There is a phenomenon in Spain, one that is on the lips of commentators of the Primera División all over the world, one that tinges any match involving Spain’s two biggest teams, Real Madrid and Barcelona: villarato.
When I hear the word uttered on GolTv, on ESPN, even on the Fox Sport family of networks, it quickly becomes clear that the depth of this conspiracy is not that evident to those whispering its sinister name.
The Barcelona blog totalBarça is one of the few sites out there with a good run-down of the theory. To make a long story short, the Madrid press, spearheaded by Marca and their trusty rival/adversaries at AS, have perpetuated the idea that the past six years have witnessed a vast, secret plan by RFEF (the Spanish football association) President Ángel María Villar to damage Real Madrid and boost Barcelona by influencing referees.
The theory goes that because Barcelona’s President Laporta, notorious target of the Madrid press, supported Villar at a time when he was being pressured to step down by a number of big teams, including Real Madrid. The reward for Laporta’s support is the favoritism of referees, disciplinary committees, scheduling, etc.
The extent to which the conspiracy theory has been spread is a testament to the massive (and often meddling) influence of Marca and the Madrid press in general. Those of us who have coffee when we are in Spain (that would be 99% of us; the other 1% still go to the café and drink hot chocolate or orange juice, etc) know that there is virtually no watering hole, lunch counter, kiosk in the country that is not dominated by the Madrid daily. They are on the radio, in print, and of course, online, winning the game the most effective way possible: through an unending barrage of content, which always trumps quality in their aesthetic.
Barcelona-based daily, and main opposition (alongside El Mundo Deportivo) to Marca and AS, SPORT, has launched a counter-campaign, featuring a t-shirt that exclaims: “Villarato? What balls!” The t-shirt, pictured here alongside the aptly selected t-shirt commemorating last season’s 2-6 complete arsewhooping visited upon Madrid’s hide with little to no referee assistance in their own shell-shocked Bernabeu.
Naturally, one great loophole in the theory would be how to explain the atrocious performances by Madrid’s players in Spain and Europe that led to Barcelona running away with the spoils (including a number of drubbings administered by Barça upon their eternal rivals). Another would be that Real Madrid actually won a couple of league titles right after the alleged bust-up between Villar and his enemies.
Beyond the conspiracy theory is this lurking idea of the Madrid media. MARCA has had some truly outlandish features in the past days, including a new video diary by their director, Eduardo Inda, which features him pouting and crying over spilled milk on a variety of topics. Most recently, it has been an anti-Manuel Pellegrini campaign in which the daily has been publishing any possible news to discredit the Madrid coach.
A recent Guardian article points out the obvious: that Pellegrini is and always was a scapegoat at a club where there is a coaching change on average once a year in the past 24 years. Indeed, for anyone who has followed the travails of the Madrid giant in the past few years, it has become clear that role of coach has become one of sacrificial lamb. Even coaches winning titles (Vicente Del Bosque, Fabio Capello) have been axed unceremoniously (Del Bosque for “not fitting the image” of young, cosmopolitan brand during the first Florentino Perez era) after winning the Spanish league. In Del Bosque’s case, he won two Champions’ Leagues and was still fired; before him, Juup Heynckes won their 7th Champions’ League before getting the boot.
In most of these cases, the Madrid press has either heavily campaigned for the heads of such coaches or exacerbated atmospheres in which they were being called in to question. Despite the premise of being “civilians” in the world of football, the press has taken a hands-on approach, destabilizing teams and influencing the politics of the club. Their influence has extended even to the Spanish national team: during the Luis Aragonés era, MARCA campaigned against him, basing their argument on his refusal to call up Raúl González–favored pet of the newspaper–to the national team.
In reality, Raúl’s form had been atrocious in the qualifying campaign for Euro 2008, and it was becoming apparent that his number was up as a top-class player. He did not take part in the run-up to the tournament, yet based on an upturn in his performances near tournament time, this segment of the press rallied for his inclusion. Aragonés held firmly; Raúl was never called up again and Spain won the European Nations’ Cup that summer.
The anecdote of Raúl is a telling one; for years, the Madrid press has put him on a pedestal (at times, deservingly) for his performance, though often the impression one gets is that he is idolized by them for being a symbol of some post-Francoist Spanishness. In his appearance, his marriage to a supermodel who became a homemaker, his manners, he is a classic macho ibérico, embodying masculine traits of loyalty, devotion to the cause, etc. Former players have called him a destabilizing force, even a cancer, in the locker room. Go figure.
As MARCA continues its neo-nationalist quest to destabilize Barcelona with the villarato theory, their campaign to bring down Pellegrini speaks of another defense of “Spanish ideals.” As the Paul Wilson/Guardian article discusses, there is a desperate desire in the coffers of Real Madrid to defend the “Real Madrid Way.” This “way” has recently been to pay overblown prices–exaggerated and sky-high–for top players, cramming them in a team with no regard as to how they will play or developing a system, and demanding instantaneous success. Later, when the project fails, as it has this season, the hundreds of millions of euros are burst like a bubble and the press (and the sporting directors) scramble to find a donkey to pin the blame upon.
With the current economic crisis in Spain, few reasonable people would dare to defend the way that speculators and “investors” exerted control over the now-burst bubble that was the Spanish economy in the past decade or so. However, MARCA proves that there are people out there militantly defending the footballing equivalent of such exorbitant ways.