attempt to leave Old Trafford. I wont even delve into the accusations he has faced of similar behaviour when he had wanted players to come to Manchester United.

But Ferguson is very conveniently ignoring both recent and ancient history. Gabriel Heinze did not go to Real Madrid in the summer of 2007 because he was part of a master plan to sign Cristiano Ronaldo. Heinze had been approached by Liverpool and Ferguson blocked the transfer, gifting a bargain to Real Madrid in the process. The whole thing was transacted in a matter of days, not weeks or months.

The whole General Franco claim is just laughable, all the more so in this day and age. Someone should perhaps point out that while Real Madrid won more league titles than either Barcelona or Atlético during the Franco years (14, vs. 8 and 7 respectively), Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona, clubs from parts of the country that had been against Franco during the Civil War, won more cup titles (9 and 8 vs. 6).

Even if any of that were true, the suggestion that in the 32 years since Spain became a democracy, Real Madrid still have the attitude that they can buy anyone they want when they want because of the Franco legacy is just plain bonkers, or to use Ferguson's own word, obscene.

Real Madrid have been seen as arrogant in European footballing circles because since Florentino put the club on a much sounder financial footing, they have been able to compete in the hyperinflationary transfer market. His policy of buying the best player on the market every year was the subject of worldwide media attention, even if, as we now know, it actually led to an unbalanced side that won no trophies for three years.

That transfer market, it must be said, is now led by Premiership clubs flush with TV and foreign owners' cash. Real Madrid are not unique in looking out for the best players and never have been, something that Ferguson conveniently forgets. But hey, he says he's retiring at the end of next season. Maybe he can spend some of his free time reading some history, instead of revising it.

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Monday, 27 October 2008

Can you please stop moaning?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm not fond of conspiracy theories (for my previous 'rant' on this issue, see the recent article and comments on Raúl). The latest one comes straight from the heart of Real Madrid Towers and revolves around dodgy refereeing decisions.

Pedja 'Brylcreem' Mijatovic left little of his state of mind (such as it is) to the imagination with statements like "we are worried. It's too easy to rule against Real. If in doubt they rule against and that cannot be". Even Schuster got in on the act during his post-match press conference saying he "shared Mijatovic's worries".

Are they at all justified? It's true to say that the referee in the Madrid derby last week was truly appalling, a particularly poor example of a particularly poor breed. Goals were disallowed, penalties awarded and players sent off, much like in this Sunday's game against Athletic.

The thing is, the facts just do not stack up; some decisions went against Real and some benefited them. Higuaín's disallowed goal last night was not offside and Heinze's penalty was more than doubtful. However, Marcelo should have seen red, not yellow, for his horrific tackle on Etxeberria on the stroke of half-time. And Real Madrid won the game, like last week.

Refereeing conspiracy theories have been the bread and butter of the Spanish sports press for decades - probably since the first ball was ever kicked between two sides. Alfredo Relaño in As for instance, has been claiming for years that the Spanish Federation, and Villar, its president, are at the core of a monstrous attempt to pervert the course of Spanish football by favouring Barcelona over Real Madrid.

There are supposedly no direct instructions (of course not, these would be too easy to disprove). Instead, referees who see things 'the right way' are allegedly rewarded with Cup finals and international appointments, and those who don't are relegated to obscurity. In other words, a triumph of insinuative rather than the investigative journalism they should be doing if they really though there was this level of corruption at the heart of the game.

Now, for a conspiracy to prosper, you need a couple of things: as few parties as possible must be involved and they must all be able to keep a secret... for ever. Call me naïve, but the general level of competence of the federation and its lackeys does not inspire me with a great deal of confidence in their chances of keeping a secret for longer than 24 hours, on a Tuesday, in July, when they're all home with the 'flu. Plus, the level of discretion displayed by the average club director is such that they could just not keep it to themselves if they'd somehow managed to put one over the opposition.

But the funny thing is, the papers this time are taking a different tack. Uncharacteristically for Marca, they have published an "analysis" that seeks to show that controversial refereeing decisions have been both for and against Real and that in no case have they had an influence in the result of the game (at least against Real Madrid), given that they have won all those games.

The Barcelona manager, Pep Guardiola, has taken the high ground that Real Madrid should aspire to occupy by saying that neither club should complain about the referees. "Seriously, these things work themselves out in the long term. We sportsmen have an obligation to behave ourselves. The referees do the best they can and that's the end of it". Let's hope that he continues to keep his composure, as neither Mijatovic nor Schuster seem to be able to do so. Perhaps they should also take note of the Athletic manager who said ironically "how hard it is to know how to win" after the game.

Another one who has recently joined the ranks of the moaners is Sergio Ramos. Following his midweek outburst saying that his recent poor performances are due to the fact that he gets little support on his wing, Bernd Schuster decided to leave him out of the squad and play Michel Salgado in his stead. "To be honest", said Ramos "I'm not happy playing right now. Before I had help on the right wing from Beckham and others and that helped a lot. Nowadays I feel very alone on the wing and it looks like I get the blame for all the mistakes". Though Schuster claimed that the change was for "rest and rotation" reasons, he also pointedly avoided making any comment on Ramos's statements, even after being repeatedly questioned about it just before the game.

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Sunday, 19 October 2008

Dramatic Derby

Gonzalo Higuaín snatched all three points for Real Madrid with a goal from the penalty spot deep into injury time and extended his side's unbeaten run at the Vicente Calderon stadium to nine years. However, the true "star" of the show was, for all the wrong reasons, referee Carlos Clos Gómez. Two disallowed goals, two extremely rigorous sendings-off and one instance of not applying the advantage rule when it could have resulted in a goal mean that he is receiving significantly more column inches than any of the other 22 men on the pitch.

The stadium, with a three-match ban from UEFA hanging over it for the incidents at the recent Champions League clash with Olympique Marseille, thankfully did not become a protagonist on the night. The fact that there were only a few hundred "visiting" fans (clearly a result of ticket allocation rules rather than the "inconvenience" of staying on the Madrid Metro for a few more stops) meant the large police contingent had little to deal with. Less impressive however, was the unfurling of a 10 metre-long banner just before half-time paying homage to recently deceased extreme right-wing Austrian politician Jörg Haider.

It took a mere 34 seconds for Ruud van Nistelrooy to get on the scoresheet, with a cheeky shot from outside the area that found the corner of the goal and surprised Atlético keeper Leo Franco. Twenty minutes later the Dutchman wasn't so lucky as the referee disallowed his goal for a dubious offside decision. Raúl then had another goal disallowed for offside, this time more debatable, but certainly a close call.

Real could have finished the half three goals up as Atlético's midfield fought with Gago and De la Red and lost. Instead, both sides went to the dressing room a man down. Perea slapped Sneijder and got his marching orders on the half hour. For Real Madrid, Van Nistelrooy was on the receiving end of an extremely harsh decision just eight minutes later. Frankly, it had the whiff of "compensation" from the referee.

Javier Aguirre, the local coach, brought on Simao after the break, making a huge difference to his side and forcing Real to give up significant ground. Sergio Ramos, who had had a fairly easy time of it in the first half, struggled to contain Atlético's attacks on his wing in the second. It was Simao himself who would send the local fans into a delirium of happiness as he flighted a free kick over the wall to beat a static Casillas, levelling the match with under a minute left of normal time.

However, there was still more drama to be played out. The referee had to stop the match in the second half for an injury he himself had picked up, and consequently had to add on plenty of stoppage time. Then, on the 96th minute, Drenthe was clearly tripped inside the area by Heitinga and Higuaín put away the resulting spot kick to extend Atlético's derby curse for yet another year.

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Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Against thoughtless racism

This is not a post about Real Madrid. It is tangentially related, as the incidents at the Santiago Bernabéu stadium in a friendly between Spain and England in 2004, prompted the English FA's head of communications to request that an upcoming friendly between the two national sides not be played at the same venue. The England coach, Fabio Capello, has distanced himself from these remarks, saying that "I don't decide where England play, it's a decision of the English federation which they will have to agree with the Spanish. For me I don't mind where we play, and of course if it is the Bernabéu, then all the better".

A lot of Spaniards have been scandalised about being tarred with the same brush as a few racist idiots and many feel misunderstood by the English about 'innocent' remarks such as those uttered by then national coach Luis Aragonés about Thierry Henry. Instead of answering these points myself, I leave it to the editor of As, Alfredo Relaño. I don't usually have a lot of time for As, or even for Relaño, but I think his commentary this time is worth translating.

England says that they don't want to play at the Bernabéu, because of the racist chants heard in that stadium against Ashley Cole in the last match between our two nations. At first, in the heat of the moment, we find their attitude offensive, but, on reflection, we should give it some thought. Are we racist? Perhaps we are, without knowing it, like that character of Molière's who spoke in prose without realising. What about the English then, you will ask, and with reason. Well, the English are the English and we are who we are. They were responsible for awful behaviour in their day and found themselves in a multiracial society before we did.

That's why we must give their reproaches some thought, even if they are exaggerated, like this one. For me, the game has to be played at the Bernabéu or not at all. If they don't want to play, then we don't play, and we'll say no more about it. But we have to think about this. Here we don't think we are racist but we speak without thinking: "Tell that black shit that...". We use expressions like "deceive like a Chinaman". We call those who are overly jealous "moors". We use the word "judiada" (jewry) to talk about a treasonous action. We mistrust those who are different. When we were all alike we didn't notice it. Now we are beginning to realise.

People always say to me: "we are not racist. We only jeer the black players from other teams, not our own black players". Well, perhaps that is to be more fanatical than racist, but it is still racist. When you call someone black with the intention of insulting them (I'm not even going to go into doing monkey chants) it's because you perceive being black as worse than not being black and that is racism pure and simple. It's another matter altogether that we don't see it as racism and that those who went through the same problems earlier have to tell us to make us notice. They had to bear that burden before and now seek for us to bear it as well. They may overdo it, as the English FA are doing now, but we must not waste the opportunity.

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Monday, 13 October 2008

Calderón faces calls for his resignation

In a week where the various international fixtures mean there is little in the way of Liga to talk about, the Madrid sports dailies try to entice punters to buy their wares with a tried-and-tested strategy: transfer talk. Never mind that it's only six weeks since the transfer window closed, As continue to carp on about Benzema and Marca have wheeled out Bernd Schuster to stoke the flames surrounding the future of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Obviously, if you're looking for news items unfavourable to Real Madrid, you need only to look at the Barcelona sports dailies ("Mourinho wants Pepe and Higuaín" - Mundo Deportivo, "Saviola to be asked to leave" - Sport). It is unusual, however, to have an interview with a pro-Real Madrid group in such a publication, except of course, when it's used to air grievances over Ramón Calderon's presidency of the club.

Plataforma Blanca, a group of several hundred Real Madrid socios (members) unhappy with the way the club is run, are headed by Eugenio Martínez, managing director of a PR firm. In the interview, Martínez claims he will demand Calderón's resignation at the next General Assembly:

Is reform necessary at the club?
Calderón's management team has shown that it does not have the ability to help Real Madrid evolve. We have to look to the future.

You see yourselves as an alternative at the helm?
We have the desire to be an alternative. Change is in the air.

Some say that Plataforma Blanca is just a front for Florentino [Pérez, former Real Madrid president].
There is nobody behind us. This initiative has come from young, professional, Real Madrid supporters looking to reform the club.

Calderón seems to go from conflict to conflict. Has his presidency really been so bad?
The club's image has been damaged by all those scandals and alleged irregularities. The climate right now is not favourable towards him, as he does no inspire confidence or credibility.

And the socios still don't have the accounts for the last financial year.
It's unbelievable that this late in the year we still have not seen the accounts or that a date has been set for the General Assembly.

Could debt once again threaten the club's survival?
I'm waiting to see the accounts, but by my reckoning, we could be three hundred million euros in debt. That leaves us with negative room to manoeuvre. The ability to generate revenue is smaller than expenditure, so the debt just keeps on growing.

How do you feel about those figures?
We are against approving the accounts. If that happens, it would be the first time in the club's history and the club would be effectively paralysed. A similar situation happened when Ramón Mendoza resigned as president [in 1995]. Ironically, it was Calderón who urged the socios to reject the budget, ending with Mendoza leaving and Lorenzo Sanz becoming president.

So Calderón could go from executioner to executed.
If you live by the sword, you die by the sword.

Is Calderón frightened of the socios?
It's understandable, given how they rejected his proposed reforms last May and asked for his resignation.

Will you ask for him to resign?
I will request it at the next Assembly, and if he does not, we'll have to consider a censure motion.

What is needed for a censure motion to succeed?
Half of the members present at the Assembly plus one. If Mr Calderón has any remaining self-respect, he should leave the club.

You have begun a civil suit alleging irregularities in the election of Socios compromisarios.
We are accusing Calderón and his friend Carrascosa of manipulating the database of socios in order to gain control over the Assembly. We do not intend to take the club to court, unlike Calderón himself did over the postal vote.

Is this just a few dissenting voices, or are Plataforma Blanca the tip of the iceberg? According to club rules, Calderón has until the end of December to convene a General Assembly and get the accounts approved, so we won't have long to wait.

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Monday, 6 October 2008

Raúl brace not enough to beat Espanyol

Espanyol put paid to Real Madrid's run of six consecutive victories in September and stole a point from the Bernabéu. The Barcelona club won the battle in midfield and frustrated most Real Madrid attacks with solid defensive work.

For their part, the Real Madrid back four did not have their best night. Heinze's clumsy challenge on Espanyol captain Raúl Tamudo resulted in a penalty, which Tamudo then expertly put away for Espanyol's first.

The lack of width in the Real Madrid midfield probably persuaded Sergio Ramos to join in the attack. His beautifully weighted cross was met by Raúl as he broke away from his marker. The captain has clearly benefited from being rested in midweek and is clearly most comfortable playing at home.

The equaliser did not seem to give Real Madrid any additional impetus. Poor defending from Heinze allowed Román Martínez to get the ball across Casillas' goal for Luis Garcia to put the Catalans ahead once more.

Deep in injury time in the first half, Raúl came once again to the rescue. The Real Madrid captain showed a clever bit of skill, taking advantage of a muddle in the Espanyol area to shift the ball quickly between his feet and put the ball beyond keeper Kameni. This makes a total of 16 goals that Raúl has scored against Espanyol in the Spanish league. Together with Valencia, Espanyol is the club that Raúl has scored most goals against.

The second half gave us more of the same, and, although Schuster brought Robben on for Van der Vaart to give his side some much needed width, the Dutchman only lasted 20 minutes before limping off with a pulled hamstring (though on Monday it was reported to be unlikely to be serious). Wesley Sneijder returned briefly from his preseason injury, but is clearly not yet fully match fit.

There were possible penalties at either end, and Van Nistelrooy could have grabbed a winner, but Kameni's reflexes saved his side. Diarra has been getting progressively better and was probably Real's best player in midfield. On the other hand, the Real Madrid forwards, other than Raúl, showed none of the accuracy which has been characterising the side in recent games. Higuaín was especially selfish, shooting several times from outside the box with little danger.

With the draw, Real Madrid drops to fifth in the table, just behind Barcelona on goal difference, who clearly stated their intentions this season with a thumping 6-1 demolition of Liga hopefuls Atlético Madrid (Real's next opponents on October 18th).

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