Now I know: John Smith is a Spanish clothes firm

I was sitting in the Chelsea Ram, a rather smart bar-restaurant in Chelsea, when this rather smart Spanish bloke started boasting about Spanish football. He maintained that the football was better, and the atmosphere. Bloomin' cheek.

All season I've been watching the Spanish league on Saturday and Sunday evenings on Sky. I have seen the quality, if not tasted the atmosphere. Easy to follow. "Goal" and "corner" are the same words. What has usually puzzled me are some of the adverts around the pitch. Is Caja Madrid a shop? Where or what is Finisterre? Is Movistar something to do with movies? And who on earth is John Smith? Surely it can't be the English beer.

So there was another excuse for some first-hand research. My dear wife wouldn't come. All that way, just to go to a football match - you must be potty. Yes, but I'll have a short hol' as well, a bit of sun and swimming, which was one reason why I chose Mallorca. The other is their form. Mallorca are currently fourth in the Primera Liga, equal with Valencia, well above Barcelona.

I sent a fax to the club: awfully influential football columnist, writer for the world-famous New Statesman, please arrange press ticket, yours and much obliged. I heard bugger all. Probably wouldn't have worked in England, either. Some people are just so short-sighted.

So I got to the Son Moix stadium at four o'clock last Sunday afternoon, two hours before kick-off, and had it to myself. The whole of Spain is in hiding at that time of day. I walked round the stadium, which is a big new concrete affair, open on three sides. It's well outside Palma, beyond the ring road. Even one hour before kick-off, the atmosphere was nil. I saw only two stalls outside selling football stuff. At Spurs or Arsenal, the average is between 50 and 60 stalls.

Inside, it was all incredibly clean and tidy, with some dinky food stalls, but I couldn't find the club shop. I wanted to buy tat, I mean, treasures for my collections (I managed to buy some later at the airport). I did get my press ticket, though, with a bit of faffing, bit of flashing my BBC pass - it dates back to my Radio 4 Bookshelf days, a decade ago, so I had to flash it pretty quickly.

The press seats were at the very top of the main stand. They were ordinary seats, not separated, which meant that, minutes after kick-off, they filled up with families and kids moving for a better view. They'd hang you if you tried that at Spurs.

The programme was puny, just a little booklet with hardly anything in it, but it was free. Mallorca is not a big club compared with Real Madrid and Barcelona, but even so, it is in the Dark Ages as far as marketing goes. We might not lead Europe in footer, but by God we're ace at shifting merchandising rubbish.

Before the match, they played "Hey Jude", followed by "Yesterday", so I did feel at home. Then there was a minute's silence for the club's owner, who had just died. There was total silence apart from some solemn piano music. What well-behaved away fans, I thought, then realised there weren't any. Near me was a reporter from a Zaragoza paper, who said that 20 at most might have travelled to the match. There is no culture of away fans in Spain, he said. Distances are too long. Fans can't afford it. Matches traditionally take place on Sunday evenings, and they have to be up early next morning for work.

About 1,000 young Mallorca fans in the north stand managed to sing and chant constantly. The tunes sounded much the same as in Britain. When they were two goals ahead, they sang "We are North Bank/Hello South Side", just as fans do at Arsenal. There's never much swearing, so my friend said. Calling the ref a poofter is about their worst. At half-time, I looked around for the press room, desperate for a drink, only to be told that there was no hospitality room for the hacks. Bloody hell! They are in the Dark Ages. When I used to report matches, at White Hart Lane or Brunton Park, I always looked forward to my free whisky at half-time, a beer or coffee afterwards, plus hot sausage rolls. We do know how to treat the fourth estate over here.

In San Moix, I had to queue up with the punters and pay for my own beer - 350 pesetas (about £1.40). As I did so, I saw a notice saying "Vomitorios - acces del 18 al 24". What could that mean? A special place for vomiting? Now that's what I call civilised. I presumed it must be some sort of sickroom.

Mallorca beat Zaragoza 2-1, so kept up their chances of getting into Europe. The standard of individual play was about average for our Premier League, a bit like watching Ipswich or Leicester, but the atmosphere was poor, despite what my Chelsea Ram friend had said. Wait till I see him.

It was partly the result of there being no away fans, but mainly because of a huge running track round the pitch, separating the spectators from the action. But I have to say that it was fright-fully civilised, clean, well ordered and unthreatening. You could have taken your granny.

I went to the press conference afterwards to listen to the Mallorca coach, Luis Aragones. We sat in rows at desks, as if at school. In a close-up on TV a few weeks ago, I noticed that Aragones's false teeth fell out during an emotional moment on the touchline. This time, he hardly opened his mouth, grunting out a few banalities.

But I did notice on his tracksuit the words "John Smith". Turns out to be a Spanish firm that does sports clothes. Caja Madrid is a savings bank. Finisterre is an insurance firm. Movistar is some sort of telephone thing. So I didn't waste my time. It was a social and cultural experience. And I got a tan.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, We Tories must change, or face eternal oblivion