Butarque was blue, just like their manager wanted and just like their captain’s hair.
“I hope they wear Leganés shirts and only Leganés shirts, with no one else’s underneath,” Asier Garitano said, and they did. Sitting on a hill, circled by motorways, the ground had been done up and filled up for its first match of a new season: the first of a new era that still had something of the old about it. Under the stands was the smell of bacon, cooked on a camping stove; in the stands were 10,958 people, more than had ever been here before. They were dressed for the occasion and making the most of it. Scarfs, flags, banners. And blue, lots of blue.
“This is Butarque and only ‘Lega’ play here,” the slogan runs, stuck up around a municipal stadium that is their home and theirs alone. But on Saturday night it wasn’t only Lega playing there, it was Atlético Madrid as well. And here’s the thing: for many of them, Atlético Madrid are their team too. For others, Real Madrid are. A town of 185,000, 11 kilometres south of the capital, where there are streets named after AC/DC and Scorpions, surrounded by cucumber-growing country, retail parks, towns not unlike theirs, and lots of cars, Leganés had never had a team in the first division before and they had never expected to either.
This, coach Garitano admits, is “incredible”, “unthinkable”.
In their 88-year history, Club Deportivo Leganés hadn’t been in the first division and hadn’t been in the second much, getting there for the first time in 1987: they’d spent longer in regional, and spread the last 40 years across tercera and segunda b, the former made up of 18 regional divisions, the latter made up of four, and both theoretically amateur. Historically, their rivalry was with Getafe but even they left Leganés behind: when the derby came around it was against Getafe’s B team. It is only three years since Leganés were last in segunda b and when they were promoted to segunda in 2014, it was the first time they’d been there in a decade. They weren’t the biggest team in either division – their budget last year was €4.5m euros – and now they’re the smallest in primera.
The day Garitano took over as manager in 2013, there was no training ground and a pitch full of potholes. “We had seven players … and I didn’t want three of them,” he admits. He had never been in the first division, either. The club was restructuring under new ownership, taken over by Felipe Moreno Romero in 2009. The president is his wife María Victoria Pavón – one of three women presidents in primera – and while they invested around €3m, austerity was the word. With their son Felipe as sporting director, they began building; with Garitano, they grew. Two improbable promotions in three years followed.
Reaching the first division wasn’t even a target. There was no obligation, and no pressure, which might just have been part of the reason for their success. “We were happy in the second division,” Garitano admits. But they didn’t settle for that: having finished 10th in 2014-15, more than a dozen new players joined last season. They won only two of their first 12 games but then the run began. Before the final game, their captain gathered the squad together, and reading the speech he had prepared off an iPad in the corner of the dressing room as they stood in a circle, eyes closed, arms around each others’ shoulders, told them: “This is your heart speaking … if you lose, you’ll still be the best; if you win you’ll be historic.”
They did win: Pablo Insua’s header at Mirandés took them up. And so here they were on Saturday night, a first division team. Better still, they had won their opening match 1-0 at Celta de Vigo and now they were facing Atlético, some fans forced into a choice they never expected to have to make, a measure of just how far they had come.
It was no choice, of course. Although there were a few tell-tale signs – the man in the Leganés shirt with the Atlético tattoo – there was no ambiguity. Garitano got his way: how could he not on a night like this?
Besides, as last season progressed they’d backed their team too, playing a key role. Leganés was little but it was loud. They weren’t going to miss this and nor were they going to doubt. They had sold 8,800 season tickets, the maximum in a ground that doesn’t quite hold 11,000 having been expanded from 8,200 (the aim is to expand it still further, to 15,000). This is a season to enjoy and one to embed the club in its community, to elevate it above its giant neighbours, locally at least – a lesson in part learned by Getafe’s failure to do the same, dropping down again a decade later without really building that base.
There were 500 Atlético fans in one corner but everywhere else was blue, thousands of striped shirts like the stands had been filled with deckchairs. “Proud”, one banner read. “Don’t wake up; the dream continues,” said another. When Garitano quietly walked in a couple of hours before kick-off, a rucksack on his back, he picked his way through a crowd that had come to see the buses arrive, Atlético’s especially – proof somehow that they had made it. As he went through Gate 0, there was a gentle and belated ripple of applause, as if he’d been barely noticed, but by the time he and his team walked on to the pitch after 10pm it was different. An occasion and a special one. In the stands was an inflatable cucumber. In the Atlético dressing room was a basket of real ones as promised, a gift from Leganés.
That was all they gave them. Atlético came, but they could not find a way through. Kévin Gameiro hit wide, Antoine Griezmann too, but mostly Atlético hit a wall. Jon Serantes made three superb saves; ahead of him, his team-mates made tackle after tackle. And every time they did, there was another roar, a connection built, like a cup game where one set of fans knows what the reality is but rebels against it, where every challenge is a relief, vindication, a victory. “This is a stadium where even the guy selling tickets defends,” AS wrote. And as time went on so the likelihood that they would not be beaten grew; from four at the back to five, the chances reduced. It felt like, actually, Leganés had this under control. Or maybe for the pessimists among them – and a banner at one end did declare them “paranoid” – that a cruel end might be coming closer.
But it didn’t; instead, history beckoned. It finished 0-0.
“We didn’t have a shot and we didn’t cause them problems. We have to improve dramatically. We did not play well at all,” Garitano insisted. Meanwhile, Griezmann claimed that if Atlético carry on playing like this they will be fighting to avoid relegation, while a depressed-looking, exhausted team-mate of his just rolled his eyes when he was asked if Leganés were really that good. The message was clear: no, we were that bad.
Perhaps, and there will be a battle ahead – it will be Leganés, not Atlético fighting relegation, they will still seek additions in the next two days, and the limitations are clear – but on Saturday night, few really cared and nor should they. They had endured but this was a moment to be enjoyed. Leganés – Leganés! – had done it. They had reached the second division, they had reached the first division, they had beaten Celta, and now they had only gone and held Atlético Madrid, European runners-up. And Garitano was critical, sure, but they could argue that they deserved this. In the dressing room is a sign: “If you’re sitting here, it is because you want to do something great,” it says.
There was merit in it, certainly, and that was recognised at the final whistle. They had not let up and nor had the noise. The fans sang and chanted and accompanied every action. It rose with each tackle, interception and run, until in the last minute Martín Mantovani dived to head away a corner at the near post and bring the opening performance to a close, just after midnight. They had emerged equal. Eighty-eight years later, here they were, unbeaten. Record breakers, too. One win, one draw, two games no goals conceded – something no debutant in Spain has done for 87 years. They are the only side in the first division not to have let in a goal.
No wonder there was a sound like thunder when Mantovani dived to head away the last threat; no wonder he insisted: “This tastes like glory.”
Somehow, it had to be him: the man who had been on the point of giving up on the game at 21; who left behind his studies as a food safety inspector to come to Spain and join Atlético’s youth system alongside Koke and David de Gea, yet still didn’t make it to the second division – “professional” football – until he was 30; who slept rough in Milan the night he went to get the passport that allowed him to play, wrapping himself in cardboard boxes to blend in with others spending that night in the bus station; who joined Leganés from Real Oviedo in 2013 and made this journey with them, the journey of their lives, winning two promotions.
Mantovani is one of only three players remaining from those days, the Leganés captain who proudly told team-mates that they would make history before the game in Miranda and whose speech before their first ever primera match concluded: “We’re here to enjoy ourselves, lads … but I enjoy myself winning”. He is the man whose speech on Saturday night, delivered as supporters arrived, insisted: “never stop believing”. The man who promised to dye his hair if they got promotion in 2014 and said the same again in 2016; who did it permanently this time because his dad said that last time, a three-day job, didn’t count.
Which is why the very last final touch in Leganés’s very first home game in the top flight, greeted by the noise of the night, the biggest cheer in their history, was reserved for Martín Mantovani’s head, blue as Butarque.
• And top of the table are … Las Palmas. It’s the first time they have been there for 27 years and they will be there for at least a fortnight too as this week is international break (without Iker Casillas for the first time in 16 years). They deserve it. Just like watching Brazil. Only better. That’s two wins out of two, and nine goals scored. That’s nine goals in two games, when last year it took them until December to get as many. That Quique Setién is a genius, alright. “I’m enjoying this but we haven’t done anything yet,” he said.
He was right on both counts: it’s early still but everyone is enjoying this. Las Palmas have scored nine times with only eleven shots on target this season, five from five on Sunday, but that doesn’t make them lucky (although Valencia were actually pretty good in the opening game against them); it is more that they aren’t wasting chances because the chances they make are so clear. They’re almost walking the ball in. Against Granada, their precision and pace on the break was wonderful, led by Nabil El Zhar and Jonathan Viera and … oh, what the hell, they were all pretty brilliant.
• Las Palmas’s best player was Paco Jémez. That’s what Paco Jémez says, anyway. The Granada manager blamed himself … in that slightly pleading tell-me-I’m-good-reading way that he is sometimes prone to doing and which is wearing a little thin. Granada, it is true, were awful.
• From 40 goals in the opening weekend to just 17 in week two. Blame Sevilla, who went from 10 to zero with a 0-0 draw against Villarreal. And they should be grateful for that too. Their best player was Sergio Rico, the goalkeeper, and they didn’t manage a single shot on target. Not so fun, after all. Not this time.
• “Has dadila Festa” the banner said: let the party begin. Mendizorrotza looked good for Alavés’s first game back for a decade – and so, on the pitch, did Theo Hernández and Marcos Llorente – but, like Leganés, it finished 0-0. And like Leganés, Alavés held Atlético of course. That’s two games unbeaten for them.
• So, Griezmann. “If we carry on like this we’ll be fighting not to go down.” It was quite an exaggeration but this wasn’t good, that’s for sure. And Atlético Madrid are already four points behind Madrid and Barcelona having played two newly-promoted teams. If on the opening weekend Atlético could count themselves unlucky, the same wasn’t quite so true at Butarque – even if they wasted three or four decent chances. The look on one player’s face after the game said it all. So did his silence. This felt systemic, not just a one-off. It did to him, anyway. And he clearly wasn’t alone. As one headline, playing on the Leganés horticultural theme, put it: “Atletico don’t play a cucumber.” They don’t play any football at all, in other words.
• Oh, Valencia. Oh my. They have all of their centre-backs up for sale, have sold the only one that wasn’t for sale, and their striker is on his way out. And now they sit bottom of the table this morning. What can go wrong, will go wrong it seems: they should have beaten Eibar easily and actually played quite well at times, as was the case on the opening day, but dreadful defending and worse finishing saw them lose 1-0 at Ipurua to a Pedro León penalty. For the first time in 17 years, Valencia have lost their first two league games.
• “With Barcelona, all you get to choose is how they beat you,” Athletic Club Bilbao manager Ernesto Valverde said. That’s not entirely true and shouldn’t be taken as an abdication of duty: his team took the Super Cup off Barcelona last season, for a start, and Athletic pushed them right back on Sunday, taking them to the wire. In the end, though, an Ivan Rakitic header was enough in a superb game, played in the rain the way football’s supposed to be and in which both teams played very well. It was an important and very creditable victory, Luis Enrique said and he was right. It might have been a bigger one too, but for chances wasted by Lionel Messi, Arda Turan and Luis Suárez. Yet it might also have been no victory at all.
Athletic pressed so high that Barcelona were forced to play from very deep, the pitch feeling as long as anyone could remember. Barcelona avoided the temptation to just hit the ball forward, though, despite being put under so much pressure. In fact, they seemed to embrace the idea, walking a tightrope but emerging on the other side, overcoming the first wave and running into the space behind before meeting the next line of Athletic players 40 or 50 yards further on. It was almost as if they invited trouble – which they did at times – as a way of, in fact, inviting opportunity. As if they wanted to play a counter-attacking game … with possession. Whose design it was is open to debate: both of theirs, probably. Perhaps the best measure of how it went was that Marc- André ter Stegen completed more passes than any goal keeper in a decade – and provoked more heart attacks too.
• Toni Kroos got a classy 81st-minute winner as Real Madrid defeated an impressive Celta side, the ball curling across the floor like a bowling ball down a lane and going in off the post. Oh, and speaking of class: Luka Modric.
• Doctor Diego Cervero Otero: he scores goals.
Betis 0 – 0 Deportivo
Espanyol 2 – 2 Málaga
Osasuna 0 – 2 Real Sociedad
Eibar 1 – 0 Valencia
Real Madrid 2 – 1 Celta
Leganés 0 – 0 Atlético
Las Palmas 5 – 1 Granada
Alavés 0 – 0 Sporting
Athletic 0 – 1 Barcelona
Villarreal 0 – 0 Sevilla
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