Rob Allen2 Comments

THE FALL OF UNIÓ ESPORTIVA LLEIDA AND RISE OF LLEIDA ESPORTIU

Rob Allen2 Comments

Rob Allen charts the progress of a small club, who for one season, lit up the Primera Liga.

It only took half an hour for the Unió Esportiva Lleida v Real Madrid match to wrap up in victory for the home side when the two teams met at Llieda’s Camp d’Esports stadium in March 1994. A frantic twenty nine minutes, which had seen the visitors from the capital equal the hosts’ spectacular early opener, culminated with a stinging shot being stopped by Madrid’s goalkeeper, Francisco Buyo. In a split second the ball bounced into the path of the Danish striker Søren Andersen, who showed a hunger that belied the Catalan club’s lowly status and faltering league position by beating Buyo and his advancing defenders to the ball. Stabbing it into the net and setting the score at 2-1, Anderson’s was the final goal of a match, etching a famous victory into the blues’ modest record books. 

It wasn’t the first time that Lleida had tasted the rare flavour of victory against a mightier power during their 93/94 season in the Primera Liga. Before the club was to beaten back into the Segunda at the end of just the one season, they had also taken the scalp of Barcelona, a side in its ‘dream team’ pomp, defeating Johan Cruyff’s side 1-0 at the Nou Camp. But, inevitably UE Lleida were send packing back to the second tier of Spanish football, losing players like Andersen into  the bargain as they began their descent. The Dane eventually surfaced to score a sack load at Bristol City a few years later, only to experience another relegation bound season in south west England. 

As they celebrated an historic win, few of UE Lleida’s fans could have predicted that their first taste of top flight success since the early-50s, and a desperate clamber to get back to those giddy heights, would contribute to the club’s eventual demise. The club inched through the remainder of the nineties entertaining the dream of restoring their fleeting status alongside the giants of Real Madrid and Barcelona. Some high profile names assumed they were up to the challenge and pitched in to try and get them there. 

One of those was Juande Ramos, having seen the now defunct Club Deportivo Logroñés back to the unnaturally giddy heights of the Primera in 1996, who joined the club in 1997. Despite finishing one position off the play offs, Ramos was tempted away to Rayo Vallecano after just one season, en route to success at the similarly underachieving Seville. Former Barcelona midfielder and managerial journeyman, Víctor Muñoz attempted to revive the club’s fortunes in the final years of the nineties, having a brush with promotion in the 1999/2000 season, then having to face the prospect of selling key players to balance to clubs increasingly desperate looking books. UE Lleida’s finances, it seems, always came to cancel out any amount of managerial guile the club would employ.

Fast forward a decade to May 2011, and the club’s supporters, players and staff, were left unsure of not where the team would end up in the league, but whether the club would be able to start the 2011/2012 season as it creaked under the weight of a reported 28 million euro debt. It became clear that the years of chasing success had a price attached, as it limped through the season within the limits of bankruptcy. Their financial dysfunction had been declared the year before in an attempt to avoid relegation to the third division as punishment for their growing list of unpaid creditors, including the players who threatened strike action. Ironically, UE Lleida’s on field heroics (relatively speaking) saw the club as serious contenders for promotion to the second division, ultimately finishing one place below the play offs again in a respectable fifth place. Despite earning a place in the rounds of the Copa Del Rey, and their star player Rubén Rayos taking the accolade of the league’s top scorer, the success didn’t equate to cold, hard cash and UE Lleida was placed into the hands of receivers on 3rd May 2011 with two games of the season left to play.

The stylish Catalonian city, visibly on the rise economically and architecturally, suddenly had no football club to call its own. Newspapers and supporter websites screamed of 72 years of history being lost to the inept, if not unscrupulous, manoeuvres of the club’s former owners, the greed of players who rode the gravy train and the lack of responsible support from Lleida’s mayor, Angel Ros. It was easy to throw blame around as the flame appeared to go out on another Spanish football club through financial foul play, a familiar threat that permeates the national game from top to bottom. The club was thrown the lifeline of having up to 20 days to find a new owner, but the debacle that followed showed that the club’s long suffering fans had every right to lose patience in those who had dug them into a hole.

Anabel Junyent, a former player in Barcelona’s ladies team, registered FIFA Agent and someone vaguely described as an ‘entrepreneur’ since her playing days ended, had acquired the club from media tycoon Taxto Benet, who had been the club’s majority shareholder since 1998. Eyebrows were raised when the incumbent owner, perhaps fairly described as ‘inexperienced’ after the event, declared the club insolvent within two weeks of her tenure beginning in June 2010. The words written and spoken about Benet by locals in the intervening months can hardly be viewed as complimentary. Despite criticism that he abandoned the club, thereby hastening a demise he knew was coming, the high profile businessman has declared that nobody could have helped the club more than he did. The evidence in favour of Benet is hardly compelling given the mess he left behind.

The mismanagement of the club during his tenure was put in the spotlight by the newspaper El Pais, as it covered the developing saga on the 15th May 2011. Clearly ascribing responsibility for a process of damaging ‘economic engineering’ to the former owner, it was clear to sections of the national press where the blame lay. In 2006, Benet helped to mastermind the development of a sports complex and adjoining residential development in the satellite town of Torre-Serono. The thinking was that a new stadium for the club could be developed as part of a new Ciutat Esportiva Lleida (Sports City Lleida), whilst at the same time offloading hundreds of apartments to pay off the mounting debt being accrued by a club punching above its weight. Clearly, the desire of football club owners to see their acquisitions as the key to lucrative land deals is an unfortunate, international disease. 

The costs quoted by El País suggest that 3.5 million euros was pumped into the scheme without the club ever being able to kick a ball there, the scheme seemingly bound up in a lack of realism and the red tape imposed by local planning committees. Some estimates suggest another half a million euros was heaped into the bottomless pit of an impossible dream, but for a club with a black hole that eventually breached 30 million euros, an argument on the actual amounts wasted on the stadium that never was become largely academic. In the shadow of such folly, the sudden arrival of Junyent, who only came to acquire the club only after failing to buy a controlling stake in clubs elsewhere, like Deportivo Alaves, caused suspicion amongst the local support. Whispers suggested that, at worst, she had been brought in to finish the unthinkable job of putting UE Lleida to sleep, the final act that the respected impresario Benet couldn’t be seen to complete himself. At best, she was an unknown novice being put at the helm of their beloved football club. 

As the days passed following Judge Eduard Enrech’s decision that UE Lleida should wind down, a glimmer of hope became a glowing beacon. Their league registration, players, staff and rights to use the municipal stadium at Camp d’Esports could be sold off to the highest bidder, and it was Junyent herself who emerged as the most likely saviour. For price of 67,300 euros and a guarantee of 200,000 euros per season for the next three seasons, a new club could continue to play where UE Lleida had once competed. Offering 70,000 euros up front and 1 million euros over the next three years, Junyent claimed a provisional victory in the bidding war on 30 June 2011. After being told that her proposal would be sufficient, she made plans to register the new club in the name of Lleida 1939 – apparently consulting few, if any fans into the bargain - to again compete in the Segunda B, Regional Group 3. A five day deadline stood for Junyent to return with the required cash guarantees. 

Such speed out of the blocks and willingness to secure a future for a club, which could again compete without the noose of unbearable debts hanging round its neck, goes some way to disprove the theory that Junyent was only sent in to oversee the death throes of the club. It wasn’t in the character of an asset stripper to seek out more money to throw at the problem, was it? To assume that she was unaware of the precarious nature of the club’s accounts when she took over, on the other hand, would be beyond naïve. Such a situation could lead to the suggestions that the club was bought on the understanding that the worst would have to happen before things could get better. 

At the same time as Junyent began paving the way for another go at running a football club, a consortium led by a local businessman Sisco Pujol, known as Cuitat de Lleida, had entered a more modest bid of 68,000 euros down payment and 600,000 euros of guarantees over three seasons respectively. Perhaps they knew something that the courts didn’t, but their patience paid off when Junyent returned to court on 6 July 2011 and failed to provide sufficient evidence of her financial capabilities to take control of the club. Junyent pleaded for more time, apparently citing a misunderstanding in the breakdown of the guarantee payments and therefore falling short of the total. The judge turned to Pujol’s second choice consortium and instead passed them the opportunity to find the cash, giving them one day’s notice to come up with the goods. It was then that the diplomatic air between Junyent and previous custodian, Taxto Benet, appeared to turn a shade of toxic grey. 

Benet had gone public with his support for Cuitat de Lleida’s bid in the press and, with assumptions being made that he had offered more than moral support for the rival bid, Junyent went straight for the throat. Asking why the judge would place a new club in the hands of the person who had caused such dire consequences for the old club in the first place, Junyent finally burnt her bridges with Benet before disappearing in flames herself. Whether it was sour grapes or a moment of rare clarity, the blame for the whole sorry debacle was cast publically at the former owner’s door once again. As acrimonious as this slapstick affair was becoming, the mud that was slung appeared to be relatively thin. Benet and the Cuitat de Lleida were wipe clean, and the consortium went on unhindered.

Whilst a bun fight flickered into life between former and prospective owners, the Mayor of Lleida stood on the side lines, presumably waiting to see who would win before backing that horse. Perhaps typical of local officials the world over, evidence suggests that Angel Ros had a habit of standing shoulder to shoulder with whoever took the reins of the club. With 200,000/300,000 euros of support coming from the municipality per season and unrestricted use of the publically owned Camp d’Esports, Ros could arguably claim to be one of the club’s only constant friends. A fickle one and one who allowed Benet’s transactions to go unchallenged, but a constant ‘friend’ nonetheless. In the same month that liquidation was announced, the city incurred the ire of the smarting UE Lleida supporters by celebrating FC Barcelona’s successes, a city 122km away, by bathing the underside of the city’s bridges in maroon and blue floodlights. Who needs genuine rivals rubbing your noses in the mud when your own officials can do the job so well? 

Predictably, whilst the supporters of the club came to feel increasingly abandoned, Ros would pledge support for the new consortium as they established a new club, Lleida Club Esportiu, with the Real Federación Española de Fútbol finally announcing their registration on 20th July 2011. In a final twist in the saga, worthy of any Laurel and Hardy script, the successful bidder, Sisco Pujol, would resign as President almost immediately due to him falling short of majority shareholder status, thus handing over the reins to a temporary President, Albert Esteve, who remains in post at the time of writing. 

The new team would be led by manager Emili Vicente, former UE Lleida player of the late 1980s and the man in charge when the wheels started to fall off completely. Loyalty was also shown by a raft of players including reserve goalkeeper Víctor Ibáñez, who would stand up and take the number one shirt, and captain Jaume Delgado, whilst others chose to play elsewhere having been stung by the irregular pay days and uncertainty about who was actually in charge. Given that some were reportedly owed up to five months’ pay, some less forgiving fans’ assertions that the deserters were somehow traitorous might be seen as unreasonable. However, the acclamation of those who remained as heroes of was certainly well deserved as the Lleida Club Esportiu team stepped out at the Camp d’Esports as a resurrected club against Reus on Sunday 21st August 2011. The stinging 3 – 1 defeat aside, it drew a line under a turbulent summer and people had football to concentrate their minds again. 

Where change has to occur then opposition will undoubtedly follow, and the reaction to the formation of a new club was mixed. Some pronounced football in Lleida dead at the time UE Lleida passed into the history books, unwilling to accept the new formation. But the more pragmatic supporters quoted a Catalan mantra of ‘renew or die’ in the face of the doubters, and chose a new path for their loyalties rather than letting their passion and memories turn to dust. The pain, sadly not unique in the game, was all too evident amongst the Lleida faithful as their old club slipped away. If anyone didn’t feel pain then they surely felt embarrassment, as the circus starring Benet, Junyent and Pujol passed through town in the glare of the national sporting media.

The new club is reaching out to the region of Lleida. It breached the 2000 members barrier (including Angel Ros, who signed up in front of the cameras, naturally) as early as the second month of the season and immediately set a new, eminently achievable target of 2500. In enlisting a renewed local membership, and striking up meaningful partnerships with other nearby sporting organisations, Lleida Club Esportiu appear to be embarking on a more meaningful exchange with the community than its broken ancestor. Results on the field may be mixed, with the first team bobbling around in mid-table position, but if they’re honest that’s what they have largely expected for the last decade if not longer. With no false promises of new stadiums offset by apartment blocks or expensive signings to weigh them down, and a declared interest in developing teams from youth (la base) rather than importing players at a price, the future looks even brighter for football in Lleida than it did when Søren Andersen embarrassed the visiting Madrileños back in 1994. 

Rob can be found on Twitter @northernrob

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