Pitchside Europe

Spain stars spend holiday doing ‘national’ service

Juan Sebastian Veron struggled with four games in seven days over England’s festive period. “In the first months I coped well, or really well,” he said. “But after December, it was very difficult for me to keep up. I would suffer from the lack of fitness base, I would not last a whole game, I would pick up injuries.”

Veron had gone from Italy, where, like most countries in Europe, Serie A has a winter break, to England “where they play the whole year: Christmas, New Year, non-stop.”

The breaks vary. Germany has a month, but Spain just two weeks and even that’s too much for many fans who miss matches and can’t wait for the season to restart. Even those two weeks are trimmed down for the players who represent their 'country' in a friendly match.

The Basque Country hammered Bolivia 6-1 on Saturday in San Sebastian. The team featured Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad stars, plus Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso and Real Betis’ Spanish international Bernat. With Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta and Bayern Munich’s Javi Martinez (neither of whom played), the Basque Country have a midfield three to match any in the world.

The atmosphere in the Anoeta was better than you’d find at most Athletic or La Real games, fired by political passion as well as football. The fire brigade were kept busiest, putting out flares all over the stadium.

A Catalonia side coached by the most famous adopted Catalan, the seldom dull Johan Cruyff, play tonight against a sterner opponent: Nigeria. It’s a good warm up for the Super Eagles ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa later this month. They’ll be well remunerated, the European location suits many of their players and the opponents are of a high standard.

Catalonia feature eight of Barcelona and Spain’s European and World champions. Of Barca’s Spanish senior internationals, only Andres Iniesta, Pedro and David Villa were not born in the region. Ask those who represent both Spain and Catalonia if it’s not a contradiction and they’ll explain diplomatically that the two can coexist. They also enjoy playing in a febrile atmosphere which is the opposite of Camp Nou most weeks.

Catalonia will be favourites in a game taken seriously in a sold-out Cornella, Espanyol’s 41,000-capacity home. With a side containing so many World Cup winners, they’d be favourites against almost any country in the world. Seven Catalans - Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Joan Capdevila, Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Cesc Fabregas – won the 2010 World Cup with Spain.

With tickets costing as little as 15 euros, many fans who don’t normally watch Barcelona’s big two get a chance to see their heroes. The crowd profile will be noticeably younger than regularly seen at league matches and almost all will take Catalan flags – mostly the ones representing independence given the current sentiment.

It’s an exercise in sabre -rattling, from the minute they leave home, with Barcelona’s underground packed with fans singing pro-Catalan and often anti-Spanish songs. They like to imagine what the future would be like with Catalonia as an independent country with its own national team competing in tournaments which are anything but friendly.

Borders can change and new national federations have been formed, as the former Yugoslavia will testify. Kosovo is pushing to join UEFA, but a break -up of Spain’s regions is not looming. Nor is it wanted by the Spanish government. They didn’t appreciate the progress of Gibraltar’s long campaign for sporting autonomy within UEFA.

The British-governed rock at the mouth of the Mediterranean will be allowed to compete in the next Euro U17 and U19 Championships and Spain is worried that might provide a precedent for something similar for the Basque Country and Catalonia.

Once the game is over (Catalonia and the Basque Country typically play two friendlies a year), normal service can resume, with fans looking forward to this Saturday’s Catalan derby against Espanyol.

Barca fans are receiving the increasingly positive news that their coach Tito Vilanova is on the mend after his treatment to remove a tumour. He was one person not complaining about the winter break and played paddle tennis with his son yesterday.

Espanyol, in 19th, have been encouraged by the start of new coach Javier Aguirre, formerly of Mexico and Atletico Madrid, after an awful 2012. Their aim is to stay up, Barca’s to win the league and the Champions League at a Wembley where they have won two of their previous four European Cups.

Barca’s obstacle to the Ballon d’Or award on January 7 is Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo. And a Madrid side chasing a record 10th European Cup might be the team which stops them in Europe. Madrid may be adrift in the league and suffering more internecine strife, but they’d like nothing more than that.

First, they have to overcome Manchester United in the most eagerly anticipated game of the last 16 of the Champions League.

Andy Mitten will be blogging for us throughout the season. He contributes to FourFourTwo, the Manchester Evening News and GQ magazine amongst other publications.

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