This mascot business is getting out of hand. Once upon a time, a wide-eyed, star-struck kid who’d written to Jim’ll Fix it (and had his letter answered rather than just ignored), would walk out with his heroes in a replica kit, felt tip No7 drawn on the back, hit a hat-trick against a goalie obligingly diving the wrong way, wave to his mum and dad and then run off again grinning like Zippy – and that would be it. These days, there are large men sweating buckets in acrylic suits, dressed as bats, bees or Beelzebub, whole class-loads of kids, crying, wiping snot from their faces and shivering in the cold, and even mascot referees. Yes, tragically, mascot referees.
Well, there were this weekend, anyway. As Real Madrid and Valencia emerged at Mestalla on Saturday night, RaÃºl and Santi CaÃ±izares were joined by match official Manuel Mejuto GonzÃ¡lez (above), Spain’s flat-topped, square-jawed answer to the other Terminator from Terminator II (the one that’s not a steroid-abusing Austrian running California) and his four sidekicks: two linesmen, a fourth official and a mature-beyond-his years social-misfit of a ten-year-old with a referee’s kit, side parting and self-important, authoritarian air of a Young Conservative on Blue Peter.
It was a disturbing sight, but the reason was simple: this weekend was El dÃa del Ã¡rbitro. Referees’ Day.
No, really. Not an invention from Hallmark – and the only cards being handed out were yellow and red ones – but a suggestion from the Federation of Supporters’ Clubs. The idea, they said, was to foment fair play, make the referees feel loved, and encourage more kids to take up refereeing with the national game facing a desperate shortage. And so it was that scenes like Mestalla were repeated at stadiums all over Spain, a whole collection of evil Mini-Mes strutting their stuff in yellow kits with cutesy coloured cards and natty notebooks – an awkward-looking little porker kicking off in full refereeing regalia over in Mallorca, a wannabe whistle-blower at Riazor, and short-straw drawing scamps everywhere else.
It was time to pay homage to Spain’s referees, but there was just one teensy problem with the plan: it was rubbish. And so, more to the point, were they. As Bernardino GonzÃ¡lez VÃ¡zquez strolled out at the Vicente CalderÃ³n, AtlÃ©tico Madrid and Racing Santander lined up in two rows and applauded him on to the field. AtlÃ©tico’s fans meanwhile, booed him, and by the end Racing’s supporters were doing likewise. Up and down the country, the same was happening – and, frankly, not without reason.