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Dropping in on the Tercera playoffs: A battle in Sant Andreu

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A wild match between Castellón and Sant Andreu, with ugly scenes during and at the end.

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The Tercera División playoffs are going on as well, and as you can imagine with 18 groups there are a lot of matches. Villarreal C’s group (group 6) was won by Levante B, with Castellón second. Our near neighbors came up against Sant Andreu (second in Group 5); after a 0-0 draw in Castellón, the return leg was in Barcelona today.

The Tercera—Spain’s fourth division— is notoriously variable in quality when it comes to most everything. Pitches may be plastic, or grass fields maintained (so to speak) to varying degrees on shoestring budgets. Many players have never played above the Tercera and have never had the benefit of upper-level fitness training and coaching, or played at a higher level for awhile but are now in the twilight of their careers. (Sometimes, like Angel Dealbert of Castellón, they’ve come back to play for a team they played for years ago). With the exception of the B teams, young potential stars are few and far between. And the referees? Many are veterans who were never good enough to move up , or aren’t willing to put in the work at their craft to do so. This match exemplified all of those things.

I didn’t catch the first half-hour, but started watching just before the big talking point, as it turned out. Sant Andreu defender Carroza, beaten for pace by David Cubillas, grabbed the Castellon player’s shorts and held on for dear life, slowing him down enough so another defender could clear the danger. Tenerife referee Daniel Velasquez pointed to the spot; problem was, the initial contact and short-pull took place well outside the box, and I didn’t think soccer had a continuation rule. Neither did Sant Andreu, who were also furious because Carroza was sent off as well. Once the penalty was finally taken, keeper Segovia guessed correctly, but Javi Rubio put a perfect penalty low and in off the post.

For what little remained of the half, Sant Andreu players basically tried to bait Castellón players into a fight or get someone sent off—there was also a dirty challenge which could have resulted in another expulsion, had the ref seen it.

HT Sant Andreu 0-1 Castellón (0-1 aggregate)

It didn’t seem as if cooler heads would prevail in the second half, either. The referee evidently had figured out if he wanted to get out of town without problems, he should pretty much ignore what was happening around him—because he did. Both teams seemed to figure that out, because before long bodies were flying all over the pitch with all number of flagrantly illegal tackles—on both sides—being ignored.

You’ll notice I haven’t really mentioned the football. That’s because there hadn’t been much. Castellón made the poorest use of a one-man advantage you’ll ever see, but that might have been in part because controlling possession in an uneven grassy field while enjoying no-holds-barred grabbing and kicking from your opponents is rather difficult. At any rate, they were content to defend and kick the ball long most of the time, even being one man up.

This seemed to have the effect of giving the home side hope; at least, after about an hour or so, they decided it might be time to stop trying to injure the opponents, and instead play some football. Actually, the big turning point for them was the removal of their midfielder Victor and the introduction of a fellow listed in the program as Elhadji—Elhadji Baldeh, whom I discovered is 28 years old and was signed from a fifth-tier club.

Now, Sant Andreu had a guy who could throw the ball in a long way from touch, and, when Castellón cleared the ball behind, could be a good target for the resulting corner. And for the next twenty or so minutes, that is pretty much what they did. (The only chance I remember from open play was an Elhadji half-volley that would have been dangerous if the ball hadn’t nearly died in one of the furrows of the cow pasture; by the time it had bounced, his timing was off and he hit a shot right at the keeper.)

Anyway, all those corners paid off with about five minutes remaining, Oscar getting the goal off the corner kick and keeper Zagala requiring time for treatment after being surrounded by Sant Andreu players taking the ball back for the restart. Señor Velasquez added six minutes of extra time to make up for all the stoppages due to injuries, faked injuries, cards, goals, and substitutions, which seemed one of the few decisions he got right all day.

The tie should have been over with a couple of minutes to go when a Castellón player, loose in the box and in possession, was kicked from behind by a beaten defender with only the keeper to beat, but the referee paid no attention. Maybe it was a makeup call, or maybe he wasn’t interested. At any rate, he blew his whistle shortly thereafter and Castellon had advanced, but we weren’t done yet....

FT Sant Andreu 1-1 Castellón

At first, all was typical; exhausted, disheartened players slumping on the grass, happy ones going to celebrate with albinegre supporters, who were in one of the end stands. Sant Andreu had made it quite clear that away fans had to go there, which was a good decision as it turned out.

It’s unclear what happened to start it, but a bunch of home supporters thought it would be a good idea to run toward the Castellón end and start some trouble. Most of the away fans had filled the main stand behind one of the goals, but a small group of ‘ultras’ were now in a smaller stand at that end, and I rather suspect started in on some anti-Catalan shouting and abuse—Sant Andreu play in the Catalan colors and there were plenty of Catalan flags in evidence.

The Mossos d’Esquadra—the Catalan police force--at first pushed the away folks back, and the Castellón manager, Sergi Escobar, appealed to the ultras to calm down. They began to do so and then the Mossos charged the Sant Andreu pitch invaders closest to them on the pitch, who ran rather faster than many of the players had done on the uneven ground, I have to say. A few of the Sant Andreu thugs got chased by officers outside the ground, too; I expect they wanted to clear the area to make sure the 1,500 visiting supporters didn’t have any trouble getting home.

Unfortunately, as too often happens, a football match is a microcosm of the larger political and/or societal issues, and that was true here. Sant Andreu will doubtless rue their ‘elimination that was accomplished in a spirit of injustice’, as their website put it, and there’s a lot of that going around these days.

Castellón will find out tomorrow who they play in the final playoff round, and presumably will have to perform better over those two legs than they did here to return to the Segunda B for the first time in eight years.