Outward solidarity and inward struggles in La Liga
Spanish soccer found a common cause this weekend. The players wore T-shirts, each of their own club’s design, ahead of kick-offs around the country, spelling out expressions of solidarity and community with the refugees, chiefly from Syria, seeking shelter and help in Europe. At Real Madrid, a Syrian child, Zaid Abdul, accompanied Cristiano Ronaldo onto the pitch ahead of the fixture against Granada, the young guest dressed in Madrid’s white kit, the chaperone wearing a generous smile.
Sport can be a powerful demonstration of collective will, an inspirer of the public, although it would be an exaggeration to say Spain’s audiences, at least at La Liga’s two grandest stadiums spoke with one, united voice over the course of matchday four. Nobody booed the idea of solidarity with refugees, but there were a few demonstrations of disapproval of matters to do with the soccer itself, both at Real Madrid, who won by the minimum, 1-0 margin at home to a Granada they had beaten 9-1 in the equivalent game last season, and at Barca’s Camp Nou, where a banner behind one goal took issue with the whistling of one of their players during Spain’s international matches earlier this month.
"We are all with Gerard Pique," read the banner. Its creators knew they would not be using it to bolster the defender in the game against Levante, because Pique was serving the fourth and final suspension imposed for his behavior towards match officials during the Spanish Super Cup against Athletic Bilbao. That ban, coupled with the jeers Pique hears from crowds outside his native Catalonia, who regard him as a little too cocky, too Catalan, have made him a cause celebre for barcelonistas, a man perceived to be victimised by referees and crowds.
Pique has also been the club’s best defender in this year of the Treble, and given some of the jittery scorelines that ushered Barcelona into the season — four goals conceded against Sevilla in the UEFA Super Cup; another four in the away leg of the Spanish Super Cup — he is a significant absence from the line-up. Against Levante, Barcelona were already missing their regular goalkeeper, at least in league matches, Claudio Bravo, with injury.
As it happened, Marc Batra, selected in Pique’s place, scored the goal that put Barcelona in front, early in the second half after a side excluding Luis Suarez, Andres Iniesta, Jordi Alba — all rested — had labored to turn possession into practical advantage in the first 45 minutes. Once Batra had broken the impasse, more goals followed, one for Neymar, tenaciously finding a way through a thicket of Levante defenders, a Lionel Messi penalty and a late Messi goal for a 4-1 final score. In between his two strikes, Messi missed another spot-kick, which takes his recent record with penalties to just six successes from his last 12. Still, it will a very long time indeed before any Barca fans start booing his appointment as first-choice penalty-taker.
Outside Madrid, and Real’s Bernabeu stadium, Ronaldo often hears his share taunts and whistles against him. He is a superstar but not universally loved. On Saturday, he gave glimpses of sour Ronaldo. It was hard to detect another smile from him, except his grins of exasperation through a frustrating 90 minutes. One goal would have made him Madrid’s greatest goalscorer in history. It never came. He drew a blank, Karim Benzema heading in the only goal of the match.
The Madrid player who did unite the Bernabeu crowd was Keylor Navas, the goalkeeper, whose record this Liga season reads: Played four, conceded none. He made some sharp saves and spoke with some candor after the game of the confusing events at the end of the transfer window earlier this month, when Madrid tried to sell him to Manchester United and move United’s goalkeeper David de Gea in the opposite direction.
"It was hard, and it was uncomfortable for me," said Navas. "But it’s all in the past now." He felt encouraged once again by the chanting of his name in the stadium, although there may also have been a further agenda for some of the madridistas lauding him. Earlier in the day, Madrid president Florentino Perez had criticized fans for having whistled at Iker Casillas, the goalkeeper and former captain who left the club after 16 years’ service in the summer. To laud Navas, the keeper the president wanted to sell, is to tell Perez his idea of moving Navas away was wrong.
Navas would certainly have been a happier man come the end of Sunday than Barcelona’s keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who stood in for Bravo. Ter Stegen is usually the gloveman in Cup and European games, and so he won two major trophies, the Copa del Rey and Champions League, last season. This season, he has already suffered several embarrassing moments. At Roma last week, he watched a 44-meter shot, from Andrea Florenzi, sail over him for a goal. A fluke? Against Athletic last month, he also conceded a super-long-ranger, a shot from close to the halfway line.
He has been under scrutiny for that unhappy coincidence. And he will be under more after he flapped at a cross, missed the catch, and Levante scored their goal against Barcelona with ter Stegen out of position and responsible for it.