Bar owners cry foul over football on TV

A deal to be clinched this week allowing Spanish television to show football matches six nights a week - one more than last season - has thrown owners of bars and restaurant into a panic. They see football mania as the road to ruin.

When the season opens next Sunday, millions of Spaniards will stay at home, glued to their sets every night of the week except Friday, leaving city centres, bars and cinemas that would otherwise be vibrant deserted.

The television channels are delighted at the huge business brought in by soaring viewing figures, calculated at 28 per cent of gross domestic product. So are the football clubs, whose entire budgets are covered by the huge sums paid by television companies for broadcasting rights.

The deal is a carve-up between the private channel Antenna Tres and the two state channels, who will show matches from the Spanish league and Europe, ensuring that the football schedules do not clash.

But the mighty National Association of Restaurants, Cafes and Bars fears its livelihood will suffer a "mortal blow" and threatens reprisals. The association's leader, Ignacio Cabello, warned that the deal will cost its members pounds 850m a year in lost trade and could cut jobs in the sector by 30 per cent.

His 800,000 members plan counter-measures, ranging from a boycott of products advertised during televised matches to all-out strikes. The addition of Monday, hitherto a football-free evening, will alone result in pounds 300m being stripped from restaurants' takings, he said.

Mr Cabello even issued an appeal that could rend the fabric of that most precious Spanish institution, the family, by urging women to abandon their husbands on Saturday nights and venture out alone.

Following protests last year, the television companies agreed - grudgingly - to bring the Saturday night broadcast forward by half an hour to 8.30pm, enabling fans to go out for dinner or a film after the match. But it made little difference to the slump in trade on what ought to be the week's busiest night out.

As it is, non-football fans in Madrid appreciate the opportunity to cruise the tapas bars in comfort, enjoy uncrowded cinemas and drive unhindered up the Gran Via, which is usually immobilised by traffic. Old hands, however, know to move on before 11.30pm when the streets are jammed once more, taxis are unobtainable and bars are crammed.

The divisive effect within the family caused by televised football became evident during the Euro 96 championship, when increasing numbers of households acquired a second set so that women could retreat to another room and watch soap operas, romantic Hollywood classics and a slew of the televisual equivalents of Hola! magazine scheduled to compete with wall-to-wall football.

With a record nine broadcast games to be played each week in the coming season, these pressures will intensify. But the prospect of Spain's night spots being taken over by bands of single women out for a good time may prompt a profounder transformation of national habits.