A tragic tale, but a familiar story.....
Villanueva del Fresno is a town of fewer than 4,000 inhabitants which lies around 30 miles south of Badajoz in the Spanish province of Extremadura. In a country which has been as badly affected as the economic crisis as any, and in a region which moreover is one of the poorest of the seventeen which make up modern Spain, it should come as no real surprise that its football team ceased to exist last month. However the manner of Sporting Villanueva Promesa’s eventual demise, just seven months after the greatest day in its short history, is as distasteful a reflection of lower league Spanish football as one could ever wish to encounter.
In 1993 local businessman Jose Maria Perez Hurtado decided to start a football club in the town. That team pottered on unspectacularly in the Extremadura regional leagues for fourteen of the next seventeen campaigns (it actually folded in 1997, before re-emerging in 2000), rarely threatening to escape from the level at which a club of its size could and should feel comfortable. However all that changed last season, when Sporting finished runners-up in Group 14 of the Spanish Third Division. This meant that they qualified for a series of play-offs against teams from the other seventeen regional leagues who had also finished in the top four places of their respective divisions.
Against all the odds, the team disposed of Mallorca based side Binissalim and Racing de Santander’s B team to reach the play off final against Alhaurin de la Torre. After recording a 2-0 win in the first leg in Anadalucia, a crowd of over 2,000 crammed into Sporting’s ramshackle Estadio Municipal to watch history being made in the second leg, with a 1-1 draw sealing their promotion to the third tier of Spanish football.
Unfortunately it was at that point that things started to go very wrong. There seems little dispute that Perez Hurtado had invested quite heavily in the team that season, but one could only speculate as to why he had bothered to do so given that he then decided that he could not afford to fund what was to be Sporting’s first ever Segunda B campaign. Within days of the final, his decision to slash the budget led to the departure of the entire squad and the manager, and at that point he began to suggest that his club would not be taking up the place which its now former players had fought so hard to earn.
Such reluctance is perhaps understandable, given the huge additional expense to Perez Hurtado of round trips within mainland Spain of up to 800 miles to play their new opponents, as well as two trips to northern Africa. However the question remains amongst Sporting supporters: why spend big if you cannot afford to go up?
Whatever the owner’s motivation, it seemed likely that Sporting would be staying put in Tercera right up to just before the deadline to confirm their intentions was to elapse. What followed ultimately proved to be more disastrous than had they done so. In late July it emerged that two brothers from Barcelona had taken over the ownership of the club, and that the club’s founder had relinquished all involvement.
Everything seemed to be more or less going to plan at the outset. New manager Albert Ferri, who had been appointed by Perez Hurtado on the same day that he ceded control of the club, hastily assembled an entirely new squad of players, and on August 21st the team duly commenced the season with a local derby against Badajoz. Although it took them until their eighth game to record their first victory, they lost only two of their first seven, and thus looked far from out of place in their new surroundings.
However with hindsight the alarm bells should have been ringing from the very start with regard to Jordi Garcia and his brother Francesc. Within days of assuming control, he was promising a budget of 360,000 Euros for the year, but it was clear that he expected the local government to pay a significant slice of it.
By early September that budget had apparently risen to 400,000 Euros in an interview which Garcia gave to Spanish football website masliga.com, which would have been news to the players as they had still yet to see any of it. By late October extraordinary stories were emerging of the lengths to which the coach rather than the owners was resorting to keep the club afloat, paying a player’s mortgage, buying kit and subsidising travel to away games, support which by this stage had already cost him over £6,000.
It was at this point that almost the entire squad were left with no choice but to move into the Estadio Municipal’s changing rooms, having received on average only £200 since the beginning of August, yet with nowhere to go until the transfer window reopened in January. There they stayed in incredibly cramped conditions for almost two months, sleeping on mattresses on the floor and relying on the goodwill of the town’s population for food and drink. Ferri set up residence in the club’s doping control room in support of his players, and revealed that he had been threatened and had his door kicked in for refusing to leave the club as Jordi Garcia had demanded.
It is highly doubtful as to whether the brothers ever had the money to pay the bills, and indeed there are some who claim that their only intention was to use the club as a money-laundering exercise. Whatever the truth of the matter, it seems that at this point they decided out of sheer spite to run the club into the ground. They refused to hand over control unless they were paid to go away, a laughably contemptuous approach given that there was very little evidence to support their claims that they had invested 70,000 Euros since their arrival. And despite the efforts of the Spanish Footballers Association and even the mayor of Villanueva to find a legal means of annulling their ownership of the club, there was ultimately nothing they could do to make them leave.
Just as all seemed lost, one last hope of salvation appeared on the horizon. The club’s last game before the winter break against Almeria B was watched by businessman Alejandro Remiseiro. The Garcia brothers, having originally suggested that they would be there too, very wisely stayed away. Remiseiro came back after Christmas still seemingly determined to be the new owner, yet sadly almost as many doubts about his credentials emerged before he had even announced that he would not be pursuing his initial interest. He was based in Pontevedra, more than 400 miles north of Villanueva del Fresno, and proved very elusive when attempts were made by various journalists to find out more about his plans. Within days of his withdrawal, he was offering half of the Sporting squad to his hometown club, and one suspects that this was not out of the goodness of his heart. There is little to suggest that Sporting would have found themselves on any firmer financial footing had he succeeded in his efforts to take over the club.
And so it was that Sporting Villanueva Promesas played possibly their last ever fixture in the Spanish territory of Melilla on January 8 2012. The players rewarded their coach for what was more than likely another away day to north Africa at least partly funded by him with a 1-1 draw. Indeed amazingly they lost only six of the nineteen games which they ultimately contested, despite receiving almost nothing for the five months which they spent at the club. Days later, when Remiseiro officially gave up on the idea of becoming the new owner, they all exercised their right to join other clubs, and two non-appearances later, Sporting were excluded from the league.
Some might say that the club is just an example of natural wastage, and that no team can hope to survive indefinitely unless it cuts its cloth accordingly. However they may not be huge in number, but there are Sporting fans out there who have seen their dream turn into a nightmare at the behest of two fraudsters, a couple of ‘shameless people’ as Ferri repeatedly referred to them in an extraordinary fifteen minute outburst at a press conference in early December. It is to be hoped that he and his ex players find better fortune in their new abodes (this week he was named the new coach at Third Division side Illescas), that the Garcia brothers are never allowed anywhere near a football club again, and that someday the people of Villanueva del Fresno will once again have a football team to support.
You can follow Liam on Twitter @agameinspain