Sid Lowe
Thursday May 13th, 2010

Desperation makes for strange bedfellows. And no, we're not talking about David Cameron and Nick Clegg coming together to find the keys for No. 10 Downing Street after a British general election that left a hung parliament and no outright winner -- although there is certainly plenty of politics involved.

Instead, we're talking about the final day of the Spanish season -- the closest, most entangled anyone can remember. One in which everyone is looking to everyone else for a helping hand, in which they're pretending they do like each other really. Anything to find favor.

Not only is the Spanish league title still to be settled on the final day but so are the three relegation spots -- the first time that's happened since 1983. Plus, one of the Champions League places and both Europa League slots are up for grabs. As the final weekend kicks off, there will be only one entirely immaterial match. Naturally, that involves Deportivo de La Coruna, who have spent the second half of the campaign becoming increasingly irrelevant. Their game against Athletic Bilbao on Saturday night has nothing riding on it.

Every other game this weekend will have an awful lot riding on it. Not least a bucket load of suspicion. We've reached that time of mutual dependence and mutual mistrust, of bribes, accusations and alibis (some of them far from convincing), of trying to make friends with the men you would have crossed the street to avoid just a week ago, of intertwined relationships and feuds. Suddenly, like a drunk in a bar, teams will be sidling up to other teams they barely know and don't much like and rasping, "You're my best friend, you are!"

Going into the final day, only one vital spot is already guaranteed: Valencia will finish third, claiming a place in next year's Champions League. Everything else is still to play for.

At 2 p.m. ET, newly crowned Europa League champions Atletico Madrid opposes sixth-place Getafe and Zaragoza meets seventh-place Villarreal, with a Europa League slot for next season available for either Getafe or Villarreal. Getafe controls its fate -- and the suspiciously minded believe that Getage already has the place wrapped up.

Not only does Atletico not care, what with this week's celebrations barely having died down and next week's Copa del Rey final still coming up, but it has also not escaped people's attention in Vilarreal that traditionally most fans at little Getafe, playing only its fifth season in the top flight, are actually Atletico supporters following their second team. Who are they going to support?

Down in Villarreal, the suspicion is that Atletico will just roll over and play dead. Up in Getafe, meanwhile, the suspicion is that there might be one of those infamous maletínes, or briefcases (illegal third-party incentives surreptitiously paid by clubs to other clubs as the season reaches the decisive weeks), heading Atletico's way to try to encourage it to fight.

Two hours later, Sevilla faces Almeria and Mallorca plays Espanyol for the other Champions League place. Again, there's talk of maletínes. And there's talk, too, of a coach who can't lose unless he wins: It's been rumored that manager Gregorio Manzano will leave Mallorca to go to Sevilla next season. Surely, say the suspicious, he would rather Mallorca doesn't get into the Champions League so that when he turns up at Sevilla he takes charge of a club competing in the continent's most important competition.

And that's just Saturday. The real drama happens on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET, when the relegation battles and the final sprint toward the title take place. Real Madrid and Barcelona go into the final day a single point apart. Incredibly, Real Madrid could rack up 98 points, a La Liga record, and still not win the league. Barcelona leads with 96 points, Madrid is second with 95, and Barcelona has the vital head-to-head advantage should they finish level.

Real Madrid has to win and then hope for the best. It is up against Malaga, whose president is Fernando Sanz, the former Real Madrid player. Good news, you might think, but you'd be wrong. Sanz is the son of former Real Madrid president Lorenzo Sanz -- sworn enemy of current Madrid president Florentino Perez. More to the point, Malaga is playing (read: fighting) for its first-division survival.

Madrid knows that it has to win. More important, it knows that Barcelona has to fail to win against Valladolid. Madrid knows, as one headline put it last week, that its destiny is "In The Hands of Clemente." And there's no more dangerous place to be. Especially for Madrid. Because Valladolid coach Javier Clemente, who must privately be laughing his head off at the way he is suddenly being courted by those who previously couldn't stop attacking him, hates Madrid. And Madrid hates him. Only now it's trying to pretend it doesn't.

Clemente is the feisty, straight-talking, argument-in-an-empty-house-starting Basque who won two league titles in the 1980s with Athletic Bilbao; who likes nothing more than winding up the pro-Madrid media; who stands accused of prematurely ending the international career of Madrid's pinup boy, Míchel, when he was Spain coach; and whose troglodyte, defensive and downright dirty style of football has had the purists from the capital writing him off as a Neanderthal man with nothing to offer the game.

And now, oh irony of ironies, they're pleading with him to use that very style on Barcelona. Or else Madrid won't have a hope of winning the league.

Clemente would surely be tempted to flick the middle finger, but for one thing: His team is fighting to avoid one of the three relegation places in a competition that includes Xerez, Tenerife, Malaga or Racing. He will battle Barcelona anyway. If he hands Madrid the title in the process, that will merely be a by-product, one that he will no doubt consider unfortunate. If Valladolid wins, it's safe. If it draws, which would still be a huge result for Clemente's men, it will survive only if Racing does not win. And no one doubts that Racing will win -- because, when it comes to strange bedfellows and political pacts, this week's greatest suspicions have come from Santander.

Miguel-Angel Revilla is the president of the Comunidad de Cantabria, one of Spain's smaller autonomous communities, up on the country's northern Atlantic coast. Its capital is the city of Santander -- home to the football team Racing Santander -- and this week, like most weeks, Revilla was deep in negotiation, busy trying to forge a pact with the opposition.

Nothing unusual there. The leader of the Cantabrian Regional Party, Revilla has spent much of his political life seeking alliances with more powerful players, scratching backs in order to have his scratched, pleading for support in difficult moments and promising payback in times of plenty. All, he would insist, for the good of Cantabria; all in the name of Santander.

But this week was a little different. This week, the men smothered in flattery and showered with gifts in his office, the men, women and children to whom he addressed himself in the papers, were not politicians. They were football fans. And, say Revilla's strikingly few critics, by extension they were also football players. Football fans from the neighboring Principality of Asturias, whose capital city is Oviedo and whose biggest city is Gijon -- home to football team Sporting Gijon.

On Monday, Revilla invited the Sporting Gijon supporters' club to his office in Cantabria and asked it to cheer on Racing Santander on Sunday evening. He then wrote an open letter to the media in which, deliberately and pointedly choosing an Asturian spelling of Gijon, he declared:

"I am Cantabrian and almost Asturian, from the old Asturias of Salinas, the land of Beato de Liébana [an eighth-century monk], the ideologue of the Kings of Asturias in the Reconquest [of Spain from the Moors]. The team of my heart will always be Racing Santander and my second team is Sporting de Xixón [sic.]. I believe I have the moral right to ask the Sporting fans to come to Santander on Sunday and cheer on my team. Today, you do it for me, tomorrow I will do it for you!"

Revilla can be assured of one thing: On Sunday, Sporting's supporters will indeed travel to Santander, because their team plays Racing. Revilla, though, wants them to support his team, not theirs. And the thing is, they might. The Sporting supporters' club has prepared scarves with Racing on one side, Sporting on the other and -- "jokingly," they insisted -- said they'd help out. Jose Maria Suarez Brana, president of the association of Sporting supporters' clubs, admitted, "Most fans don't see it as a bad thing to lose in Santander." Incredibly, neither, it seems, does much of the mainstream media.

The reason Sporting fans don't consider defeat such a bad thing is simple: Racing almost certainly will be relegated with a loss, while Sporting is already safe. "I'm not," Revilla added quickly, "asking any team to let itself be beaten. I am [just] asking the Sporting fans to cheer on Racing, as I would do if the tables were turned and they needed the points to survive. Last year, when Sporting were fighting for survival on the final weekend, I sent a letter to the newspapers in Asturias supporting them."

There's been speculation of a so-called "Pact of Llanes" in which representatives of Racing and Sporting agreed that, should either team really need the points on the final day, the other club would let itself be beaten. The rumors have been dismissed as baseless and there's no evidence to support them. And nothing should be made of the Sporting coach's history with Racing. After all, Manolo Preciado, a former defender with Racing Santander, has insisted it is not up to him to worry about Racing. This not a unique situation: Professionals come up against their former clubs all the time.

But Revilla's comments hardly help to dispel the innuendo and they have created a backdrop of suspicion, serving to inflame an already volatile situation. By speaking out, he may have done the club he tries to help no favors at all.

It's not just them, though. And that is surely the point: This isn't just one match, it is not just Racing versus Sporting. There are other teams' destinies in the balance. And some fans from other teams see little difference between asking a team's supporters to cheer the opposition and asking that team to let itself be beaten. Not least because their nerves are frayed, their heart is in their mouths and their future is bound up in what Racing and Sporting do.

Five teams could yet occupy the three relegation spots: Xerez is last with 33 points, while Tenerife, Malaga, Racing and Valladolid all have 36. If Racing does beat Sporting, Xerez is doomed whatever it does. Valladolid could find itself relegated even if it pulls off the miracle of winning in Barcelona, and the same could go for Malaga and Tenerife. All because of what happens in Cantabria when its neighbors visit from Asturias. And then the reaction would be inevitable.

Racing versus Sporting could well be the cleanest, most above-board match in history. However, try telling that to tearful Tenerife fans or furious supporters of Xerez, Valladolid and Malaga if Racing does eventually win and sends them down instead. The accusations may be unfounded or even faintly ridiculous, but by appealing to his "brothers in arms" this week, Revilla sadly ensured that, should Racing de Santander survive, the smell of suspicion will never go away. And in the future, it won't be just Sporting looking for payback.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.