Its 20.30 on Saturday night and the game starts in fifteen minutes. I’m walking fast through the darkened streets with my earphones and GPS for help, but it’s like one of those nightmares only football nuts ever have, in which you know the game’s about to start but the labyrinthine streets just keep on winding. I ask a likely-looking man if I’m on the right track for Estadio Nuevo Los Carmenes, and to my relief he nods. Unplugged from my mobile we zip through the streets in analogue fashion, and I try to thank him by showing some interest in the game to come. ‘Need to win tonight eh?’ I offer, to which he answers in rapid-fire Andaluz that I’ve hit the nail on the head. ‘We lose tonight and we’re in Segunda’ (2nd Division) he insists, staying ahead of me like some keen urban shepherd. At the top of the narrow street a space opens out and Granada’s newish stadium glows up into the night sky, below which the ants are scurrying to their usual places in the nest. I wish my guide luck, weave through the locals and pass though Gate 4, just as the game kicks off.
No matter how many live matches you’ve attended, walking into a new place always freshens the senses. My live experience of La Liga is northern-biased due to where I’ve settled, and so from time to time I like to head south and take in the sensations. This weekend there are some great games going on, Valencia v Barcelona and Sevilla v Atletico, but I’ve decided to watch the dog-eat-dog relegation struggle between bottom placed Granada and Sporting, two places above them. Granada still haven’t won a game this season, and have their collective tail between their legs after last week’s 7-1 reverse in the Calderon, and Sporting have lost their last 5 games on the trot. So it might get a bit ugly – which is all part of the mix.
First time in a new stadium is always better at night. The shock of white light that greets you exaggerates the details, booms out the colours and creates a hyper-real sheen, like an over-painted kids’ play-pen. Games in the day have their charm, but they flatten the light and merge too many horizons. At a night match everything seems important, as if nothing else exists outside of the stadium. My sightline is good – central and quite low, just above the head-height of the players, close to the pitch. The stadium, built in 1995 in a new residential area to the south of the city, looks steeper and more imposing than on the TV, and the crowd looks a decent one, despite the circumstances. Next week Granada travel to Barcelona so they have to win this one, to get back on track. In their 6th successive season in the top flight, their memory of 3rd Division games as recent as 2006 are motivation enough.
The horizontal patterns on their white-red shirts seem fussy and distracting, and make them look too much like a rugby team. Sporting’s simpler black kit with yellow trim looks sleeker and more confident, and although they do nothing of note for the first half hour, their occasional counter-attacks look well-coordinated, with Burgui on the left side looking tricky. Granada’s problems are obvious, and obliged to take the initiative at home, they find themselves too short on quality to do so. The crowd around me encourage at first, but soon begin to complain. Playing with a ‘double pivot’ of Uche and Angban, coach Lucas Alacaraz has gone for muscle in the middle, mindful of last week’s haemorrhage, but neither player seems capable of setting up a move, or of an imaginative pass.
Alcaraz stands expressionless on the edge of his white boxed square, as if looking contemplatively out to sea. In his third spell with the club where he first cut his managerial teeth in 1995, he is quite well-respected on the Spanish scene, but has managed too many clubs (13) to be taken very seriously – also tending to wear an expression which suggests he is suffering from severe depression. As a motivational tool, it’s questionable. Meanwhile, ex-Barcelona man Abelardo paces in front of me with his bald pate shining in the lights. He wears a natty suit with skinny trousers and black trainers, very much in fashion. As Granada’s initial vim begins to fade, the crowd decide to amuse themselves by baiting him. ‘Por qué llevas los leggings de tu mujer Abelardo?’ (Why are you wearing your wife’s leggings?) hollers a wag two rows below me, but Sporting’s coach continues to agonise and swear, frustrated by his side’s inability to take advantage of the poverty of the opposition.
With so much at stake, it seems curious that both sides are so cautious, and they are rightly booed off the park at half-time. Granada have tried, but no-one stands out, no-one catches the eye, except perhaps Andreas Periera, but he’s been starved of the ball. Sporting look competent enough, but caution’s obviously the word. They need to stop the run of defeats.
The last time I was in Granada, ten years ago in late November, it actually snowed – and although it’s too early for such weather the night is nevertheless chilly and damp, and the rain starts to fall as the teams re-emerge. The clichéd view of sunny Spain continues to fade as the locals who have not come prepared with umbrellas put the substantial match programme onto their heads. The players slip and slide, and things go from bad to worse. Suddenly Granada almost score, but Ivan Cuellar tips the ball over the bar magnificently from Rubén Vezo’s header. In the excitement, my neighbour spills his coke drink onto my seat then apologises profusely, producing a startling array of handkerchiefs and tissues to deal with the issue, as if he were prepared for his own clumsiness.
Alcaraz puts on two more forwards as the game progresses, but it never raises the team’s pace from its torpor. Even with the minutes ticking away, the home side still have five men in defence, with the midfield withdrawn. The crowd by this time is baying for blood, and the rain has dislodged half of the 14,000 crowd anyway. The team seems frozen by its own incompetence and in the 93rd minute almost pay for it when the Croatian Duje Cop misses a chance absurdly, not even connecting with the ball as it bobbles across to the far post and presents him with an open goal. As the referee puts the event to bed, both sides look destined to struggle, but especially Granada. The gulf in quality between them and the rest looks enormous. I’m shocked by how poor they’ve been and tell my coke-spilling neighbour as such. He replies with the classic ‘Es lo que hay’ (that’s what we have) and shuffles off into the night.
La Liga's Chinese-owned clubs Granada and Espanyol started season talking about Europe. Way things started both look relegation candidates— Dermot Corrigan (@dermotmcorrigan) October 22, 2016
The city is still full of tourists and the Alhambra is booked up until February, so the only hotel I could find was on a kind of industrial estate on the other side of town. An hour after the game, wandering into the bar next door, I’m rewarded with the sound of a fantastic young guitarist and a woman flamenco singer, playing for the locals. The woman sings with unfeasible passion, as if someone has just murdered her mother. The local s stomp and clap and it’s easy to see that the act contains precisely the kind of passion that the football team presently lacks.
The next day, in another part of the region, Sevilla will defeat Atlético Madrid 1-0 and go temporarily top of the table, before being dislodged by Alvaro Morata’s late strike in the Bernabéu against Athletic. With Betis bouncing back too with a 2-1 win up at Osasuna, not all is gloom for Spain’s largest autonomous region. Villarreal moved up to 4th and three points still separate the top five sides. It’s all to play for, but Granada are going to have to perform rather better at the Camp Nou next weekend. Perhaps they should take that guitarist and singer along with them.
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