The Spanish Football Association (RFEF) should be celebrating one of its most competitive La Liga campaigns in years as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid battle it out at the top, but instead recent events off the pitch have warranted as much attention as those on it.
After 24 matches the trio are tied at the top with 60 points apiece, ensuring one of the closest title races in recent times in Spain. Each have slipped up, each have enjoyed formidable unbeaten runs and each have shown enough quality to suggest they can win the title. Atletico’s rise under Diego Simeone may only have made it a three-horse race rather than two, but the final few months of the season are set to be scintillating.
All three showcased their potential title-winning qualities at the weekend with emphatic wins. It started at the Vicente Calderon as Atleti bounced back from three straight defeats in all competitions with a commanding 3-0 win over Real Valladolid to move temporarily to the top. Just hours later Barca were back at the summit and in some style when they took advantage of Rayo Vallecano’s leaking defence to win 6-0 at the Camp Nou. On Sunday Real Madrid swept the pressure aside to ease to a 3-0 win at near neighbours Getafe. Three comfortable wins and three reasons why each can win La Liga this season. Unfortunately for Spain the race for the top was overshadowed by unwanted scenes elsewhere over the weekend.
The only thing untoward at El Madrigal with five minutes remaining on Sunday night was that Celta Vigo, five points above the relegation places before kick-off, were leading Champions League-chasing Villarreal in their own back yard. Fabián Orellana had given Luis Enrique’s side the advantage and they looked on-course to cause one of the shocks of the weekend against Marcelino’s men.
Then it happened.
At first it looked like a smoke bomb, not condoned but not exactly rare in European football stadiums. It was thrown from the stadium’s south end with around three minutes to go and Yellow Submarines striker Jonathan Pereira did as any other player would probably do in the same situation and kick it off the pitch. Only it wasn’t a smoke bomb. Pereira knew it, the 22 men on the pitch knew it and the 15,000 supporters inside the ground knew it too.
The players sped for the dressing room covering their mouths and noses and the fans fast-tracked for the exit gates doing the same. This wasn’t a normal smoke bomb, it was a tear gas canister thrown on to the pitch that caused panic around the stadium and caused shock for those watching the events unfold on their television sets. Used mainly by police to control riots and such like, the effects can cause blindness in the extreme cases. This was a dark day for Villarreal and it was a dark day for Spanish football.
Despite the commotion and despite the concerns the match was finished - there were only three minutes plus stoppage time to play. The players returned around 15 minutes later with the gas cleared but the vast majority of the shocked spectators did not. It certainly suited nobody but Celta returned and added a second to secure a valuable three points for them and leave Villarreal with plenty to do if they wanted to secure a top-four finish. But few were talking about the match.
Villarreal president Fernando Roig held a press conference straight after the match. "Villarreal regret and condemn what happened," he said. "We believe it was someone not associated with the club who committed an unspeakable act of vandalism, an outrage. Someone threw it from one of the exits and ran out. The police are looking into it, looking at the security cameras. The individual planned to come and do damage to Villarreal.”
Someone “not associated” with the club, but someone who initially could not be identified. Eventually after trawling through the CCTV footage police gathered some information on someone who was around 30-years-old and 1.70m tall. The poor CCTV quality, coupled with the masses of smoke that engulfed the stadium, prevented any clear identification and the perpetrator has yet too be found. Roig was keen to move the blame from his club and from his supporters but Villarreal have yet to produce their findings to Spanish Football Federation’s Competitions Committee. A meeting was due on Wednesday but that has been postponed to allow the Castellón club to complete their report.
The incident is the tip of the iceberg as far as recent off-the-pitch matters go in La Liga. At the end of Atletico Madrid’s 3-0 Copa del Rey semi-final first leg defeat at neighbours Real Madrid racist chanting from the away supporters was directed at Madrid full-back Marcelo, who was warming down with the rest of Los Blancos’ unused substitutes as Atleti’s travelling support were held behind at the end. His young son was on the Bernabeu pitch with him, too. The British press reported the ugly scenes but the Spanish press were not so forthcoming and, as seems to be the unfortunate norm, the story has already been largely forgotten.
Just a week later the abuse turned physical. In the return leg at the Vicente Calderon, with the tie all-but over as a contest after Cristiano Ronaldo scoring a brace of penalties to put Carlo Ancelotti’s men 5-0 up on aggregate, the Portuguese was struck on the head by a lighter as he walked off the pitch at half-time towards the tunnel with Sergio Ramos.
The punishment handed to the club by the Competition Committee? €600 (£490), a punishment less than the fine given for drinking in the street in the Spanish capital. Again, the culprit was never found and Los Rojiblancos put it down to the supporter wearing club colours and hence blending into the crowd. The fact Ronaldo was able to continue in the second half was also taken into consideration when the fine was confirmed.
Now the committee is under the spotlight again. The fine thrown at Atletico was an extremely lenient one and there will be pressure to act against Villarreal given the severity of this incident. This wasn’t just one man, albeit a player, affected, this was a whole squad of players and a whole stadium - by something that is used as a chemical weapon. On top of a fine, that could run up to €3,000, there is also the possibility El Madrigal will be shut down for anything from two-three matches to up to two months.
It may just be the madness of one man, who may or may not be a Villarreal ‘supporter’, but it will be the club that will suffer. It will be other clubs that suffer, too, as Valencia, and indeed Rayo Vallecano and Real Betis, found out this week. The Liga de Fútbol Profesional (LFP), the body in charge of administering the two professional football leagues in Spain, announced changes to kick-off times less than two weeks before they are scheduled to take place. Valencia fans are hit the worst, with their match against Rayo being moved from 12 noon on Sunday, March 2 to 9pm. The switch is to allow Villarreal’s match against bottom club Real Betis to be played earlier and minimise any risk of another incident at El Madrigal. The fans, as ever, are the ones to be hurt the most.
Spain has never had a shortage of off-the-pitch controversy, no matter how big or small, but in one of La Liga’s most enthralling title races for many years, the latest string of incidents have not helped sell the competition and the RFEF needs to act. How the Competition Committee acts following the incident at El Madrigal could be crucial in allowing supporters near and far to enjoy the final few months of an extremely close-fought season.