In the wake of the recent passing away of Johan Cruyff, one of the greatest football players of all time and thrice (1971, 1973, 1974) Ballon d’Or winner, many tend to forget that, besides his glorious contributions to Ajax Amsterdam and FC Barcelona and to the Netherlands national team, he left his mark in the humble city of Valencia…possibly in the most humble team of the Spanish League, Levante UD.
His debut at the stadium of Sabadell in March 1981 is not forgotten by football aficionados of the Valencia Region. Many may ask how Johan Cruyff, after leaving the budding NASL soccer league in the United States and before returning to Ajax, chose Levante, albeit for a short spell of 10 games during the 1980-1981 season. He scored two goals bur failed to help the team’s return to first division during that season.
In brief, Cruyff’s stay at Levante UD is a sign of a team which remains an icon in the Spanish football panorama, despite being in the shadow of their great local rivals, Valencia CF. Levante UD was founded ten years earlier (in 1909) than the Blanquinegres and draw a steady flow of unconditional local supporters, yet it remains hidden from the eyes of most foreigners visiting or even living in Valencia.
Levante UD has always been the ‘neighbourhood team’ of the areas close to the Valencia port and the beach. Its appeal is easily felt if one simply takes a stroll down the neighbourhoods of Poblats Marítims (Cabanyal and Malvarrosa), where more often than not, Levante’s blaugrana (blue and red) colours tend to dominate the bars, the social clubs and the terraces. Though a few years ago, the legendary Casinet, one of the social clubs that was a flagship of the granota neighbourhood closed its doors, the levantinistas breathe and live together with their club which, despite currently running its longest-ever stretch in the First Division, at the top flight for the sixth year running, is forever in the limbo between first and second division. Their supporters wear their modesty with pride: “We are the poor, the ugly and the humble, but we never falter”, sums up Pep, the owner of ‘El Puerto’ cafeteria.
It’s not easy to be a ‘granota’ or ‘levantinista’, agrees Ramón, the newsstand man par excellence of the port area, who has been a Levante fan as long as he can remember. The fact is that since Levante returned to first division play in 2010 with the lowest budget that the Liga has ever seen. They have the lowest spending totals on new player signings during those six years, and a minimal income from TV rights compared even to their local rivals. Good management coupled with some lucrative sales (in particular of the Ecuadorian Felipe Caicedo and Keylor Navas from Costa Rica) have kept the Levante boat a oat for longer than anyone can remember. Despite the constant threat of descent into the second division at the beginning of every league season, they have been hanging on since 2010. In the 2012/2013 season, the team achieved the greatest feat in its history by reaching the quarter- finals of the Europa League, playing against the likes of Hannover, Olympiakos, Twente, Helsingborg and Rubin Kazan along the way.
The current Levante stadium, where the team moved from the original grounds by the beach area of La Malvarrosa after its stadium was destroyed during the Civil War, holds less than 25,000 supporters. However, it’s hard to see more than the 10-15,000 regulars during most games, and it is due to tourists and fair-weather Real Madrid, Atlético or Barcelona fans that they fill the stadium for the biggest handful of games for the season, besides the obligatory local derby against Valencia CF. On the other hand, the fans honour the team’s 107- year history by religiously supporting their team, come rain or shine, and while they always hope for the best…they are forever prepared for the worst.
Levante, as this article is going to press, is at the bottom of the league. However, there is still hope: within four points of salvation, Levante is the “best of the last” teams among the major European leagues and it will not be before the 95th minute of the last league game before fans lose hope. As any aficionado of Valencian football, we hope that the great Johan’s memory, who tried to lift the team up 35 years ago, sends the current granota players the winning message from above: play well first and you will win next. Valencia would miss Levante UD from the first division, but rest assured, just like the fishermen and the humble neighbours of the Poblats Marítims, this team will be the last to lose patience, faith and hope in a better and brighter future. It is a history that has been in the writing for 107 years, and remembering the greatest moments during this time gives greater support even in the hardest of times. It is a history that has been more often characterized by the word ‘struggle’ than that of ‘victory’, but sometimes unerring faith in a constant struggle is the greatest victory of all.