Fed­er­a­tion in chaos af­ter Vil­lar’s ar­rest

World Soccer - - SeaSon Preview - Sid Lowe

Amonth be­fore the sea­son was due to start, and two days be­fore the fix­tures were an­nounced, po­lice ar­rived at the head­quar­ters of the Royal Span­ish Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion (RFEF) and ar­rested the pres­i­dent An­gel Maria Vil­lar. The man who had led the fed­er­a­tion for 29 years, and had just won elec­tions for four more, was taken to a po­lice sta­tion nearby in Las Rozas, north-west of Madrid and was there for 12 hours, be­fore be­ing driven to prison at Soto del Real and in­car­cer­ated with­out bail.

Vil­lar, his vice-pres­i­dent Juan Padron, Ra­mon Her­nan­dez and Vil­lar’s son Gorka are among those who stand ac­cused of cor­rup­tion, forgery, em­bez­zle­ment and mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tion of funds. In­ves­ti­ga­tions fo­cus on the ac­cu­sa­tion that Vil­lar and those close to him ben­e­fit­ted per­son­ally from his po­si­tion of power at the RFEF – his son, Gorka, es­pe­cially, as he was in­volved in the or­gan­i­sa­tion of matches in Korea and Latin Amer­ica, win­ning lu­cra­tive con­tracts to help stage, mar­ket and broad­cast them.

But there was more. A soc­cer school that was due to be built in Haiti af­ter the hur­ri­cane of 2010 never ma­te­ri­alised, de­spite € 1.8mil­lion be­ing en­trusted to the fed­er­a­tion. And wire­taps re­vealed the ex­tent of the pres­sure brought to bear upon re­gional pres­i­dents to sup­port Vil­lar in the elec­tions, of­fer­ing a por­trait of how he built and hung onto power. The 44-page doc­u­ment put to­gether by the state prose­cut­ing judge cites 59 peo­ple. And if it lacks de­fin­i­tive, de­ci­sive proof – a smok­ing gun – it still makes a strong case. It also makes for star­tling read­ing.

More de­tails will likely be re­vealed as the case pro­gresses as al­ready, peo­ple are com­ing out. Vil­lar’s era is, in all prob­a­bil­ity, over – al­though the case will be long and drawn out, and the po­lit­i­cal fight to oc­cupy the vac­uum he leaves be­hind will be messy and bit­ter.

The Con­sejo Su­pe­rior de De­portes, the state body that reg­u­lates sport, will push to have Vil­lar barred from the fed­er­a­tion. The pres­i­dent of the league, Javier Te­bas, who has long been at war with Vil­lar, de­clared: “Vil­lar is his­tory, but we have to root out ‘ vil­lar­ismo’. ” Te­bas had sup­ported Jorge Perez in the last elec­tions, seek­ing a foothold at the fed­er­a­tion too. Perez had been Vil­lar’s right-hand man for years.

In the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the ar­rest, there were other press­ing mat­ters to at­tend to, some­thing that re­flected an un­com­fort­able truth: in the end, what most peo­ple care about is that the game goes on.

On the day that Vil­lar was ar­rested, the RFEF an­nounced that the as­sem­bly at which the fix­tures would be con­firmed could not go ahead. Foot­ball fans had waited a long time for this and now, just when the wait was al­most over, it looked set to go on.

It was more than just the fix­tures: it was the ac­tual dates. With four weeks to go un­til the sea­son was due to start, no one had yet defini­tively con­firmed that would ac­tu­ally be the week­end the sea­son would start. Or if and when there would be a Christ­mas break. Or when it would all end. Ev­ery sum­mer some­thing seems to hap­pen; this time there was no strike, but there was a pres­i­dent in the slam­mer.

Many rolled their eyes. Oth­ers saw the fed­er­a­tion’s an­nounce­ment as a means of pres­sure: re­lease our pres­i­dent, or there’s no foot­ball. The RFEF then said, sim­ply, that they couldn’t very well do the draw with­out their com­put­ers – and the civil guard had taken them all away.

An­other an­nounce­ment fol­lowed: it would only be a day more, af­ter all, and the fix­tures would hap­pen. So, the me­dia was back at Las Rozas, even if the pres­i­dent wasn’t. “The league doesn’t

stop,” ran one front page, which was a re­lief. “The league has dates; what it doesn’t have is any­one in charge,” read an­other. It was hard to avoid wedg­ing your tongue in your cheek and re­spond­ing: “Good”.

The show will go on, be­gin­ning with Girona’s first-ever game in the top flight, which will be against Atletico Madrid. The game was due to be in Madrid, but with work not yet fin­ished on the new sta­dium, Girona will start at home.

The cla­sico will be on the fi­nal week­end be­fore Christ­mas and then three week­ends be­fore the sea­son closes. It will end with Madrid in Vil­lar­real and Barcelona against Real So­ciedad.

Ac­tu­ally, “be­gin” may not be the word. It is one thing to know which week­end the games are on, but kick-off times and dates are still un­con­firmed, as is the way in Spain. But the show goes on, at least, and it will cer­tainly be ex­cit­ing for Girona.

“We have fi­nally re­moved the thorn from our side,” de­fender Jonas Ra­malho said of Girona, which was the only Cata­lan prov­ince never to have a top-tier team, and their coach ad­mits that it is tra­di­tion­ally a city of Barcelona fans – Barca go there in week six. Mean­while, the club will an­nounce a more for­mal re­la­tion­ship with Manch­ester City, their back­ers over the last cou­ple of years. They are joined by Le­vante and Getafe, both of whom came straight back up.

It will be an ex­cit­ing sea­son for oth­ers too: a league with three new teams, eight new coaches, and plenty of new faces, plus a now-fa­mil­iar cast that still in­cludes the very best play­ers on the planet. The lists of play­ers in and out, in tiny type face and grow­ing daily, num­ber in the hun­dreds – and it’s still early.

Much has hap­pened al­ready. The sum­mer started with the news that Cris­tiano Ron­aldo wanted to leave; weeks later, so did Ney­mar, and his world-record switch to PSG was set to spark a chain of fur­ther huge deals..

Oth­ers have de­parted and for dif­fer­ent rea­sons: James Ro­driguez and Al­varo Mo­rata left the Bern­abeu, and it says some­thing about Madrid’s strength in depth that they can af­ford to let them go – they were, af­ter all, their top as­sist provider and sec­ond-top scorer last sea­son, yet nei­ther was a starter.

They were not the only ones to go, and there is a sad re­cur­ring theme that play­ers right through­out the league end up swap­ping Spain for Eng­land.

Roque Mesa, for ex­am­ple, has joined Swansea City and will be missed at Las Pal­mas and all over the coun­try. Spain re­mains a place to find qual­ity and some­times even at rea­son­able prices in a mar­ket gone mad.

It’s not all de­par­tures, though. Dani Ce­bal­los, star of the Euro­pean Un­der21 Cham­pi­onship, found Madrid and Barcelona try­ing to woo him, and went for the for­mer. Ad­nan Januzaj joined Real So­ciedad. Michel will be man­ag­ing his son at Malaga, and Lu­cas Perez may be re­turn­ing home to Coruna. Nolito is back in Spain, at Sevilla, where Ever Banega is back too.

Diego Costa will be re­turn­ing soon – at least Atletico think he will. There, he

will join forces with An­toine Griez­mann, who said it would have been a “dirty” move to have left.

Speak­ing of which: Sevilla an­nounced the re­newal of Vi­tolo’s con­tract, amid ru­mours that he was off to join Atletico. The fol­low­ing morn­ing, af­ter a night of fran­tic phone calls, he had paid his buy-out clause and joined Las Pal­mas for six months, ready to ar­rive at Atletico when their trans­fer ban is lifted in the win­ter. Three teams in 24 hours, two teams next sea­son, and a for­mer club threat­en­ing le­gal ac­tion. Not that Vi­tolo should fear the civil guard turn­ing up at his house like they did at the RFEF.

All that and it’s barely got started yet. As Real Madrid’s pres­i­dent Florentino Perez warned: “I like the fi­nal days of Au­gust best.”

And there is still a long way to go un­til then. Bet­ter still, there’s a whole sea­son be­yond that.

His­tory...Girona are pro­moted to La Liga for the first time

Not ready...Atletico’s new sta­dium

Ar­rested...An­gel Maria Vil­lar ar­rives at the Span­ish fed­er­a­tion’s HQ

stopped...ney­mar is crowded out in Barcelona’s pre-sea­son friendly against Real Madrid

gone...Real’s al­varo Mo­rata (left) and James Ro­driguez

Re­turn...nolito

ar­rival...ad­nan Januzaj

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