“We’re treating Mirandes as if they were top-flight opponents.” The words are those of Athletic Bilbao midfielder Ander Herrera, speaking ahead of his side’s Copa del Rey semi-final, first leg against Mirandes this week.
As the statement implies, this is more than just a leading club vowing not to underestimate one from the lower leagues. Mirandes, who currently play in Spain’s Segunda Division B - or third tier - have hit the headlines in recent weeks for their giant-killing antics in the Spanish cup. Top-tier sides Villarreal, Racing Santander and Espanyol have all fallen victim to this modest outfit from Miranda de Ebro, a city of barely 40,000 in the country’s northern province of Burgos.
"We’re the celebrated little town that resisted the siege of the big guns," their coach Carlos Pouso said recently. While still leading the way in Group 2 of their league division, Los Rojinegros have managed to put themselves firmly on the national map, even as Real Madrid and Barcelona hogged the headlines with their Copa del Rey showdown in the other half of the draw.
For now, though, forget about Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi or Andres Iniesta. These days, Spain’s superhero of choice is one Pablo Infante. And just like a host of comic-book icons, the Mirandes captain leads a double life. At 31, the forward is the only non-professional in his side’s ranks and will not be found at the club’s training ground during office hours. That is because Infante works as a bank manager by day, only to emerge as a model footballer by night.
After scoring a stunning goal against Espanyol in the first leg of their quarter-final in Barcelona, Infante had to skip the post-match meal and overnight stay in order to be at work at 8am the following morning. Shortly after the final whistle, the skipper, accompanied by a few friends, made the 600km drive home, before grabbing a few hours sleep and opening his branch at 8am the next morning. After all, who wants to risk their day job in such difficult times as these?
“I’m no idol; the whole team are the heroes,” said the player who commutes 100km daily to his bank recently. "We all run, fight and struggle together."
Unsurprisingly, his place of work has seen a large increase in visitors of late, with most of them journalists, not clients. “Since I scored those goals in the Copa, we’ve had a lot more customers coming to the bank, and all wanting to chat about the football. It’s been a great few days and we're enjoying the moment,” he added with a humility at odds with his status as leading scorer in this season’s Copa del Rey (seven goals) and his league championship (nine).
After eight hours at his branch, he still has the energy to join his team-mates for training because, while he may not earn his living from football, right now he cannot live without it. Even on the day of the Athletic match, Infante will not vary his routine and plans to work a normal shift before driving home to join up with the rest of the squad for their opening skirmish against Marcelo Bielsa’s side.
“The odds may be 99 per cent in their favour, but we have hope and desire and won’t stop battling,” said Infante, who made little attempt to hide the significance of the trip to the Estadio San Mames. “Everything is happening so quickly that there doesn’t seem to be time to take it all in. I imagine that, when we look back in years to come, we’ll come to realise how special it was to play in a Copa semi-final.”
A family atmosphere
So just how have this club from Spain’s third tier managed to punch so much above their weight? Speaking in the build-up to the semi-final, Infante’s team-mate Cesar Caneda told reporters: "We’ve worked really hard to get this far. No-one has gifted us anything.
"We greet each success like anyone would: by trying to enjoy the moment in the knowledge that we’ll have difficult times as well. We’re aware that we’re doing something really good, but our goal is to gain promotion to the second division. I think we can achieve that because we’re a tight-knit group, like a family."
Club President Ramiro Revuelta also spoke recently about the familial spirit and work ethic at the heart of Mirandes: “Our sole virtue is hard work, both on the playing and administration side of things. We live within our means, which allows us to pay our players and staff on time. Moreover, we have a squad and a fan base that are more like a family. We’re all very proud of what we are.”
Though it may be a simple formula, the club’s ethos is nonetheless a rare one in the modern game. Its humility is exemplified by Infante in his response to the massive media exposure in recent weeks. Asked about the possibility of a big-money transfer, the captain laughed before remarking: “I still have my feet on the ground and am happy here at Mirandes.”
His stated aim now is to keep on kissing the club’s badge. And given that this is Infante’s way of celebrating his goals, that can only be good news for Mirandes and their supporters.