Top footballers often complain that there are too many matches in a season, especially those who are expected to play in every game for club and country. Real Madrid is a prime example of that (if not 'the' prime example of that), with their array of ticket-selling names. So what did the club do when they had a free Wednesday last week? Arrange a friendly at the other end of Europe, against Gramozi Ereske, from Albania.
To be fair, a friendly match is not a bad way to keep fit in midweek. Plenty of substitutions are allowed, so you can start you stellar names, tell them to nurse their ankles, and then withdraw them one by one so that the players who don't play much have a chance to have a run-out.
If the friendly is close to home, like against a local lower-division side, it's good PR, and may make you new fans among the youngsters (you never know when or how someone will decide to support which team. Seeing yours come to town might be a good way to gain a new shirt-buying customer for life). If the game is away, top teams will make sure that they receive ample compensation for their time. And no-one will care about the result too much, although if the game comes in the middle of a bad spell, it will only add to the manager's pressure.
Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe, and although the national football team receives a glamorous visit every now and then, courtesy of qualifying groups, their clubs don't see the top names in the flesh anymore since the inception of the Champions League. Too many hurdles to jump before reaching the promised land of the group stage. So these kinds of friendlies are the only way of doing it. Oil tycoon Rezart Taci put 2.5 million euros on the table, and that was enough. Of course, that's pocket change for the likes of Real, and the fee was donated to a relief fund for a flood elsewhere in the country.
It has to be asked, though, if this is the best moment to be flying around more than necessary, with a demanding season about to enter its even more demanding phase. By bad luck (or rusty infrastructures), there was a power outage at half-time, so the match ended an hour and a half late, which can only have added to tiredness. In Spain people have been sniggering for years at the name of the Albanian national stadium, Qemal Stafa, because a similar-sounding phrase, "qué mala estafa" means "what a bad fraud" in Spanish. The result was a simple enough 2-1 victory for Real, and as the money was donated, what positives could Real have got out of it?
Another thing to take into account is that, as the Copa del Rey in Spain is a two-legged affair until the final, once Real were knocked out so early, their elimination freed up no less than seven dates in their calendar. However, because those dates are in midweek, Spanish teams eliminated from the Copa are never going to have that typical hole in a season you see in England, when suddenly clubs find themselves with a fortnight or even longer between two matches. So whereas the idea of a friendly in mid-season could make more sense in Britain, because there's plenty of time even for a mini training camp, it could be more risky in Spain, sandwiched between two league games.
The problem woud be if these games start being arranged not because of training needs, but because of money. Real are OK so far, but what will Liverpool and Arsenal do with their free dates, now they're out of both domestic cups? What would Manchester United have done this year if there hadn't been cancelled matches because of the weather? Will we ever see a yearly 'silly season' of friendlies between the losers of the first half of the race, just to add something to their coffers?
The biggest damage, though, will be to clubs' credibility when they complain before Fifa and Uefa. If as soon as there's a hole in the calendar, you fill it with a friendly, don't expect much sympathy when you ask for fewer competitive games.
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La Hora de Quito (19.03.2018)
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