Madder Than A Box Of Frogs. Olé!
Levante 1-2 Real Zaragoza (21:05:11)
It's a path I've worn many times before, but not too much quickens my pulse more than a walk to a new foreign field. You simply can't beat a journey into the European football unknown, blissfully unaware as to what lies around the next corner. In this instance it turned out to be thousands of Real Zaragoza fans climbing lampposts, buildings, and dancing and singing in the streets, together with one Levante fan, looking resplendent with 20 or more frogs tied around his neck. I was back in Spain for another European Football Weekend. Olé.
Away supporters? In Spain? Whatever next? This must have been a special occasion. It was. Real Zaragoza were one of six clubs all of whom could be relegated on this, the last round of La Liga matches. Spanish fans don't get out of bed for nothing, but these ones from Zaragoza not only got out of theirs, they moved them outside the Estadio de La Romareda, and camped out all night for tickets. 3,500 were snapped up quicker than the Argos catalogue, then the Blanquillos President, Agapito Iglesias - previous hobby: collecting scandals - intervened and secured another 1,000. These also went like hot cakes, and thus their usual away following of around a hundred quickly turned into four and half thousand. Olé.
Palm down lads.
Reclaiming the streets, and climbing lampposts, tick.
As usual, the Spanish FA and television companies couldn't give two hoots about those fans. For no other reason other than to cause maximum inconvenience to all concerned, they scheduled this match just 6 (six) days beforehand, and with a slightly ridiculous - for this time of year - kick off time of 10pm. A Real pain in the culo for those Zaragoza supporters, slightly appeased by the fact the club laid on a fleet of over 100 coaches, many of them for free, to ferry them nearly four hours down to the Mediterranean coast. Olé.
Eight hours before the game, and things were seemingly a lot more tranquil as I rowed my wife across the wide freshwater lagoon of La Albufera, just south of Valencia, in a beautiful pea green boat - earning a golden pass to the football in the process. It might seem obvious to recommend the quaffing of paella in Spain, but here, in and around Valencia, really is the place to sample such foodie heaven. After my Sir Steve Redgrave-bit, we settled down for a traditionally elongated afternoon of the finest food and beer known to man. Cheap as chips as well, only better than chips (better than chips!). Olé.
From the calm waters of the La Alburfera we made a beeline to the Las Arenas beach, Valencia which was awash with thousands of Maños - the word for people from the Aragon region; famous for being friendly, honest and noble. Not bad characteristics to have attributed to you - in full on party mode. A real carnival atmosphere was developing, similar to a cup final. This was their cup final. Let's face it, only two teams can ever win La Liga, so staying up by the skin of your teeth on the last day of the season is as good as gets for most sets of fans. Erm...I've started this thing now so.....Olé.
In response to the endless songs echoing around the beach, some local bar owners belted out versions of the local traditional fiesta song: Paquito el Chocolatero. I've danced to this before, and it gets very messy. It got very messy. Good fun though. Olé.
After a quick and very noisy tram ride it was time to accelerate the pre-match drinking in the surrounding streets of the Estadi Ciutat de València. There was a little bit of silliness - with glasses and bottles of beer being thrown and fans trying to stop traffic - but this was nipped in the bud early doors by a large police presence. One of the bar owners told me that fans had been knocking back the beers since 10am. I did a quick sum in my head and concluded, several minutes later, that would have been a 12 (twelve) hour pre-match. Impressive. Olé.
I could have parked here if it wasn't for you meddling kids
Waiting for the team bus
Hero worship, and look, a woman peeking out of her office window (top right)
Eight paragraphs into this report and I'm finally at the stadium. To be met by chaotic scenes. There were fans in every nook and cranny. It quickly became very clear that even though they'd officially sold 4,500 tickets, many more had travelled. Segregation? Forget it. The Spanish press reported the next day that in excess of 9,000 Real Zaragoza fans were in the stadium. With queues snaking around the block, I was thankful to be ushered through a magic door where I collected my press pass and took up my seat directly behind the Levante bench. Olé.
Behind me in the main stand thick plumes of cigar smoke filled the night air as the Levante fans celebrated another astonishingly successful season. "Plucky little" Levante (nod to The Fiver) have the lowest average support in the division, the smallest budget, sign players for nought pence, and were described by influential skipper and local hero Sergio Ballesteros as being a "miracle of construction on the cheap". And yet, defying all sorts of logic, and proving for once that money isn't the be all and end all of football, they'd comfortably survived another season in Spain's top flight. Olé.
There were frogs (frogs!) everywhere. The home fans wore them with pride around their necks. I now know that Granotes, the club nickname of Levante UD, is the Valencian word for frogs. This lucky charm is exactly the reason that these particular Granotes are jumping up La Liga. They've got, ahem, more ribbit than Sainsbury's. In conclusion, not nearly enough football fans go to matches with amphibians tied around their neck. Danny likes this. Olé.
More ribbit than Sainsbury's
Dear stadium announcers of Europe, when there are fans inside your ground, all of whom are singing their hearts out like there is no tomorrow, wind your neck in, put your head back in the clouds and shut your mouth. And switch off the Black Eyed Peas whilst you're about it. In fact, never put them on your turntable again. Enough is enough. Twenty thousand football fans in full voice in your stadium is all we need to hear. It's all we want to hear. So, callate la boca. Kind regards, Danny. P.S. Olé.
A loss would see the end of Real Zaragoza as we know it. Maybe for good. They're €90m in debt, were more so before they flogged off their training ground, and are a club full to the brim with internal strife, not to mention administrators knocking on their door every two minutes. That was why only 75% of Real Zaragoza fans' songs were in support of their club. 20% of them were anti-Agapito [President] ditties: "hijo de puta" and just for good measure, and because beer had been taken, the remaining 5% concerned themselves with insulting hated rivals, Osasuna. Olé.
Great support, and the deepest goal-nets in Europe
Real Zaragoza fans were everywhere you looked
And a few Levante
The game kicked off. Olé.
It quickly became clear that the home side weren't too bothered about putting in their best performance of the season. Real Zaragoza dominated the game, but for a side that hadn't won in this stadium since 1964/65 - yes, I got a free match programme, well spotted - this wasn't going to be an easy ask. But cometh the hour, cometh the skipper. Gabi chose this game to become an Aragon legend. For his first trick he knocked in a textbook free-kick with his right boot. For his second, he crashed a shot into the roof of the net from outside the box with his left. Real Zaragoza had itself a new superhero. Just reward for those fans who had painted the town blue and white. Perfecto. Olé.
Not quite in the script was Levante pulling a goal back towards the end. Cristian Stuani looked almost embarrassed as he glanced in a header to shred a few more Aragonese nerve ends. But apologies accepted, the teams played out the final 11 minutes and the biggest party in town was about to start. Olé.
For hours after the final whistle, bedlam ensued. You know the deal in Spain: flags out of sun roofs, beeping horns and, fittingly for Valencia; swirls of fireworks, explosions of noise and fire. Olé.
It was so tight at the bottom that, incredibly, from starting "relegation Saturday" third from bottom, Real Zaragoza actually finished in 13th place. They only just missed out on a Europa League spot for crying out loud. Deportivo La Coruna ended up filling the last available spot, thus ending a twenty year spell in the top flight. They had failed to score in 21 of their 38 games, and so probably deserved to go down. That sounds boring, this EFW was anything but. It was madder than a box of frogs. I loved it. Altogether now....Olé.
You could hear the noise in Croak (sic) Park, Dublin
My hero. Rafa Jorda + Rafa Jorda's biggest fan*. *I was secretly very smug with this photo
Peep peep. We've done it. A pitch invasion (by journalists, not fans) greets the final whistle and Real Zaragoza players celebrate with around 10,000 of their supporters. Just. Like. Heaven.
Like this? Try out visit to Sporting Gijon for size.
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