Levante are the minor club in Valencia, the poor working class relation to the aristocratic Valencia. For that very reason, most of the Celtic supporters who end up in the Valencia region tend to end up supporting them as underdogs, a trend enhanced in recent years by signings of Johan Mjallby and Ian Harte.

Juanlu starts celebrations with early goal

 On Sunday GGW witnessed what must qualify as at least a minor miracle if not a more major one. It took place when Levante secured their promotion from the Second Division to La Liga  amidst emotional scenes of joy and rampant celebration. Levante started the game knowing that victory, coupled with either closest pursuesr Real Betis or Hercules failing to win, would absolutely guarantee them promotion with one round to go. When Juanlu scored in the 4th minute any pressure disappeared and when Xisco Munoz made it 2-0 after 8 minutes the party began to start. The Javi Guerra strike in the 40th minute to make it 3-0 was swiftly followed by the sweet news on thousands of transistor radios that Hercules were 1-0 down at home and Betis only drawing away. Nothing happened in a joyous second half to dampen the enthusiasm, not even a late meaningless Castellon goal, and although Hercules laboured to a 2-1 victory with a goal in the last minute, the Betis game stayed goalless and at the final whistle the whole crowd knew Levante were promoted.

Levante supporters celebrate promotion

Then the party really began. Most of the 18,000 crowd ended milling about on the pitch in front of the main stand, singing and dancing in pure delight. Probably against police advice the players were easily persuaded to come back out and join the party which went on for well over an hour after the final whistle, before sprawling out onto the streets of Valencia

One of the stranger disadvantages of being a Celtic supporter is never to be able to share the unique ecstasy that comes with a promotion to the top division for a small club. Nor to share in the pain of the relegation that generally follows a year or two later. Such ecstasy and such pain are much more intense than the annual celebration of yet another cup or league and are the reward for years of mediocrity and misery.

 Levante had been promoted in 2004 and 2006 (meaning of course they had been relegated in 2005) and both promotions had been the scenes of great celebrations. But there was an extra dimension to the celebrations on Sunday, derived from the aspect that made the promotion miraculous instead of just merely amazing.

Two years ago, in the summer of 2008, after their relegation that awful season Levante supporters had stared down into the abyss. There was serious talk that the club would be administratively relegated two or three more levels, to the Third Division(Level 4) or even the Regional Preferente(level5) or even actually disappear altogether. The reason was the revelation that the club had debts of around 90 million euros. Look at the paralysing effect on Rangers of being £30 million in debt, with their stadium and 50,000 season tickets holders. Consider the effects of a £85m debt on a second division with a rented stadium, small crowds and no players. In the end administrative relegation was avoided, just, as the club was declared bankrupt and introduced an austerity recovery plan.

 The story of how Levante ended up in this dire position is worth the telling. In many ways it is a microcosm of the major problems facing all of Spanish football which will be explored at length in the next GGW post on “The crisis in Spanish Football Finances”

This June is the fag end of  Levante’s Centenary Year which started in 2009. Apart from a two year spell in La Liga in 1963 and 1964 they have spent that 100 years in the lower reaches of Spanish professional football, always the poor relations to much more successful and glamorous Valencia.

Promotion is 2004 was followed by a spending spree with an expensive new Manager the great German player Bernd Schuster being given new players like Harte and Mjallby, Rivera, Camacho, Celestini, Culebras, Mora and Sergi Garcia, all on high salaries. The 2004-2005 season started well and for a few brief heady weeks Levante were actually in the Champions League slots. But decline set in and from December the club slipped down the table. Schuster was sacked a few weeks before the end of the season with the club still just above the relegation places but the decline was not halted and the club finally finished in 18th position. It was only in the last 2 weeks of the season they were in the bottom 3 places but down they went.

The Club gambled, literally, on a quick return, signing players like Riga, Courtois  and Tello and keeping most of the relegated squad. The gamble paid off in sporting terms as a determined rather than skilful Levante side grittily ground out a 3rd place finish. The President Villarroel publicly determined to put together a side that would stay in the First Division. He brought in another expensive manager Lopez Caro from Real Madrid and signed many players, like Laurent Robert, Tommasi, Dehu, Meyong Ze, Nino, Alvaro, Manolo, Kapo and Cesar, all on high salaries.

The whole season turned into a desperate fight against relegation. Lopez Caro was sacked at the halfway mark with the team one place above the relegation zone. The replacement Abel Resino managed to keep them  steady and they managed to end the season safe in 15th place. The highlights were a home draw against Barcelona and an amazing away win in the Bernabeu. GGW’s abiding memory of that season was watching the away game against Barcelona on TV in Naquera’s Bar Blanquet with visiting friends, Richard, Bill, Tim, and Neil, and half a dozen old Levante supporters. Although they lost 1-0 Levante showed the fight and determination that enabled them stay up that season.

Summer of 2007 saw another dozen players signed all on good contracts but only one, a young Pedro Leon, being of genuine class. The season began badly and after only two games Levante were bottom of the League. They never got off the bottom in what turned out to be a nightmare season. Abel was sacked after a few games and replaced by an Italian De Biasi who brought two good Italians, keeper Storari and Fiorentina hero Rigano, with him. For the last 8 months of the season the players did not get paid in full, if at all. They threatened several times to go on strike but never did but the effect on morale is not hard to imagine.

 The inevitable relegation was followed by more disasters. 23 of the 25 players were automatically released on free transfers so no transfer income could be generated.   They were declared bankrupt under the Spanish Law Concursal. Villarroel refused to disappear gracefully and claimed the club owed him considerable sums of money.  

It was a classic case of the general pattern highlighted by Professor Gay, of a Spanish club investing in expensive transfers and grossly inflated wages, without any prospect of being able to meet these hugely increased expenditures from income. In Levante’s case the chickens quickly home to roost within 4 years and the club almost died.

 In an episode worthy of James Thurber’s Walter Mitty at his most fevered a strange lawyer Thomas Carmona appeared in the midst of this catastrophy, installed himself in one of Valencia’s finest hotels for the summer and promised that rich new owners would soon take over the club, clear all debts and sign star players. As part of this fevered fantasy football, Carmona actually signed a contract with one of Spain’s most promising young managers, Lucas Alcatraz, in which he was to take over the team as soon as the buyout was finalised.

 While all this hype was going on a small group of shareholders led by a serious young man Quico Catalan took over actual control of the running of the club and tried to find a credible way out of the nightmare mess. They appointed  a young manager Luis Garcia and he started to assemble of a squad of players while reading every day in the local newspapers that he was about to be replaced before the season even started. 23 players were brought in in total, all on free transfers or loans, and all on sensible salaries.

 Carmona’s promises grew more and more elaborate but the money and the buyers never materialised and one late August day after the 18th missed deadline he silently slunk away never to be seen again. It took almost another year but eventually the group led by Catalan finally managed to completely remove Villarroel from any role or shareholding in the club and the transition from corrupt incompetent irresponsibility to sober prudence was achieved.

Levante a team of free transfers, loans but all winners

Luis Garcia proved in his first season to be a manager of good mettle and the assorted ragbag of free transfers and loan signings was somehow welded into a cohesive team that performed above expectation and solidly without ever getting into the promotion places. They ended the season in 8th place, a highly creditable performance under the circumstances. Having used the first year to create a viable base and a workable system, Luis Garcia used the summer of 2009 to enhance and improve his squad still staying within the limitations of free transfers and loans. Two good players Pau Cendros and Javi Guerra were brought in from Mallorca and a two good class midfielders Juanlu and Xisco Munoz were imported from Betis. The weakness at left back was sorted. The new squad took some time to settle but were always in the top third of the table, and slowly belief came back to the team, the club and the supporters. When GGW went to the Cuitat De Valencia stadium (known to the Tartan Army from the flash flooding when Scotland played Spain there a few years) to watch Levante host Villarreal B in the first game of the second half of the season the crowd was less than 6000. They saw an intense pulsating game won by Levante with an injury time goal by transfer window signing Rafa Jorda.

That win triggered off along unbeaten run that saw Levante steadily climb up the league table until by April they were in the promotion slots. It took a further few weeks before the Levante fans began to believe it but as it became clear promotion was a real possibility the Levante tops and scarves were brought out of their two year cupboard hibernation and the crowds began to rise to the point where more than 18,000 excited hopefuls attended the Castellon clincher

 Luis Garcia    GGW Spanish manager of the yearThe team are solid and well-organised rather than full of flair. Luis Garcia should be a shoo-in for Spanish manager of the year. To take a group of free transfer and loan signings and win a deserved promotion with them, against a background of bankruptcy, debts, no transfer fees and low wages is a miracle of creative constructive management. Foremost of the main heroes on the playing side was solid old centre half, Sergio Ballesteros. He started with Levante in the third division  in 1995 then went on to a good La Liga career with Tenerife, Rayo, Villarreal and Mallorca until returning to anchor the Levante defence. In front of him in defensive midfield Pallardo finally showed the class that had been hinted in his early career at Valencia and young Iborra one of the two survivors from the first division played well enough to attract interest from Valencia and Real Madrid. Juanlu and Xisco Munoz both showed class in ensuring Levante finished above the Betis club that had released them. Up front old soldier Ruben Suarez showed great skill and goal scoring prowess and the younger Javi Guerra did not disappoint. The final element had been added to the squad with the return of Juanfran, another who had first played for a lowly Levante before going on to an illustrious career with Valencia, Deportivo,  Ajax and AEK Athens as well as starring for Spain in the 2002 World Cup. Unemployed in Greece he was able to join Levante on a free transferand became the talisman of their promotion push. He missed the Castellon game through suspension but was highly visible on the sidelines and the on pitch party.

 The party continued the nest day with all the players and directors being entertained on the balcony of the Valencia Town Hall, greeted as heroes by the lady Mayor. This fearsome politician must have wondered what is it about Valencian football and what it could cost the city administration. Not only are Levante 90m euros in debt the highest in the Second Division,  but neighbours Valencia at 600m euros have the highest debts in La Liga and were only saved from bankruptcy and administrative relegation last summer by a loan of 72m from the Council as a guarantor of new capitalisation. Any yet there are Levante promoted and Valencia qualified for next years Champions League. So much for the wages of sin argument.

The bookies will definitely say that Levante will come straight back down next season, especially since President Quico Catalan will have the discipline to avoid the financial madness of the past and will continue to work within the very tight limits agreed with the clubs many creditors. But Luis Garcia has already worked wonders with limited resources and it would be wrong to assume he will not continue to do so on the bigger stage of La Liga.  GGW will keep readers informed of how Levante prepare for the challenge and how they respond to it on the park.