La Liga newboys aim to stick around
Fans of three teams in particular will be savouring the imminent start of the 2011/12 La Liga campaign more than most, with Real Betis, Granada and Rayo Vallecano all now back at Spanish football’s top table. And, as some of their key figures told FIFA.com, they have no intention of dropping straight back down.
In Granada’s case, a series of quick-fire promotions have taken them from the Tercera division - the fourth tier of the Spanish game - into the Primera in the space of just five years. This remarkable run brings to an end the Andalusian club’s 35-year absence from the top flight, which goes some way to explaining the wild festivities in the city after promotion was sealed a few short months ago.
“It’s crazy that it’s been 35 years,” the team’s top scorer last season, Alex Geijo, told FIFA.com. “The fans are incredibly excited and enthusiastic and the players are too. I think that passion has been the team’s biggest strength."
Betis back where they belong
For Betis supporters, in contrast, their club’s return to the Primera arguably came as more of a relief than a cause for unbridled joy, with followers of the one-time La Liga and two-time Copa del Rey winners seeing their two years in the Segunda as akin to a spell en el infierno (in hell). Fittingly, the mastermind behind the Seville outfit’s promotion campaign was coach Pepe Mel, a lifelong Bético, who thus repeated a feat he achieved during his playing days at the club.
“I think Betis simply have to be in the Primera,” said Mel, whose team take on fierce city rivals Sevilla in their season opener. “Betis used to receive a warm welcome at every stadium they visited, and we need to try and get that back. This team has a lot of people power. When it comes to the affection people have for us, we’re millionaires, and we need to use that strength as the basis of a solid project."
This promotion, the sixth in their history, also had a special feel to it for Rayo Vallecano, who hail from the working-class neighbourhood of Vallecas in southern Madrid. A key factor in the club's return to the top flight, which was notably achieved on the tightest of budgets, has been the unswerving support of a Rayo faithful that closely identifies with a down-to-earth and close-knit crop of players.
“I said before that this team could go far,” said coach Jose Ramon Sandoval, after sealing first-division status. “And, by all pulling together and making the squad feel like one big family, this is what we’ve achieved.” The heroics of Sandoval’s charges also mean that Rayo, whose compact stadium is nicknamed El Futbolín (the table-football arena), can once again enjoy regular tussles with capital neighbours Real and Atletico.
Avoiding the drop
For all three of these sides, climbing back into the first tier of Spanish football of course brings with it a higher standard of play, greater media interest and the chance to rub shoulders with the biggest stars of the domestic game - all of which makes everyone involved doubly determined to ensure that their stay is a lengthy one.
“Behind Madrid and Barcelona, who are head and shoulders above the rest, and then the likes of Valencia, Sevilla or Athletic [Bilbao], there are ten or 12 very evenly matched teams and we’re aiming to be part of that group,” said Granada coach Fabriciano Gonzalez, under whom the club have leapt from Segunda B to Primera in successive seasons. “We have to keep the team together and make it even stronger. Staying up is vital, it’s just as important as winning promotion,” added Fabri.
On the subject of team strengthening, with just a few days to go before La Liga gets underway, Rayo, Granada and Betis are all busy trying to add players who they believe can help keep them in the top flight. That too presents quite a challenge, given their limited budgets and the lower profile a spell out of the first division has brought.
“It’s very hard to assemble a squad for the Primera,” continued Fabri, whose side’s first game is away to Espanyol, on the biggest obstacle facing Granada during the summer transfer window. “We’ve been out of the top flight for so many years that players aren’t as keen to sign for us as they would be for other clubs."
Though that is not the case for Betis, who as recently as 2005/06 beat Chelsea 1-0 at home in Group G of the UEFA Champions League, they are still to find a replacement for Cameroon’s Achille Emana - a key figure for Los Verdiblancos during his three-season stay. Though the search continues, coach Mel can at least count on promising youngsters such as Ezequiel Calvente. The latter was part of the Spain squad that reached the last eight at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011, while he also became an internet phenomenon after scoring an outrageous penalty against Italy at the UEFA U-19 Championship in 2010.
Rayo, who kick off their Primera campaign at home to Mallorca, will be putting their faith in veteran performers such as Michel and Movilla, both of whom have bags of top-flight experience as well as a deep bond with the club. Another factor in their favour is coach Sandoval’s decision to take his team back to the town of Pozoblanco in Cordoba province, Andalusia, for a pre-season friendly. After doing the same in the summer of 2009 with Rayo’s B team, Sandoval took that side to promotion in 2009/10, before repeating the trick with the senior squad in 2010/11. Surely this can only augur well for 2011/12?
That said, none of the newly promoted trio will be taking anything for granted, though that has not stopped them dreaming of making a splash in La Liga. “I’d be satisfied just to avoid relegation, but if we could finish tenth for example that would be amazing,” concluded Granada sharpshooter Geijo. “We’ve got a really good feeling about this season. We’re going to be the surprise packages of La Liga – or at least I hope so!”