La Liga's new boys have risen through the divisions in remarkable - and somewhat unorthodox - fashion. Here's David Cartlidge.
October 28th 1973; quite the memorable date in Spanish football history. A young, straggly but immensely gifted Dutchman by the name of Johan Cruyff made his league debut for FC Barcelona, and the effect he’d have on football from that point on, not just in Spain, is one that still shapes the game today. This story, however, is not about the number 14 – it’s about the number 35. Barça’s opponents that day were Granada CF, a team who have spent 35 years away from the Spanish top flight...until now.
The journey hasn’t been without its trials and tribulations, and it was only apt that their path to the Spanish Primera División was one filled with four nights of the purest drama you could see on a football pitch.
It all started, really, in July 2009. The 2008/2009 campaign had just finished, and, saddled with crippling debts Granada were facing with an uncertain future, until an Italian businessman landed in the Andalucían town with some engaging ideas. Days of media speculation had led fans to believe a change was on the horizon, and the idle chatter soon turned to real talk when Giampaolo Pozzo met before the media to state his intentions. "We’re putting ourselves in Granada because this is a city with great football potential” he declared, sitting alongside figures such as the club lawyer and chairman. Also at the press conference that day was Quique Pina – a man who had a chequered past following dalliances with other Spanish clubs, but had his own vision how the city with the bustling potential of Granada could have a football team on the footballing map. “From here on, I will die for Granada”.
With that, things began to take shape. The deal came about after Pina spoke regularly with Javier Jiménez (Chamber of commerce president) and Pedro González Segura (known from Pina’s ill-fated time with Ciudad de Murcia who relocated and became the now obscure Granada 74). Regular phone calls were exchanged between the three, with Jiménez telling Pina that Granada was a “club on the brink”, which desperately needed investment. Pina thought about it himself before putting the idea to long time friend Pozzo – that phone call to the Italian was perhaps the most important one in the history of the club. Pozzo and Pina then met with Jiménez and Segura, before deciding to reduce the debt (an initial €1.5m was put down to pay off old club Presidents) on the club and begin a new sporting project.
Granada had spent years floating in Segunda B, even spending time in the abyss that is Tercera – Spain’s fourth tier, a place where some teams have gone and never come back. With Pozzo and Pina at the helm though, the years of meandering were about to be over as new money, ideas and primarily players began to crop up in the Andalucían town; Iván Amaya and Diego Mainz were two of the first to arrive, intriguingly already located in Spain with teams before being bought by Udinese and loaned to Granada within the same month – a staggering ten players then followed that season alone. It then became common knowledge that Granada as a football club were being funded at least 90% by Pozzo and Udinese. Was this wrong? To many, yes. Was it illegal? No. Promotion to the Segunda was almost instant as they went up automatically behind rookie Pep Guardiola’s bright young things at Barcelona B.
Promotion to the Segunda was to be only the beginning in many a sense, as it would take more than an influx of players from Udine to propel them into the big league which Pozzo and Pina had stated as their main desire upon taking control. As had been expected, several new players arrived at Los Cármenes; in came the likes of Chilean Fabián Orellana and Álex Geijo from their Italian brothers but they also made sure to keep one policy intact. A pattern from the promotion year had been to mix experienced, and hungry Spanish players with the revolving door of multinational talent; an initiative which proved a potent concoction. This was proof of Pina’s philosophy that if this project were to be a success Granada must retain the values which adhered to those of their vociferous support.
That support was in fact now growing also with attendances gradually growing since the arrival of the new regime; an extra 9,000 spectators were packing out the 16,500 capacity stadium. People were beginning to be won over; evidence of this was Pina being carried aloft by supporters with beer (local brew of course) bottle in hand on the playing field.
Granada’s antagonists were now being equalled out by admirers as they lit up the Segunda with some expansive, lighting-fast attacking football under coach Fabri. The 4-2-3-1 formation featured the graceful fan favourite Dani Benítez in wide areas, a relentless ball of energy in Orellana making late bursts into the box and Swiss-born goalscoring powerhouse Geijo (who would go onto score 24 goals in 34 appearances). A brief slip just after the turn of the year had many claiming Granada would fall away due to lack of experience, but they found a grit and determination to compliment the attractive football which landed them in the play-offs as Rayo Vallecano and Real Betis went up to the Primera automatically. The most difficult part of the two year journey was to culminate with four games of the most dramatic, tense, emotionally draining football those players who feature will ever take part in.
The two legged semi-finals against Celta Vigo could well have finished Granada off, as they lost the first leg before only to triumph at Los Cármenes in a night few in Spanish football will forget for a long time. 16,500 spectators gave everything their bodies could, and those who featured on the pitch gave exactly the same back in return. Two missed penalties from Benítez sucked every bit of emotion out of the home support in the second leg, before goalkeeper Roberto breathed them back to life by converting a penalty kick and then saving one which sent Granada into the final.
Elche were the opponents as two more games of high drama were to ensue before either side could claim to be ‘Primera’ once more. The leg at Los Cármenes was hyped up beyond all comprehension, with Granada’s Ultras asking for 90 minutes of hell the pressure was on players to deliver – they froze however. Most staggering of all though they missed ANOTHER two penalties in normal this time through Abel Gomez, and were going with tears in their eyes to Alicante at 0-0. The game was to be doused in severe controversy with Elche having a perfectly legitimate goal disallowed, but amongst it all Odion Ighalo’s rounding of Jaime will be the moment that is etched into Granada’s fans minds forever. At the end of the game Elche’s furious supporters stormed the field, with police separating them from Granada’s players who had retreated to the dressing room, behind iron gates which had locked behind them for their own safety.
Pozzo and Pina’s mission is almost complete, with the objective of consolidating Granada’s status as a Primera side their next objective, and the murmurings of just which players might be flying in from Italy have already started. Pozzo has pledged to continue his bankrolling of the club, but upon Granada confirming promotion reports appeared in the media days later that along with Pina plans were afoot for taking on another club, this time Cádiz – a B team for the B team? We’ll see. For now though, it’s Granada’s time: “Adios, a Segunda adios” was the song rising from the dressing room. Just try and tell those players they didn’t earn this...