THE MIRACLE OF UE LLAGOSTERA

Llagostera is a small town south of Girona in the Spanish region of Catalaunya, no more than a few miles from the major holiday resorts which comprise the Costa Brava.  It is doubtful whether any of the many tourists who pass so close to it are even aware of its existence – it is not signposted from the main A7 motorway, which runs from Alicante in the south all the way to the French border, and indeed even the minor roads bear no indication of its existence until you are almost upon it.  Its population has almost doubled in the last forty years, but it still has little more than 8,000 inhabitants, and is renowned only for the production of some of the corks used in the region’s plentiful supply of sparkling wine.

However last May something very special happened in the town which made a lot of Spanish football fans sit up and take notice of this hitherto unknown backwater.  After a meteoric rise from the lower reaches of the Catalan football pyramid over the previous seven years, UE Llagostera won a two legged play-off final against Galician side CCD Cerceda, and thus this August took their place in the Spanish Third Division for the first time in their 64 year history.

The transformation of a team which had achieved very little in the first 57 years of its existence began back in 2004, when former player and coach Oriol Alsina was looking for a new base to set up his textiles business with wife Isabel Tarragó.  The pair decided on Llagostera (Alsina was born just down the coast in Arenys de Mar), and having again taken up the reins at the town’s football club, the stage was set for a journey which has so far involved five promotions to reach the dizzying heights of Segunda B .

What makes this particular club especially unique is that whilst Alsina is still the coach, his wife is now the club’s president, a surely unique arrangement at this level of European football.  Alsina dismisses talk that this could prove problematic.  ‘We have been together 20 years, we know each other so well that we know what each other is thinking without even having to say it.’  Meanwhile Tarragó describes her husband as ‘more Guardiola than Mourinho, the ideal coach for this club’. 

On the subject of signings and tactics, Alsina is unequivocal.  ‘I report to no one.  I am given a budget by Isabel and I spend it as I please, whilst she takes care of the economic and social side of the club.  The dressing room is sacred.  None of the directors are allowed in, not even the president’.  Tarragó readily concurs.  ‘It is not that I cannot if I want to, I just do not feel that it is appropriate to do so.’

The two have now been working alongside each other as coach and president for two and a half years, but the transformation of the club began when Tarragó first joined the board of directors in 2008.  Radical ground improvements were undertaken on the club’s stadium, and a brand new artificial playing surface was also laid.  However even now a visit to the Camp Municipal D’Esports de Llagostera feels a bit like a trip to watch your mates playing behind the local sports centre, complete with ploughed field which runs down one whole side of the ground behind a hedge.  One can only imagine what has gone through the minds of Mallorca, Zaragoza and Valencia’s reserve teams when they have eventually found their way to their destination this season.

So how has the team been getting on in their new exalted surroundings?  It has to be said that for the first two months, the fairy tale looked to have been abruptly curtailed.  Four successive defeats to start the campaign yielded just a solitary goal, and by early November the points tally still had not reached double figures.  What has happened since then is another remarkable chapter in the story. ‘I distinctly remember when we began to believe that we belonged in this division’, press officer Jordi Gasto recalls. ‘We went over to Mallorca to play Manacor, another newly promoted team, and although we only won 1-0, the whole mood changed that day’.

However even the most optimistic of supporters could not have predicted what was to follow.  A run of just four defeats in twenty four games has catapulted Llagostera up the table and into the play-off zone, despite having an annual budget of just 400,000 euros, one of the smallest in the division.  The success has been built on a solid defence (‘keeper Wilfred, one of the few recruits from outside of Catalunya, went 728 minutes without conceding a goal earlier this year, just twenty minutes shy of the Segunda B record), with twelve different goal scorers chipping in at the other end.

This weekend the team will play their last game of the regular season in the Aragonese town of Andorra, although there are actually two weekends of fixtures remaining.  However as they were due to play the now defunct Sporting Mahonés to conclude their campaign, they have already been awarded the three points, and will therefore have to sit and wait to see how their main rivals for a top four finish get on. 

This seems like a fittingly bizarre end to what has been an extraordinary season, but the head scratching will have to recommence if the club does indeed end up playing for what would be a scarcely believable promotion to the Liga Adelante, the Spanish Second Division.  The ground is clearly wholly inadequate to cope with the next level (the official capacity is still only 1,000), and indeed Spanish league regulations do not allow for artificial surfaces to be used above Segunda B level.  Is there any point in taking part in the play-offs?  ‘The whole idea of playing in Segunda is still very much a dream’, concedes Gasto.  ‘However if we made it, we would not turn down our place because the considerable extra income that it guarantees would at least partly offset the costs.  We would probably have to ground share with Girona, although in every other way we are committed to retaining our independence’.

Clearly there are a number of footballing obstacles to be overcome before this needs to be seriously contemplated.  Eight teams can still qualify for one of the three play-off spots behind champions Atlético Baleares, and whilst last season Alsina’s men won their league and thus only had to play a two legged final to be promoted, this time around they would start at the quarter final stage.  Added intrigue is provided by the plight of their potential landlords, with Girona almost certain to be relegated to Segunda B after a dismal campaign.  In the murky world of lower league Spanish football, it would not be unheard of for a team of Llagostera’s obvious financial limitations to get themselves promoted, and then offer to sell their place to a team whose Montilvi stadium has a capacity of nearly 10,000, and who have 6,000 members, more than ten times Llagostera’s average gate this season.  However the club has made it quite clear that this will not be happening under any circumstances on this occasion.

In a footballing world increasingly dominated by balance sheets, the wife whose husband has taken this tiny town’s football club to the verge of a truly amazing achievement remains as sanguine as ever about the journey on which they have embarked.  ‘Everyone does their bit, it’s a team effort.’ Tarragó explains.  ‘People are loving it, everyone wants us to play against Cadiz (a team who regularly play in front of 8,000 spectators, and who have already guaranteed their play-off place), but for me all this is just about having a good time and enjoying ourselves’.  Amen to that.   

You can follow Liam on Twitter @agameinspain

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