- The 90th season of La Liga kicks off under the shadow of COVID-19
- Captains of newly promoted Elche and Cadiz are preparing for a special campaign
- FIFA.com spoke to the veteran pair about the exciting challenges ahead
They have been playing for no fewer than 22 seasons, are in their 40s, wear the captain’s armband, and are in great form. Both have experienced an almost consecutive double promotion from the Segunda Division B – the third tier of Spanish football – to La Liga. And though they thought they had seen it all before, fate appears to have reserved the best for last.
That's because the new Liga season, which begins this Saturday, will not only boast the skills of Lionel Messi once again, but also Elche’s Nino and Cadiz’s Alberto Cifuentes.
Nino, a diminutive forward and one of the second division’s greatest-ever goalscorers, will finally get the opportunity to play in the top flight for Elche, who have returned to La Liga via a hard-fought and tumultuous promotion campaign.
As for Cadiz goalkeeper Cifuentes, he will have the chance to make his top-tier debut at the age of 41 for a club that is making a historic return to this level, bringing great joy to a fanbase – one of Spain’s most loyal and raucous – that has endured 15 years of heartache.
FIFA.com spoke to both players about the upcoming season.
|QUICK FACTS||NINO||ALBERTO CIFUENTES|
|Position | Age||Striker | 40||Goalkeeper | 41|
|Matches | Goals||748 | 232||578|
|Top flight experience||Has played for Levante, Tenerife and Osasuna||Was part of Mallorca squad, but didn't make an appearance|
|Second tier experience||15 seasons, 10 with Elche||11 seasons, 4 with Cadiz|
|Third tier experience||2 seaons with Elche||6 seasons, 1 with Cadiz|
|Trivia||He is the all-time time top scorer in the Segunda (242 goals) and for Elche (132)||Before signing for Cadiz, he played in Poland for a season|
Cifuentes, who, unlike Nino, has never played in the Primera Division, has spent weeks “dreaming like a little kid”, and with just a few days to go before a potential Liga debut, he is still intrigued at the prospect. “Let’s see if it happens,” he said, laughing. “It’s something I’ve set my sights on my entire career and it shows that, no matter what age you are, you can still accomplish major goals in sport.” Cadiz play their opening match against Osasuna on Saturday.
Elche, meanwhile, will have to wait a couple more weekends due to the asymmetrical schedule implemented as a result of COVID-19. Promotion hero Nino, who scored the late goal that qualified his team for the Segunda Division play-off final, is looking forward to what promises to be a memorable season. “I’ve played for this team at almost every level, and I’ve always wanted to pull on this jersey in La Liga, so it’s a really nice moment,” he explained. “It’s going to be special and emotional, because it’s taken quite a lot to get here.”
Battle to survive
While Real Madrid and Barcelona will again lock horns for the Spanish title, and Atletico, Sevilla and Co will attempt to gatecrash the party, the ‘battle’ that Elche and Cadiz will be focusing on is avoiding relegation. And they know that it will be extremely competitive. “The newly promoted teams have to adapt, and that’s not easy,” said Nino.
Under ‘normal’ circumstances, strong home form is always key, but with uncertainty surrounding the question of when supporters will return to stadiums, the encounters are likely to be very open. “Since games started being played behind closed doors due to the pandemic, there have been a lot of wins away from home, but hopefully we’ll see fans back in stadiums sometime soon,” said Cifuentes.
What is clear to both captains is that some tough skirmishes lie ahead, and that their teams’ collective strength will be critical. “We’ll only be able to achieve our goals if we’re united,” said Nino. “We have to band together, accept it might be a rough ride, and grit our teeth.”
Cifuentes added: “We have an excellent squad of players – they’re extremely hard-working, full of fighting spirit, and supportive of one another.”
Messi, La Liga leader
Lionel Messi has announced that he will stay in Barcelona for another year, and it is likely he will once again occupy top billing wherever he goes. As far as the two veteran captains are concerned, is that an appealing or frightening prospect? Nino, who has previously suffered at the hands of the gifted Argentinian, prefers to take a humorous approach to the question. “From the bottom of my heart, I wouldn’t have minded if he’d left,” he joked.
The Cadiz shot-stopper’s response reveals a more optimistic outlook. “I would love to be able to say that I played against him and his Barça side, because it would be a real career highlight. And with a bit of luck, I’d stop him and help us to pocket the points!”
As the interview draws to a close, there is one question that remains to be asked: what is the secret to maintaining an impressive professional football career lasting over two decades? Nino and Cifuentes both agree that a sustained fervour for the beautiful game is absolutely crucial.
“It takes a lot longer to recover after matches now, but with experience you can make up for what you lose physically,” noted the Elche skipper. “The secret isn’t the hyperbaric chamber, that’s for sure (laughs). The secret is the passion and the excitement to continue playing this sport.” Cifuentes concluded: “At the end of the day, what’s important is your mindset, and what keeps you going is your enthusiasm.”
Both players will need to display all the enthusiasm they possess on the pitch this season if they are to successfully negotiate the many challenges that await in La Liga.
La Liga: Did you know?
- Asymmetrical start: Changes to the calendar brought about by COVID-19 during last term have resulted in teams kicking off this season on different dates: Sevilla, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Elche will start on Matchday 3, while Real Madrid and Getafe will begin their campaigns on Matchday 2. The postponed matches will be played during the season, and the final matchday will take place on 23 May.
- Matches at Christmas: Unlike the English Premier League, it is not customary to play at Christmas time in Spain, but that will all change this year in order to fit in all the fixtures.
- New arrivals: Huesca, Cadiz and Elche are the three promoted newcomers this year.
- Mainstays: There are just three teams that have only ever played in La Liga and have never been relegated: Real Madrid, Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao.
- Real and Barça domination: It has been six seasons since the last time a team – Atletico Madrid – broke the Real Madrid-Barcelona duopoly. Will any other side pull off a major surprise this year?