x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Spanish FA only adds to the chaos

All over Spain, footballers woke on Saturday morning expecting to take a flight but quickly saw their plans changed.

Spanish FA only adds to the chaos

The Sporting Gijon coach driver puffed heavily on a cigarette as he recalled his 860km journey to Barcelona.

"Eleven hours," he said, shaking his head as he remembered a drive he did not know he would be doing when he woke up that morning.

He was called into action because all over Spain, teams were grounded by an impromptu air traffic controllers' strike.

And as the bus driver knows only too well, Spain is a big country. Gijon to Barcelona is a long drive and Sporting Gijon's reward was a defeat by Espanyol.

It takes 14 hours to drive between Barcelona and La Coruna, much the same between the many Andalusian and northern clubs. Mallorca requires a ferry and the teams in the Canaries Islands are a 24-hour boat trip from the mainland. Las Palmas took 27 hours to reach their game at Celta Vigo, where they lost.

All over Spain, footballers woke on Saturday morning expecting to take a flight but quickly saw their plans changed.

Racing Santander's players made a 960km journey to Malaga by coach and train and lost their game. Sevilla made a seven-hour journey to Villarreal and were also defeated.

Barcelona faced a more pressing issue. Planned for Saturday morning was a flight to Pamplona for a league tie with Osasuna that night. Under Pep Guardiola, Barca have flown to games on the day of the match rather than stay in a hotel the night before as was the norm before 2008.

Then, Guardiola rightly argued that with European football, his charges play away so much that they would never see their families if they stayed in a hotel before every game. The system has worked well, until Saturday.

The Barca players initially headed to the airport, then back to Camp Nou thinking the game was postponed until 1.30pm on Sunday. Critics accused Barca of not being prepared to travel unless it was by plane, but Barca were prepared to travel - it was Spain's airport authority which misled them initially by telling them they could fly.

Barca were then informed that the Spanish Football Association (FA) had changed its mind, stating at 3pm that they had to play the game that night.

The scheduled kick-off was 8pm and Pamplona is a five-hour drive from Barcelona. They suffered worse when April's volcanic ash cloud meant they drove 14 hours to Milan, but at least they had three days to make that journey.

With the FA insisting that the game had to go ahead and Barca standing to lose three points, the players rushed to the train station for a fast train to Zaragoza, where a coach exceeded the speed limit for the final two-hour drive to Pamplona. It arrived at the stadium at two minutes after the scheduled kick-off time. The game started at 8.45pm, 45 minutes later than scheduled. Guardiola was justifiably angry, saying: "The federation told us that if we could not fly to the game it would be postponed. I have no power over when the games are played. They obliged us to come at this hour and we did."

The Spanish FA have come under justified criticism recently after switching el clasico to a Monday night two weeks before the fixture.

But unlike the other troubled travellers, Barca were unfazed by their marathon, Lionel Messi scoring twice in a 3-0 win which keeps them top.