Spanish award sparks controversy

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Past winners include Helmut Kohl, Yehudi Menuhin, Bob Dylan, Mario Vargas Llosa, Al Gore, Umberto Eco, Woody Allen and Mary Robinson. Then there's Seb Coe, Lance Armstrong, Seve Ballesteros and Carl Lewis -- previous winners of the Príncipe de Asturias award for Sport.

This year's winners were the Spanish national football team, rewarded for their World Cup success but also for having won the European Championships in 2008 and for, in the words of the jury, having transmitted the "values" of sport. When the announcement was made, it was huge news. Spain's players were splashed across the cover of every newspaper in the country. Vicente del Bosque declared it the greatest of honors. A source of pride.

It has since become a source of controversy, a source of irritation.

The Spanish national team will collect its award in Oviedo on Friday. Only they won't. Not all of them. Javi Martínez will be there. Fernando Llorente, too. So will Carlos Marchena, Joan Capdevila, Jesús Navas and Juan Mata. Iker Casillas, the captain, will be there. But none of his Real Madrid teammates will be with him. There will be no Xabi Alonso, no Álvaro Arbeloa, no Raúl Albiol and no Sergio Ramos. In fact, we should be grateful that Iker Casillas is going at all. Originally, he wasn't going to.

Just as it appears that none of the foreign-based Spaniards are going to (although that is not yet confirmed), meaning no Cesc Fabregas, no Fernando Torres and no Pepe Reina. Just as -- and this is the point -- it appears that none of the Barcelona players will attend, meaning no David Villa, Spain's top scorer; no Carles Puyol, the man who got the winning goal in the semifinal; and no Andres Iniesta -- the man who scored the most important goal in Spain's history. It means seven of Spain's starting XI will be missing.

Add that to Madrid's absentees -- Alonso, Ramos -- and only two of the Spain team that started the World Cup final will be there.

On the face of it, the reason is simple. Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola won't let his players go. Nor will Real coach Jose Mourinho. Only the intervention of Madrid's president Florentino Pérez meant that Mourinho backed down and negotiated what he claimed was "nonnegotiable" and allowed Casillas to attend. Pérez impressed upon Mourinho the significance of the event, underlining just how important it was to Spanish society, just how important it was that the World-Cup winning captain was there. Just how important it was for Madrid to be represented.

The fact that Casillas is now going has made Pérez the good guy and Mourinho the man who just didn't understand. A bad guy. More importantly, it has really made Barcelona -- and Guardiola -- into proper bad guys. The sports daily Marca was not slow to point out that "Barcelona are the only ones not represented," even though Barcelona, quite correctly eschewing club colors, released a statement in which they declared: "Barcelona's Spain players feel amply represented by Iker Casillas -- their captain."

Most in Madrid and in other parts of Spain did not swallow that argument, but then they wouldn't. Echoing the suspicions, Marca hinted at ulterior motives. They drew on that underlying distrust to make a now-familiar accusation. Never mind the fact that Barcelona have just made the greatest of contributions imaginable to the Spanish national team, Barcelona is a Catalan flagship supposedly with little desire to be seen to support an event explicitly sponsored by the monarchy, an award handed out in the name of the Prince of Asturias, or to laud the Spanish national team. As for Guardiola -- well, we all know what his politics are.

The argument came as no surprise. There is something inevitable and, it appears, unavoidable, about it. But it is a redundant argument. It was wrong. It is wrong to portray Guardiola and, to a lesser extent, Mourinho as the bad guys. (In the sports daily AS, readers were asked if they understood Mourinho's decision. They were also asked if they understood Guardiola's decision. Statistically, more understood Mourinho's even though it is exactly the same decision.) It is also wrong to paint Pérez as the defender of the awards, the defender of the nation and the monarchy, the white knight riding to the rescue, as the media have done.

Mourinho said that his players could not attend the awards ceremony because, quite simply, they had a match the next day. He had told the club of his decision. They could have impressed upon him the significance of the awards then. They could have asked him them to release Casillas -- after all, he is only the goalkeeper and he is Spain's captain. They could have made the decision a collective one -- a club one. But they didn't. They went along with it. Only when there was an outcry -- and, the suspicious might add, the chance to portray themselves as morally superior to Barcelona -- did Pérez intervene.

As a result, Mourinho looks like the baddie. Pérez looks like the good guy. Mourinho loses face, loses his player the night before the game and loses authority. Pérez might looks like the good guy, but in fact he has undermined his coach, leaving him exposed.

But if Mourinho looks like the bad guy, that's nothing compared to the way that Guardiola looks. Yet his reason was identical to Mourinho's. The two coaches did what it is their job to do: the best for their teams. On Saturday, Madrid play Racing Santander, while Barcelona travel to Zaragoza. Guardiola is not prepared to let any of the players included in the squad travel to the awards. That opens up the opportunity for a Barcelona player or two to go after all -- if, for instance, Iniesta is rested at the weekend, he will travel to Oviedo. It also lays bare the real reason for the controversy.

Madrid and Barcelona could have played on Sunday, which would have allowed every player to make it, liberating Mourinho and Guardiola from decisions that they could hardly avoid taking and preventing them from being painted as guilty men out to undermine Spain's most prestigious awards. It would have allowed the whole debate redundant; it would have prevented the debate even emerging. It's not as if no one thought of it either: requests were made to that effect. But the requests for Sunday kick-offs were -- less than 10 days before the ceremony, when decisions were finally made over the dates of the games -- definitively denied. Not by Mourinho or Guardiola, but by the club presidents, the league and its real owners: the television.