LaLiga: From near bankruptcy to third in standings, the story of Deportivo Alaves, who stunned Real Madrid
Almost 10 years ago, Deportivo Alaves, a tiny club from Vitoria-Gasteiz, were staring at bankruptcy. On Saturday, they ascended to third in LaLiga after stunning Real Madrid.
Vitoria-Gasteiz: As he walks off the pitch, Luka Modric looks like he's spotted a ghost. Vinicius Junior, all 18 years of age, is shell-shocked. Real Madrid manager Julen Lopetegui is sitting on the bench, distraught. One of his assistants seems to be talking to him, but the Spaniard appears not to hear.
It's possible he hasn't been able to even hear himself think all evening on a rainy day in the Basque country. It's completely plausible that all evening, he and his players could hear only the Alaves ultras in the east end of the Mendizorroza singing. Chanting. Stomping their feet. Banging their drums for 95 minutes without respite. Clapping in one tune. Relentlessly.
Sometimes a section of boisterous fans which refuses to sit down for the whole match is all it takes to lift up an underdog team. Or to make a team forget that they are 13-time Champions League winners.
That's most certainly what seems to have happened at the Mendizorroza on Saturday.
How else do you explain Real Madrid's defeat at a stadium where they last lost in 1931?
But this has been an odd season in Spain so far. Real have been patchy, even losing 0-3 to Sevilla earlier. Barcelona, undisputed heavyweight champions of the league along with Real, have gone three matches without a win now.
But what is most remarkable is the upswing in fortunes of Alaves, a club which earned promotion to LaLiga only in 2016. Since coming into existence in 1921, the club has seen many promotions and relegations.
"Relegation and promotion keeps happening with our club. But the fact that we get to watch a team like Alaves regularly, is the biggest thing for this city," says lifelong fan Bujanda Barcena, whose father also played for the club decades ago.
He says that much worse things have happened to the club than relegation. Last season, they went through three managers — Luis Zubeldia, Javier Cabello, Gianni Di Biasi — before they handed over the reigns to Abelardo Fernandez. Fernandez was the mastermind of the victory over Real on Saturday.
But even that is nothing compared to their problems just a little over a decade ago. In 2007, the club was close to bankruptcy having accrued a debt of nearly €21 million during the three-year reign of Ukrainian-American businessman Dmitry Piterman. While Piterman left, the debt remained.
With the future looking bleak, the owners of local basketball side Baskonia were persuaded to buy the club. They reluctantly obliged in 2011, buying an 81 percent stake in the club.
"2005 to 2010 was a terrible period for the club. They came very close to bankruptcy. That was when we were approached to help the club out. In fact, politicians forced us to come into football. We were happy to stick to basketball. We were forced to be saviours," says Mikel Barcena, the Deputy General Manager at Alaves.
"Because of the terrible management style, the club's reputation was also terrible. We had to mend our relations with a lot of people when we started."
It is clear that the basketball team — which is one of the 11 teams to have a fixed spot in the 16-team EuroLeague, basketball's European version of Champions League — is still the primary interest of the owners. The owners also have an eSports division, which was launched in 2015.
However, the owners invest as much as four times into the football team — €60 million per season as opposed to €15 million for Baskonia.
While the basketball team has almost 10,000 season ticket holders, the football team has managed to sell out approximately 17,200 season tickets in a city of 2,50,000 inhabitants.
For Real Madrid, it must have felt like all those 2,50,000 people were in the stands, where the party never ceased.
It was a surreal experience. Just half an hour before the match started, the city seemed to amble along at a sedate pace. You wouldn't have known that Real Madrid were in town. But the stadium itself, come kick-off, was packed to the rafters with fans having emerged from nowhere. This dramatic apparition seemed to be reflecting the fickle nature of the city's weather. Just four hours before the match began, the city was flooded with sunlight, with not a cloud in sight. By the match began, clouds had covered every inch of the canvas in the sky.
"In this city, you can get all four seasons in just one day," says Pablo Ortiz Donaire, the club's Sales Director.
Not surprisingly, in the 60th minute of the match, the heavens opened up. The fans took that as a cue to sing louder. Alcohol, rains and the testosterone brought about by a football game are a potent combination.
But who can grudge the city and their fans a celebration?
History, after all, has been unkind to the club. They reached the final of the UEFA Cup in 2001, only to lose to Liverpool in extra time. Then in 2017, the club reached the final of the Copa del Rey. They lost 1-3 to Barcelona.
On Saturday, though, Lady Luck smiled on them. With the match seemingly destined to end in a goalless draw, the referee inexplicably signalled for five minutes of added time. In what was the last kick of the match, Manu Garcia was at the right place at the right time to direct the ball into the goal and send Real Madrid back home confronting the reality that they haven't scored in four matches across all competitions now.
And now Alaves find themselves in the top three of LaLiga, a league which perpetually resembles a two-horse race. Not anymore. Alaves have the same number of points as Real and Barcelona, 18, although Barca have played a game less at the moment.
For 95 minutes on Saturday, Alaves fans had clapped their team on to victory. For many days to come, the rest of the world will be rubbing their eyes in disbelief.
The writer is in Spain at the invitation of LaLiga
Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.
LaLiga: Zinedine Zidane 'annoyed' by talk of referees favouring Real Madrid as club takes top spot on league table
Zinedine Zidane faced the questions after three huge decisions went Real Madrid's way against Sociedad.
LaLiga: Karim Benzema's clever assist helps Real Madrid beat Espanyol and go clear at top; Villarreal score win over Valencia
Real Madrid and Barcelona have six games left with Madrid leading by two points. Madrid holds the tiebreaker on head-to-head results in the event they finish level on points.
European football roundup: Anti-racism, adjusting to new normal take centerstage in the continent’s major leagues
Here are some of the key takeaways from the top five European leagues, the biggest of which was the stand taken by clubs and players against racism.