In the new edition of his book Morbo, Phil Ball meets the ever-polite people of Vigo and La Coruña, the north-western cities that have unexpectedly become Spain’s new football powerhouses, challenging Madrid and Barcelona from a weather-beaten land

In August 2002, most of Spain was covered by a wet blanket of stubborn grey cloud instead of enjoying the usual weeks of sunshine. Curiously, Galicia, the north-western region of Spain that normally suffers from an average of 320 days of rain a year, was enjoying its best summer for 50 years, baking under cloudless skies while the rest of the country shivered in the rain. Approaching a young couple on the beach at La Coruña, a reporter for Spain’s national television channel, TVE1, held out a microphone to the bikini-clad girl and asked her how she felt for the rest of Spain. With an indignant flick of her sun-bleached blonde hair, she tersely replied: “Que se jodan.” (“Fuck ’em.”) The rest of Spain was outraged, yet at the same time amused by the confirmation that the Galicians thought of Spain as a land-mass hardly worth considering.

Galicia is a weird, bleak place, battered by the Atlan­tic winds and soaked by the prevailing westerlies. Apart from its terrible weather, the region has traditionally been known for the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela (a city that has a football team too, of course). Galicia’s claims of Celtic ties fit easily with the green, hilly landscape and the little gaita bagpipes whose strangled wail seems to emanate from every corner of Santiago. Galicia has a history of poverty, famine and forced emigration that has determined, to an unfortunate extent, much of its cultural mindset. But there is now a growing sense of the need to fit into the new social dynamics of European integration and, as with Ire­land, football has played an interesting role.

The idea that remote and windswept Galicia could produce a championship-winning side would have seem­ed laughable even 20 years ago. But now it’s a reality, with Deportivo finally winning the title in 2000, after a decade of threatening to. That event made La Coruña only the second city of fewer than 250,000 people to produce a title-winning side (the first being San Sebastián). Deportivo’s president, Augusto Len­doiro, seems to have been the spur for their change in fortune. Formerly a local politician with the right-wing Partido Popular, he has used his contacts and persuasive personality to loosen others’ purse strings rather than his own.

At first his strategy was entirely based on bringing in foreigners (among them Rivaldo and Bebeto) to create the “Tower of Babel” side of the mid-Nineties. Depor were the first Spanish club to put out a side wholly containing foreigners, against Atlético Madrid in 1996. But after that experiment backfired, the un­assuming Basque Javier Irureta took over the team, leavened the foreign purchases with Spanish youngsters and concentrated on playing solid percentage football. When he cut down the sometimes unwieldy squad to more workable proportions, success finally came. Even more remarkable than their silverware has been the consistency of Depor’s challenge to Real Madrid and Barcelona, with eight top-three finishes in the 11 seasons since they first reached those heights, in 1992-93. Indeed, Real and Barça have each managed it on only seven occasions over the same period.

A similarly unexpected upward swing has taken place in Vigo, the city around the bend and down from the western tip of Spain, just north of the Portuguese border. Although yet to win a domestic tro­phy, Celta de Vigo have become regular contenders for European football and reached the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup in 1999 and 2001. In 2002-03 they crept closer again to the honours, with fourth place taking them into the Champions League for the first time. Celta consider themselves the more authentic Galician team and resent Depor’s recent successes. Vigo has the reputation of presenting a harder, more working-class personality and tends to dismiss La Coruña, with its more service-oriented workforce, as pretentious and idle.

That October, I visited La Coruña to see Deportivo play Racing Santander. Despite the rather boxed-in, symmetrical nature of the ground, the place smells of football. Like Bilbao, there’s something special here, something in the air, in the way the locals sit waiting, or in the way they unwrap their sandwiches.

The Santander players trot on in their tracksuits for a warm-up and are booed half-heartedly by the as-yet sparse crowd. At my side sits Eugenio, from the news­paper Xornal Depor. He has a beard and looks like the virtuous sailor on the old Players cigarette packets. I ask him about Celta. Eugenio starts to nod his head compulsively and wiggle one of his legs up and down, as if his trousers have caught fire. He lets out an obscenity with the curious lilting tones typical of the local accent.

A large colleague leans over and squares up close to my face. “When they come here, we always treat their journalists well, but when we go there…!” and the two of them roar with laughter. “Last time we went to the bar at half-time, we asked the woman at the bar for a sarnie, and she says to us, ‘You can fuck off! Don’t your wives know how to wrap a sandwich? We only serve real men round here.’ Can you believe it?” I ask if this is typical of the reception Coruñeses get in Vigo. Eugenio tries to enlighten me: “They think we’re a bit posh. It’s because they’ve got more industry, more of a working-class community. There’s a famous saying from Vigo – Mientras Vigo trabaja, Coruña relaja (While Vigo works, Coruña relaxes).” I ask him which of the two cities considers itself more Gallego.

He considers the question carefully as the teams line up. “Well, I guess they do, but then again so do we. Maybe you’ll hear more Gallego spoken there than here, if that’s what you mean, but we don’t use that as a measure.” He taps his heart several times. “It’s here. Es un sentimiento. Nothing more.”

Regional nationalism plays a less obvious role in Galicia’s football than in the Basque Country or Catalonia. The pro-independence party, the BNG (Bloque Nacional Gallego) draws most of its support from Vigo, but it has never had much influence on the football scene there, certainly not in the way its Basque equivalent marked out the political territory of Athletic Bilbao. Even with the Tower of Babel side, there was no sense of foreigners being a problem because they were keeping local players out. The last Galician to play for Celta was Michel Salgado (subsequently of Real Mad­rid and Spain) and only the midfielder Fran has man­aged to keep the Coruña connection intact at Depor over the past decade. It’s as though the Galicians’ own tradition of moving away from the region has made them more tolerant of diversity at home – a side full of foreign mercenaries is fine, just as long as they show keen.

Irureta is a contemplative soul, like his adopted Gallegos. A week after Depor had won the 2000 league title, he walked part of the pilgrim route of St James, alone, with an enormous stick and an old rucksack. But he does not seem to inspire affection. In fact, he seems to have developed an uncanny ability to annoy people whenever he opens his mouth. A friend of mine who played for Real Sociedad’s B side when Irureta was the first-team coach told me it was like being managed by a funeral executive.

Irureta is the only person to have managed both the major Galician sides, Celta and Depor, and the two major Basque teams, Athletic Bilbao and Real Soc­iedad. But it is one of the great mysteries of the contemporary Spanish game that he is rated neither by the Gallegos nor by the Spanish football public at large, despite his monumental successes at Depor.

By 2002, Deportivo were the fourth best club side in the world (according to FIFA), from whose ranks emerged one of Europe’s best midfielders, Juan Carlos Valerón, chief architect of Spain’s progress to the 2002 World Cup quarter-finals. The likelihood of Deportivo and Celta staying at the top seems to depend largely on their ability to hang on to this type of player and that is conditioned, as always, by the skill with which they can carry on balancing the books. All good things can come to an end, of course, but those who saw the rise of Galicia in the 1990s as a temporary phenomenon have so far been forced to eat their words.

From WSC 203 January 2004. What was happening this month

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