Helter Celta

The relaxation of restrictions post-Bosman has seen clubs across Europe experimenting with bulk importation of foreigners. Some have got their fingers burned, but Spain's Celta Vigo are a surprising success story. Phil Ball sizes them up

As you drive on west from the lush dairy pastures of Asturias in the north of Spain, the road sign that greets you with “Welcome to Galicia” seems like some kind of joke. Ahead stretches a bleak and barren countryside, about as welcoming as the blasted heath where Macbeth met his witches. The settings were not lost on Luis Buñuel, who shot two particularly depressing films using the region as back­drop. No phony weather sets were needed in a region that boasts an average of 320 days of rain a year, plus swirling mists, howling winds and a western seaboard called “The coast of death”. As if all that weren’t enough, General Fran­co himself was born a Gallego, in the ugly little town of Ferrol, and the region, unsurprisingly, is not exactly renowned for its ultra-liberal persuasions.

It’s all about as typically Spanish as a Scun­thorpe shopping precinct, but tourism seems to be on the up, possibly out of morbid fascination or more probably due to the upswing in British middlebrow pilgrims walking the St James route from the French border all the way to Santiago de Compostela – a particularly post-modern piece of mas­ochism that supposedly assuages all sorts of problems associated with modern life, like stress, or making too much money. Enter Celta de Vigo, whose newish president, Horacio Gomez, promised he would walk the Pilgrims Way (all 90 miles of it) in the event of Celta defeating Aston Villa. To his credit, he kept his word, dressed in the old style of the pilgrims, walked alone, and is now revered as if he were the reincarnation of St James himself.

Talk about endearing yourself to the paying public. They love him in Vigo, and they love their team, despite the fact that out of a squad of 26, only nine are Spanish and only two Galician. This could be partly explained by the city of Vigo itself. Stuck out on the south western edge of the Costa Do Morte, the feel is a bit like Liverpool – a strong sense of identity, but without the parochialism that you might get in a city more inland.

Vigo, once the most important port in Spain, has declined in the way that most ports have, but has always had an eye peering west, focused too much on the outside and the comings and goings to the New World to ever get too bogged down with itself. A case of naval, as opposed to navel gazing. The city is unmistakably Gallego, sailors wandering around, pulperia restaurants exclusively dedicated to the consumption of octopus, St James shells over every door and plenty of the Gallego language floating about. But it’s quite poor, hard and working-class, and it’s not the kind of place to be impressed by flash and money. Even Michel Salgado, the local star returned from a barren spell at Real Madrid, is a dead ringer for Gérard Depardieu on a bad day. No prima donnas here.

So all of a sudden, everyone wants to know about Celta. Johan Cruyff, writing his daily column in the tabloid Marca, went so far as to say that they were the best team in Europe at the moment, and were certainly playing the best football. Anyone who saw them dispatch Liverpool in Vigo last month would find it hard to disagree.

The whole thing is probably just one of those odd accidents that happens every now and then in football. A batch of players, largely failing at other clubs, has decamped into a situation that has somehow gelled them into a powerful unit, all for one and one for all. Of all the Spanish clubs, Celta is the most cosmopolitan, with no fewer than 11 nationalities represented in the squad. Their success – although they haven’t won anything yet – lends the lie to the post-Bosman pot-pourri nightmare, teams with a tower of Babel out on the pitch and half a dozen frantic interpreters in the dressing-room.

Indeed, it was Vigo’s Galician rival, the richer and better-known Deportivo de La Coruña, who last year seemed to confirm that a multi-ethnic squad was an idea made in hell. Endless squabbles were reported between sulking, semi-star Brazilians and surly East European imports, and it was Deportivo who put out the first totally non-Spanish side last season, an event highlighted by the Spanish Footballers Association as evidence of the need to reduce the number of foreign players in the Spanish league – a recommendation predictably ignored by Spain’s football administrators.

But Celta seem to have avoided any semblance of such problems. At the time of writing they lie second in the League, one place above Depor and looking down on both Real Madrid and Barcelona. Last season, under the lugubrious Basque Javier Irureta, they burst out of the stalls and led the league for a while, only to fall away eventually to finish sixth. Much to the supporters’ chagrin, Irureta was tempted north to Deportivo by the club’s richer president, Lendoiro, an event that has seen the recall of Spanish players to that side and an upturn in their fortunes. Victor Fernandez, kicking his heels after being shamefully sacked from Zaragoza after years of noble service, packed his bags and moved west to Vigo, and has made the team even better.

According to Fernandez himself, the secret is in the mix. The players have been encouraged to identify with the club and its sociocultural roots, to try to learn some Gallego, and to walk about the city like normal chaps, as opposed to driving around it in Ferraris. It seems to have worked, and the supporters don’t appear to give a monkey’s about the multi-ethnic composition of the squad. Cynics will say it works while the going is good but that, when things turn sour, as they have at Barcelona, the paying public starts to mutter the word “local” again. But Celta have never been in the same position as an institution like Barcelona FC, trapped in its role as the flagship of Catalan nationalism while importing half the Dutch national squad to steer the wheel. Only Athletic Bilbao claim to have a totally local squad these days, and even that is a myth perpetrated by their own rather loose definition of what constitutes a Basque.

There is a nationalist movement in Galicia, but it smacks somewhat of the Rutland Independence Front. The leader of the old Alianza Popular party, Manuel Fraga, was one of Franco’s most trusted spin-doctors, and that he should re-emerge at the age of 70 as the leader of a so-called nationalist party says it all really. Besides, the party has now merged with the governing conservative Partido Popular, and all talk of freedom for Galicia has blown away on the westerly winds.

Can Celta win the League? Finishing high enough to qualify for Europe again certainly looks to be within their grasp, but for a side whose best League placing was in 1948, when they finished fourth, winning the League would be a fantasy come true. In 1981, they were larking around in the Second Division B, hardly as good as the English Third Division. Their only other appearance in the UEFA was in the first round against Aberdeen in 1971, and that was as far as they got.

All the while, to the strains of various out-of-tune fiddles, the backroom boys in Barcelona and Madrid scratch their heads as they contemplate their burning edifices and crumbling strategies. It would give an awful lot of people an awful lot of pleasure if a side like Celta could go all the way this season. They might even change the route of that pilgrimage.

From WSC 144 February 1999. What was happening this month