LLE on the Road – Friday Night with the Cucumber Growers

The match experience at Butarque

Spain boasts some spectacularly set football stadiums. The best include Depor’s Riazor, located practically on the beach in La Coruña and Athletic’s imposing San Mames in the heart of Bilbao’s revitalised centre within walking distance of the iconic Guggenheim Museum. However it’s fairly safe to say that the home of Club Deportivo Leganés doesn’t quite fall into the same category.

Zarzaquemada is a typical suburban train station. This being a Friday evening, it is being inhabited by groups of teenagers while commuters are heading home to celebrate the start of the weekend. The C5 cercanias line connects central Madrid with two of the Spanish capital’s many Southern satellite cities. Most travellers stay on board with Leganes’ main station the next stop while others will continue on to Fuenlabrada.

Neither town has much to brag about and both are pretty far removed from the itineraries of visitors to Madrid. Once you’re through the barriers at Zarzaquemada station, the bright lights of a LIDL supermarket is the first thing that catches the eye but look left and the tall floodlights of Butarque are impossible to miss, particularly on match day.

There aren’t many other people heading that way though. In truth there’s no reason why anyone from outside of the town would follow CD Leganes. Even getting locals to support the team has been challenging enough. The club has spent almost its entire history operating in the lower leagues and were in the Spanish third tier as recently as 2014. With two European giants on their doorstep and the relatively poor area of South Madrid largely regarded as Atleti’s backyard, most home games, even as recently as five years ago, would only attract crowds of a few thousand despite Leganes holding a population of close to 200,000.

Fast forward to a cold November evening in 2018, and there would certainly be more than that tonight with Leganes now into their third season as a top flight club and Butarque regularly getting close to its capacity of just over 12,000. The club has energised a town that like many of its neighbours in the commuter belt to the South of the Spanish capital, is perhaps best described as unremarkable.

The walk to the stadium is a pleasant enough 15 minute stroll through a small park but it’s only once you reach the crossing for a busy highway that dissects the town that any air of a match day buzz is tangible. Butarque is only really located on the fringes of Leganes, let alone Madrid, further adding to its suburban feel but many fans still walk to the stadium while it’s one of the few top flight venues where you can simply drive up and park virtually right next to the turnstiles on one side of the ground. Those approaching on foot, must first cross the M-425 which runs underneath a railway bridge bearing the town’s name and from there it’s a short, sharp walk uphill past another supermarket to the main stand.

In the lower leagues, stadium refurbishments or even maintenance falls to the bottom of the priority list for many broke second or third tier sides but this being Leganes’ third season in the top flight, it’s clear they’ve managed to find a bit of extra cash for some basic upgrades. A club crest and some illuminated lettering reading ‘BUTARQUE’ and ‘CDLEGANES’ has recently been added to the top of the main entrance to provide a welcome facelift. Otherwise the outer facade of the ground is about as bland as it gets, consisting essentially of a large, cream-coloured wall that encircles the whole stadium. If it wasn’t for the enormous floodlights, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was just another warehouse or an extension of the soulless shopping centre that lies a hundred metres or so away.

The wall may have been spruced up marginally by a lick of Primera Division paint but the small-time feel to the place is unmistakable and certainly adds a little to its charm. Match tickets for the evening’s game with Alaves are being sold within the confines of the tiny club shop. Black Friday deals on the very limited selection of goods on offer aren’t helping the queue move any faster nor is the slightly outdated process of tickets being retrieved from envelopes rather than printed off.

It’s a short walk around to the entrance for the Fondo Norte, home of Leganes’ most passionate followers. There are a handful of Alaves supporters also making their way to the away entrances although with the two clubs wearing almost identical blue and white strips and most club colours obscured by coats and jumpers, it’s relatively hard to tell the two sets of fans apart. In ordinary circumstances, you’d expect little more than a handful of Alaves fans to make the trip down from the Basque Country for a Friday night game. However with the Vitoria side enjoying a fine start to the season, those numbers looked to have swelled slightly with Alaves knowing a win would send them top of La Liga.

With wins over the likes of Real Madrid and Villarreal under their belts, Alaves had been continuing to perform miracles under Abelardo. He was now almost a year into his reign and remarkably his side boasted the 4th best record in La Liga over that time period, some going for a team that looked on course for relegation when he took over. Leganes meanwhile found themselves down the bottom but with the chance to move out of the relegation if they could claim just their third victory of the season.

Outside a man that must have been pushing 70 was doing his best to sell his seat, a fairly common sight at Spanish football grounds with high individual ticket pricing but cheap season tickets the main factor. Despite the importance of the game he didn’t seem to be having much luck and while the stakes may have been high, it wasn’t a fixture to really set the pulses racing with two of the Spanish top flight’s more direct teams meeting.

The atmosphere was starting to build and Butarque suddenly seemed to have a bit more character to it, once the odd perimeter wall had been breached. The intense smell of grilled pork immediately greets you with the heat of the stove also a welcome relief from what was turning into a very cold evening. The ‘lomo bocadillos’ are a particular highlight of trips to Butarque and on a clear night like this with a full moon in the sky, it suddenly seemed like not such a bad setting for a kickabout.

Butarque experience

After all the usual pre-game pleasantries and of course the traditional club anthem, play finally got underway, if only to be quickly halted by a foul from Alaves striker Jonathan Calleri, the 25 year old curiously still owned by Uruguayan second tier side Deportivo Maldonado despite a stint of loan spells in Europe.

It would prove a sign of things to come as somewhat predictably a scrappy game developed between the two sides with the lowest average possession figures in La Liga. Alaves were attempting a slightly more intricate approach but their efforts to get the ball wide to in-form wingers Ibai Gomez and Jony, were mostly thwarted by a big, bruising Leganes side.

The hosts were clearly content to knock it long with almost everything going through Guido Carrillo. The Argentine target-man was impressing with his hold-up play and was winning virtually everything in the air as a match that at times felt more like a British lower league game started to take shape.

Despite a couple of early wayward efforts from Alaves, it was Carrillo who had the first real opening, heading just wide from full-back Allan Nyom’s cross. There was a hairy moment for Alaves keeper Fernando Pacheco too as he nearly carried the ball over his own goal line whilst gathering a cross from the left but the opening half hour or so presented little in the way of clear openings at either end of the pitch.

Spanish football ultras

In the stands, things were marginally livelier, at least in the Fondo Norte. It felt like a bit of throwback to a bygone era with the cold, smoky, boisterous terrace full of young men, bad language if not much in the way of singing besides a packed section dubbed ‘Ghetto 28’ where the Leganes ‘Ultras’ were clearly congregated. It all made Leganes’ bizarre nickname of ‘Los Pepineros’ (The Cucumber Growers) seem all the more ridiculous and the hardcore lot seemed a lot more content with waving flags and berating the referee than growing fruit and vegetables. At the other end there were perhaps 100 Alaves supporters nestled in one corner but in truth their team weren’t playing anything like a side befitting of their league position.

Despite operating with a cautious 5 man defence, Leganes looked the more purposeful side going forward. Mauricio Pellegrino, who was facing Alaves for the first time since leaving the Basque club to join Southampton, was clearly content to persist with getting balls into the box at pretty much the first opportunity with the visitors increasingly struggling to deal with the threat of both Carrillo and Youssef En-Nesyri, another tall centre-forward.

Leganes were beginning to be a bit bolder in terms of committing their full-backs forward too and with 42 minutes on the clock they were rewarded. A deep centre from Nyom on the right was expertly retrieved by left-back Jonathan Silva. The Sporting loanee managed to cut the ball back for En-Nesyri, whose drilled effort into the ground was too hot for Pacheco to handle. The Moroccan wheeled away to celebrate in front of the Lega fans and while the game hardly merited a goal, Leganes was certainly better value for it.

By the time the Second Half rolled around, temperatures seemed to have plunged even further with the open, exposed nature of Butarque hardly helping matters. At least the rain had subsided after a rare wet week in the Spanish capital and the lights of the skyscrapers in the Cuatro Torres area on completely the other side of Madrid were visible in the distance from the top of the Fondo Norte.

Perched on a hill, Butarque isn’t a bad spot for a panoramic view of large chunks of Madrid but there was little sign of the quality of the football on show improving. Alaves were almost gifted an equaliser when Andriy Lunin, making his first start in the Leganes goal was nearly caught in possession. It was a nervy moment for the highly rated Ukrainian teenager, currently on loan at Butarque from Real Madrid.

However if anything Leganes’ sense of superiority was growing and Alaves were looking short on ideas as to how to get back into the game. En-Nesyri and midfielder Mikel Vesga had further efforts for the hosts and as the clock ticked past the hour mark, Abelardo opted to roll the dice by throwing on two attacking players in the shape of Borja Baston and Burgui.

It wasn’t until the final fifteen minutes though that Alaves finally started to exert some pressure as Leganes dropped deep to protect their lead. A series of Alaves set-pieces added to the tension around Butarque but perhaps resigned to their aerial disadvantage, the visitors focused on trying to set up Ibai Gomez for long-range strikes on goal rather than delivering crosses into the box, a strategy that had previously served them well in other games.

Leganes in action against Alaves

Ibai Gomez had Alaves’ first attempt of the Second Half in the 83rd minute as his deflected effort flew just over for another corner for the away team. The former Athletic man let fly again from range shortly afterwards but again his clean strike was just too high with Lunin able to safely watch it over the bar. Leganes by this time had well and truly shut up shop with Javier Eraso coming on to bolster the midfield and there was an edgy feel to some of their defending in the closing moments with the finish line in sight.

A lone voice in the Fondo Norte was bellowing out shouts of ‘A Getafe!’ in reference to the nearby town, home of Leganes’ main South Madrid rivals – essentially Leganese for ‘Clear it!’. While the ball didn’t quite reach the Coliseum Alfonso Pérez, it went far enough away from the Leganes goal for the hosts to claim a valuable and deserved three points.

It moved Los Pepineros out of the drop-zone and was the perfect start to the weekend for the Lega faithful, who were pretty quick to make their escape in search of somewhere warmer to spend what remained of their Friday nights. For Alaves, it was a minor setback in an otherwise brilliant 2018. They would end the weekend still in the top four but with nothing to show from their trip to Butarque, in many ways the Primera Division’s oddest stage but one with more soul and character than immediately meets the eye.


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Spanish football writer
About Mark Sochon 1602 Articles
Mark is a freelance writer based in Madrid. He has also lived in Seville and Barcelona and has written extensively about Spanish football. His work has been published by the likes of Guardian Sport & World Soccer.

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