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Pink, Proud And Scoring

5 minute read
ROD USHER / Madrid

Trivia test: 1) where is the Mendizorroza Stadium (bonus points if you can also pronounce Mendizorroza first try)? 2) Where did the Duke of Wellington win a big battle against the French in 1812? 3) What has 22 legs, sometimes wears pink and slays European giants? The answer to all three questions is pretty much the same. The place is Vitoria, in Spain’s Basque province of Álava. The creature it is home to is Deportivo Alavés, a soccer club that has demolished football’s theory of relativity, which holds that success is directly proportional to the millions that clubs splash on big-name players.

This week, little Alavés has an appointment in Dortmund, Germany, in the final of the uefa Cup, one of European soccer’s main competitions, against English giant Liverpool. Whatever the May 16 result, just by getting to Dortmund Alavés has given its 13,000 official fans more than they ever dreamed of. As one of them writes on the club’s website, “Copying the mythical phrase of our rival, I want to say, ‘Alavés, you’ll never walk alone.’ Win or lose, you are now great.”

Greatness was a long time coming. Since it began in 1921, Alavés has struggled to survive, let alone mix it up with Europe’s élite. Until the 1998-99 season, the club had endured more than 40 years outside Spain’s first division. Yet in this glorious year it has stayed comfortably in the top half of the national league, and in the long haul of home-and-away games that lead to the uefa Cup final it hammered five goals into the net of no less than Inter Milan. It scored another nine against Germany’s Kaiserslautern. In the 12 games it played to reach Dortmund, Alavés banged in 31 goals, more than any other side in the competition.

All this on an annual budget of about $15.5 million. Many European clubs shell out that or more for just one player, as, for example, Liverpool did last year for Emile Heskey. No wonder most Liverpudlians had never heard of Alavés, or that a British newsreader pronounced it A Laves, making it sound more like a lavatory than a steamrolling football side.

The Basque club does boast one magic name: Cruyff. But it belongs to Jordi, not Johan. Jordi played a bit for FC Barcelona when his legendary Dutch dad was coaching that club, but he is no clone. He drifted to Manchester United, then to another Spanish club, Celta. At Alavés, Cruyff has been born yet again and is now a key player rather than a bench warmer.

The same goes for Javi Moreno, a 26-year-old striker Alavés bought for a song from a Spanish third-division club four years ago, at a time when he was thinking of hanging up his shinguards for good. Today Moreno, whose salary is a bit under $200,000—parking money to the Beckhams, Del Pieros and Figos of this world—is in line to be the top goal scorer, or pichichi, in the Spanish league, with only Barcelona’s Rivaldo and Madrid’s Raúl his rivals for that honor. Spain’s coach Antonio Camacho has even tapped Moreno for the national side.

The rest of Alavés is a polyglot that includes a trio of Argentines, a brace of Yugoslavs, a Brazilian, a Norwegian, a Uruguayan, a Romanian and, of course, a handful of the local Basque product, including captain Antonio Karmona.

What has produced the Cinderella effect on this club, whose fans call it El Glorioso when the players wear their traditional blue-and-white, and the Pink Panthers when they don their newer shirts of that unlikely color? The answer is mainly José Manuel Esnal, or Mané, as their manager is nicknamed, who came to Vitoria in 1997. Mané, who turns 51 next week, is a quietly-spoken Basque who has been coaching lowly sides for nearly three decades. “We just set out to enjoy ourselves,” he told a visiting British reporter, “and that’s been one of the secrets of our success. It’s easy to be in charge of a big club where you can spend lots of money. We have to operate at the cheaper end of the market. You can still find talented players there, but you have to be even more careful in ascertaining their character.”

Mané’s ability to mold character is reflected in the scrutiny European clubs are now giving his players; Javi Moreno’s current market value is put at around $8.5 million. Mané’s own character—and example to his players—is reflected in his decision last week to reject an offer to coach top Spanish side Valencia, which next week meets Bayern Munich in the Champions League final in Milan. Of course he would have got a lot more money. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.

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