English toil and continental cheer

2nd January 2008, Comments 0 comments

The lack of a winter break amazes Spaniards playing in the English league.

2 January 2008

MADRID/BARCELONA - While Real Madrid veteran soccer player Raúl has been sunning himself with his family on a Miami beach over the Christmas period, for Liverpool's Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres it's been business as usual. Unlike in Spain, where the season takes a two-week break, the English Premier League continues, with only a halt for Christmas Day.

"Securing Christmas holidays for Spanish soccer players has been a major achievement," says Pedro Tomás, former head of the Spanish Soccer League (LFP) and now general director of Barcelona club Espanyol. Christmas soccer disappeared in Spain in 1987, after a long campaign by players to improve key aspects of their contracts and working conditions.

"I had never played over Christmas until I joined Liverpool," says former Real Sociedad midfielder Xabi Alonso who has been with the English team since 2004. "The first time was against Chelsea on New Year's Day: a midday kick off, and I broke my ankle," he remembers.

"It's like a mini-league, very intense: four games in eight days," says Paco Herrera, who spent four years with coach Rafa Benítez at Liverpool before moving to Espanyol.

Former Real Sociedad left back Javier Garrido, who joined Manchester City this season, says he was impressed when he walked out onto the pitch on Boxing Day to take on Blackburn. "The stadium was packed, not because of who we were playing, it's just a tradition there, whole families turn up for the game."

Carlos Cuéllar, who joined Glasgow Rangers from Osasuna this season, doubts if Christmas soccer would work in Spain. "People want a break, to be at home with their families," he says.

Italians playing for English sides also envy their colleagues back home enjoying the dolce far niente, or "sweet doing nothing." As in Spain, Italian calcio also closes down over the festive season. Nicola Berti, the former Inter Milan striker who played out his career at London side Tottenham Hotspur in the late 1990s, remembers the shock of not being able to head home for a break.

"I joined Spurs in December. Players need a bit of time off to head for the beach, relax, and enjoy some sunshine. But that all ended a long time ago. Nowadays we're slaves to the calendar: I think it's outrageous that we don't get a break," he says.

Pierluigi Casiraghi, a former Juventus and Lazio striker who played for Chelsea for two years until 2000, says it is simply a question of getting used to doing things differently.

"It's a cultural thing, a question of tradition: it would be impossible to export it to Spain or Italy. We are used to the Christmas break and nobody would accept turning out on Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve. Even the fans would find it strange. But for English fans, it's great. For them, going to a soccer match is like going to the theatre," he says.

Former Milan defender Filippo Galli, who played the 2000/01 season at Watford, says the hardest thing for him was not being able to be with his children.

"We had to play on 26 December. It's a bit difficult because you don't get to be with the family, or sitting around the table eating and talking for hours, but from a professional point of view it's amazing. As a player I had a great time, and continue to do so: I'm a soccer addict, and I love being able to watch games, even at Christmas," he says.

But like his fellow Latins, he doesn't think Christmas soccer would work in Spain or Italy: "I'd love it, but most players would kill me if I suggested it; they have fought hard to get their two weeks off."

[Copyright El Pais / E. GIOVIO / J. QUIXANO 2008]

Subject: Spanish news

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