Pitchside Europe

The Miracle of Llagostera: The tiny Spanish team upsetting all the odds

One of the greatest books ever written about football was by the American author and Richard Nixon chronicler Joe McGinniss. In the late 1990s, he spent a year in Italy to write 'The Miracle of Castel di Sangro' about a team from a town of 5,000 in the mountains of central Italy.

They'd risen from regional football to the heights of Serie B, an ascent of epic sporting endeavours culminating in an away victory at Genoa. The dream didn't last, became tainted by corruption and Castel di Sangro slipped back again.

When teams from tiny towns prosper, there's usually a rich benefactor. That's the story for German club Hoffenheim, from a suburb of 3,000, or Villarreal, a town of 42,000 whose team are backed by the millions of Fernando Roig's ceramics empire. Italy's Chievo is a heroic story, but the so-called 'village of 2,000' is more a suburb of the city of Verona.

On Sunday, this column visited Llagostera, a town of 8,000 in northern Catalonia, set against the backdrop of the snow-capped Pyrenees. They don't have a benefactor but an annual budget of €400,000 (£329,000), one of the smallest in Spain's regional third division. Yet they're top of the league.

Llagostera's rise is genuinely incredible. They spent much of their history playing teams from neighbouring villages, but in 2003 they began to climb up the divisions. And they didn't stop. By 2009, after four promotions in six years, they'd reached Spain's fourth tier and their rivals came from cities.

"There was no grand plan and people kept saying we couldn't go any higher, but we just kept on going up," says club president Isabel Tarrago, who is married to technical director Oriol Alsina. The couple work in textiles and live in Llagostera.

Their council-owned ground was woefully undeveloped, with one small stand offering cover for 200 by the side of the pitch, not even enough to shelter their average crowds of 300. In 2011, they went up again. Isabel laughs as she recounts the story, standing by a hut selling club scarves and badges.

"We found ourselves in the play-offs and then the play-off final," she smiles. "And we won."

Llagostera were now in Segunda B, where they've been for the past three seasons, surviving on average crowds of 400 in a still tiny ground they don't own.

"The club is run entirely by volunteers," explains Isabel. "They work very hard to bring money in."

A cup-tie against Valencia in 2012 helped and some of the temporary seats installed for that game are still used.

"It was a magical moment," recalls Isabel of their trip to the Mestalla. "And then they came back to play here. They flew on a plane and brought their stars like Soldado. They were arrogant but very friendly, I think they admired what we've done."

A pennant from the game hangs in the clubhouse alongside one from Southampton, whom Llagostera played pre-season, losing 1-2.

"(Mauricio) Pochettino knew about us from his time at Espanyol," explains Jordi Gasto, a fan and former journalist who helps out on the media side. "He wanted the game to be played on a grass pitch, so we had to move."

Southampton didn't seem entirely sure of their visitors. Their pennant spells their name of their opponents as 'VE Llagastera' instead of 'UE Llagostera'.

Llagostera’s rise caught the attention of la Bruixa d'Or, a lottery company who became the club sponsor. They liked the fact that winners could come from obscurity. Rivals teams respect their elevation, rival players found them tough opponents.

"It's not a good place to play," says Arnau Riera, formerly Lionel Messi's captain at Barca B. "The pitch is really small and Llagostera use that to their advantage. They're used to it. It's unsettling for players used to stadiums of 20,000 when you have to go to a pitch where, in place of stands, they have portable goals at the side of the pitch which they bring on after the game as the pitch is divided up into five-a-side pitches for hire."

Some of Riera's former teammates have found themselves at Llagostera as several factors have worked in the club's favour. Look across to the current leading lights in Spain's third division and you see fallen giants like Racing Santander, Real Oviedo, Cadiz and Albacete. All have suffered from acute financial meltdowns. Other clubs like Nastic Tarragona or Lleida, both whom have played top flight football in the past 20 years, have experienced similar financial pressures.

Players receiving their wages late or not at all became the norm in skint Spain, so by dint of simply paying players their modest wages of between €1,200-2,500 a month on time, Llagostera gain a considerable advantage. And in northern Catalonia, one of Spain's richest regions, it's considered normal practice to pay your bills on time.

For their money, the players train every day - they're full time professionals. The club also boast 15 junior teams, all funded by the players through subscriptions. Many of those youngsters come to first-team games, swelling the crowd to 700. It helps that the weather is usually good at midday on Sunday when they play home games.

Catalonia also produces footballers. Drawing from a population of seven million, they could currently field an international side of Valdes; Montoya, Pique, Puyol, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Cuenca; Fabregas, Tello, Bojan. Subs: Capdevila, Amat, Vila, Verdu, Muniesa, Fontas, Bartra, and Sergi Roberto. Pep Guardiola could be coach, with Tito Vilanova (who hails from close to Llagostera) as assistant.

They're the headline makers, but there are hundreds of technically excellent footballers below that level and teams like Llagostera can draw from that pool.

Take Piti - their 30-year-old Catalan midfielder who actually plays for the Catalan XI with many of the aforementioned players. He rose through the ranks at Barca with Arnau and made one appearance for their first team in 2006 when they'd already won the league. He's played around Spain, but it's better for him to live closer to home.

Or recent signing Jordi Lopez, another 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.

Further south in Catalonia, Jordi Cruyff always maintained that he never spoke about football when at home with his father Johan. The day job was kept outside the house.

"Not in our house," laughs Isabel. "We talk all the time. We agree, we disagree, but I don't interfere with team selection."

Not that she needs to. The team are doing just fine. Can they go up again?

"It would be complicated, but if we did, we wouldn't be allowed to play games here," explains Gasto. "We have an artificial pitch and a capacity of just 1,200, even with our temporary stands. Maybe we'd have to move games to Girona 19 kilometres away, with whom we have a good relationship. There would be increased travel costs as the second division is nationwide, but going up would actually give us money from television, sponsors and the pools. Imagine Llagostera playing Zaragoza or Deportivo La Coruna?"

A television van was parked by the pitch on Sunday, near the two urinals at the ground (for it can hardly be described as a stadium). Its high tech satellites incongruous as it broadcast the game back to the Balearic Islands, home of high flying visitors Atletico Baleares from Palma, Mallorca, who were beaten 3-0 by Llagostera. This writer asked the president how much the club received from television.

"€20,000," replied Isabel.

"Isn't that a lot of money for a small club for one game?"

She pulled on her cigarette and then laughed.

"That's €20,000 we receive for the whole year, not today."

Llagostera are used to making a little into a lot.

Andy Mitten - @AndyMitten