It’s just gone 4:00 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon in a normally sleepy town on the border between the Comunidad de Madrid and Castile-La Mancha. El Álamo lies just inside the former but is far more resemblant of the latter in character with the urban sprawl of the Spanish capital over 30 km away.
Today though is no ordinary day. A short walk from the centre of El Álamo, which is little more than a small high street, loud music is blaring from a temporary fan park and dozens of Spanish football ultras are gearing up for the biggest game of their lives.
Most of them look like they were born around the turn of the century, a time when Club Deportivo El Álamo spent nine consecutive seasons plying their trade in the regional leagues of Spain’s fifth tier. There have been even worse times since when attracting almost anybody to watch the team play at the Estadio Facundo Rivas was a challenge.
With just seven days to go until Christmas 2019 though, green firecrackers (to match the club’s colours) are being lit as the team coach makes the slow approach to their tiny stadium on the outskirts of town to passionate chants from the supporters who had been waiting patiently for it to arrive. On the bus, El Álamo’s players all have their mobiles out and are videoing the noisy, bordering on chaotic scenes outside.
The coach pulls up just metres from the only permanent stand and fans quickly gather on either side of the entrance to welcome each and every player as they step off the bus. El Álamo may now be in the relatively lofty heights (by their standards) of the Tercera División but even at this level, supporters and players are often personal acquaintances if not friends, creating a much tighter bond between the two than you find in the professional ranks.
A few moments later, the coach of top flight RCD Mallorca parks up to a considerably more hostile welcome. Whistles and chants of ‘Puta Mallorca’ greet the visiting players as they step off the bus for a short but somewhat intimidating walk towards the changing rooms with El Álamo’s pumped up ultras within touching distance on either side.
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None of this would have been possible just twelve months ago. The Copa del Rey’s old two-legged format was a tired one with little interest generated in the early rounds of the competition and only twelve lower league sides left by the time top flight clubs entered in the round of 32.
Last season, only one side from outside the top three tiers was still active at that point and by the round of 16, only one team from below the Primera remained. Over 180 minutes and with the home leg to come second offering a nice insurance policy, it was all too easy for the big teams to progress with the format almost specifically geared up so that would be the case.
The Royal Spanish Football Federation have had their critics and made their fair share of gaffs in recent years but they deserve plenty of credit for showing the foresight and courage to radically shake up the Copa del Rey for the 2019-20 campaign.
The early two-legged snooze-fests are gone with all ties to be decided on the night and played at the ground of the team in the lower division upto and including the Quarter Final stage. The door has also been opened for far more smaller teams to compete with the winners of the 20 regional leagues (5th tier) from the 2018-19 season all gaining entry ensuring a whole host of teams would be able to participate in the competition for the very first time.
The 1st Round draw pitted fifteen Tercera División sides against top flight opponents. That’s in contrast to only one such tie last season (Sant Andreu vs Atletico Madrid in the last 32 which Atleti won 5-0 on aggregate). Even on the opening night of the newlook 1st Round, the Copa del Rey saw Real Jaén of the Tercera upset Alavés – the first time in 39 years that a fourth tier side had knocked out a top flight one.
24 hours on, El Álamo had their eyes set on trying to replicate Jaén’s achievement. In many respects, it would be a much greater shock given Real Jaén hail from a relatively large city by comparison and were a Segunda División side as recently as 2013/14.
CD El Álamo meanwhile have never even reached the 80-team Segunda B with the current campaign only the sixth time in their 45 year history that they’ve played as high as the fourth tier. Heading into the clash with Mallorca, almost certainly the biggest game in their history, they sat 13th in Group 7 of the Tercera División, which to put things in some perspective is eight places below the B team of near neighbours Alcorcón.
The club were clearly intent on making the most of their brief moment in the spotlight, even if Wednesday’s Copa del Rey action would inevitably be overshadowed by the rearranged Clásico later in the evening.
The club’s official twitter account, which has just 2,500 followers, was busy sending out humorous GIF’s to just about anybody who interacted with it. In the square opposite the stadium, a small fan park had been set up with a DJ and music so overbearingly loud that the noise echoed a long way down the otherwise quiet streets and away into the fields in the distance. They were also handing out free commemorative scarves to anybody who bought a match ticket, a nice momento for those who’d stuck by the club during the darker times when the thought of La Liga opponents coming to El Álamo for a competitive match would have seemed nothing short of fantasy.
The Esadio Municipal Facundo Rivas only has one proper stand with a view of nothing but green fields in the distance behind one or two temporary structures that had been drafted in for their big cup tie. One of them was housing a very small contingent of Mallorca fans in one corner and the others were close to full with the 1,500 capacity main stand packed to the rafters – some feat given the population of the town is only around 9,000.
El Álamo’s bullring is adjacent to the football stadium and is much larger. That might offer some indication into what kind of place it is. This after all, is the heart of Spain where more traditional values are still prevalent and where nationalist attitudes are more likely to be found. Indeed the club had got into trouble for playing the Marcha Real de Pemán, a Francoist hymn prior to their victory over Pedroñeras in the Copa del Rey preliminary round which secured their historic date with Mallorca.
The club officially put that down to human error however it didn’t escape national media attention, particularly coming around the time of a Spanish general election which saw far-right nationalist party VOX make major gains, especially in the so-called green belt around Madrid with the party winning the most votes in El Álamo itself.
For better or worse, the revamped Copa del Rey was opening a window into the world of rural, small-town Spain. However the overwhelming sensation being given off at the Facundo Rivas as kick-off approached, was that of a small club out to savour every moment of their rare chance to take on top flight opponents and a club that won the whole competition as recently as 2003.
The visitors lined up with an eleven that featured nine changes from their weekend draw with Celta Vigo. Survival on their return to La Liga is clearly the number one priority for Mallorca coach Vicente Moreno although he had named a strong bench featuring the likes of Salva Sevilla and teenage sensation Takefusa Kubo.
A sprinkling of Japanese journalists and supporters had made the trip out to El Álamo clearly hoping to see him in action adding to the slightly surreal feel as the Spanish national anthem was played before the game to a mix of spectators that included fanatical ultras at one end of the main stand and what felt like more part-time followers of the club further along.
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Despite the gulf in class, which was well in excess of 100 places on the Spanish football ladder, the game got off to a relatively even start. Mallorca managed to knock the ball around neatly on the artificial turf at times but a few lively breaks for the hosts got bums off seats and led to the waving and clapping of a variety of green inflatables. This may only have been the 1st Round but it felt like a cup final for El Álamo and their fans who, even allowing for the more inclusive new format, may have to wait several more years before they get the opportunity to participate in the Copa again.
El Álamo’s number nine Elmer Galeano was immediately catching the eye. With pace to burn, he was providing a real test for Mallorca left-back Baba Rahman, sprinting past him on a couple of occasions. He also managed to get a couple of early shots away without seriously testing Fabri in the Mallorca goal.
Former Real Madrid midfielder Aleix Febas was the most active force for the visitors with the majority of their moves going through him at some point but the opening quarter of the game passed without a clearing scoring opportunity at either end of the pitch to the pleasure of the home supporters.
Galeano then produced another solo run down the right before eventually firing a shot away that Fabri could only tip over for a corner. The winger was clearly in the mood to make a name for himself and El Álamo were just starting to really grow in confidence when a ball hoofed over the main stand and into the adjacent plaza brought proceedings to a temporary halt.
Mallorca’s lethargic First Half display stooped to a new low with just five minutes to go in the half when centre-back Xisco Campos bizarrely opted to duck underneath a long punt forward from the El Álamo keeper. That presented the home team’s forward Barri with a glorious chance to open the scoring but he could only sky the ball over the bar from barely more than six yards out.
It prompted Vicente Moreno into an immediate change as Joan Sastre was hauled off for Fran Gámez, a disappointing moment for the 22 year old who was by no means the only one in red to put in a sub-par display in the First Half.
Aleksandar Trajkovski had a swerving long-range effort saved for Mallorca moments later but that was about as good as it got for the visitors in the first period as the teams returned to their dressing rooms with the score level at 0-0. If anything, the fourth tier team had shaded the opening period and they’d certainly had by far the best chance.
You got the sense that Vicente Moreno would have had some stern words to say to his troops at Half-Time. It’s easy to forget that a little over eighteen months previously Mallorca were still playing regularly on grounds not dissimilar to the Facundo Rivas in the Segunda B with their whirlwind rise to the top flight one of the great stories in Spanish football over the past couple of years.
However they clearly hadn’t quite adapted to the unfamiliar surroundings even though a large portion of the squad that won promotion from the third tier in 2017-18 still remains. El Álamo meanwhile looked a pretty organised outfit given their part-time status with just a sprinkling of pace and skill in the final third that suggested they were more than capable of finding a breakthrough at some point in the Second Half.
It was though Mallorca who made the brighter start after the interval. The Balearic islanders quickly forced their best opening of the game to date as some neat interchanges resulted in forward Abdón Prats lofting a ball over the home defence to set up Aleksandar Trajkovski for a clear run on goal. The Macedonian international set himself up neatly with a fine first touch but could only drill the ball low into the side-netting when faced with the advancing Sebastián Rosales in goal for El Álamo.
The hosts responded well, with Galeano again forcing Fabri into a save and El Álamo almost opened the scoring from the resulting corner after a brief scramble developed following more indecision in the Mallorca defensive ranks.
The game was starting to open up and Mallorca soon went close to taking the lead again with Argentine forward Pablo Chavarría firing wide from close range having been well set up by an excellent cross from Trajkovski. Chavarría had the ball in the net shortly after that as he pounced after Rosales parried away a fiercely struck free-kick but the flag was raised and the cheers of the Mallorca fans were short-lived.
The visitors had clearly upped it a few gears after the break but as the clock ticked towards the final fifteen minutes with still no goals for either side, El Álamo remained in with a real chance of causing a huge cup upset.
‘Si, se puede!’ chanted the home fans (‘yes you can!’) and the encouragement seemed to help their players to find a fresh burst of life as they successfully saw off Mallorca’s longest spell of real pressure in the game.
El Álamo were then presented with a golden opportunity to break the deadlock. It came from an expertly placed free-kick delivery from left-back Javi del Val. His cross went deep towards the back post where two players in green had escaped the attention of their markers to leave El Álamo with men queuing up to apply the finish from barely more than three yards out.
The man who made contact with the ball was Elmer Galeano, the standout performer on the pitch and the script seemed to be written for him to write his name into El Álamo folklore forever. The lively winger made a good connection with the ball but his direction was just off and he could only steer the ball agonisingly wide of the post with the Fabri barely even having time to react to make any attempt at a dive.
Gasps of disbelief that the ball had somehow not gone in went up around the stand as Mallorca attempted to regroup following a huge let off. El Álamo were now really finding their stride again and substitute Gonzalo Zamorano went close moments later as he skipped past the challenge of a visiting defender before curling his effort just wide from the edge of the penalty box.
Zamorano was a bag of tricks that Mallorca didn’t seem quite sure how best to handle and he went close again soon afterwards, firing into the side-netting after some neat link-up play down the left hand side with del Val.
Just as it looked as though the top flight side were quite happy to just hang in there for Extra Time with El Álamo having created a string of good chances late in the game, Mallorca managed to squeeze in one final attack and it would prove to be a decisive one.
Trajkovski and Chavarría had momentarily switched positions to leave the latter advancing down the left flank. He whipped in a ball that was hopeful more than menacing but it was awkward for El Álamo centre-back Abraham Contreras to deal with under pressure from Álex Alegría, another of Mallorca’s substitutes who had been brought on to try and break the fourth tier side’s resistance.
Initially it looked as though Alegría had just beaten his man to the ball to bundle in a scarcely deserved winner. The former Betis man wheeled away to somewhat sheepishly celebrate in front of the visiting fans who were jumping for joy in the temporary stand to the left of the goal Mallorca were attacking.
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On closer inspection though, it was Contreras who got the final touch to deceive his own goalkeeper. Cruelly for all connected with those in green, that would prove to be the very final kick of the game as the referee blew up to immediately to bring proceedings to a halt before those in the main stand had even had time to fully digest what had just happened.
That didn’t stop them from quickly breaking out into applause to salute the magnificent efforts of their team who had gone toe to toe with a side of well-paid, top flight professionals for over ninety minutes. Ironically it was just as El Álamo were beginning to really turn the screw and cut open an unconvincing Mallorca defence, that the visitors grabbed their goal, a harsh lesson for the hosts who had certainly enjoyed the rare opportunity to test themselves against far higher quality opponents than they are used to facing.
Some of the players were struggling to hide their disappointment at the manner of their late defeat. Right-back Rubén was literally in floods of tears and had to be consoled by his teammates and a few members of the opposition before they embarked on a lap of honour, or at least a walk the length of the main stand given the lack of home fans behind either goal. A few of the players came over to talk to friends or family members watching on.
After that, the entire team gathered on the pitch directly in front of the ‘ultras’, initially crouching down before suddenly bursting into a chant and bouncing up and down in harmony with the fans that had passionately backed them throughout the game. It was a genuinely special moment that helped highlight just what a huge occasion this had been for El Álamo despite the late heartbreak.
It was a night that none of their players nor supporters will ever forget and it’s a scene that has been loosely replicated in small towns and villages across Spain this week.
Long live the new Copa del Rey.