Pitchside Europe

Unassuming Levante’s brush with an upset

Pitchside Europe

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With over 600 seats, Camp Nou’s press box is the biggest in football.

Every seat is full for the clasicos or big Champions League games, when journalists fly in from around the world. That’s when you see the Gary Nevilles and Roy Keanes, former players now working in the media brought in to cover the big games. And when you see the glamorous Brazilian or Scandinavian presenters, all with their little armies of production crews. That will be the scene when Bayern Munich come to Catalonia next week.

It’s not like that for Levante at home, when the box is sparsely occupied with perhaps 150 journalists. I was one of them on Saturday night, there were plenty of free seats to choose from. There isn’t as much interest in the predictable, when everyone knows Barça will win. They’ve won 15 and drawn one (v Madrid) of their 16 home games this season. Whisper it quietly, but brilliance can be boring if it’s not your team.

Ten minutes into the game, a large moustacheiod man in a tracksuit sat in the next seat. Soon after, he cursed when a penalty was awarded to Barcelona, then smiled when it was saved. This wasn’t the action of a journalist, who is supposed to remain impartial.

The man was Pepe Martinez Puig, Levante’s goalkeeping coach. Track-suited coaches don’t normally sit in the press box, but he wanted a better view than the pitch level dug outs afford.

Puig began to talk about Levante’s rookie goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who was making only his third La Liga appearance.

“I work with him every day, he wasn’t nervous about tonight,” he said. “He’s playing because Munua (the usual number one goalkeeper) won’t sign a new contract.”

At the other end, Barcelona’s Victor Valdes was playing. He too had refused to sign a new contract; different rules for different coaches.

“I just hope that he doesn’t concede four of five because it will damage his confidence,” said Puig.

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Navas, the Costa Rican national ’keeper, gave him his wish, performing well.

“Barcelona are fantastic, but not quite so fantastic without Messi,” said Puig. “I told that that to my goalkeeper out there.”

It was 0-0 after half an hour, 0-0 at half-time, when Puig began to talk about his own career.

“I played for Espanyol, Levante and Castellon,” he said. “I’ve been at Levante for 11 years and started when we were in the second division. It’s a great club, but it hasn’t always been easy. We were near to closing a few years ago and I didn’t get paid for seven months. Thankfully, my wife was working and so her money could support our family. I got paid in the end and we were promoted.

“Last season we finished sixth and this season we played in Europe for the first time. We’ve had a great time, playing in Germany, Sweden, Holland, Greece and Russia. We were only knocked out in extra time by Rubin Kazan. We’ve done well again this season, but struggled since losing our top scorer (Obafami) Martins. We’re 12th. We need one win from the last six to make sure we stay up.”

He asked about England.

“I’ve seen the stadium and training facilities of Bolton Wanderers, they’re incredible. How is Ian Harte doing? He played for Levante. I hear he’s still playing. And De Gea at Manchester? He’s excellent but young. I was surprised that they bought such a young goalkeeper, but Spain produces excellent goalkeepers like Casillas and Valdes.”

The second half started. It was still 0-0 after an hour, with Navas impressive. Seeking a breakthrough, Barca brought on Xavi and Pedro and Alexis Sanchez. It didn’t come.

“It’s still almost impossible not to concede,” said Puig after 70 minutes. Given that Barça had scored in each of their past 49 home games (a league record), he had reason to be pessimistic. But Navas continued to hold out and with 10 minutes to play it was still 0-0.

“It’s still difficult,” said Puig, “but we’re working really hard. A point here would be incredible.”

The dream nearly came true, until the 83rd minute when Sanchez found Cesc Fabregas in the area and the Catalan shot towards the far post of Navas’s goal. Levante were floored. Not quite Sammy Kuffour floored on the Camp Nou pitch, but floored. All that work for nothing.

Football is the glory game, but the reality for most is disappointment. Levante had a last minute corner. Navas moved up (the picture leading this article shows the incident).

“Just imagine?” I said to Puig. He knew better than not to dream. He’s a football realist, not a headline writer.

“Go and speak to Navas,” he said after the final whistle, “he’s a good boy.”

The mixed zone is deep in the bowels of the Camp Nou. Two or three players from each team come from the dressing room to speak to journalists, with the area neatly divided between television, radio and newspaper journalists. I’d requested Navas and waited. Levante’s press officer signalled that he was coming, but as he did everyone wanted to speak to him, more than wanted a word with Barca’s Sanchez. Navas had done almost no media in Spain and it was all new to him.

“I wasn’t nervous at all,” said the goalkeeper. “You can’t be when you are a goalkeeper. I just thanked god for giving me the opportunity to play in Camp Nou. And everything went well until the end.”

Navas came across as a humble man.

“A lot of people were watching on television in Costa Rica, but my closest family came to Camp Nou to watch the game.

“A year ago I was on loan from a second division team and not playing. It’s an unusual life when you are a number two goalkeeper because you always have to be prepared to play, but you don’t play. Few people can relate to that.

“I’m playing now and I want to establish myself as the number one at Levante. My aim is to play for one of the big European teams. But thank you for asking to speak to me.”

If he continues to get his chance to play, he’ll soon be taking such media attention for granted.

By Andy Mitten - @AndyMitten

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