When Salva met Celta

A couple of weeks ago Celta de Vigo, who are currently battling relegation from Spain’s Primera Division, fired manager Paco Herrera and replaced him with former Atletico Madrid stalwart Abel Resino. As with most managers, Resino wanted to bring his own coaching staff with him. Normally, this is no big deal; but in this case, his choice of Salva Ballesta for his assistant manager caused a lot of problems.

Salva Ballesta is one of the more controversial figures in Spanish football. His playing career saw him play for several Spanish clubs; most notably two spells at Atletico Madrid, and included a short loan spell at Bolton Wanderers in the Premier League which was in the middle of a pretty unsuccessful few seasons at Valencia.

Unfortunately for him, rather than being known for on-field achievements, Ballesta was more known for his political views, and his willingness to express them. Ballesta comes from a military background; in fact, Ballesta is a qualified fighter pilot himself. Whereas Ballesta would describe himself as being nothing more than very patriotic (he used to have the Spanish flag stitched on his boots); others have described him as a fascist.

While not openly fascist like some other footballers (Paolo Di Canio springs to mind), Ballesta has made some comments that seem to justify being given that label. He has publicly expressed admiration for people such as Hans Rudel, the highly decorated Nazi pilot who was part of the machinery that helped Josef Mengele remain undetected in South America after WW2. He has also expressed admiration for Joaquin Garcia-Morato, a leading Francoist aviator in the Spanish Civil War and has said he would like to meet Antonio Tejero, who led an attempted coup d’état in 1981 in a bid to overthrow Spain’s fledgling democracy.

Spain is a country with regions that have distinct identities, cultures and, in many cases, languages. It is a country where many of those regions are autonomous and several wonder whether or not they should remain part of Spain or try to seek independence. Those questions are most publicly asked in Catalonia and the Basque Country. When asked for his opinion on Basque or Catalan separatism during a TV debate last year, Ballesta said “If there is any Basque or Catalan who doesn’t feel Spanish, they are f**ked, because they were born in Spain”.

In February 2007, Barcelona defender Oleguer, a man who supports Catalonian independence and someone with his own set of political opinions and a willingness to express them, wrote an article (with a title that roughly translates to ‘In Good Faith’ for the Catalan magazine Setmanari de Comunicacio Directa (and it was also printed in the Basque newspaper Berria). In his article, Oleguer openly questioned the impartiality of the Spanish judicial system when it came to separatists, and questioned whether or not the current political system meant that Spain was truly a democracy.

The fallout to this article was intense. As an example of, what he perceived to be, the hypocrisy of the Spanish judicial system Oleguer used a convicted ETA terrorist as an example. It was only supposed to be an example, but people interpreted it as a tacit support of terrorism. Oleguer received death threats and lost sponsorship deals as a result and was booed in most of the grounds he played in around Spain. Then Salva Ballesta weighed in. His Levante side were playing at the Nou Camp and before the match he was asked for his opinion on Oleguer. Ballesta showed his usual tact by stating that he had ‘more respect for a dog’s shit’ than for Oleguer.

In 2009, in what proved to be Ballesta’s final season before retirement, Ballesta was playing for Albacete, when they made the trip to Vigo to play Celta. Vigo is in Galicia (which is in North West Spain), a region of Spain with its own language and, while not as prominent as the Catalan and Basque movements, a strong separatist movement of their own. This means that someone like Ballesta who has a history of denouncing separatists would receive a pretty hostile reception, especially from the Celterras, the Celta ultras who are vocal supporters of Galician nationalism. That’s exactly what happened. Ballesta was a substitute and was sent out to warm up. Whilst warming up some sections of the crowd started making chants such as “Salva Ballesta, shot in the head” and “ETA kill him”.

So when it emerged that Abel Resino was bringing Ballesta, an old Atletico Madrid teammate, as his assistant, many Celta fans quickly took to the internet denouncing the appointment. When terms such as ‘fascist’ and ‘Nazi’ are being used about someone you’ve just agreed to hire, it’s enough to make any employer think twice. That’s what Celta President Carlos Mourino evidently did, as the club suddenly withdrew their offer of employment to Ballesta.

This happened so late in the recruitment process that Ballesta had quit his job as a youth coach with Malaga and was about halfway through the drive to Vigo from Malaga when he got told that he no longer had a job to go to. Ballesta expressed his disappointment in Mourino’s decision to rescind the job offer. He said “These days it's a shame to confuse politics with sport. I've never spoken about politics; I've always said that I feel Spanish", which on the face of it, seems a bit rich coming from a guy who regularly mixed politics with sport during his playing career.

Mourino denied that politics or fan pressure played any part in the decision to rescind the job offer, saying: “We do our research and inquiries, as always, without exception, and decided that he could not come to Celta. We analyse the problems he had in other teams as a player... We analyse everything and decided that this person could not be hired by Celta.

“Pressure from social network reaction? I don’t know what Salva says and I will not argue here with him. Indeed, for me the issue with Salva does not exist. I am the President of the club who had to make the decision to bring him here as a Coach or not.

“We made a number of inquiries and decided not to bring him. If someone wants to make Celta political, Celta will not go into that. You know that we do not do politics and we never will”

It seems strange that Mourino agreed to offer Ballesta a job in the first place, as it is patently clear that Salva Ballesta was not a good fit for Celta. Employing a guy who once shouted “Viva Espana, bastards!” at a group of fans when playing at Osasuna (a Basque team), to be the coach of a club from a region with a strong national identity of its own and with the majority of its fanbase coming from the opposite end of the political spectrum, was never going to work, so it was a horrible misjudgement on his part for things to get as far as they did.

I’m a believer in free speech. Salva Ballesta is free to think and say whatever he wants, even when he’s making moronic statements with fascist undertones. However, this experience may teach him that it works both ways. If he’s free to say whatever he likes, other people are equally free to not like what he says and he shouldn’t be surprised when he’s not welcome in a place where the people have completely opposite views to him, and as a result of his statements, he has to realise he may have limited the number of football clubs that would be willing to employ him and have even further limited the number of clubs with fans willing to accept someone with his views.