DOWN IN THE depths, beyond the First and Second Divisions (Primera and Segunda A), Spanish football is a mess, complicated and almost forgotten. They may not have gone in for England’s ludicrous Premiership, Championship and then League One nonsense, but it’s not that much clearer. And it’s far less successful.
The Second Division B (Segunda B) is in fact four divisions, 20-team groups organised more or less regionally and made up of the odd fallen giant, the occasional B team from the big clubs, and little sides that many haven’t even heard of – between them, the 20 teams in Group II have spent just five seasons in the top flight in their entire history, while apart from Rayo Vallecano and Las Palmas, not one side from Group I has played in the Primera.
The Third Division, meanwhile, is split into 17 groups, again made up of 20 teams – a world where you can forget about media interest, replica shirts and television coverage, where many matches are played on pitches little better than those in parks, sometimes sand ones, where average gates occasionally reach the low thousands but generally number hundreds.
And yet on the last Saturday in June, a month after David Beckham and friends toddled off on holiday, a Third Division match attracted a crowd of over 25,000 blue-shirted, flag-waving fans in a stadium that recently played host to the national team.
At one end, a huge banner depicted a phoenix rising from the ashes, and not without reason. The phoenix was emblazoned with the crest of Real Oviedo – a big club celebrating their rebirth after cheating death; one whose recent history has become both a cautionary tale and a story of hope; one who that afternoon, in a play-off Final against Avila, secured their escape from the Third Division, a place they should never have gone in the first place.
A club crippled financially, perilously close to extinction, whose players turned up at training one day to find the electricity cut off; that had spent over half their 75-year history in the First Division, and a solitary year in Segunda B, only to suddenly find themselves languishing down where most clubs get abandoned and forgotten.
A club, nonetheless, who are emerging from the dark tunnel, whose fans would not resign themselves to their fate. A club on their way up at last – thanks to the supporters.
Oviedo are no AFC Wimbledon, they are not a fans’ collective – indeed, a new major shareholder has just appeared. They are, however, a club who would have long since gone under had it not been for the reaction of their supporters, the backing of a community that thought they deserved better.
That Oviedo were in the wrong place has been proven by game after game this season and last. For two years, fans have turned up and squeezed in at pitches all over the province that had no stands and could barely deal with hundreds, let alone Oviedo, while against their historic rivals, Sporting Gijon, this season, 16,000 attended – despite the fact that Oviedo were in fact playing Sporting B rather than Sporting themselves. (Oviedo B versus Sporting B in Segunda B, a division above, used to attract a couple of hundred fans.)
Against Club Astur, the city’s other team and one fast becoming the target of real hatred, the scenes were even more bizarre. Astur play on the council-owned astroturf pitch behind Real Oviedo’s 25,000-capacity Carlos Tartiere stadium, a ground with a capacity for 200 visiting supporters (around 1,000 in total), plus a few hundred more on the grassy banks above it.
Not nearly enough for the “travelling” support, so Oviedo opened up the Tartiere, allowing over 2,500 fans, paying a voluntary entrance fee, to watch the game from the gangways of their own stadium overlooking the pitch next door. An away match watched from home.
All of which underlines just how big June’s play-off Final was, what a relief. Oviedo had by then secured a stay of execution, their immediate economic survival, but they had to escape the Third Division – known as the well because it’s easy enough to fall into but extremely difficult to climb out. A year before, they had walked their group only to be beaten in the play-offs by Galician side Arteixo.
President Manuel Lafuente admitted that his economic plan to secure the future of the club could only work if Oviedo won promotion, and this time they did. They defeated Avila 5-1 away in the first leg of the Final and the Tartiere match became a party, a 2-0 victory earning them a place in Segunda B.
As the final whistle went, fans rushed on to the pitch. The team, players whom no one outside the city has even heard of, were driven round on an open-top bus and cheered from the balcony of town hall.
You’d think they had won the World Cup, not just promotion to another forgotten division. But the slide had been halted; there was something to celebrate at last. Survival and promotion were the first steps to a second chance for a club that had achieved the unique feat of dropping three divisions in just two years – and, no, that’s not a typographical error. Suffering massive debts and amid constant battles between the mayor of Oviedo, Gabino De Lorenzo, from the Partido Popular, and the then Socialist club president Eugenio Prieto, Oviedo were relegated from a 13-year stint in the First Division at Mallorca on the final day of the 2000-01 season. They then failed in their attempt to go straight back up, finishing seventh in the Second Division in 2001-02.
With Prieto and Celso Gonzalez, who had controlled the club since a stock market flotation in 1999, continuing to squander money, worse was to come. Their on-going political battles were significant, too, in a fragmented country of deep regional identities, where clubs are considered the representatives of their provinces or cities, and where Oviedo’s ground, the New Carlos Tartiere, to which they moved in 2000, was owned by the council. Institutional support was vital – and it was about to be taken from them.
So was their footballing lifeline. Oviedo were running up debts of over £13million and desperately needed to get back up to the First Division. Instead, the following season, 2002-03, having been forced to sell a number of players, including goalkeeper Esteban to Atletico Madrid and midfielder Boris to Real Sociedad, they finished 21st out of 22 teams and were relegated – to the Third Division.
Yes, the Third Division; two divisions in one go. On the pitch, Oviedo were relegated to Second Division B; off it they fell a division further, to the Third.
A number of Oviedo players, including captain Oli, had not been paid and took their case to the players’ union, the AFE. Despite seeking out guarantors and putting together a 16-man consortium, the club missed their midnight deadline to meet the players’ demands at a showdown in a hotel. The failure to pay the squad their wages triggered an automatic relegation to the Third Division, and to add insult to injury, Oviedo’s financial situation meant they were forced to start the following season on minus six points.
Many fans, camped outside the hotel, blamed the players, but Oli was adamant they had been justified in demanding their money. “How do we leave this place?” one fretting team-mate asked him. “By the front door with a pair of bollocks,” he said, attacking the club and Gonzalez, who by now had sold his shares, and the debts attached to them, to current president Lafuente for a solitary euro.
“It felt like we were selling a cow in there,” Oli complained. “We kept on giving way, more and more, and yet we just couldn’t reach agreement. The squad did all it could, right to the end. We take full responsibility for the sporting failure of the club but the financial failure is down to other people.
“This is a situation you could see coming. Where are the thousand million pesetas [£4m] that Betis paid for me or the money the club got for Ivan Ania and [Slavisa] Jokanovic? I wouldn’t even have a coffee with the people who used to run this club. I can walk round Oviedo with my conscience clear, which is more than can be said for Celso Gonzalez.”
Few fans agreed entirely. Although they despised Gonzalez for his abject failure and his control of the club, for the sense that he was only looking after himself, they felt that it was the players who had hammered the final nail into their coffin.
Some suspected, too, that they had deliberately failed to reach an agreement; by getting relegated to a division no longer part of the LFP (Professional Football League), Oviedo could not keep the players at the club. Roberto Losada was just one of those who had denounced the club to become a free agent, moving to Valladolid. Other clubs bided their time. Sales would have saved Oviedo but by waiting until the two-division drop was confirmed, other clubs could pick off their players for free.
A far greater hate figure was, however, about to emerge, greater than the players or even Gonzalez. One who would underline just how ironic it was for Oviedo’s players to end up celebrating their triumph from the town hall balcony this summer.
That figure was Mayor De Lorenzo. Oviedo’s relegation to the Third Division, he decreed, signalled “the end of 77 years of history. Oviedo are in the [essentially amateur] Third Division. The level of capital is not the same and the players don’t belong to the club any more. There is a debt of 7,000 million pesetas [£28m]. To artificially keep the club alive would be to con the Oviedo fans yet again. This is a bankruptcy the size of a cathedral and the only thing that’s left is to sign the death certificate.”
The man who was set to sign it was the mayor himself. If his words infuriated, his actions had fans in rabid fits, but he inadvertently ended up infusing supporters with the crusading spirit they needed to keep their club alive. His may have been a logical, even realistic appraisal but the fans rebelled – football is not just any old business. Some even saw De Lorenzo’s stance as a grasp for the one area of public life in the Asturias region that evaded him: football. If so, he miscalculated spectacularly.
“We need to start from scratch,” De Lorenzo announced, and he was as good as his word, removing the city council’s support for the club and instead throwing its weight behind its other team, Astur Club de Futbol, providing them with £60,000-a-year backing.
That was just the start. Astur changed their name to Oviedo Astur (Oviedo AFC, in other words), changed their colours from red shirts with blue shorts to Oviedo’s traditional blue shirts and socks with white shorts, altered their badge to look suspiciously similar to Oviedo’s and even signed a couple of former Oviedo players.
Astur quickly became known to Oviedo fans – Real (and real) Oviedo fans – as el engendro: roughly, the freak foetus or ugly brainchild, a kind of Frankenstein’s monster.
Real Oviedo fans took to the streets in mass demonstrations. They boycotted council-run fiestas. T-shirts declaring “I didn’t abandon Oviedo in the Third Division” sold in their thousands. Oviedo bring-and-buy sales sprung up at the stadium, fans selling old shirts, scarves and memorabilia, with all the proceeds going to the club. A real civic reaction had been sparked, which many local businesses backed – the sports shop that now sells Oviedo shirts on behalf of the club does so without taking a cut.
And, above all, season-ticket sales rocketed, over 10,000 within a couple of months, soon rising to over 12,000 – more than many First Division clubs and unheard of down in the Third Division.
As Lafuente, who has recovered much of the credibility lost during his handling of the double-relegation, puts it: “Without the fans, Oviedo would be dead. They knew it was in danger and they put themselves at the front of everything and in front of everything to save it.” No wonder Oviedo have repeated the now famous gesture of the 2001 UEFA Cup finalists, Alaves – the club’s new shirt comes embroidered with the names of their members.
There are a lot of them, too; no solitary “Juan” across the chest. Which is more than can be said for the freak foetus. While Oviedo boast well over 12,000 members, Astur could barely attract 1,500.
And, having started more or less from scratch, building a squad in little over a week and with a full-time staff of just 10 (coaches included), Oviedo won the Third Division in their first season, finishing ahead of Astur despite the six-point penalty. The play-off defeat was a setback, although off the field the club were working towards solvency, with some success: a sponsorship deal was struck with the Principality of Asturias, of which Oviedo is the capital.
De Lorenzo realised his mistake – politically, at least – and backtracked. Finally appreciating that he could not beat Oviedo, he changed his posture entirely in the autumn of 2004. To the opposition in the city council it appeared little more than an attempt to clean up his image in front of Oviedo fans. Perhaps, but his shift was vital for the club. Survival was at last secured.
Having negotiated the suspension of debts totalling £24m with creditors, Lafuente succeeded in persuading De Lorenzo to once again recognise Real Oviedo as the city’s representative club. The £60,000 funding was removed from Astur, and De Lorenzo agreed to foot the bill for the Carlos Tartiere, as well as purchasing £40,000-worth of tickets for each game, which would then be handed out to schoolchildren and agreeing to support a share issue to raise funds. Hopping on to the bandwagon, he even made himself a member of the club. “I neither forgive nor forget,” said Lafuente, “but if needs be, I’ll pact with the devil if it’s good for Real Oviedo.”
He had a point. A deal with the council was certainly necessary and within the year Oviedo were making their first tentative steps back, De Lorenzo insisting that he, too, was delighted to see them climb halfway out of the well. Few were under any illusions, though: institutional backing confirmed survival but it was rooted in the fans. And nor are Oviedo entirely safe yet.
As they won promotion at the second time of asking, against the backdrop of those 25,000 fans, a Third Division record, one of the club’s captains, Aitor Aldeondo, proclaimed: “I’ve played at lots of clubs, but I have never seen anything like this. Oviedo’s fans are the best in the world.”
Lafuente, meanwhile, summed up Oviedo’s journey with a matter-of-fact realism:
“Our first joy, the one that came with securing survival, is like the feeling a prisoner gets when they take him off death row. Our second, this promotion, is like that prisoner being released on parole.” Another mistake and it could all go wrong, but Oviedo have renewed hope.
While Oviedo’s story has shown that fans can make a difference and has given hope to other struggling clubs (not least rivals Sporting Gijon), it also underlines the dangers faced by Spanish clubs. Especially when politics and ownership meet – and Spanish football is eminently political.
Only now is English football starting to get even remotely near to the Spanish game in terms of the fame and significance of chairmen and presidents. When Liverpool played Barcelona in the Champions League a few years ago the camera kept on focusing on Barca president Joan Gaspart. Everyone in Spain knew him instantly; far fewer in England recognised that the bloke with the moustache sitting next to him was Liverpool chairman David Moores.
Oviedo’s recent history has also revealed, yet again, that public companies are by their very nature vulnerable; ownership can be so easily achieved. Yet, bizarrely, plcs were considered the answer to all Spain’s problems not long ago, the Holy Grail of economic success. Yes, really. The notion that Spain’s clubs are owned by their fans, which appears to be generally held in England, is simply wrong. In 1999 every Spanish club, with four exceptions, were forced to become a sporting plc (a SAD), with a series of restrictions, in a bid to solve football’s economic crisis.
The four exceptions were the Big Two, Barcelona and Real Madrid (hence the assumption), Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna, but in fact all other Spanish clubs are SADs, even if in most cases the former owners have managed to maintain a controlling interest after flotation and despite the fact that there are still presidential elections at most clubs – voted in by shareholders rather than members.
Some clubs have succeeded under the SAD model, of course. Villarreal, bought by Paco Roig, are the outstanding example this season, while a consortium headed by former Liverpool striker Michael Robinson has carefully and expertly steered Cadiz back from crisis to the First Division. In the main, though, the SAD law has been an abject failure, with combined club debts reaching £1,080m and having opened up Spanish clubs to the whims that Manchester United fans now fear with Malcolm Glazer. At the most extreme end, an undercover television programme showed one football agent explaining how easy it would be to buy up Sporting Gijon and use it as a front for laundering money.
That is an isolated example, of course, and many clubs are run extremely well and with sensitivity towards the fans. But even among those who have supported their clubs there are serious question marks about major shareholders and presidents (normally one and the same).
Betis’s Manuel Ruiz de Lopera, who made his fortune from second-hand televisions with huge rates of interest, has managed to get himself voted in as president in perpetuity – despite an investigation by the Inland Revenue, a number of serious allegations made against him and a lack of transparency in the club accounts. Meanwhile, his opposite number at Sevilla, Jose Maria del Nido, has a sound economic policy but his claim to be “the most important man in Seville after the Pope” says much about the power many believe club presidency can bring.
And there’s more. Malaga’s president Serafin Roldan is a self-confessed Barcelona fan; an Argentinian named Daniel Grinbank took over Leganes last season, brought in 11 Argentinian players and was gone within six months when it turned out he didn’t have any money after all; and bitter shareholder battles were the main reason Valencia lost the most successful manager in their history, Rafael Benitez, who has now won the European Cup with Liverpool.
Then, of course, there is Dimitri Piterman, a bogeyman for much of the Spanish press (rather harshly so). The Ukrainian-American famously bought a 26 per cent share of Racing Santander and decided he wanted to be coach. So, he sacked Manuel Preciados and put himself in charge. But Spanish rules prevent anyone acting as a coach without a coaching qualification so Piterman appointed Cuchi Cos, who had worked with him at Segunda B side Palamos, as his official coach, with Piterman pulling the strings.
However, there was a further problem. Piterman was obsessed with sitting on the bench for matches, but was not allowed to do so without a coaching qualification. “It’s crazy,” he complained. “Any old idiot can run a country, and you’re telling me I need a piece of paper to sit on a bench?”
So Piterman applied to be Racing’s match-day delegate. The federation refused. He applied to be kit-man. The federation refused. He threatened to buy up every single front-row seat and shout orders through a megaphone, before hatching a plan: he named himself the club’s official photographer and, complete with orange photographer’s bib, grabbed a prime touchline spot next to the dug-out. Without a camera.
Piterman was portrayed as a villain. But he has a lot of charisma and seems to know more or less what he is doing. Now at Alaves, having sold his shares at Racing, he has led them back to the First Division. He is also little more than a product of the SAD law, someone who is brutally honest about the way he works. Many presidents try to dictate sporting policy, but just a few do it so openly.
One of the striking features of the coverage of Glazer’s recent takeover of Manchester United has been the way in which British reports have held up Real Madrid and Barcelona as a romantic alternative model, one of true identity and belonging.
In principle, they are, of course, right: Madrid, Barcelona, Athletic and Osasuna are owned by their fans, they are democratic institutions. Supporters need not, as Real Madrid president Florentino Perez and much of the press have constantly insisted, fear the arrival of “some oil magnate”. Should their president do something that goes against the club, they can be voted out.
But in practice, faced with elections every four years, the presidential model isn’t perfect. Power is still the key, it is just political rather than economic power. The media gets manipulated and election campaigns can be dirty, very dirty. Fans can be removed from what’s really going on at their club, they can be priced out of their seats and can still watch their club run into the ground.
The political pressure can prove too great, prompting presidents to seek immediate, election-winning solutions with a limited shelf-life; former Barca president Gaspart blew over £100m in little more than a season trying to recover from the shock of losing Luis Figo to Real Madrid and win back fans. Not one of the players he bought during the spree is still at the club.
As one former Madrid player (and it could just as easily have been a Barca player) confided: “Because the president thinks he might get only four years he tries to sign superstars and do big things so that people remember him and that he can make an impact.”
That is not always good news for the club. The fact that Real Madrid have won nothing for two seasons is not a coincidence. Perez, like Piterman, is more than happy to have a hand in team selection. He just wouldn’t admit it. And nor are debts alien to Barca or Madrid, who do not have the same economic restrictions placed upon them – much to the annoyance of the SADs. Madrid had to sell their training ground to survive; Barcelona are looking into a similar plan.
Barcelona’s current president, Joan Laporta, whose board is five men down due to in-fighting at the club, has also spent the entire year insisting that a lucrative shirt sponsorship deal is on the point of being signed in China, probably with the Beijing Olympics. The Chinese say they know nothing, absolutely nothing, about it. Politics and spin doctoring are part of the game even when share issues are not.