I'm pretending the cricket doesn't exist at the moment, so here are a few words on the Spanish football. (You have been warned.)
A team from the Second Division B (about equivalent to the old English 4th Division, and mostly semi-pros with a day job) reached the semi-final of the Cup. They did it by winning through to the major stages where the top clubs join in (equivalent to the 3rd round of the FA Cup) and then beating three First Division teams, over two legs, coming from behind late on in two of the ties.
This team was Mirandés, from Miranda de Ebro, a pleasant little town in the north of Spain best known as a nexus on the rail network; you had to change there to get to Bilbao, Santander, San Sebastian etc, or going the other way, to head south. The captain of this team is a bald bank worker called Pablo Infantes who may well find a statue of himself erected in the main square before long.
Having beaten Villarreal and Racing, they were 2-0 up in the first leg at Espanyol when they conceded three goals in the last ten minutes. That should have been the end of it , and in the return leg, on their ground, they went a goal behind, meaning they needed to score two goals, in the last few minutes, and the team that was 5th in the League. They did. The winner was in injury time. Espanyol were distraught, but the rest of us had been sort of expecting it, which was when we realized that this team was not a norml ragbag bunch of minnows.
In the semi-finals they drew Athletic Club de Bilbao (the second great love of my life. I am too old and too well-educated to suffer with the fortunes of a football team, but these things know no logic). Do not fail to take them seriously, do not imagine that this is an easy tie, and do not imagine that they are just a low division team. They are not. They were, at that moment, a Cup team on a run, who had shown they could play with the best and beat them, and they knew it. Their belief in themselves was terrifying, and absolute.
The whole of Spain, except in Bilbao (and they say that we Bilbainos get born where we damn well feel like it) was behind Mirandés. Not just because they were the underdogs, but because they were playing football like no underdog I've ever seen. They never tired, they never gave up, they never lost their shape on the field. They were a very serious threat. On the other hand, we are, it is generally agreed, playing the best football in Spain at the moment, and we knew what we were facing.
The first leg was in Miranda last week. We scored two goals in the first half hour and had the game under control and the tie half won. Mirandés just kept on playing good football, atacking, trying everything, believing in themselves. They got one back in injurt time, which meant they still had a chance in Bilbao.
Yesterday they started badly. Out of position, not sharp enough. For the first time in months they looked like what they were. Only for about half an hour, but we took all our chances and after 20 mins we were 3-0 up. Mirandés needed to score four goals to win, and they weren't going to do it. The tie was over. Nobody told Mirandés, though. They got their game together, played the way they had planned to play, and kept coming at us. Like Bruce Willis in that film, they didn't know they were dead. They were as physically fit as any First Division team, and they had a plan, and they knew how to play football. They got a goal back, and celebrated as though their job were nearly done.
But there was no way back. In the end we beat them 6-2. They didn't deserve such a pounding, but they forced us to keep playing out hardest till the end. Those six goals are a tribute to the way they fought. We had to score six to feel safe. The last one was an own goal by Cesar Caneda, who was brought up in our youth team, and played a few games for us years ago, and who must have imagined a happier ending to his return to San Mamés. But he's a forward. In the 88th minute, losing 5-1, exhausted, he went back to help the defence. He hadn't given up. Amazing stuff. That's how you win games. And it's how you get on in life. It's how you do what you want to do, instead of whining from the sidelines about the unfairness of life. Yesterday the belief and the work and the plan and the fitness were not enough, but you can't win 'em all. Without all those things they would have got nowhere near the semi-final, and without them they would not have had the chance they had in Bilbao.
Mirandés are out of the Cup, and we play Barcelona in the final in May. So we Athleticos are happy. Mirandés, when they recover from the shock of losing, will have much to look back on and enjoy. They left the field to a standing ovation. It's something like cutting two ears in Las Ventas. San Mamés does not politely clap losers. It respects only courage, fight and very good football. We saw it yesterday, and acknowledged it freely.
This Mirandés will be remebered for many years, and may literally go down in legend and song. Someone will be working on a ballad even now. They deserve no less. Football is not war, it's entertainment. And yesterday we saw one hell of a show.
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