Little Levante on top
The minnows have stormed above the Big Two to lead La Liga. Pete Jenson meets Spain's very own 'Crazy Gang'
Saturday 29 October 2011
When you hear La Liga leaders Levante talk about TV money they are not necessarily discussing multimillion pound audiovisual rights. More likely, it is the brand new widescreen in the official supporters' club room.
They christened it three weeks ago when they first went top of the league in Spain. One-nil up at half-time, in that win away to Betis that took them top for a couple of hours until Barcelona played, one fan being interviewed for the club's in-house TV channel was asked what she thought of it all.
"Very good, very good, and with such a big television," she replied.
The TV seemed to inspire almost as much enthusiasm as the league position – presumably because, unlike Levante, it will still be in the same spot at the end of the season. But, although the general consensus is that being league leaders is little more than a passing wonder, someone has forgotten to tell the players.
Three wins further down the line and Levante are no longer top courtesy of having played before the big two, they are now a point clear of Barcelona and two clear of Real Madrid.
Their near-15-stone captain Sergio Ballesteros is the leader of the closest thing Spain has ever had to Wimbledon's Crazy Gang. The 36-year-old centre-back was sent off for slapping David Beckham in a match between Real Madrid and Mallorca in 2005. Back then he was already being referred to as a "veteran".
They call him "Papa" in the Levante dressing room – a completely inappropriate nickname because so many of his team-mates are as old as he is. His shirt is always untucked, making sure the generous midrift – like the defence he marshalls – is never exposed. A YouTube video clip of him out-sprinting Cristiano Ronaldo for a loose ball in Levante's 1-0 win over Real Madrid has been watched by almost half-a-million people and his supporters sing for him to be called up to the national side.
"We have played a lot of matches between us," he says of the advantage that experience offers. He will be pushing up towards the 500 games mark in all competitions if he puts in another full season. Ballesteros was part of Spain's Under-21 European champions team in 1998 and was a target for Southampton, but his club at the time, Tenerife, would not let him leave. Full international honours never followed and soon his size outgrew his reputation. "Aren't you too fat to be a footballer?" one brave interviewer asked him as a 27-year-old who already appeared to have seen his best days. "No, I'm just stocky" was his very restrained answer.
When Ballesteros cuffed Beckham back in 2005 the former England captain went down and the defender was sent off: "He trod on my foot and I reacted," Ballesteros says, proud of the fact that the card was rescinded.
"We don't have 80,000 members or €120m worth of TV money. We have to work with what we have."
Levante's share of the television cash is closer to €12m (£10m) and their €7m wage bill would not pay the salary of Cristiano Ronaldo. Their manager, Juan Ignacio Martinez – known affectionately by his initials "JIM" – will hope those calls for Ballesteros to be called up to the Spain team are not taken seriously by Vicente del Bosque.
At present, he loses just two players every international break when forward Valdo pulls on a Cape Verde shirt and reserve goalkeeper Keylor Navas joins up with Costa Rica.
Valdo is another of Levante's heroes. He started his career at Real Madrid but drifted on to Osasuna, Espanyol and Malaga. The 30-year-old son of immigrants from Cape Verde made his debut for the country of his parents three months ago, to much winding-up from his team-mates who teased him with: "Why don't you wait for Del Bosque to call you up for the Spain side? There is still time."
Speaking to Ballesteros, you get the impression he prefers a nice warm bath at the end of a game to a muscle-rejuvenating ice one. And he is fairly non-plussed when I ask him if he would ever consider sleeping in an oxygen chamber, as Raul famously did in order to prolong his career.
They may be the second poorest club in Spain with a €23m budget dwarfed by Real Madrid's €500m, and they may have the oldest squad in the league with a first-choice back four and goalkeeper with a combined age of 170, but Levante have now won seven on the bounce.
"We've got 23 points, so we need 21 to make safety," says cautious president Quico Catalan. But in a hypothetical final league table based on results so far they are up to fifth. Who's to say little Levante are not heading for Europe?
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