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2011: Grand Slams, Liga intrigue and drugs

Qorreo looks ahead to Spain’s coming year on the sports field and makes some brave –or foolhardy– predictions.

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Last year was a pretty remarkable one for Spanish sport, doping scandals aside. With the World Cup win in South Africa the obvious pinnacle, there was glory for Spain in football, tennis, swimming and basketball. But what does 2011 hold in store for the country’s athletes and national teams?

In tennis, world number one Rafael Nadal has opened his campaign at the Australian Open, seeking to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four Grand Slams. Nadal already ranks seventh in the list of overall Grand Slam winners with nine, is one of three players in the open era to hold a Golden Slam, one of only seven in history to have achieved the career slam and the only player to have won a Grand Slam on clay, grass and hard courts in the same year. What remains for the 24-year-old?

The bookmakers have Nadal at very short odds of 12 to 1 to win the calendar year slam in 2011, and if his injury problems do not resurface he has a very good chance of doing so. His adjusted serve is a more potent weapon than before, his court coverage remains phenomenal and there is still a psychological advantage in the Spaniard’s favour when opponents step on court to face him; a veneer of invincibility that Federer has arguably lost in the past 24 months. The Swiss is still a formidable opponent and few would bet against he and Nadal contesting at least two of 2011’s Grand Slam finals. In addition to Federer, working against Nadal’s prospects are Robin Söderling, for whom a Grand Slam title beckons, and the re-emergence of 2008 US Open Juan Martín del Potro after injury. The burly Argentine said as the season began that he will be back to his best within six months, when the Grand Slam season begins in earnest.

For Spanish tennis as a whole, 2011 bodes well. With three players currently in the top ten and Nicolás Almagro (14), Albert Montañés (26), Guillermo García-López (32) and Marcel Granollers (42) storming to prominence, a very Spanish top 20 is quite possible this year. Add a last hurrah for old warhorses Juan Carlos Ferrero (29), Feliciano López (31) and Tommy Robredo (52) into the mix, and some kind of an ATP record is in the offing. As is, in all likelihood, Spain regaining its Davis Cup title.

In football, Spanish pre-eminence on the international stage is assured until at least the middle of next year, so Spain’s two dominant clubs can concentrate on retaining domestic honours and regaining the European crown Inter Milan secured at the end of last season.

The architect of that overdue triumph, José Mourinho, took over at Real Madrid immediately afterward and began the task of building a team to challenge at home and abroad. As Mourinho has since discovered, Real’s opulent castle is often built on sand. Shorn of key striker Gonzalo Higuaín for most of the remainder of the season, Mourinho has, not unreasonably, asked his club president Florentino Pérez to sanction the purchase of another. Karim Benzema, the current incumbent of Real’s number nine shirt, has scored just twice in La Liga this season and Cristiano Ronaldo cannot be expected to carry the goalscoring burden entirely alone. Barring a loan signing in the coming days –or a change of heart from the previously extravagant Pérez– Mourinho will have to muddle through the rest of the season with what he has at his disposal.

A recent 1-1 draw at Almería left Real Madrid four points adrift of Barcelona in La Liga. A similar failure to score against Lyon in the Champions League will not be met with a paternal pat on the head by Pérez. Real has fallen at the first knockout stage in each of the past six seasons and Mourinho will be expected to take the team further this year. Lyon, Real’s next opponent in the competition, beat the Spanish side at the same stage last year by two goals to one. If Mourinho ends up potless at the end of the season, he will point to the striker situation as the root cause. If Pérez wants rid of the prickly Portuguese, who has crossed swords with general director Jorge Valdano already, he will point to Mourinho’s lack of ability to manage without one. It seems impossible that the world’s most coveted coach would be jettisoned by the world’s most presumptuous club, but Mourinho would be a rarity at the Bernabéu for lasting more than a season. Few do.

All of which will amuse Barcelona greatly, especially as on current form a third consecutive league title seems likely, and the Champions League quite within their grasp. Pep Guardiola has the three best players in the world – at least according to the voting for the 2010 Ballon d’Or – and the outstanding Pedro Rodríguez, David Villa, Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué et al did not even get a look-in.

What next for Pep?

Barcelona’s problem is quite the opposite to Real’s; its team is settled, schooled and sexy and needs little work over the next two or three seasons. Guardiola, though, works on a rolling one-year contract and is said to harbour serious doubts about new president Sandro Rosell. While Mourinho is, like all Real coaches, secondary to the prevarications of the Bernabéu board, Guardiola is arguably more important to Barcelona than anybody besides Leo Messi.

With Premier League upheaval afoot and Guardiola -quite the linguist, apparently- open to a stab at the English top flight, what price a move across the Bay of Biscay for La Liga’s primary duelists? Hispanophile Liverpool will be in the market with Kenny Dalglish a stopgap solution to its managerial vacuum, and Mourinho’s former club Chelsea –which has never adequately replaced him- may have lost patience with Carlo Ancelotti by the summer.

For La Liga’s 18 other teams, 2011 likely holds nothing as interesting as a possible title challenge, nor even a tilt at the King’s Cup, if Real continues to take the competition seriously and its organisers persist in skewing the draw so that the big two avoid each other until the final.

Perhaps the most interesting development so far in 2011 in La Liga is the arrival of Indian entrepreneur Ahsan Ali Syed as the saviour of in-debt and in-relegation-trouble Racing Santander. Syed will become just the second foreign owner in the Spanish top flight if, as anticipated, the deal goes through. Málaga already has a sugar daddy, Qatar royalty no less, in the shape of Sheikh bin Nasser Al Thani. It will take more than a year but -for better or for worse- the arrival of rich investors is the only threat to Barcelona and Real Madrid’s current hegemony. The current system of awarding television revenue greatly benefits the big two, but that and the huge gates won’t hold off the inevitable for long.

Spanish cycling has a darker hue to it. Will Alberto Contador compete at the Tour de France following his positive drug test in last year’s race? His case has yet to be resolved, but after a slew of Spanish cyclists had their collars felt by the WADA and ICU in 2010 – including former road race champion Igor Astarloa, Xacobeo Galicia racers Ezequiel Mosquera and David García and a further five cyclists who have not yet been named.

A dog of a scandal

After several high-profile current and former cyclists admitted that in order to win the Tour it is necessary to cheat, and Bjarne Riis, director at Contador’s new team Saxo Bank, coming clean (so to speak) in November about how he had cheated the system as a rider, the question should perhaps not be whether Contador will be able to return to the sport, but whether anybody who does not directly glean income from cycling really cares any more.

The brush with which cycling has been tarred for so many years was smeared all over Spanish athletics in December when Operation Galgo (or “Greyhound”) broke. A who’s who of Spanish doping suspects –ringleader Eufemiano Fuentes is awaiting trial for masterminding the 2006 Puerto scandal, which mainly concentrated on cycling– and top athletes including 3,000m steeplechase world champion and Spanish icon Marta Domínguez were rounded up by the Civil Guard. European cross-country champion Alemayehu Bezabeh was apparently arrested with a bag of his own blood under his arm.

When the dust had settled, and Spanish Federation coach Manuel Pascuas had sung like a canary, the depth and scale of the blood-transfusion scam rocked Spanish athletics, and the country at large, to its core. A raft of ‘clean’ athletes – led by 800m ace Mayte Martínez – signed a manifesto calling for tougher bans for drugs cheats. Federation president José María Odriozola has made it clear that only ‘clean’ athletes will represent Spain. If the list of competitors suspected of involvement in Galgo is to be believed, that will not leave many available athletes for the world championships in South Korea in August.

Of greater concern to a country with a proud athletics legacy is the knock-on effect of Galgo. Many of Spain’s top athletes are in their thirties, and London 2012 is a realistic endgame for the country’s usual medal earners. There is very little in the bank for the Spanish Federation, which has been criticised from within over a lack of funding and facilities, in terms of investment and young athletes.

Whatever the outcome of the probe, it would appear Spain’s golden era in the sport is over.





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Published: Jan 25 2011
Category: Sports
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
Short URL: http://iberosphere.com/?p=1887
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1 Comment for “2011: Grand Slams, Liga intrigue and drugs”

  1. Bad timing there-Nadal limped out.

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