Football: Galicia's finest march to Brazilian beat: Phil Davison, the Independent's correspondent in Spain, reports on the unfashionable team from La Coruna who are setting the pace ahead of Barcelona and Real Madrid

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THE last time the inhabitants of the Spanish port of La Coruna were cock-a-hoop was when they waved off their national squad, known at the time as the Spanish Armada, on their voyage to England on 26 July, 1588. The locals lived to regret that one. An English team with Sir Francis Drake up front came down the following year for an unscheduled return leg and burned the Spanish port to the ground.

The next thing to hit the port from England, spherical and fashioned from leather, caught on and led to the creation in 1906 of a team called Football Club de Corunna. The English title has long since evolved into Real Club Deportivo de la Coruna (Royal Sporting Club of La Coruna), nicknamed 'Superdepor' by their fans since the unfashionable little side surged to the top of the Spanish League at the start of this season and stayed there.

Even defeat today, away to Madrid's least-famous side, Rayo Vallecano, would leave Deportivo at the top of the table, if only for another day, since their nearest rivals Barcelona, two points adrift, do not play until tomorrow.

A draw or better will leave La Coruna clear at the top, with the unofficial title of 'winter champions' at the half-way point of the 38-match Spanish First Division season. Comparisons with Blackburn Rovers are no longer good enough. In language Drake himself would understand, it is almost as though Plymouth Argyle were heading the Premier League and looking odds-on to win it.

La Coruna have spent most of their history in the Second Division or lower, had an earlier heyday in the First in the early 1950s, but had spent 18 straight years in the Second when they were promoted in 1991. And last summer they clung to the top bracket by a hair's breadth in the relegation play-offs. That, however, was in the years AB, or Ante Bebeto.

Even the trauma of last month's oil tanker spill on the rocks off the centre of town, which thrust La Coruna into the headlines in Britain until it was upstaged by a similar disaster in the Shetlands, has been eased by the town's footballing success. 'The oil spill was billed as the Black Tide,' said one local mariscador (seafood fisherman). 'But La Marea Blanquiazul (the blue and white tide) and Bebeto have drowned our sorrows.'

The diminutive, almost Chaplinesque Brazilian striker Bebeto, alias Jose Roberto Gama de Oliveira, signed last summer from Vasco da Gama, has knocked in 18 goals so far this season, an average of one a game and already equalling the previous club record for a season.

'I love the fans here. It's like a miniature Rio. Mariscos (seafood) are my favourite thing in the world,' the Brazilian says. Also in his favour is the fact that the Galician language, unintelligible to most outsiders, bears a strong resemblance to Portuguese.

The unexpected success of the seaside team has led to an eruption of 'Depormania' and 'Bebetomania' in the Atlantic town at the top left-hand corner of Spain, in the gruffly conservative autonomous province of Galicia that gave the world pulpo Gallego (octopus a la Galicia) and a little man called Franco. Spaniards from the rest of the country remain split over which of the two constitutes Galicia's greatest gift to the nation. But if you were ever forced to criticise one or the other while in Galicia, it would be wise to vent your spleen on the pulpo.

Until this season, most of the football fans among the port's 250,000 people tended to support one or other of Spain's big two, Real Madrid or Barcelona, much as a a schoolboy from Forfar might follow Rangers or Celtic. Now, the big two are seen as arch-rivals in the title race.

La Coruna boast close to 25,000 season ticket-holders, at 10 per cent of the population by far the highest representation of any city in Spain. Galicians, whose hospitality, bagpipes and drinking habits do justice to the customs of their fellow Celts elsewhere, now come from hundreds of miles away, including Madrid, to join in the euphoria at the beachfront Riazor Stadium, where Italy played the early games of their successful World Cup campaign in 1982.

'It's a disease. The whole town's got it, male and female, young and old. But it's also a kind of religion,' said Juan Antonio, a teenage fan, as he frolicked in the fountain of the town's central Plaza de Cuatro Caminos after a recent home win. 'That's why we call ourselves los fieles (the faithful).'

The good-time atmosphere begins on the pitch. When Bebeto scores, he looks as though he has just had his first kiss. The substitutes' bench rises as one in delirium and the noise echoes around the bay.

Among the faithful are a housewife who takes her two pet poodles to every home match. Dressed in the team's strip, they are named Fran and Jose Ramon, after the Gonzalez brothers who play in the side. She has little to fear. Although Deportivo have their own 'ultra' group, the name usually given in Spain to the skinhead, army-boot, hooligan element, those from La Coruna are rarely involved in violence.

They call themselves the Riazor Blues. 'We are peaceful. They call us the blue and white orgasm,' said one. 'We don't like violence but if the ultras come up from Madrid and wreck our place, we'll wreck them.' Street fights and a police baton charge after a 3-2 home win over Real Madrid earlier in the season proved his point.

Deportivo's president, Augusto Cesar Lendoiro, a 47-year-old lawyer and local leader of the conservative Partido Popular, has taken the club from debts of pounds 4m four years ago to black figures today. His one major problem is that La Coruna's town mayor, Francisco 'Paco' Vazquez, of Felipe Gonzalez's nationally ruling Socialist Party, who defeated Lendoiro in the last municipal elections, refuses to grant permission to expand the Riazor Stadium. The two men went to school together. Now, they do not talk.

As for the team coach, Arsenio Iglesias, at 61 the oldest man in the dug-outs of the Spanish First Division, he is trying to keep his players' heads out of the clouds. 'It's still far too early to think of the League title,' he said. 'Real Madrid were seven points ahead of Barcelona last season but lost in the dying minutes.'

Apart from the successful purchases of Bebeto, and his fellow Brazilian Mauro da Silva in midfield, he finds the side's sudden success hard to explain. When he tries, he sounds positively Shanklyesque. 'My strategy has always been the same. I believe that if you have the ball, you should keep it moving. If you don't have it, you should stop it from moving.'

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