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Spanish media put club allegiance before balanced reporting

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There was just one problem. The last defender in the photo was not the last defender at all. They say the camera never lies. They're wrong. The camera does lie, so does the cameraman and so does Photoshop. There was something wrong with the picture, something missing. Someone missing. Normally a defense has four men. This one had three. A quick check with the image from the television and suddenly everything became clear:

AS had gone and deleted a player from its picture.

Athletic Bilbao's Koikili had mysteriously vanished, seemingly airbrushed from the face of the earth. By doing so, Alves looked far more offside than he actually was. Even with Koikili in the shot, Alves might have been offside, holding his run level with or fractionally in front of the defender; without him, he definitely was. Suddenly, the scandal did not seem so scandalous at all. Suddenly, the scandal had not been perpetrated by the referee but by the newspaper.

That same morning, AS apologized. Editor Alfredo Relaño appeared on a number of radio stations to explain. A double page spread in the next day's paper claimed that the mistake had been made in taking a series of still images from television and superimposing them onto a single shot that sought to show not only the moment of the pass but also the movement before and after. Somehow, they had failed to stick Koikili back in. It was "an image-graphic error for which we apologize."

Even though Alves might have been offside anyway and the apology arrived quickly, saying sorry was not really enough. And not just because the damage was done. AS also did not deserve the benefit of the doubt.

They had cried wolf over and over again. Now that the wolf was gnawing at their leg, no one felt much inclination to run to their rescue. This was just another lie in a long line of lies.

But in a sense it was not just AS in the dock; it was the whole industry. And saying sorry was not enough because this was not an entirely isolated case.

Because, while extreme, it was not completely unexpected. In fact, it was all too plausible, depressingly predictable. The context was damning. How convenient that they should forget to include precisely the man who would destroy their argument? How convenient that tampering with the picture reinforced the same rabid rant they had sustained for so long? How inconvenient the evidence to the contrary can be at times ... so inconvenient, in fact, as to do away with it altogether?

AS insisted otherwise. One writer directly involved in the mistake privately made the point that there is a difference between a campaign and "turning Stalinist." Which is absolutely true. But the campaign had become so extreme, so myopic, so skewed, so manipulated, so faux-furious, so petty and puritanical, so obsessed with the sins of others and ready to overlook their own sins, that many believed that doctoring a photo was simply the next step. A big one, sure, but the next one. It also appeared to be a sadly eloquent comment on the state of the Spanish sports media. And if AS should not be criticized for this, it and many in the Spanish media should be criticized for other, similar episodes.

There are four main daily sports newspapers, all of which claim varying degrees of objectivity. None of which should claim any at all. El Mundo Deportivo and Sport are openly pro-Barcelona. Marca and AS, while projecting an image of national papers, are increasingly pro-Madrid. They support their teams and campaign on behalf of them. They are fanatical and manipulative. They like to see themselves as an arm of their clubs -- part of the fabric. They have become propaganda outlets, not newspapers. And, they think, being that way works.

In that, sadly, they are right. One editor claims that every Madrid win is an extra 10,000 in sales; one editor of a Catalan radio station, pandering to the most fanatical Barcelona agenda, publicly applauds the recent decision to cheer Madrid's opponents as an "ingenious" way of getting closer to the supporters. Never mind getting closer to the truth.

They have created, or tapped into, a kind of footballing fundamentalism. Many supporters are so used to a virulent, agenda-driven media, one that sucks up to their side and seeks to sink their rivals, that those who are remotely critical of Madrid or Barcelona are now dismissed as anti-Madrid or anti-Barcelona. You're obviously a Madridista or obviously a culé, a Barcelona fan. You're not allowed to be neutral. You're not allowed to not care one way or the other.

Bias is reflected in all aspects of football, but perhaps mostly clearly when it comes to referees. In Spain, a country where fouls are blown more readily and cards come out quicker than anywhere else in Europe, being a referee is a nightmare. Some believe every single contact is a foul. Most appear never to have actually read the rules at all. Diving is just another highly polished skill. And every decision is pawed over by "experts," tapes rewound and replayed over and over again. Every decision is "obvious." And serious, match defining.

It doesn't matter if a team wins 10-0; if there is a questionable penalty, that will be front-page news the next day. Writers at papers on both sides of the divide are told to look for controversy when they report on their rivals' matches. Madrid coach Jose Mourinho recently turned up in one news conference with a sheet of paper decrying 13 "grave" errors from the ref. Never mind the fact that it did not include any that went against his side -- and even Mourinho can't seriously claim there were none -- those "grave" errors included a couple of throw-ins going the wrong way. But this isn't about Mourinho; it's about the media.

A media that cares only about Madrid and Barcelona. And really, really cares about them. Too much. That judges everything through spectacles that are tinted blaugrana or blanco. A clear penalty at one end is not a foul at all at the other; it is the color of the shirt that matters, not the action..

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Anyone who dares tackle one of our players is inherently evil; anyone who doesn't foul one of theirs is a coward. If we win we're brilliant, and if they win it's because they were lucky, or they had it easy, or they cheated.

Or they had the ref on their side.

And make no mistake, that's the trump card.

At the heart of it all is one basic "fact": Mistakes from referees are not mistakes. Ever. Certainly not honest ones. Never mind the fact that it is humanly impossible to see some offsides clearly, or the fact that the "experts" can't agree; mistakes are treated as evidence of a referee's desire to help one club and hinder another. Evidence of a conspiracy. Evidence that things just aren't fair.

AS invented the Villarato. Marca wishes it had. Villarato is AS' theory that Barcelona is protected by referees because former president Joan Laporta supported Spanish Football Federation president Ángel María Villar in elections, while Madrid president Florentino Pérez didn't. The paper has the evidence, too. Only, it doesn't. The "evidence" is the long series of decisions that they claim go against Madrid week after week after week. Evidence that wouldn't be admissible in the most kangaroo of courts. AS seems to forget that we have eyes.

Meanwhile, if there is evidence that goes against the papers' agenda, they simply ignore it. Sport and El Mundo Deportivo complained that teams were targeting Leo Messi. Marca recently ran a campaign to defend Cristiano Ronaldo, who was being "hunted" down. In fact, José Maria Callejón, José Antonio Reyes, Pablo Piatti, Pedro Munitis, Eliseu, David Zurutuza, Santi Cazorla and Diego Capel all suffer more fouls per minute than he does. Messi is not even in the top 20.

And yet, stats are used to show that Madrid gets decisions against it or Barcelona does, depending on what you want to prove -- and in their abusive usage they become lies, damned lies and statistics. "Oh, look, Madrid gets more penalties," they scream in Barcelona, without stopping to ask whether that's because Madrid get fouled in the area more often. "Oh, look, Barcelona hardly ever gets yellow cards," they scream in Madrid without stopping to think that that might be because they commit fewer fouls. Still, at least those are actual stats. Further evidence is provided by their own, constructed statistics: alternative league tables showing where the teams would be if the refereeing had been "fair," re-evaluating key decisions. But it is they who re-evaluate them -- and they who chose which ones to re-evaluate.

Referees are even analyzed before games. As the Spanish phrase has it, they put the bandages on before the injury has occurred. Iturralde González was the referee for this year's clásico. "Iturralde," screamed the headline in AS, "better for Barça worse for Madrid." He had been in charge for two clásicos before. Barcelona had won them both. Even though Barcelona had deservedly won them both, that was somehow his fault. Just as you can forget skill, talent or tactics, it was his fault that Barcelona won this year, too.

Five-nil, remember.

And so it is that football is reduced, sadly, pathetically, miserably, to a referee and his desire to make a team lose.

But hey, here's the evidence. A photo of an offside. With the picture taken after the ball was actually played. Footage of another offside. With the line not drawn straight. Mistakes are made. How convenient that the right kinds of mistakes are always made? No wonder many thought that removing a player was just the next step.

When Madrid beat Sevilla recently, Raúl Albiol cleared the ball off the line. Or maybe he cleared the ball just after it had gone over the line.

From one angle it looked like a goal, from another it liked it was not a goal.

"A legal goal," said some. "A scandal," said others. You can guess who said what. They then blinded us with "science," "proving" it was in and "proving" that it wasn't in. In. Not in. In. Not in. It was "obvious." It was clearly a goal. It clearly wasn't a goal. The only thing that was really clear was that it wasn't clear at all.

They couldn't both be right. But they can both be wrong.