Forty-two years later, an archangel welcomed the first division back. The last time Córdoba were here, Vicente Del Bosque hadn’t won anything yet. He hadn’t won five leagues, four cups, two more leagues, two European cups, the European Championship or the World Cup and he wasn’t a marquis; hell, he hadn’t even grown a moustache yet. He was, though, about to help Real Madrid to a title for the first time. It was May 1972 and the current Spain coach was a 22-year-old on loan at Córdoba, playing under the Brazilian Vavá. On the final day, they beat Rinus Michels’s Barcelona to give Madrid the title.
It didn’t do them much good – apart from a handy bonus from Madrid, that is. Córdoba were already down. They would be gone for four decades. On Saturday, one of Spain’s most beautiful cities was back. On a weekend in which Atlético Madrid finally received the league trophy 105 days after winning it and in which Real Madrid appeared to collapse only 100 days after clinching the European Cup, another wait came to an end: 15,288 days later, there was first division football in Córdoba at last. Out on a dusty wasteland across the Guadalquivir river from the Mezquita, burning in the sun, temperatures nudging 40C, the Estadio Arcángel awaited.
“No one expected us to be away for so long,” the club’s former president Rafael Campanero said. No one expected them to be back this time, either. Campanero is 88. “At my age, I didn’t know if I would see my Córdoba in primera,” he admitted. They slipped as far as the amateur tercera and three years ago they were in administration. Over the last 30 years they have spent as much time in Spain’s third-tier, four-division, 80-team second division B as in the second division. This season they could have been there too. “Unlikely” barely does justice to their promotion. Even the president, Carlos González, the man who installed a “time machine” at the stadium, carrying fans forward to a first division future, cannot truly have expected this.
When Chapi Ferrer took over as coach in week 27 of last season, Córdoba were 13th. At the end of March, only five months ago and with only two months to go, they were 16th, two points off the relegation zone. They lost once in their last 15 and finished seventh, just short of the promotion places. Except that they hadn’t. Normally, the top six make the play-offs but as the team in third were Barcelona B and they’re not allowed to go up, seventh was enough. In the play-offs, Córboda won only one of four. With seconds left in the second leg of the final, they were losing 1-0 at Las Palmas. It should have been more: Las Palmas had wasted chances and lots of them; they had never really been in trouble. There were some people on the pitch. They thought it was all over.
It wasn’t. A pitch invasion held up the game. Having finally cleared them off, hundreds of Las Palmas fans stood round the edge waiting to run on again, jubilation momentarily contained, jostling for the pole position when it came to the sprint to celebrate. And then Córdoba scored. Uli Dávila’s touch was the last of the game, a 1-1 draw sent them up on away goals. There wasn’t time to kick off again. The referee blew his whistle and made a run for it, across the pitch and down the tunnel, flanked by police. There were bodies strewn all over the place. “The people who ran on the pitch have cost us a place in the first division,” Las Palmas’s president said. The place, instead, went to Córdoba.
A revolution was needed. So far they have signed 14 new players. Mike Havenaar – just “Mike” on his shirt – joined from Vitesse Arnhem. He’s a Japanese international, born in Hiroshima to Dutch parents. José Carlos came from Rayo. Ryder Matos is on loan from Fiorentina and Fede Cartabia has come from Valencia, also on loan. The aim is survival and it won’t be easy, they know that. Not least because Ferrer reminded them of it. The budget is small and, for all the signings, a glance at the squad reveals few who played – or mostly didn’t play – in the first division last season. Their top scorer in promotion was Xisco, the striker Newcastle bought but could not sell.
The opening Monday took Córdoba to Madrid; 5,000 went and, despite losing 2-0, Córdoba were impressive. The fans were even better. This weekend they responded again. As the teams came out, the PA announcer pleaded: “the Arcángel has to roar” and it did. Córdoba have 16,000 season ticket-holders this season, up from 9,000 last year, three-quarters of the capacity. “There is euphoria but nobody should expect us to beat Celta easily,” Ferrer had warned on the eve of the home debut. Soon, no one truly expected them to beat Celta at all. Reality kicked in; that good performance at the Bernabéu might have been a one-off. This looked like another level.
It was 0-1 and it could have been more. When Celta scored the opening goal on 52 minutes, the only surprise was that it had taken so long. Córdoba appeared out of their depth, frightened, unable to stop their opponents and unable to keep the ball. Ferrer later described them as “inhibited”. Down in the tunnel after the game, one player described the first half as “a bit shit.” At half-time Ferrer hadn’t held back, telling his players that they could lose but they couldn’t play like this. “I didn’t like the first half at all”, he admitted later. “I told them that either we believe in ourselves or we’re not going anywhere … the best thing is that they listened to the message ”
The reaction to the goal was quick and the second half was different. There was belief, a sense that they had nothing to lose. First from the supporters and then from the footballers. “Sí, se puede!” they chanted. Yes, we can! Ten minutes later, Cartabia scored the equaliser and kept going at them. It finished 1-1 and there was a huge ovation at the end. It was only one point but it was a point and after the goal Córdoba had looked like the kind of team that Ferrer wants, one that could survive: pressuring high, fast, good on the ball, attacking, daring. Cartabia, in particular, caused problems for Celta and will be vital this season, while every time Ferrer talks he is entirely convincing, his analysis invariably incisive and intelligent.
“He talks to us a lot,” Havenaar says. “Everyone looks at us as a relegation team [but] we need to stay together as a group and we are doing that well. We played well against Madrid and we played well in the second half here. We had chances to win. We need to keep strong.”
It took 42 years to get back and even then it came sooner than anyone expected, but Córdoba may just have enough not to go straight back down again: and for them survival won’t just be about surviving, hanging on and hoping. As the Celta manager Eduardo Berizzo put it, heading down the tunnel and out the ground with a pizza and a Coke under his arm: “they’re a good side: intense and strong going at you, especially in one-on-ones.” Soon after Ferrer appeared, strolling out below the sign that greets the players as they head onto the pitch: The Archangel: our kingdom. “You’ve got to be brave,” he said.
• One hundred and five days later, Atlético Madrid were finally given the league title trophy. There was no Diego Costa, no Thibaut Courtois, no Filipe Luís and no David Villa. But Gabi was there to lift it into the sky. Atlético were handed a guard of honour by Eibar but that was the only concession they were gave. Eibar, whose manager had admiringly warned his players that Atlético were a bunch of supremely competitive “sons of bitches,” all elbows flying and fighting for every ball, did not back down. They also scored the best goal of the game, when Abraham curled in a lovely finish to a lovelier move. Atlético did, though, scrape through to win 2-1 thanks to headers from Miranda and Mario Mandzukic.
• Half an hour in, the Real Sociedad manager Jagoba Arrasate wore a familiar haunted look. Real Madrid were hammering his team. The visitors were was 2-0 up after 11 minutes and the scoreline looked like rising; Sergio Ramos hit the bar and Madrid, dressed in pink, kept on coming. Up in the stands the fans were furious. Real Sociedad had been beaten by Eibar on the opening day and knocked out of the Europa League in midweek. The sense of decline was as inescapable as it was sad. This is a team that has steadily regressed; it is only a year since they beat Lyon to reach the Champions League but that feels like a very long time ago now. Some supporters had already agreed to stage a protest, chanting for their manager to go. Now, they were more convinced than ever.
Then Real Sociedad scored. And again. And again. And again. It finished 4-2 and deservedly so. As the second half progressed, la Real poured forward and Madrid could not stop them. Iker Casillas, wearing the Champions League shirt complete with the dragon on it (is anyone going to tell them about the legend of Saint George?), certainly could not. Iñigo Martínez scored the first, David Zurutuza the second, thumping in a header, and Carlos Vela got the fourth. Before that came the best of the bunch. The third, scored by Zurutuza, was beautifully made by Sergio Canales and Xabi Prieto. Suddenly, the atmosphere changed completely. Failure has not been forgotten, the coach’s shortcomings either, but that could wait for another day.
Madrid had not conceded four to a team other than Barcelona in five years. AS called it “suicide.” As for Real Sociedad, they had not beaten Madrid for more than a decade and it had finished 4-2 then as well. That day Xabi Alonso scored – for Real Sociedad. Yesterday, Alonso was wearing Lederhosen in Bavaria. And while it was opportunistic and perhaps a little cheap and obvious, it was hard not to draw conclusions from that. In his absence and that of Ángel Di María, plus Cristiano Ronaldo – who was rested as he begins a rehabilitation programme designed to get him fully fit for the derby in a fortnight’s time – Madrid had been awful. At the back, they were dreadful, and Casillas inspires panic in his defence. Every ball from the wings in the air was a heart attack.
A week after saying he would not change the system, Ancelotti changed the system, going to a 4-4-2. Madrid lost control and were overrun. The “balance” that obsessed him last season and was largely provided by Di María and Alonso has gone. It is too early to panic of course or reach sweeping conclusions but the talk is already of a collapse that is self-inflicted; that Madrid may have shot themselves in the foot. Have they got weaker, not stronger? When it came time to make changes, the manager threw on Álvaro Arbeloa and Sami Khedira. He could not do much else: on the bench there was just one attacking player, the youth teamer Raúl De Tomás.
Iker Casillas called it “horrible … we have a badge to defend and we can’t so this”. “I don’t like the team playing like that for an hour,” Ancelotti said. If Real Sociedad’s Champions League qualification looks a long way away, Real Madrid’s Champions League success looked even further away last night. It was only 100 days ago.
• And after two games Barcelona are the only team in the league with six points. They eventually found a way through against Villarreal, with Sandro getting the goal. That’s Sandro the player, not Sandro the ex-president. It took a long time and Villarreal had chances, including one against the post, but there were some positive signs from Barcelona; this was actually a pretty impressive performance.
• Aduriz’s wonderful week continued. He scored as Athletic beat Levante 3-0. No player currently playing has scored more headers than him.
• Elche scored a late equaliser and for ‘late’ read, well, ‘late’. It was not quite as bad as last week but Lombán did score at 00.48 on Monday morning.
• “referee If you dont have Medical glasses. Will give you free Medical glasses.” [sic.] Anyone else think the Málaga president Abdullah Al-Thani isn’t impressed with the refs?
Results: Getafe 1-0 Almería, Valencia 3-0 Málaga, Córdoba 1-1 Celta, Athletic 3-0 Levante, Atlético 2-1 Eibar, Espanyol 1-2 Sevilla, Villarreal 0-1 Barcelona, Real Sociedad 4-2 Real Madrid, Deportivo 2-2 Rayo, Elche 1-1 Granada