Granada ends 35 years of futility
Heavy favorite to be relegated, Granada finally earned its first win
Much of Granda's history has been spent toiling in the lower tier
Granada's squad is bolstered by on-loan players from Udinese
It took 10 weeks and 90 minutes to arrive but they had been waiting much longer for this moment. Thirty-five years, in fact. On Monday night, a Mikel Rico goal gave Granada a 2-1 victory over Sevilla at the Sánchez Pizjuán. It was the first time that Sevilla had lost all season, leaving FC Barcelona as the only team in the first division still unbeaten, and it was the first time that Granada had won away this season.
In fact, it was the first time that Granada had won away in the first division since 1976. To put that into context: not one of its players had even been born when the team was last in the first division and the second top scorer in Spain that season was Levinha -- the father of the current Liverpool midfielder Lucas Leiva.
If that's how far back it is, this is how far away Granada have been. Since then, its never managed to finish higher than sixth in the Second Division, when only the top three go back up. For the last 20 years it has not even been in the Second Division. Granada spent the 21 years in Spain's regionalized, four division Second Division B and as recently as 2005-2006 it was playing in Spain's Third Division. 'Third Division' makes it sound far better than it really is, too: with the Second Division B consisting of four 20-team groups and the Third consisting of 18 further 20-team groups, at the bottom end, you're talking about anything from the seventh to the 24th tier of Spanish soccer.
But in 2009, things changed. Granada became a PLC and Quique Pina took over as president. Pina was a former player (with Mérida), agent, and the owner of the short-lived Ciudad de Murcia -- a club that was founded in 1999 and disappeared in 2007 when Pina effectively sold its Second Division place to the owner of Granada 74, which in turn, disappeared in 2009. At the time, Pena was working for Udinese in Italy. When Pina was asked to take over at Granada, the Pozzo family who own Udinese, allowed him to combine both jobs with their blessing.
In fact, they supported Pina -- and they supported his "other" new club.
In 2008-09, Granada won its Third Divison groups and safely negotiated the playoff. In 2009-2010 the team won its second Division B group. And last season, it was fifth in the Second Division, coming through an extraordinarily dramatic and hugely bad-tempered pair of playoffs to make it to the First Divison again for the first time in 35 years:
Goalkeeper Roberto scored a penalty in the shootout as it squeezed past Celta 5-4 on penalties on the same day that Dani Benítez missed two penalties during the match but scored during the shootout, and then away goals took it through against Elche.
The man who scored the goal against Elche, Odion Ighalo (who had also scored in promotion the season before), was on loan from Udinese. And he was not alone. Far from it. In total, 12 of Granada's first team squad were Udinese players. It was good for the Italians because their squad members got playing time, the chance to develop and gain first team experience, while keeping them in the shop window for potential buyers; it was good for Granada because it helped them clinch a top division place at last -- and on the cheap.
The relationship has continued. Of those in this year's squad, Allan Nyom, Odion Ighalo, Jaime Romero, Benítez, Geijo and Diego Mainz are all on loan from Udinese in one capacity or another. Guilherme Siqueira has been signed from them. Meanwhile Pena's relationship with Benfica has facilitated them bringing in four others from Portugal, three on loan and one on a free transfer. And at the other end of the scale, nine players have been loaned out to Cádiz. Where Pena is employed as the sporting director.
Those relationships pose a number of questions but for now the one that really matters to supporters is: is this team good enough to survive?
Monday night's win in Seville was Granada's first away win this season, its second over all. (Curiously the first came against Villarreal with Ikechuwku Uche scoring the winner for Granada. He is on loan from Villarreal). It also lifted them off the bottom. And although they are still in the relegation zone and much as it owed its victory to an extraordinary display from goalkeeper Roberto in a match dominated by Sevilla, there is belief in Granada.
Fabri, in charge since Granada's final campaign in the Second Division B, is an intense coach with a very simple game message - the first pass secures possession, the second launches to fast wingers who play very high and very wide and Granada (counter)attack from there -- and the players suit largely that style. Granada plays three central midfielders to protect a rigid and deep lying back four and it has proved difficult to break down. Within the squad there is a belief that the players they have are at least the equal, in their eyes, "of four or five other teams in the division."
It certainly hasn't been the team that everyone else beats up on. It drew 0-0 with Atlético and 1-1 with Osasuna and although it was hammered 4-0 by Malaga and beaten only 2-0 by Sporting Gijón, it lost just 1-0 to Betis, Real Sociedad, Valencia and even Barcelona. The trouble is, Sporting, Osasuna, Betis and Real Sociedad belong to that group of sides that it might judge beatable. And ultimately, coming into this week's match at the Sánchez Pizjuán, it had been beaten six times and won just once. The team hadn't won in six weeks, that early confidence crumbling, and had not won away at all. It hadn't even scored on the road.
Monday night's win was vital. It was also a long, long time in coming. Alex Geijo's goal was Granada's first away from home this season. Mikel Rico's winner was Granada's first away from home for 35 of them.
Swim Daily, Elsa Benitez in Montauk
Bears and Cowboys fighting to gain ground in their divisions