Doing his Owen thing

Michael Owen is in danger of becoming a symbol of Real Madrid’s decline – but is winning fans over and doing pretty well when given a chance, as Phil Ball explains

So Michael Owen is the latest victim of those nasty local cliques in which Johnny Foreigner has spec­ialised, ever since Kevin Keegan went to Hamburg? Real Madrid’s Raúl, a nasty piece of work according to certain recent reports in the English sports media, has apparently been making life un­comfortable for the latest export of Eng­land’s finest, telling the recently departed José Antonio Camacho to leave him out of the team because he wanted his mate Fernando Mor­ientes to play instead. Raúl was also the al­leged guilty party in the cold shouldering of Nicolas Anelka, but if this was true then surely he deserves a medal for bravery above and beyond the call of duty.

Owen himself, to his credit, has not been the source of this rumour. After weeks of being over­looked, save a couple of fleeting performances as substitute, he came good and scored four goals in five starts, courtesy of an injury to Beckham and a reshuffle by Madrid’s care­taker manager, Mariano García Remón. Before getting his chance, he had issued a few standard sentences to the British press pack in Madrid, hinting that he might return to Blighty if things didn’t begin to look up by Christmas. This tactically astute declaration, shot across the bows of a club who desperately prefer their dirty linen to be hung up in private, seemed to have the desired short-term effect, although the injury to David Beckham was fortuitous. Owen’s price tag of £9 million may be a week’s wages to president Florentino Pérez, but since it represents a substantial figure in the accounting books it has to be justified.

So Owen was given his chance. Besides, Raúl’s buddy Morientes, persuaded to return home from Monaco to try again, was out of sorts and Ronaldo, the other more obvious obstruction to Owen’s progress, was not exactly setting La Liga alight either. The Span­ish press – or at least the substantial Madrid lobby that dominates it – had decided early on that Owen was a polite but worthless little goon, keen as mustard but sadly unequipped with the technical know-how to survive in Europe’s most demanding league. But they had not received a visit, as far as is known, from the fearsome Raúl. As yet no anti-English editorial has been attributed to him. With regard to this particular issue the media had arrived at its own conclusions and decided that Owen was surplus to requirements. What Real Madrid needed was a midfield composite of Nicky Butt and Claude Makelele, a fit Jonathan Woodgate and an on-form Ronaldo. And one could hardly blame them for saying so, given the tendency of the press these days to write players off after the first training session. Owen, sensible chap that he seems to be, could hardly have been expecting a barbecue to be thrown in his honour, with Raúl cooking the sausages. Indeed, the low-key nature of his presentation, despite the fact that Alfredo Di Stéfano was again wheeled out to hand him the shirt, formed a sharp contrast to the flashbulbs and motorcades of his compatriot’s arrival last year.

History may recount how Owen the victim was shipped abroad hastily on the whim of a power-mad Real president, then left to rot in the discomfort zone. Despite three more goals coming off the bench, it’s still unclear how he will fare among the declining galácticos and the nervous in-house bitching that always accompanies Real Madrid’s periodic recessions – the current one exacerbated by the fact that Barcelona have risen again. Owen came on as sub in Real’s 3-0 defeat in the Camp Nou, a game that the tabloid Marca des­cribed as a turning point, as the “end of a cycle” in Madrid’s recent history. He may live to regret the mem­ory of that day, but the unfortunate fact is that Owen may come to represent the final symbol of the decline, of the fact that the club had lost their bearings.

Jorge Valdano, the club’s sporting director, has gone and no one with any true understanding of football seems to be allowed to steer the ship. Owen himself is blameless and has made sterling attempts, within the confines of his natural shyness, to limit the damage caused by his mere presence. Unlike Beckham, he has made a serious attempt to learn Spanish – a fact noted by the Anglophile Michel Salgado, who told the Guar­dian that Owen always took his dictionary on the plane with him and generally walked around clutching it like a hot-water bottle. The other players had noticed. They noticed that Woodgate, too, was beginning to speak Spanish – but then again he hasn’t had much else to do. With the Spanish, it’s the attempt that counts, not necessarily the result. Even Raúl was seen to pass the ball to Owen some time in mid-October.

Owen’s a nice, sensible sort of bloke who is basically from the same stock as Beckham, equipped with a sort of noble stoicism in the face of adversity. The Spanish are both puzzled and impressed by this sort of creature, but admire it enough to eventually concede the benefit of the doubt. They’re warming to him. It is the British press who prefer to pursue tales of ostracism, so that when our boys come good in the end, so much more for traditional British spunk. Owen is unlikely to have expected an easy ride, but is actually beginning to look a better player – trying new things, dropping deep and taking people on, looking for new ways to find space. He’ll probably last out his contract, which is more than can be said for several of his fourth-estate compatriots in Madrid, handed a further year’s grace just as Becks’s sun is beginning to set.

From WSC 215 January 2005. What was happening this month