It's maybe a little difficult for Americans to grasp just how deeply and blatantly in the tank the European press can be for the local XI. And no one is deeper and more blatantly in the tank for the local XI than the media in Spain, where the local XI means either Barcelona and Real Madrid and where the address of the publication's headquarters tells you all you need to know about the slant you're about to read. Today, we have a good example.
Marca is a Madrid-based sports daily that specializes in soccer. It is the biggest sports paper in the country, having grown large enough that to have branched out into radio and TV. The paper is, for the most part, well respected, and employs many of the top journalists working in Spanish soccer.
It is also hopelessly, shamelessly, sheets-twistingly in bed with Real Madrid. Throughout the Iker Casillas-José Mourinho beef, many of the clubhouse leaks came by way of the pages of Marca. Their journalists are cozy with the players, cozy with the board, and especially cozy with club president and de facto mastermind Florentino Pérez. Think of one of those Dan Snyder-co-opted papers, only if the writers proselytized out of a genuine love for the ol' burgundy and gold and not because Snyder signed their checks.
A prime example is today's edition, the cover of which you can see up top. That handsome fellow in traditional Bavarian garb is not actually a German national, but instead the proud Spaniard and ex-Real Madrid favorite Xabi Alonso. The headline reads "Xabi Belittles Iker and CR7 [Cristiano Ronaldo]," the subhead, "From Munich With Rancor."
Now, you may be wondering, what could the Bayern Munich midfielder—who just last year was one of the key players in Real's long-awaited 10th European championship run, and who just this summer finally retired after years at the heart of the greatest Spanish international team of all time—have said to deserve a prominent spot on the proverbial Summer Jam screen?
Turns out, nothing provocative at all. Like, not even a little. OK, maybe a teeny, eensy-weensy bit controversial, but nothing terribly different from what any other player in his position would say.
Alonso was recently interviewed in the German paper Sport Bild, where he was asked about his new teammate, the veritable superhero goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, and his chances to win the Ballon d'Or. He responded thusly:
"If Manuel won it, it'd be totally deserved", Alonso told Sport Bild. Neuer is currently considered one of the frontrunners for the prize alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, whom the Basqueman played with for several years at Real Madrid.
"Neuer is by far the best keeper I've played with and is also outstanding outfield", Alonso raved, in the process taking his ex-Real and Spain teammate, Iker Casillas, down a peg.
However, Alonso believes that Cristiano and Lionel Messi remain favourites for the accolade if it is judged purely on individual performances. "Or is it team success? Then the Germans have the edge", he added.
Go back and read that passage again, only skip anything not in quotation marks. All Alonso said was that his new teammate—who, again, is a superhero; here's how outstanding he is in the outfield—is the best he's played with at his position, and that the World Cup champion would make a deserving Ballon d'Or winner.
Far from being content with the sort of Ballon d'Or politicking that is unfortunately necessary and by no means out of the ordinary—I mean, Ronaldo's teammate Pepe just said it would be a "scandal" if CR7, who according to him is "already the best player of all time," didn't win the award—Marca struck back with a curiously timed article today. Headlined "Xabi Alonso, no Real loss," the report outlines how few of his teammates were sad to see the midfielder leave this summer and that no one misses him anymore:
Xabi Alonso left Real Madrid last summer. He was looking for new challenges, incentives and a closer-knit dressing room.
Arbeloa and some of the youngsters were amongst the few players who shed a tear when he left. [...] Others, amongst them Ronaldo, clung to a loss of talent on the pitch that they would miss.
As the days tick by, nobody misses Xabi Alonso. Not the club, not the players.
Many thought he was history, especially after his comments on Neuer and the Ballon d'Or.
The report continues in this vein, bringing up some of the reasons why Alonso was actually to blame for the toxic dressing room he was so intent on leaving. Alonso backed Mourinho, which put him in opposition to many other players there. Because of this, the different factions in the squad mainly avoided each other. The report also reveals some old dust-up between Xabi and Sergio Ramos a week before the Champions League final that the paper probably heard about back then but didn't release for fear of distracting their precious Blancos ahead of their big day.
Now would be a good time to mention that Marca's response to Alonso's remarks aren't baseless—at least not completely. It's long been an open secret that both Real's players and even many of his fellow Spain internationals didn't like the guy. (When Barcelona's Xavi announced the past World Cup would be his last, nearly every player on the team rhapsodized about his talent and legacy; when Xabi did the same, it was hard to find more than a single guy even thanking him for his service.) And while claiming Neuer is better than Casillas ever was isn't crazy, let's not forget, San Iker was once what Neuer is now, the hands-down best in the business.
But that's not the point here. Whether or not Alonso meant to shade Casillas (and reading into the statement any Ronaldo shade is absolutely preposterous), and whether or not Real's players felt some kind of way about that, the response reads as if it had been dictated by Pérez himself.
This is what Marca is about, though. You pick up Marca for the access it has to important people in Real Madrid, recognize that if something is reported in those pages then someone in the club has a message to promote, and take everything obviously pro-Real or anti-Barça with half a box of salt. You pick it up for the same reasons you might've once picked up Pravda: not for the information itself, but for what its dissemination told you about the current alignment of bureaucratic neuroses. Without a semblance of plausible deniability about stooging for Real Madrid PR, Marca wouldn't so freely fight its battles on behalf of the capital club. The Catalan paper Mundo Deportivo is no different, only substituting Barcelona's interests in place of Real's, and neither are scores of papers around the continent.
Embrace it for what it is. Propaganda is still propaganda, but sports propaganda is (mostly) harmless and, as today demonstrates, it can be very ridiculous and very funny.