Andy Mitten

‘Frogs’ of Levante leaping up La Liga

Andy Mitten

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Levante's sporting director Manuel Salvador Serra - or Manolo to everyone at the club - apologises for the cracked glass partition leading to the directors' box.

"We are trying to work out if we can repair it or need a new one," he explains. "If we can repair it, we will."

Money is tight at Valencia's second club. Several blue seats behind the goal have been replaced by red ones at the 25,000-capacity bowl that is the City of Valencia stadium, spoiling the effect of blocks of red and blue seats - the club's colours. Manolo's office overlooks a scruffy car park at the back of the main stand and on his desk sits a frog in Levante colours.

Levante are known as the Frogs, a nickname that dates back to their old Vallejo ground which occupied prime land in the city centre by the Turia River. The same river which, when it used to flood Valencia until it was diverted in the 1950s, used to cause hundreds of frogs to seek refuge on Levante's pitch. There is a computer, fax machine and two oversized calculators by the frog. Everything about Levante boils down to resources - or a lack of them.

Manolo's job is to find bargains good enough for La Liga. A youthful-looking 47, he had plenty of experience as a midfielder in Spain's first and second divisions with Albacete, before winding up his career at Levante in 1997-98.

"I watch about seven games a week," he explains, "three or four of them live, the rest on DVD. I can be scouting our opponents for our manager or looking for future players.

"We have to look for promising youngsters or players that none of the big clubs want - to rescue falling stars. If there is another club in La Liga interested then Levante tend to lose out. This club has large debts left from previous administrations.  The president does not want to repeat the mistakes of old and offer contracts the club cannot afford."

On average gates of 15,000 and with debt repayments totalling €12 million a year on a €61m debt, the Frogs have to cut their cloth accordingly, yet they have overachieved this season. After a surprise promotion last season - a fine way to end their centenary year - Levante's only aim was to avoid relegation and even that looked ambitious.

By January 22 they were 19th with just four wins from their first 20 games. It was a familiar story, with Levante becoming Spain's most consistent yo-yo club of recent years: too good for the Segunda Division, not good enough for the Primera.

Then Levante beat Getafe 2-0 with goals - one from Valdo and another from player of the season and 12-goal top scorer Felipe Caicedo. The Ecuadorian, 22, is on loan for the season.

"We got him from Manchester City," explains Manolo. "We benefited because other deals had fallen through for him. City wanted to sell him but there were no buyers. So we really pushed for him and City were good to deal with. We signed him one hour before the deadline with an option to buy him. City still pay most of his wages, but we give him football every week in a very good league. I think he likes it here."

It wasn't as if Levante could pay a fee for Caicedo. They haven't paid for a player for over three years, during which time 38 pros have made their way to Manolo's office, to talk in front of the frog. Loan signings like Asier del Horno from Valencia, Xavi Torres from Malaga or the Uruguayan forward Christian Stuani from Reggina. The most recent was 18-year-old Brazilian winger Wellington Silva from Arsenal. He has far more chance of minutes with Levante than the Gunners.

Following the win against Getafe, Levante then beat Villarreal away and Almeria at home, before losing 2-0 at Real Madrid on February 19. There is no shame in losing to a side who have won every single home game this season, but at least they didn't lose 8-0 as they had in a Copa del Rey game at the Bernabeu in December.

Luis Garcia's men (no, not the former Liverpool one, but a 38 year-old ex-Spanish third division player who had to retire through injury a decade ago) haven't lost since that league defeat to Madrid. Overall, they have won six of their last nine league games and drawn two, rising to 11th.

They are third in the form table and just seven points off a European place. With an enviable team spirit, any thoughts of relegation seem a long way off. And it is enviable.

When you log into Levante's official website you have no choice but to listen to their first team singing a club anthem. It is an amusing but truly awful rendition by a mishmash of journeymen footballers who look like they have been corralled into it or face not receiving their wages - the norm at Levante in recent seasons. The song rightly comes with an apology at the end, with the promise that their efforts on the pitch will be much better than their singing. And how right those players have been.

They may sing like frogs, but they play like lions.

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