Pitchside Europe

Absent friends on the mind as Elche host Real Madrid

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There is another British player with a contract at a top-flight Spanish team. Charlie l’Anson is a 20-year-old at Elche, one of Spain’s historic clubs who play Real Madrid tonight.

The Luton-born central defender moved to Spain with his family at seven, before returning as a teenager to play with Grimsby Town. It didn’t work out and he returned to Spain, where he had a successful trial with Elche’s B team.

He was one of their best players as they were promoted to Spain’s regional third division last season. L’Anson, a Spurs fan who didn’t want Gareth Bale to leave, was made team captain. Before this season started, he received a call telling him that he’d be given a squad number with the first team, who’d also been promoted - to La Liga for the first time since 1989.

L’Anson was named in Elche’s matchday squad for their opening game of the season, but didn’t make it off the bench. He’s since played 90 minutes in every game for Elche’s B team who are fourth in the league.

Promotion to the second division would be a huge achievement as only Real Madrid and Barcelona have reserve teams in the second division, but they wouldn’t be able to go up if Elche’s first team come down. And that’s looking distinctly possible.

Elche’s first XI haven’t won any of their opening five matches, though they’ve drawn three of them. The two defeats were at Rayo Vallecano and Osasuna: two clubs who are actually below them in the league, two teams who’ve only picked up points this season off Elche. If you can’t get points off the doomed, then who can you get them from? Anything but defeat against Madrid tonight would be a surprise.

Their crowds have been good. Almost 24,000 watched their opening home game against Real Sociedad; nearly 25,000 their draw against Valladolid. In theory it should be a 38,000 sell-out against Real Madrid tonight, a reward for last season’s title-winning promotion as Cristiano Ronaldo et al come to show off their talents, but in practice it will not.

Elche, who hail from a working-class city near Alicante which is famous for making shoes, are charging non-members between €110-180 (£93-£150) for a ticket. Up until yesterday, they have sold just 1,684 tickets at this price. Those fortunate enough to have a job in this city are not willing to spend 15% of their monthly wage on a football match. A roof above their head comes first, then food and fuel.

The club should know all about economic hardship. They brought 12 new players in over the summer and only one cost money – and just €50,000 at that. Instead, they signed loan players in to work under Fran Escriba, a former assistant to Quique Sanchez Flores at Atletico, Benfica and Valencia.

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Escriba joined the club as coach at the start of last season and won them promotion when only their most optimistic fans expected it. He has largely dismantled the team which won the title because he didn’t think it would be good enough to stay up.

Unsurprisingly, those new players are taking time to settle, but the fans trust Escriba, even if some of them won't be able to afford to attend the game at Elche's cavernous home.

Because Elche have a big stadium to fill, one of the biggest in Spain. Holding 38,000, it has staged cup finals and hosted games in the 1982 World Cup finals. The story of how a backwater city near Alicante staged World Cup games is down to Manuel Martinez Valero, the man the stadium is named after.

When Valero told the 200,000 residents of the city that he would bring the World Cup to Elche, most considered him crazy. Yet he’d already overseen the building of a new stadium, even if it hadn’t been paid for. Valero’s logic was simple: since the club hadn’t paid for the first phase of the development, why not double the debt and the size of the stadium?

Elche’s new home held 53,000 by the time it hosted three games involving Hungary, El Salvador and Belgium in 1982. The local bishop may have called the stadium a miracle, but the extra capacity wasn’t needed as all three games attracted less than 40,000 in total. Residents of Darlington will know all about a club who built a stadium which was far too big for them, but Elche could have filled the ground tonight had they been more realistic with their prices.

Fans may chance their luck for a ticket at the gate and it’s not like they’ll be stuck with nothing to do if they don’t get in – Elche’s ground has six different nightclubs beneath the stands.

And those who do go inside (like Elche’s 19,000 season ticket holders) might have hoped to see two British players, but Gareth Bale is likely to be saved for the weekend’s derby against the strongest Atletico Madrid side in years. And Charlie l’Anson needs to keep doing as he’s doing and hope he gets the break he deserves so that he can play against Ronaldo, Messi and Co.

Andy Mitten - Follow on Twitter: @AndyMitten

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