Athletic Club Bilbao parked the bus but couldn’t land the plane. The driver arrived early and waited outside Barajas Terminal Four on Friday evening while thousands of feet above him the pilot bringing the team to Madrid to play Atlético circled the city before giving up and going home. At around the same time Real Madrid’s players were sitting in another plane on the runway, watching snow fall and time pass. To the south, Rayo Vallecano’s footballers got off the coach and helped push stranded cars along the road, or tried to. “Do you think we should be travelling like this?” midfielder Mario Suárez asked.
Inside their airbus A319, Madrid’s players were wondering much the same thing. That afternoon, as Storm Filomena first appeared, Sergio Ramos took his top off, flexed his muscles, stood in front of the camera and declared “I love the summer” but, stuck on board wondering what was happening as groundstaff de-iced the plane and the delay continued, most of his teammates didn’t think this was funny anymore. An hour passed, then two, then three. The capital hadn’t seen snow like it in 50 years and Barajas was at a standstill. The only plane out was Real Madrid’s charter. It was the pilot’s decision, the transport minister later said.
Madrid reached their hotel in Pamplona just before midnight; Athletic didn’t reach theirs at all, and they weren’t the only ones. Across central Spain, snow covered everything, 50cm falling fast. In Madrid over 1,500 people had to be rescued, sports halls housing the stranded overnight. The M30 motorway, normally a wild, crowded badlands where the yellow SEAT rules, awoke on Saturday looking like a kid’s bedroom, cars strewn about at all angles, abandoned where they had been left the night before. A mass snowball fight broke out by Gran Vía Museum and people skied down the slopes of the Natural History Museum and through the streets. They had known it was coming – “Filomena, let us play” pleaded the cover of Friday’s Marca – but this was something else.
On Saturday Athletic were due to try again, new manager Marcelino García Toral insisting the game would go ahead, but at 9am their match at Atlético was officially postponed. Not because of the pitch but because Athletic couldn’t get there. And because Atlético couldn’t either: there was no way of most of them getting out of their drives, let alone crossing the city. Rayo, who had managed less than five kilometres in half an hour, finally saw their game at Mirandés abandoned. Leganés-Almería and Alcorcán-Albacete were postponed and Fuenlabrada’s visit to Sporting Gijón was pushed back. Twelve Segunda B games were postponed. Somehow, Unionistas’ 920km bus trip to Galicia wasn’t one of them.
There was more but while there was no Sunday night round-up on TV, staff unable to make it to the studio, the show wouldn’t be stopped. In the first division only Atlético-Athletic got postponed, leaving the league leaders, who had already played two games fewer, even further behind. Getafe’s visit to Elche was delayed 24 hours. They requested a postponement but the league insisted, putting them up in a hotel by the airport while they waited for Barajas to reopen. It wasn’t safe to get there by bus so the league called a fleet of Ubers … which the players had to get out of and push. “It’s disgraceful; I’m furious,” president Ángel Torres said. Valencia were a day late to Valladolid, where snow was cleared to leave a perfect pitch, but they got there. Won too. And Betis made it to snowy Huesca for Monday night’s match. Manuel Pellegrini called it “irresponsible”, but it’s on.
Osasuna-Madrid was on too. After four hours at Barajas, a last-minute escape from the capital, and another hour in the air, Madrid had made it to Pamplona, after all – even if getting away again is a different matter entirely. They hadn’t wanted to travel but they were there now. Madrid didn’t ask for the game to be postponed, but did ask for it to be brought forward from 9pm on Saturday to 4.15pm, the TV slot that Atletico-Athletic would have occupied. The league said no, and so they waited. With the snow due to get heavier from early evening, all afternoon forty people worked non-stop. Heat lamps covered a third of the pitch, rotating around the surface, while staff went back and forth clearing the surface, eventually leaving just two light strips of white. It was a minor miracle. By kick off, it looked really pretty good.
Which was more than can be said for Madrid. Watched by radio broadcasters who were forced to wait outside until 30 minutes before kick-off and photographers sitting in the snow, Osasuna’s players turned up in short sleeves: hard as nails and even harder to break down. Playing deep, Madrid couldn’t get through. They reached half-time without a single shot on target; by full time, they had just one. Ramos went up front, Mariano Díaz came on, but nothing really happened. There were two “goals” ruled out for clear offsides, one save by Sergio Herrera from Marco Asensio, and that was it. As the game went on, in fact, Osasuna had the better of it. Thibaut Courtois had already saved from Oier Sanjurjo and a particularly neat move between Rubén García and Roberto Torres ended with the latter putting a great chance over.
It finished 0-0, a predictability about Madrid that was reflected in the puns that followed, not one of the papers managing to resist. Madrid had suffered “attacking hypothermia”, were “caught cold” and had been “left frozen at El Sadar”; Osasuna had “turned them to ice”. “Frozen!” ran one front page. “Below zero”, said the cover of AS.
One below, at least. Madrid are now only three points ahead of Barcelona, who beat Granada 4-0, and a point behind Atlético – still top despite having not played. Atlético now have three games in hand, offering the chance to go 10 points clear. Accumulating so many matches in an already packed calendar might not be such a good thing – there are no clear dates to play Athletic – but one of the rescheduled games is against Sevilla on Tuesday. The bad news for Diego Simeone’s side is that, while the snow has stopped, temperatures are set to fall as far as -12; the good news is that the pitch is fine, motorways are getting cleared, Atlético have provided players with 4x4s to get there, and Yannick Carrasco’s neighbour lent him a battered Fiat Panda that’s “good on snow.”
Those two dropped points could be costly for Madrid. “We controlled the game but created very little. We lacked something up front,” Toni Kroos said. “The pitch was no excuse. Both teams played on it.” Osasuna manager Arrasate agreed: “If they didn’t play, it was because of us.”
Zidane, though, was furious – which is unusual in itself. Asked how Madrid had coped with everything surrounding the game, he replied “badly”, audibly applying the full stop. “We did what we could but this wasn’t a football match,” he added. This was not a match was a line he repeated three times and, asked if it should have been cancelled, he responded: “Of course.” He went on: “We played because they told us to, but you’ve seen what happened. It’s not an excuse. Everyone wants to see a football match and those weren’t the conditions for them. We don’t even know if we can get back now.” They couldn’t: Madrid had got in, fixture fulfilled, but not out again. Stuck in Pamplona, they will now go straight to Málaga for Thursday’s Super Cup semi-final against Athletic. It is possible now that having set off on Saturday, they will not be home until Friday or even next Monday.
Not surprising, then, that Zidane was upset – and at an institutional level, meanwhile, underlying reactions to this weekend is the increasingly fraught relationship between La Liga and Madrid, whose president Florentino Pérez is the main instigator of a Super League. While Madrid accused La Liga of forcing their hand, La Liga accuse Madrid of not taking their advice and leaving sooner, although neither side is doing so publicly, as usual.
If the odyssey meant Madrid turned up with a “face on” as one paper put it, if that conditioned the performance, the surface was good and the result was not out of keeping with their season so far, similar shortcomings seen before against similar opponents. Madrid have beaten Atlético, Barcelona and Sevilla, but have dropped points against Cádiz, Valencia, Alavés, Elche and now Osasuna: ninth, 13th, 15th, 18th and 19th respectively.
“What the league did is lamentable. We’re human beings, not just a show. We’re not just puppets and the league should think about our safety,” Courtois complained. But, he added: “I would like to thank the people at Osasuna, all their employees who worked to get the pitch in this condition despite the circumstances.” Osasuna’s Rubén García agreed. For 90 minutes, he had been the best player on the pitch but only because of those who had been on it before him, the men and women he declared the night’s real MVPs. The snow came down but the show must go on someone said, and so there they were out in the cold, shovel in hand making sure it actually could.