One of the things I enjoy most about football is the authentic experience of it. My fandom was forged following Coleraine around Northern Ireland, freezing on exposed terraces and draughty stands.
Now in Spain, although I feel more at home on the open terraces at Villaverde than in the heated stands at the Bernabéu that doesn’t mean I’m totally opposed to the idea of watching a match from a more comfortable setting.
I’d had a stressful week. I’d started a new job on Tuesday but everything had been overshadowed by the great Madrid piso hunt. Unable to find anything in time for the start of the month, we’d ended up in an Air BnB in Vallecas, not exactly handy for where I’m working in the north of the city.
With that taken into account, the Friday afternoon offer of a free ticket to Leganés v Levante on Saturday was a welcome pick-me-Up!
It all came about through a friend of a friend who gets tickets through work but it wasn’t until I got to the ground that I realised I’d be watching the match from the VIP section.
All-in-all, not a bad way to mark my “Lega-versary” aka the first anniversary of my first visit to Butarque, covered in the post In Leganés Dreams Come True.
Behind the Curtain
Heading in through the gate, I walked past the press room and the mix zone, which in a couple of hours would be buzzing with journalists doing their post-match interviews, but for the moment was quiet enough for me to walk through and take a lot of (probably too many) photos.
Upstairs in the hospitality area there were mini-pastries and drinks provided pre-match. My host for the day and I had the chance to go through the team sheet and discuss the potential key men for both sides and share our confusion at the absence of Martin Braithwaite from the Leganés starting XI, given that he offers a bit more variety than the tall, physical duo of En-Nesyri and Carillo.
Grabbing another bottle of water, essential on a warm day and one where my throat was starting to feel the early stages of a cold coming on, I headed to find my seat.
The Best Seats in the House
Pretty much sitting on the halfway line definitely has its advantages and at Lega one of those is that you have a prime view of Super Pepino doing his thing before kick off.
The Leganés mascot has amassed something of a cult following in the 14 or so months since he made his debut on the Butarque touchline. He has even starred in a slightly bizarre video where he met Mr Dillon, the mascot of the Portland Pickles Baseball team from the USA.
— C.D. Leganés 🇺🇸🇬🇧 (@CDLeganes_en) September 13, 2019
A crossover event to put the Avengers to shame. Perhaps the only way it could be bettered is for him to meet Kiriko (aka Barry), Fuenlabrada’s slightly terrifying chicken mascot.
Despite the success of Super Pepino, the LegaStore is still seriously lacking in merchandise featuring him. Missing an open goal there.
Leganés’ performances on the pitch this season have mirrored the failures of their merchandising department. Heading into this game, they sat bottom of La Liga and were the only team yet to secure a win.
However, their performances had generally been better than the results would indicate and they must have been reasonably confident of breaking their duck against a Levante side who, despite possessing an enviable front three of Jose Luis Morales, Roger Marti and Sergio Leon, are mostly known for being extremely flaky at the back.
For most of the first half, things seemed to be going according to plan. Lega dominated in terms of chances, admittedly mostly half-chances which were easily saved or sailed harmlessly off-target, but Levante were not really in the game at all. Well at least they weren’t until Roger Marti tumbled under Dimitrios Siovas’ challenge inside the box and the referee awarded a penalty.
There was an undercurrent of drama and polemica to this that no one in the stands could pick up on. Contact between the officials and the VAR room had broken down and so the referee was unable to make use of the technology. Had he been able to he might have seen that the foul was committed outside the area, or indeed that Marti’s fall had more to do with him tripping over his own feet.
Leganés protested to no avail, the penalty stood and Marti converted, though he did himself no favours by running into the corner to celebrate in front of the incensed home fans.
The Half Time Spread
Heading back inside for the break, I was able to see exactly how poor a decision the penalty had been on the TV screens but also enjoy an ample half-time buffet.
Tortilla, chorizo and cheese, assorted sandwiches, mini pizzas and crucially on such a warm day, plenty of bottles of water and other drinks to go round.
All that was missing was the famous bocata de lomo.
It’s a far cry from the cup of tea and small plate of biscuits (or if you’re really lucky, cake) that were my usual half-time fare when covering matches from the Coleraine Showgrounds press box and it certainly beats queuing in the freezing cold to buy a greasy burger from a hot food van in a car park at an Irish League ground.
We’ll Support You Evermore!
Things went from bad to worse for Lega within a few minutes of the restart. ‘Keeper Juan Soriano misjudged the trajectory of a free kick from Jose Campaña and ended up helping it into his own net.
They only really improved when Martin Braithwaite was brought on as a substitute. The Danish forward made a huge impact after arriving on loan in January, scoring and assisting a number of key goals and again had a positive impact here when he reduced the deficit with an audacious chip over goalkeeper Aitor, but then wasted a golden chance to level the scores when his tamely struck penalty was parried by the Levante shot stopper.
The Levante goal was besieged in the final minutes as Leganés pushed to find the equaliser. And it almost came from the most unlikely of sources. Soriano, pushed upfield in desperation, almost atoned for his earlier error but in the chaos of the six yard box, his effort was saved.
Sitting in the posh seats for the day was a nice experience as a one-off and I’m not lying, I probably would do it again (anyone interested in chipping in for a private box on the other side of the ground around my birthday in February let me know!) but as the game reached its dramatic climax, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d rather be in the fondo with the supporters.
Rooted to the bottom, losing games they should have won comfortably, you would have expected the Leganés fans to be calling for the manager’s head or to boo the players off. But they did nothing of the sort.
Instead, a majority of the fans behind the goal stayed behind to applaud the team and chant manager Mauricio Pellegrino’s name.
In modern day football, one defeat is enough to prompt a “crisis” at a club and the tabloids will be getting a cracked badge jpeg mocked up for their coverage the next day.
But I’ve learned enough in the last year to know that Leganés aren’t just any club. There’s a connection between the ownership and fans that is so sadly missing in a lot of clubs nowadays. This is demonstrated by their low ticket prices, subsidising away fans’ tickets when the home team sets prices higher than they deem fair and their community spirit.
The fans realise that being in the top flight is something to be enjoyed and not something to be thought of as a divine right.
They might not be as big as the likes of Depor, Málaga, Zaragoza and other sleeping giants currently languishing in the Segunda, but they’ve earned their place in La Liga on merit.
And they’ve brought plenty to the party in their four seasons there.
And it would be a pity to see them go down.
Here’s hoping things start looking up for los pepineros sooner rather than later!