Pitchside Europe

Spain's most unlikely club - and the racist who ruined their party

Pitchside

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Jose stands outside the locked gate of a football stadium in Spain's Costa Brava brandishing a loud hailer.

"Llagostera! Llagostera!" he shouts.

He's positioned by the blue gate because he can see the pitch on the other side, where players of second division UE Llagostera are warming up. When they approach the corner flag he shouts their names and, though they're initially startled, they realise where the noise is coming from and applaud.

In a bar opposite, seven friends have settled after welcoming Llagostera's team coach to their new home 25 kilometres from the town of just 8,000. Llagostera have become the smallest ever club to reach Spain's second tier after six promotions in a decade.

In the ticket kiosk by the stadium, a lady selling season tickets (the cheapest is just €90) turns a group of British tourists away with regret.

"This is ridiculous," sighs one as they head to the shaded terrace of the bar. They wanted to see a game of football and look baffled. They'd seen the posters advertising second division football and visits this season from Mallorca, Zaragoza, Real Betis, Sporting Gijon and Osasuna.

None of them will see the opening home game against Leganes for Llagostera must play Leganes behind closed doors. A hardy band like Jose have come anyway, but they'll be reduced to snatches of action viewed from the street because of the actions of a solitary, pitiful human being.

In May, during a play-off game against Racing Santander, a middle aged women pretended to be a gorilla in front of the Cantabrians' Ivorian striker Mamadou Kone. Her insulting primate impersonation was made even worse as she was surrounded by children. The images went viral and, instead of being associated with a remarkable rise, Llagostera became, probably permanently, linked with racism for the internet generation.

The culprit was identified by the club and reported to the police after the game. She was also banned from the stadium for life, but the damage to Llagostera's reputation was done.

With racism a hot topic in Spain, the incident came weeks after Barcelona's Daniel Alves had a banana thrown at him at Villarreal, which he picked up and ate. Ironically, the woman in Llagostera, a town 90 kilometres north of Barcelona, was a citizen of Barcelona and employee of Barca, working in their club museum as a ticket seller. Barca sacked her immediately.

Kone, a 22-year-old striker, who had played at Racing through successive relegations, later took to Twitter writing: "Regarding this 'lady', it is better not to say anything...She has shown herself."

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The Spanish Football Federation and commission against violence, racism, xenophobia and intolerance in sport imposed the ban. Llagostera appealed. "From the first moment, we worked hard to reduce this sanction," they said in a statement. "We had an immaculate record until the (racist) incident."

Their appeals fell on death ears, with the league stating: "The facts are very serious and that the sanction cannot be reduced".

The public address system plays Llagostera's anthem to players and a handful of officials, journalists and squad players.

"Nobody had seen the women before and nobody has seen her since," explains club president Isabel Tarago, 41. "We're being punished for her actions but we must look forward now. We're a family club not a racist club."

When this column visited Llagostera in February, Tarago laughed at the possibility of promotion. Llagostera played in a tiny stadium with a 1,500 capacity and on an artificial pitch. Both wouldn't be sufficient for second tier football.

But the team who can't stop going up went up again and their players celebrated on the back of a tractor driven around the small agricultural town.

With only limited support available from their cash-strapped local council when it came to a new stadium in the town, Isabel spoke with neighbouring second division team Girona, 19 kilometres to the north about sharing their ground. Llagostera decided instead to share with Palamos, Catalonia's oldest football club (Barca are second) and 25 kilometres to the east by the Mediterranean. Their modern stadium seats 6,000 and Llagostera have signed a five-year contract.

"We hope that we can appeal to fans across the Costa Brava," explains Isabel. "We've already sold 1,000 season tickets and hope that we get crowds of twice that." Given Betis recently took 3,000 fans to Sabadell near Barcelona, they'll certainly attract some bigger crowds.

Just not tonight, and the fans outside the ground are fuming over the punishment.

"Would Real Madrid or Barcelona have their stadium closed for one racist fan?" asked one, Oscar. "How can any club control the actions of every single fan? It was a play-off game with a big crowd and we all saw people there that had never been to a game before."

Llagostera's aim is to stay up.

"Our budget is just over €3 million for the season," explains Isabel. "It was €400,000 last season, but then we received €20,000 from television. Now we get €2 million. We're surviving off the television money, but we've had to bring new players in and the club staff has increased from two to six."

None of the new players cost a fee.

"We've brought a lot of new players in with second division experience," explains press officer Albert Bermudez. "The players were usually out of contract. We didn't pay any agents' fees. We have to save money where possible. We travel to games by the cheapest means possible and when we play two games in Andalusia in a few weeks, we're hoping to stay down there. Two of the new members of staff are scouts. They just sit in a room watching videos of opponents all day."

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Larger clubs send scouts in person. They'll have a treat when they visit Palamos on the beautiful coast.

Eibar, recently promoted to the Primera Liga for the first time on average crowds of 2,900 and a budget of €3.2 million, are an inspiration to tiny clubs like Llagostera, but even Eibar are giants by comparison.

Llagostera take the lead just before half-time. Sergio Leon, a player on loan from Elche's B team, scoring their first ever second division goal. Jordi Lopez makes it two in the second half for three points and the players celebrate near that closed blue gate, behind which are fans shouting their names.

Lopez is a local player who also rose through Barca's ranks before joining Real Madrid, where he made two appearances for their first team. He then played for Sevilla in the side which won the 2006 UEFA Cup before spells at Mallorca, Queens Park Rangers, Swansea City et al. He's 33 this week and winding down. Again, better for him to do that close to home. If that's not to be Barca or Espanyol, then Llagostera, with their husband and wife management, is ideal: Isabel's husband is Oriol Alsina, Llagostera's manager for most of their rise and now the sporting director who doubles up as scout, transfer negotiator and overall boss.

Another local player is right-back Aimar who has been at the club since 2009, when he was semi-professional and working in a family business making swimming pools for the second homes of wealthy Catalans and foreigners who spend their summers in the Costa Brava.

"This is the best moment of my career," he says. "I can now call myself a professional footballer for the first time in my life. I played my first professional game last week."

Aimar is smiling and admits that he hasn't been interviewed by a non-Spanish journalist before. "It's a family club," he says. "And a stable club. You know you'll get paid and you can't always say that in Spanish football. The facilities don't belong to the club, but they're good. We train in (another nearby coastal town) Palafrugel because we don't have a grass pitch of our own. The council in Llagostera don't really help."

"I'm not nervous about playing at this level," he says. "Motivated, yes. Nervous, no. I can't wait to play in stadiums which hold 50,000 people like at Betis."

Llagostera finally get a chance to play in front of their own fans on September 13 when Osasuna, relegated after 14 seasons in the Primera, visit. Osasuna's budget of €30 million last season was almost 100 times that of Llagostera and while it will be much reduced after dropping down a league, they have 10 times as many season ticket holders.

At least Llagostera will now be able to count on vociferous support inside the stadium and not just outside.

Andy Mitten - @AndyMitten

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