The earth moves under Valladolid's feet to spoil big night against Barça

Shambolic pitch and an equaliser ruled out by VAR put a dampener on the club’s first home game back in La Liga

Real Valladolid’s big night had almost arrived but the pitch hadn’t. The first delivery, from down the road in Ávila, was no good and got sent back; the second was loaded on to trucks in Portugal only for someone to steal the petrol from their tanks, or so they said; and it was Thursday by the time the final strips of turf were rolled out, all-too-briefly covering the 105m by 68m space that had stood bare since promotion. By then, there were just two days to go before the José Zorrilla staged a first division game for the first time in four years. Their return had been a bit of a miracle; now they needed another.

They didn’t get it.

This was going to be a “party”, one paper said – a “debut among the stars” El Norte de Castilla called it – and queues for tickets built outside, while season ticket sales went past 20,000. Last season had begun against Barcelona B; this season, at home at least, began against the actual Barcelona. There could be no better barometer that they were back. “It’s like going from racing a Mini to racing a Ferrari,” said Diario de Valladolid, who added, a little more prophetically than they intended: “Let’s hope they don’t skid off at the first corner.” As it turned out, pretty much everyone skidded at pretty much every corner – and pretty much everywhere in between too.

Valladolid’s new first division pitch had only been in place two days; within two minutes, it was all over the place. One local paper had optimistically declared the pitch ready but it wasn’t. The youth team played on it on Thursday, a test run that worried them, but there wasn’t much they could do now, except hope it would hold. Instead, chunks of turf came up everywhere: not divots, but entire strips of pitch. One picture of Jordi Alba lifting the pitch looks like he’s retrieving a door key from under the mat. With almost every turn it ripped and with almost every shot, it tore, ending up looking like the baize after some pillock had got drunk and played snooker with a javelin, a crazy golf course with grassy knolls everywhere. With every step, the earth moved, players turned into passengers standing in the bit between carriages.

Jordi Alba
Jordi Alba tries in vain to replace another chunk of loose turf. Photograph: Sergio Perez/Reuters

It was hard enough to stand, let alone score. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t fun; it was. And for Valladolid, it was almost fantastic too. Amidst it all, Ousmane Dembélé gave Barcelona the lead 10 minutes into the second half – “the lethal gardener,” AS called him – but it wasn’t over yet. The clock showed 91.54 – or it would have done if it wasn’t for the fact they’re not allowed to show anything after 90.00, because fans can’t be trusted to know the time – when Valladolid’s Keko Gontán scored the equaliser. He screamed, tore off his shirt and ran up hill, down hill and up hill again and all the way to the corner, where ball boys bundled in with teammates.

The problem was that over on the other side of the pitch the linesman’s flag was up while, a little nearer, the referee’s finger was in his ear. With his other hand, he shushed the players heading towards him. As Valladolid’s players leapt around in the corner, Ricardo de Burgos Bengoechea listened to the men in a little room in Las Rozas, 187km south. In total it took a minute and a half but from VAR HQ, they confirmed what the linesman thought: that Keko, grinning now, shaking his head, the realisation dawning on him, maybe even feeling a little silly, was offside. The celebration ended, and so soon did the game. Valladolid’s equaliser vanished, their moment gone. Their night ended in defeat. “VAR saves Barcelona,” cried the cover of Marca, which it hadn’t, but Valladolid had been close. And not just then, either. “We deserved it,” the coach Sergio Fernández said.

A former Espanyol player, Sergio took over Valladolid with only eight games left last season. In late April, they were 11th in the second division and promotion wasn’t even a possibility but he changed everything – the mentality, above all. “We were on edge, there was a mental block,” Javi Moyano told El País. Sergio, a Rocky fan, started blasting out Eye of the Tiger before games and sought to convince his players they were actually quite good. Quickly, they saw that he was right: a weight had been lifted and they had take-off, beating Oviedo, Cádiz, Numancia, Albacete, Lorca and Osasuna. One defeat and six wins in seven league games took them to the play-offs, where they won four out of four – against Sporting and Numancia – and then, suddenly, unexpectedly, they were back.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, and late. It was 16 June by the time they were promoted. Ten days later, they signed their first player – the last primera team to move in the market. They couldn’t move much, either; they still have to service a debt with inland revenue and work began on the stadium, not just on the pitch. Getafe came and took Jaime Mata from them: last season he scored 35 goals and provided seven assists, so it was some loss. Of their nine signings, five are on loan. Enes Ünal is the latest to join, only a week ago. Their budget is the smallest in the top flight. And here they were facing Barcelona, a club with a budget 20 times theirs and with as many titles in the last month as they have in 90 years.

Real Valladolid
Keko Gontan of Real Valladolid celebrates but his goal was disallowed after a VAR review. Photograph: Soccrates Images/Getty Images

Facing Barcelona and playing well too – prepared to go at them, accumulating only one shot fewer – and then almost getting the equalising goal they felt they deserved. “We enjoyed a day with the best,” Toni Villa said. Ultimately, though, they had lost. When it came down to it what they had done was not the focus; it was what they had failed to do. In the end, it was all about the pitch. “I’ve not seen anything like it for a long time,” said Ernesto Valverde. Gerard Piqué called it a “disgrace”. He added: “It was lucky no one got injured.” Marca called it a “minefield”.

Valladolid’s big night wasn’t supposed to be like this. Playing Barcelona drew attention to them, but this wasn’t the attention they sought and they knew they could not escape the blame. Up in the directors’ box, the president Carlos Suárez looked on sadly. He explained what had happened from the beginning: how Valladolid had replaced the playing surface, drainage and all – the previous system dates from the 1982 World Cup – and how they had replaced the training pitches before doing the main pitch. He explained, and accepted that it all happened far, far too late. “We never thought it would be this bad,” he admitted. “If we get a fine, it will be fair.”

They will, too: the president of the league, Javier Tebas, said that disciplinary proceedings would begin.

Sergio Busquets complained that no one from the league had checked the pitch. He and his teammates took the opportunity to lay into plans to take a game to Miami, likely to be Girona-Barcelona. If that was a curious argument – after all, there are plenty of reasons not to do it but one thing the United States might be able to do better is provide a decent pitch – you could see the point. “In this grandiose league, where there’s talk of going to the US, we should start with first things first: making sure our pitches are in good condition,” Valverde said.

As for Sergio, he couldn’t defend the pitch but he did defend his players, keen not to let all the talk of turf turn attention from what his team had done, taking the club back to the first division and taking on Barcelona too. “We were the last team to come up and we had problems being ready in time; we did all we could,” Valladolid’s manager said. “No one wanted the pitch to be like that. It seems like they’re footballers and we’re farmers, but we’re footballers too.”

Getafe 2–0 Eibar, Leganés 2–2 Real Sociedad, Alavés 0–0 Betis, Atlético 1–0 Rayo, Valladolid 0–1 Barcelona, Espanyol 2–0 Valencia, Sevilla 0–0 Villarreal, Girona 1–4 Real Madrid. Monday: Levante-Celta, Athletic-Huesca.

Talking points

• 1-0. From a corner. Antoine Greizmann scores, Jan Oblak saves. It’s Atlético Madrid. “Don’t let them distract you with sweet words in your ear,” Diego Simeone told fans.

• Friday night, Butarque party. Super Cucumber made his debut and Leganés produced arguably the game of the week with a deserved comeback against Real Sociedad, led by El Zhar. Mind you, Sevilla-Villarreal was also good, despite the score. And could it be that Espanyol will be too? They certainly impressed against Valencia.

• Girona led against Real Madrid but two penalties – one dumb, the other dumber – gave them a way back into the game and ultimately they were impressive, led by Marco Asensio, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale.