Little old Levante living La Liga loco

HIS name is Ballesteros.

He’s a veteran, he’s a leader and his first name even begins with an S. But Spain’s latest sporting hero is Sergio rather than Severiano, and his claim to fame is that he’s the captain of the most unlikely league leaders in the history of Spanish football.

With eight games gone, little Levante sit proudly at the top of the table, a point clear of Real Madrid and unbeaten like Barcelona, who are third.

They really are little Levante too. Valencia’s second team have lived in the shadow of their more famous neighbours for a century. This is only their seventh time in the top division, and their highest-ever finish was 10th. That was almost 50 years ago.

Since 2004 they’ve won promotion three times but the effort has nearly killed them. The insane regime of former president Pedro Villaroel left them with debts of €88 million and the bailiffs at the door. Less than three years ago the players were in revolt, the club headed for relegation, administration and, quite possibly, oblivion.

It has been an astonishing turnaround, achieved on a shoestring when the club could barely afford to buy new sets of boots.

Luiz Garcia made the difference. The day he took over as coach there were only 10 players in the squad, less than a fortnight before the start of the season. Within two seasons Levante were back in the top-flight and, even more surprisingly, last season they managed to stay there after a tremendous run of eight wins in 12 games between January and April.

Garcia was headhunted by Getafé, Madrid’s third club, in the summer. Together with the departure of their star striker Felipe Caicedo (on loan from Manchester City) it seemed to spell disaster. At the start of this season Levante were obviously destined for relegation.

Instead the group of ageing players typified by Sergio Ballesteros have carried on under their new coach Juan Ignacio Martinez, usually known as JIM, where they left off under Garcia.

Like Garcia before him, JIM is an unknown, whose entire 14-year career has been spent at lower league clubs. Till now his one claim to fame was as the longest-serving coach at Cartagena, who have only reached the dizzy heights of the second division in the past three years.

Levante’s budget this season is €22 million, compared to €461m at Barcelona. Their players are paid €6.5m — that’s for the entire squad — roughly half the salary paid to Cristiano Ronaldo.

They also have the oldest squad in the Liga’s history: Ballesteros is 36, Juanfran and Venta are 35. The 14 players who appeared in Sunday night’s 3-0 win at Villarreal had an average age of almost 33.

These veterans, unlike their managers, are not all unknowns.

Juanfran spent five years at Celta de Vigo and played in the Champions League; Javier Farinos starred for Valencia when they reached the Champions League final; Asier Del Horno was at Athletic Bilbao before a rather less successful move to Chelsea.

Levante’s formula is primarily a strong defence and a direct, no-frills attack. They’ve only scored 14 goals, but so far have conceded just three. What’s more, their unbeaten record includes five away games, whereas Barcelona have only played three.

Just for a moment at least the established order is under challenge, although Levante’s run surely can’t continue for long. Mind you the pundits were already saying that before Levante met the new billionaire club Malaga last week. Malaga spent nearly €60 million on transfers in the summer — Levante just €210,000. Levante won 3-0.

A bit of humility from the top clubs would not come amiss. Sevilla arrived in Barcelona for Saturday’s game with shirts bearing the slogan “Proud of Andalusia”.

People in the south have been riled by disparaging remarks about the region from certain Catalan politicians, including the accusation that peasants in Catalonia have to throw fruit away because prices are too low “whereas in Andalusia they are getting subsidies for spending the morning in the local bar”.

Sevilla duly managed a 0-0 draw, with keeper Javi Varas saving a stoppage-time penalty from Lionel Messi.

Curiously, Jose Mourinho currently seems to be keeping his mouth shut. And his team have responded with a run of wins. Apparently a meeting with senior players convinced Mourinho to keep a lower profile. Just a ploy, say the Barcelona papers, who even now are warming up for the next round in the contest, which is scheduled for December 10.

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