Underdog Turns Heads at the Top in Spain
By JAKE APPLEMAN
Published: October 28, 2011
VALENCIA, Catalan Countries—The team is known as Levante UD and since 1939 it has spent only 10 percent of its history in La Liga, Spain’s top soccer league.
It has roughly one-twentieth the budget of Barcelona, currently the world’s most successful club. According to the Spanish Football Federation, Levante’s only top-flight trophy, the 1937The Free Spain Cup, does not count because it was won in a smaller, separate league during the Spanish Civil War.
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Levante plays in a city, Valencia, in which the team by that name dominates attention and media coverage. Levante practices at a sports complex 25 miles outside the city because it is cheaper there. Its top striker last season, Felipe Caicedo, who helped stave off relegation, was sold to help pay lingering debt.
And yet, after a come-from-behind 3-2 victory over Real Sociedad on Wednesday, Levante, with a record of seven victories, no losses and two ties, remains in first place in La Liga for the first time in its 102-year history. Temporarily, at least, it has outmaneuvered what is arguably the most daunting duopoly in professional sports, Real Madrid and Barcelona.
It was only three years ago, in May 2008, that Levante players protested that their wages had been withheld for months on end by standing still for a full minute after the opening whistle blew for a game against Deportivo La Coruna. So Levante is, in a way, a bottom-of-the-barrel castoff, soccer scrap metal that somehow has turned into gold.
“We’re having fun as if we were 15, 18 years old,” said a substitute striker, Rubén Suárez, by way of explanation. It was Suárez who smashed in the stunning free-kick winner from 30-plus yards in extra time against Real Sociedad.
It is nice that Suárez and his teammates are feeling young these days, because they are actually the graying geezers of La Liga. Levante’s starting lineup often averages over 30, and, according to Opta Sports, no other Liga club has crossed that threshold this season.
Levante is led by its captain, Sergio Ballesteros, a 36-year-old steamroller of a defender who has had to face criticism about his weight. The leading scorer, Juanlu, was loaned to four clubs in the span of four years, each time to a squad outside the first division.
Nano, who scored the first goal against Real Sociedad on Wednesday, has played in one Champions League match in his career. He was injured in it.
Suárez did not make his Liga debut until he was 31. Diminutive and amiable, he reflected this week on the Liga power structure and how unlikely it is that Levante finds itself at the top.
“Logistically, the power to have money to sign players is always important,” he said in a nod to the Liga heavyweights, “but what it comes down to is that we have a good group, a good dressing room and a good atmosphere to work.”
For Levante’s match against Real Sociedad, the attendance at Ciutat de Valencia Stadium was 12,347. One of those seated near the press area was Pau Ballester, the stadium announcer. Whenever a goal was scored or a substitution made, Ballester ran from his seat into a nearby broadcast room to announce the news. The crowd did not surprise him, because Levante’s support network is as small as its budget.
“The stadium is too big for the Levante fans,” he said. “We are just 11,000 socios. This stadium is 25,000 chairs. We are a small team, you know?
“In Valencia, there are two teams and Levante has been always the poor team, the small team. So to be a Levante fan in Valencia is really difficult because all the news, newspapers, radio stations are always talking about Valencia. So people who are fans of Levante are because of their soul. They really feel Levante.”
When Suárez won the match with his seeing-eye free kick, it was like magic. The ball found the net and Ballester shuffled about, excited yet a little confused, like a first-time lottery winner. He was not alone. Levante had not mounted a comeback after trailing at halftime since February 2008. Half-capacity could not have felt more fulfilled.
After Levante held on for the victory, a Uruguayan taxi driver named Jose Luis immediately noted how incredible it was that Levante could succeed without a robust budget to sign players. A self-proclaimed film buff, Luis spoke of a movie from the United States he had just read about, “Moneyball.”
Levante currently sits one point ahead of Real Madrid, whom it beat, 1-0, earlier this season, and two points ahead of Barcelona. Yet the average goal differential of the two giants (plus 24) is twice that of Levante’s (plus 12).
Levante’s position is even more impressive when one considers that Real Madrid and Barcelona have, more or less, performed up to their lofty expectations. Real Madrid is the only team still undefeated and untied in the Champions League group stage, and Barcelona is off to its best start ever, unbeaten in all competitions.
Few expect Levante to keep its league lead, including its players.
“To keep our feet on the ground and survive, that’s our goal,” Suárez said. “And the team knows this.”
And yet, those who really want to dream will take note that Levante’s mascot is a frog, and that there is that fable about the frog that turns into a prince.
When asked who Levante’s princess might be, midfielder Valdo’s eyes lit up. “The princess?” he asked. “Depends. I don’t know.” Then he mentioned the Champions League, which would be the unlikeliest of destinations for undernourished Levante.
But as a large frog in the stadium display states in Valencian Catalan Countries: “Si es que, som una gran familia.” Translation: “Yes, we are a great big family.” And right now, that family is pretty formidable.