In Spain, whenever those times in the year come when heavier road traffic than usual is expected, due to summer, Easter, Christmas or bank holidays, the Dirección General de Tráfico always put in place what they call 'Operación Salida' ('Operation Exit'): extra policemen to monitor the roads, set up extra radars and controls, offer up-to-the-second information and deal with the higher number of accidents.
Because the city of Madrid is famous for provoking most of this additional traffic, due to their inhabitants' stampede for the sun of the costas, the local sports press have taken up this term of 'Operación Salida' to apply it to their daily discussion about which players are going to leave the football clubs of the country, in particular Real Madrid.
Real, you will have noticed, often get their buys in before they start their sales, and this year the rate of newcomers was such that at one point their dressing room looked like the Marx Brothers' famous cabinet scene in 'A Night at the Opera'. At one point, club president Florentino Pérez announced that no more players would be bought until some left first. The concern he cited was not money ("although that could be a bit of a problem too", he said), but the fact that clubs have a limit of 25 players to enter the Spanish and Champions leagues, and by then they had close to 30 senior players. What happened next? They bought Álvaro Arbeloa and Xabier Alonso from Liverpool. But only because they were labelled as "special players", you see? More people for the cabinet, and no-one leaving.
Then, some players have indeed left, but the thing is that nobody wants to leave Real once they get there. The established players think that no other team can offer them more than Real does, and the ones who have got less playing time want to prove themselves and not be labelled as failures. Also, you always know that if one season's results fall below expectations, the boardroom will do something about it, and things could change dramatically with some loosening of the purse strings. So, if you are, say, Sergio Ramos, what are you going to do, move on somewhere else, or wait until your moneybags president surrounds you with Kaká, Ronaldo, Alonso, Benzema et al? The collection of talent assembled this year at Real is such that it's no wonder no-one wants to miss what has become, whether you love it or hate it, one of the most exciting group of players ever to wear the same club shirt.
One weapon Real have this year to expedite departures is the fact that 2010 is a World Cup year. Were this any other season, unwanted players could try to do a Samuel Eto'o and after being deemed surplus to requirements by their manager, stay anyway, tough it out, wait for their chance and end up scoring the winning goal in the Champions League final. But what if you don't get playing time? What if you are, indeed, surplus to requirements? Most national managers will base their selections on actual performance, and if you're not playing, you won't be called up.
Making this point even sharper is the fact that most of the players earmarked for departure at Real share a national team: the Netherlands, the only European nation already qualified for the South Africa finals. Real had up to six Dutch players in their books (only one of whom has left already), and they must all be nervously looking at each other out of the corner of their eye, thinking about who's going to be left out of their very talented starting XI, ranked at world No 3 by Fifa. The Real players Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Arjen Robben and Royston Drenthe can't be sure of their places when they're competing with people like Dirk Kuyt, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Robin van Persie, Ryan Babel, Ibrahim Afellay, Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel, among others. Huntelaar was the first to jump before he was pushed, leaving for AC Milan, and the rest of the Dutch contingent must be wandering also whether they're going to do as well as him in terms of visibility on coach Bert van Marwijk's radar.
Others to depart Real this summer have been Fabio Cannavaro to Juventus, Gabriel Heinze to Marseille and the perennial out-of-favour Javier Saviola to Benfica. And also West Ham's Julien Faubert, after a grand total of 57 minutes of action in two separate matches. In all cases, even those going to Milan and Juve, it feels like a move down, like the rest of your career starts now, and it won't be so good as before. Míchel Salgado, another notable departee, was inconsolable in his final appearance before the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu press, having been released after ten years. Blackburn Rovers are apparently courting him. Not the same thing, is it?
Still, as of today, Real have 27 senior players in their books. The number has to be trimmed down to 25, the announced aim is to leave it at 23, and there are very good players to be rescued from the cull. Any of the aforementioned Dutchmen are available, although buyers beware that they must all be looking at each other to see if they can be the last one standing - and therefore, staying. Argentinian midfield organiser Fernando Gago might be another one to go, and one of the two Diarras (French international Lassana, formerly of Chelsea, Arsenal and Portsmouth, and Mali international Mahamadou, formerly of Lyons) could be crowded out as well. Full-back Miguel Torres is also worth a look.
But the hidden jewel is Álvaro Negredo, a home-grown Madrileño who has scored 32 goals in two seasons on loan at lowly Almería, which is like doing it at Stoke. He's a big, bustling centre-forward who is good playing with his back to the goal, who makes defenders defend, and who is useful at providing some assists too. A kind of player Real has only one of (Van Nistelrooy), and he really wants to play to try to squeeze into Spain's squad for the World Cup. He has already turned down Hull City, which seems to be a legal requirement of seriousness these days, and he seems to be sewn up by Real Zaragoza, returning this year from the second division. Got some change left?
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Javier Sierra en el Parador de Sigüenza
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