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Why Spain is smiles better for Robinson

Elizabeth Nash reports from Madrid on the Englishman revered for his wit
When Michael Robinson left Liverpool for Spain in 1984, there was little to suggest that the move would be a mark a fundamental change in his life.

Osasuna are one of the lesser lights of the Spanish league, and within two years a knee injury had forced him to retire anyway. However, the move took Robinson to Spain, and 13 years later he is still there. Indeed he is a national figure, thanks to his role as a television commentator in charge of the country's most popular sports show, one that has brought football's irreverent humour to stuffy Spanish television.

The Day After is a lively, often hilarious, round-up of weekend highlights, with whizzy special effects, affectionate portraits of local clubs and phone-in polls for "goal of the day".

"Robin" is now a media celebrity and a year ago he joined the board of Spain's successful Canal Plus cable network. Not bad for a Leicester lad who started his broadcasting career with 100 Spanish words - "90 of them swear words". He describes his show casually enough, but it is easy to see how his cheeky-chappy grin and deadpan humour revolutionised Spanish sports reporting.

"The programme's not too deep, really, pretty unpretentious. Our policy is: who and what are we going to praise today? We don't criticise much, don't want to be cruel. We want to show football's creative side."

The formula struck him when RTE, Spanish state television, sent him to cover the World Cup in Italy in 1990. He had been selling rights for Rupert Murdoch's Screensport, but RTE was more interested in his face than his rights and snapped him up as a commentator.

"I'd been a footballer for 16 years but in Italy I saw things I'd never seen before: youngsters from all over the world with painted faces jumping into fountains and sleeping on pavements, the fun side of football. I thought: 'crumbs, this should be on telly'. No one showed that side of it."

His programme became such a hit that he sold up his house in Windsor and settled in Madrid with his wife Christine, son Liam, now 11, and daughter Aimee, 5. Earlier this year he published a best-selling book, Las Cosas de Robin (Robin's Things), a chatty, witty autobiography and celebration of his adopted country. So little does he miss his home country that his English is peppered with Spanish expressions.

He says his success owes little to being English, but concedes that "the cradle of football" enjoys respect. "Spaniards respect the nobility of English football, but they don't see English players as particularly artistic or talented, just good professionals."

British miners and engineers brought the game to Spain in 1898, and early teams were of English expats, including club managers, "who were always called Mr So-and-So". So Spain's managers, Italian, Serb or British, are still called el Mister.

But beleaguered Bobby Robson of Barcelona gets little mileage out of being British, Robinson reckons. And it did not save John Toshack, who recently quit Deportivo La Coruna. "Bobby Robson hasn't any cachet in Spain. He has a marvellous CV but that stands for nothing, Englishman or no. Barca are only going to accept him if he wins, otherwise they don't give a monkey's."

As Deportivo slipped to fourth place, Toshack was given no time to build his team. Robson faces the hostility of a generation nostalgic for Johan Cruyff's dream team that won the league four years running - "the most beautiful team I've ever seen," Robinson says.

"Cruyff had an impact throughout Spain. Real Madrid was always the main club. But in 1990 things started to change. All over the country in cities that had always been Madridista, you started seeing kiddies of eight or 10 in Barca shirts. My son is a Barca fan. Before Cruyff, you'd never see a Barca fan outside Catalonia. That's all changed."

Barcelona's chairman, Carlos Nunez, backs Robson, but Nunez himself faces re-election next year, and his 125,000 season-ticket holders will punish him for sacking Cruyff unless Robson delivers the league.

Spanish passion for football continues to mount. Crowds, some 14 per cent greater than in Britain, have been soaring for six years, and the appetite for televised football seems insatiable. Hence television's eagerness to pay huge sums for rights, enabling clubs to offer fat cheques to foreign stars.

So Robinson is in the right place at the right time. He flashes his wrap- around smile. "I feel I'm locked in a toy factory and left to play on all the swings and tractors. The 90 minutes, the bits on the pitch, that's just an excuse for all the rest. That's the wonderful thing about football."