Deportivo Alavés’s resistance finally broke four minutes after midnight when the 27th shot of the match flew in, or so it seemed. Kévin Gameiro’s foot trembled and he waited a long time – two minutes passed between Atlético Madrid winning one last chance and him taking the penalty – but he smashed the ball into the net.
When it bounced out again, Manu García furiously smashed it into the stands, where the colchoneros were going crazy. Up in the north corner of the Calderón, occupied by 400 Alavés supporters, the drums stopped for the first time.
Just because the goal had been coming, the siege overwhelming, did not make it hurt less. It was 1-0, 92.06 and over. Their return to primera a decade later had ended in defeat. But Alavés have been through worse than this before, and so had García. Resistance gave way to rebellion: if only for a moment, if only in anger. And it was enough. As they kicked off, time up now, the clock showing 93.21 when the board had shown 93, there was a look. Then there was a long ball that was not quite long enough, a header, a sliced clearance and another header, and then it happened.
“The things that go through your mind in barely a few seconds,” García said. “It dropped to me, I turned. I thought they’d foul me. And I thought I was closer than I was; I thought it wasn’t a bad place for a free-kick. But Correa didn’t foul me. So I faked the shot, took another step. ‘OK, pass it.’ But, no. Impossible. So I hit it.”
Oh, he hit it all right, socks halfway down his shins. Alavés’s first shot on target, only their second in total: 94.02 on the clock. From 25 yards it rocketed in. “I see it go in and the next five seconds are beautiful: you run and nothing hurts any more,” García said. It was late and it was hot but he sprinted to the corner and team-mates piled on. Silence fell, except high up at the other end. No one could believe it.
There had been no goals on Sunday night and two on Monday morning, a new day. The ball had been back in play for 46 seconds but it was enough. Now there was time for only two more touches: a kick-off, a long hoof and that was it.
They call Alavés El Glorioso and somehow, no one really knows how, they had done it: 27-2 the shot count read; what did not hit the post or fly past it Fernando Pachecho saved, two of them in a row from two yards with two minutes left. Somehow they made it to the 93rd minute and, even more improbably, beyond.
“The truth is, we didn’t deserve to draw,” said the Alavés coach, Mauricio Pellegrino.
“We were lucky that they didn’t take their chances and then the penalty was avoidable, a mistake. Then there was that anger. We thought it was over but …” García said. “You could say: ‘How badly we have played, how many chances they had!’ but it’s Atlético, runners up in the European Cup.”
It is the first division, too. After 10 years away, three of them spent in the Segunda B, Spain’s regionalised 80-team, four-division, theoretically amateur third tier; after suffering Dmitry Piterman, collapsing into crisis and debt; after going into administration and coming out of it again, stable now but still small, still newcomers, still set to struggle; they were back. And like this. With luck, yes, and lots of it. But also with a ludicrously good goal, a ludicrously good moment, barely believable and better for it. Right, too.
Somehow, sport finds a way. People do. “It’s a game, it’s a game,” one Atlético player repeated last night, wide-eyed. It gets harder to break from the routine and upset increasing odds and, when it happens, it may be only fleeting – Alavés know there will be trouble ahead – but there is still room for moments like Mario’s and moments like Manu’s. “A fairytale”, he calls it, and he’s right.
The man who spent the first eight years of his career in Segunda B and thought he would spend the rest of his days there too, who admits that his “objective” – “distant” and “unlikely” – was to play in the second division; a man who got around but never stayed further than 110km from where he was born, who was not given a chance in the first team at Real Sociedad, was dropped by Girona after a month, was left unregistered by Eibar and who “couldn’t even imagine” playing in the top flight, had just scored a last-minute belter at the Calderón, his team’s first primera goal in 10 years. And it is his team, too.
The first time Manu’s name appeared on the Alavés shirt was in 2001 when they embossed it with the name of every socio. His was on the front, right in the middle, near the badge. Now it is on the back. He is proud of that historic pink shirt and laments the fact that he has not got the blue and yellow one they wore in Dortmund. “A treasure,” he calls it. Laments, too, the fact that he was not there that day against Liverpool, a season-ticket holder who was forced to watch the Uefa Cup final on television having joined Real Sociedad’s youth system up the road in San Sebastián.
Born in Vitoria, García has, as he puts it, leapt the fence at the front of the general stand at Mendizorrotza, where his dad took him as a boy, and on to the pitch. “While the other kids wanted to be Romário or Laudrup, I wanted to be Manolo Serrano.” Serrano scored against Madrid in the Copa del Rey in 1997 but never in the first division for Alavés, even though he did take them there. Five years in a row Alavés made the play-offs but did not make the second division. Serrano, there from 1995 to 1998, finally pulled them out of Segunda B and then scored the goal that took them up again, to the first division in 1997, at which point Espanyol, who had loaned him, brought him back.
And if Serrano could not get there with Alavés, how would García? Crisis and a sporting director who knew him from Real Sociedad gave him the chance to play for his club. In his words: the club had dropped to his level. Together they would find another level and another and now another.
Midway through a career spent entirely in the Segunda B – after winning promotion with Real Unión he was forced to return to Eibar rather than go up with them – the team García supported signed him in 2012. Alavés were in administration and, although things would slowly stabilise under new owners who came from success in basketball, it was a long way back. A big club with a big fan base, Alavés were still down in Segunda B. Promotion came but, the year after, only a last-minute goal on the final day against Jaén rescued them from heading back down. “Agonising,” García calls it. He knows; he scored it.
Just as he scored three in the last three games last season, having got only two all season before that, including the goal that clinched a return to the first division. He was the captain, the outstanding player, once an attacker – he had been top scorer in Real Sociedad’s youth team – now a more defensive midfielder. Still, there were no guarantees that he would get there with them. Only nine of last year’s team are still there and the coach has changed too; 16 new players have arrived. Only three men remain from García’s first season in 2012.
“I had always thought that Alavés would make it to the first division one day because the project was good; what I didn’t think was that I would be in the team,” he said. “And this summer, bloody hell, I was so happy when they offered me the chance to continue.”
He is happier now. “Just to make your debut in the first division is difficult; I could never have imagined it. To make your debut for your team; well, very few can say that. And to do it against Atlético at the Calderón. There will be a lot of suffering to come this season but one day, not yet, we’ll look back on this and it will be a lovely memory, a tiny little bit of history, and maybe I’ll remember the hard times too. There are lots of players who have made as much effort as me but not been as lucky as I was to be in the right place, for everything to fall for me.” The ball, in particular – with the clock showing 94.07 in Alavés’s first game back for a decade.
“Manu is a leader, he knows the history of this club very well and he worked so hard to get us here,” Pellegrino said. “Now he’s a first division Manu; that’s what I want from him. He deserves this.”
Outside the Calderón the team bus was waiting. The fans, staying at first as the stadium emptied, had pulled out by then; they had 350 kilometres ahead of them. A little after 1.15, the players did the same. There were no beers and no celebration, just a few games of cards and people trying to sleep. At five o’clock Deportivo Alavés rolled into Vitoria. They had come a long way.
• That blond bloke looks pretty good. The one with the ginger beard. Leo Messi was superb as Barcelona hammered Real Betis 6-2 at the Camp Nou. There was another match ball for Luis Suárez and two goals for Messi. Which might not be much of a surprise. What is, but probably should not be, is that it looks as if Arda Turan might turn out nice after all. Luis Enrique called it almost perfect; Betis’s two goals came from their only two shots and Barcelona might have got more. “They’re frightening,” AS’s cover ran, “but Madrid aren’t scared.”
•Not scared of Real Sociedad, for sure. Without Ronaldo, Benzema, Modric, Pepe and Navas, they won easily at Anoeta, impressive and in control throughout, slick, fast and dangerous. Gareth Bale did a Bale for the first, thumping in a header from Dani Carvajal’s cross. That was with 74 seconds gone. He got his second with seven seconds left. Between them there was a gorgeous goal from Marco Asensio. “My head hurts when it comes to picking the team,” Zinedine Zidane admitted afterwards. The debate was James or Isco. The answer was Asensio. Marca called him a “magician.”
• Anoeta stood to applaud in the ninth minute, in honour of Dalian Atkinson.
• Good Cop, bad Cop. Duje Cop committed more fouls than anyone else this weekend but he also got the opening goal on his debut for Sporting Gijón – and it was a beauty too, volleyed in from a corner. That set Sporting up for a win against Athletic Bilbao that was surprisingly comfortable; certainly considering the way things had looked in the first half. Once they were given the chance to play on the break, Abelardo’s team looked dangerous and genuinely good. The second was a lovely goal, superbly made by Burgui and neatly taken by Victor. “We ran like lions,” Cop said. Tsk. Any five-year-old knows that cheetahs run faster than lions.
• Sporting could face a fine after the referee stopped the game for a minute in the first half when he heard monkey chants aimed at Inaki Williams. The chants stopped, or seemed to, after an announcement was made over the PA system but that should not see them avoid punishment and, with new legislation, a reasonably serious one.
• Two points down already. “It doesn’t matter how you play, what matters is how effective you are. And when you don’t win at the Calderón you go home sad,” Felipe Luís said. He is right, of course, but when it comes to the analysis, there should not be much alarm. What is wrong with Atlético? Not much, really: 27 shots, 20 corners, two sitters, two posts – they did pretty much everything except score and there was a genuine variety to the way they attacked, even without Antoine Griezmann, although there may be some doubts about the type of strikers they have and whether they need either a touch more subtlety or maybe more size.
• You come to a report to find out what happened – but the truth is, no one really knows what happened. But it was fun. It finished Sevilla 6-4 Espanyol and it could have been more, for both teams (and especially for Sevilla, who were stopped often by Roberto). AS called it “Russian roulette”. Everyone else called it “mad”. Marca’s match report ended on “thanks”. Well, quite. “I’ll be extremely offensive,” Jorge Sampaoli had said at his presentation and he was as good as his word.
• Welcome home, Michu.
Results Málaga 1–1 Osasuna, Deportivo 2–1 Eibar, Barcelona 6–2 Betis, Granada 1–1 Villarreal, Sevilla 6–4 Espanyol, Sporting 2–1 Athletic, Real Sociedad 0–3 Real Madrid, Atlético 1–1 Alavés. Tonight: Celta v Leganés, Valencia v Las Palmas.
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