Does aesthetics matter?
The relegation of Levante and Alavés in La Liga answers a persistent question
New seasons spring into action with vigor and excitement, and the old ones vanish into antiquity; that’s the speed of time in football. The final of that bygone era was a year kneeling with exhaustion visible in the legs and heads of players, even in the eyes of the fans. There was barely time to close the sentimental balance before transfers entered the news cycle – a cycle that only ended on the 19e of June in Spain.
Girona had just 54 days to make their plans after finding out they would take part in La Liga, after sneaking under the steel door between the Primera and Segunda. What has been gained and what has been lost?
In the case of La Liga, the ascetic answer to the latter is Alavés, Granada and Levante.
Those clubs and their fans were coming to the end of their existential summer of introspection. Presidents fought their way through a months-long messy process based on opinion. In Granada’s case, that came after a shock – no one really imagined that the 2021 Europa League quarter-finalists would fall as quickly as they had risen. To suggest that the La Liga neutral fan will mourn the loss of Alavés and Levante is a bit hyperbolic, but there may be a fleeting pang of regret that Los Granotas no longer in the first division.
It begs the question of why exactly they are missed, but not the team that finished one place below them. Because Alavés and Levante are both clubs of similar size. The former arguably have more claim to a place in the minds of a neutral. El Glorioso have had an outstanding 21st century, appearing in the UEFA Cup final in 2001 and then finishing runners-up in the Copa del Rey in 2016.
Alavés call Mendizorroza home – that name is glorious too – and it’s one of the better atmospheres Spanish football can evoke, certainly per capita. It feels tight. The stars come so close that they are humanized – bigger but also smaller in stature.
Tucked in the interior of the Basque Country among rolling green hills, Vitoria-Gasteiz is a pleasant surprise. The pace slows to a walk as part of a preference rather than an imposition of the heat. Not that there is a big travel culture among La Liga teams, but a visit to Vitoria can be packaged as a leisure trip with football thrown in for family and friends. It’s a charming place.
So why is there such a lack of sense of loss compared to Levante?
The Valencian team has been playing in La Liga since 2017, one year less than Alavés. In that time, Levante reached a historic Copa del Rey semi-final, and their highest finish was 12e. On average, Levante has completed season 15e.
When Levante returned to the division, Alavés secured 9e place, their highest in a six-year stay, and across the stretch they’ve averaged closer to 14e than 15e. All in all, the difference between the two is marginal and every tiny advantage is for the Basques. Yet it doesn’t feel that way.
By the end, losing Levante felt like killing off a feisty supporting actor character who had endeared himself to audiences. Towards the end, Alavés struggled to be loved even by their own fans – a banner in their last La Liga game read: “Dedicated and committed support. Looking for a board, coaching staff and players at their level.”
Such was the plight of the devoted Alavés diehards that fans of the opposition met them not with the typical fear that comes with two tribes eyeing each other, but rather with a mixture of pity and sympathy – both sincere, which can only have served to increase the anger of the Alavés fans against the board. Messages from Alava described their farewell to the players as “a mixture of timid applause, criticism, insults and whistles”. Aside from the ad above, another banner in the same game read: “Born to suffer, not to crawl.”
Levante was by no means a collection of heroes shortchanged by a cruel twist of fate. Their fans proved as much when they ambushed their players and manager Alessio Lisci after a 5-0 defeat to Villarreal in January, asking for their own answers. They had been waiting outside the training area in the early hours of the morning for them to return. President Quico Catalán had to pass a vote of confidence about his own future to ease the tension; so great was the dissatisfaction with their mismanagement. Critics were audible around Orriols long before it hit the national story.
By the time the autopsy was performed, Catalán was almost in tears as he begged for forgiveness. His choosing three different managers to run Levante before Christmas was symptomatic of a ship that had lost its compass. El Demarque managed to list ten different reasons why things went so hopelessly wrong, while Mundo Levante recounted the final months of the season as “the agony of an endless number of bad decisions, games and protagonists that will endure in the black books of Levante’s history.” Regardless of the exact amount of trouble, the sentence was the same.
But overall, Levante added his own personality to La Liga. That feisty character was the everyman who managed to beat the aristocracy, winning often enough to make it inspiring. They looked each team in the eye and dared to take a step forward where possible. Particularly during Paco López’s time at the club, they were never intimidated by the fear of defeat. When the curtain finally fell on their La Liga spell, El Demarque called it “a glorious era.”
“I’m here to remind the world that football is about skill, heart, honour, joy, team spirit,” a hairy Eric Cantona thundered into the room. Yoga TV cam 15 years ago.
Claiming that Levante did everything might give the narrator a little too much freedom, but there were elements in Cantona’s dramatic monologue that were visible in Levante for many years.
Cantona’s Nike ad speaks of happy football that any fan can recognize, but the following shots focus on Ronaldinho’s dizzying feet, of a lost Brazil, of Ronaldo Nazario. For a modest team like Levante none of these things should have been possible.
Their record signing is solid Serbian midfielder Nikola Vukčević, but they provided enough room for José Luis Morales to flourish. His story, his professional debut at age 27, was romantic in its own right. Few teams would have trusted him, but fewer teams trying to stave off relegation would have given Morales the creative freedom to tangle defenders. But more than just a curious statistic, he became a renowned artist who attracted paying customers to his exhibitions.
During Levante’s stay, every fan could tune in to one of their encounters with the La Liga big three and be sure to see a match full of heart, skill, team spirit and joy. In the past two seasons, Atlético Madrid failed to beat Levante, losing twice. Barcelona have been beaten three times since Levante came back in the 2017/18 season, and Levante were the only Spanish team capable of doing so. In 10 games against Real Madrid, Levante won three and drew the same number. This spell includes a historically good Atlético Madrid, a Barcelona sacked by Lionel Messi and five-time Champions League winners Real Madrid. Levante dared to turn their minds against them all.
Staying away from moralizing on the way to football should played, Levante has used different styles and schemes over the past five seasons. Sweet, satisfying salvos became an art form as practiced in the Ciutat de Levante as anywhere else in the world. The game patterns were neat and tidy; passes fell into place like dominoes. Paco López created a culture and lineup that allowed fans to see how talented their supposedly unheralded footballers were. Levante especially enjoyed the ball.
Any fan of theirs will tell you it was far from pretty at some points too. There were times when they went to Atlético Madrid, champions of the underdogs, to defend with their guts and fight with their hearts. In more difficult moments, being brave no longer meant daring passes; rather, it turned into risky challenges and nervously dangling legs in their own box. It was a more economical use of touch, but an equally admirable display of moxie.
However, especially for the more modest football sides, when glory is not available in terms of titles and trophies, it comes in the form of moments and memories. In Levante’s case, that was beating Barcelona in nine-goal thrillers and tearing Real Madrid apart on the counterattack.
Levante has left an indelible mark on La Liga over the past five years, for their partisan fans and neutrals alike. They were a spicy and juicy part of the division and enriched Spanish football.
In the most horrific way, things went tragically wrong last season. But unlike this incarnation of Alavés, that team will be remembered. In terms of results, Alavés fared better than his fellow descenders. But who had the better time?
Levante are definitive proof, contrary to those who claim otherwise, that aesthetics matter. At least for the fans, it’s not just a result business.
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