Original written, ESPN April 1, 2013: https://www.espn.com/soccer/columns/story/_/id/1395277/ball:-the-canary-chronicles
Lazing on a sunny afternoon, Easter Sunday to be precise, we decide to head back from the beach to our apartment in Corralejo, on the island of Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands. Hey – even ESPN FC scribes are allowed a vacation and besides, it’s freezing cold in northern Europe and wet and windy in northern Spain. Here, some sun is guaranteed.
On the outskirts of the town, the grand stadium Vicente Carreño Alonso (capacity 2,000) sits square and squat to the side of a large roundabout, corralled inside a low white wall and surrounded by brown desert scrub. There are six skinny sets of floodlights sticking up, needle-like, into the cloudless blue sky, and the small fists of brown mountains shimmer behind in the hazy distance.
There is nothing better than casually investigating a Spanish football team, all the better for being stuck near a roundabout on the outskirts of a town with a population of 14,000, on an island better known for hordes of English and German tourists than for its footballing traditions. I know from Wikipedia that Club Deportivo Corralejo are in Tercera, Spain’s third division, which is actually the fourth division – but more of that later.
I haul the car off the main road onto a dirt track that leads to the stadium’s main green gate, closed today because there is no game on Easter Sunday in Group 12, the division in which the minor Canary Island clubs compete. After Tenerife, Fuerteventura is the second biggest island in the archipelago, 100 km off the west coast of Africa, but its snoozy, tranquil feel makes you wonder whether human habitation was ever really intended to take root.
The stadium walls sizzle in the afternoon heat. My son climbs onto an electricity hut to take some shots of the pitch over the height of the walls. As we walk back to the car, a sporty-looking 40-something chap pitches up in a loud yellow football bib and begins to open the green gate with a key. I wander over and ask if we can go in to take some shots. The man has a striking, weather-beaten face, with long hair and a noble jawline. He seems overwhelmed by our request and ushers us eagerly over the threshold. Once inside, the green expanse of the pitch is blindingly colourful compared to the dusty dun exterior.
We walk out onto the pitch. The man’s name is Jorge, and I ask him if he is an ex-player. He laughs. “I wish I were! I’m the groundsman. I look after the place, make sure everything’s OK. But that’s not too difficult,” he says, gesturing at the artificial surface. “Much easier for maintenance. But I like to come here in the afternoons, run around the perimeter a bit, kick a ball around for a while. Keeps me going, you know.”
As if on cue, a ball is already on the pitch, about 30 metres from the goal. My son Harry, starved of one for the last few days, shakes off his flip-flops, jogs up and hits the ball barefoot. He doesn’t catch it quite right, but the ball still arrows up into one corner, and nestles nicely into the net. Jorge approves. “He’s good,” he coos. “You can tell by the way someone approaches a ball. I used to do some scouting,” he continues, as Harry fishes the ball from the net. “The problem here is that nobody really stays. Why would kids want to come and watch this club or even play for us? There’s no future in it. The best ones all go to the mainland.”
He changes tack. “Hey – you’re not Spanish are you? You speak well. Your son speaks even better!” I explain that we live in San Sebastián, and that Harry was born there. “Ah – they say that’s a nice place,” he replies, with a slight note of lament in his voice. “Ha – I’m Spanish, and I’ve never been to Spain!” he laughs. “I’ve never been on the mainland. No call for it. We have everything here now. My parents suffered – no electricity, not much running water, but now we have everything, apart from good football.”
This is not entirely true. Corralejo were founded in 1975 but, after a series of fusions, have ended up as the present side, and in their first season in Tercera, in 2009-10, they finished top, only to lose out in the play-offs to a Catalan side. Down the road in the capital, Puerto del Rosario, the team is in Regional Preferente, a ladder further down.
A relative metropolis of 34,000 people, the town produced Braulio Nóbrega, who now plies his trade for Hercules, but who scored the famous back-heel for Getafe against Spurs in London in 2007. Subsequently transferred to Zaragoza, his career almost fell apart in 2011 when he was arrested on charges of sexual assault.
Jonathan Sesma, once of Valladolid, was a native of Las Palmas but is the only vaguely famous player to have turned out for Corralejo, back in the 1997-98 season.
Jorge doesn’t seem to recall this, but begins to wax eloquently on the topic of Canary players in general. “Valeron, Silva, Pedrito, Ruben Castro – they’re all the same types. They don’t use speed or strength. It’s too hot for that here. They had to use their brains. It made them think better than other players. Look at Valeron. He’s still going. Que bueno es (he’s fantastic)!”
He forgets to mention Valeron’s team-mate Manuel Pablo – also a son of Gran Canaria, the island that, along with Tenerife, seems to have produced the most players. Pedro and Jeffren both moved to La Masia from the latter, and the Canary scene in general has proved a good breeding ground for intelligent players. Jorge’s theory may be correct. At a distance, Harry plays competent keepie-ups in his bare feet, and Jorge asks what position he plays. When I tell him he’s a central midfielder with Real Sociedad’s feeder club, Antiguoko, he says: “We need one like him here. Bring him over here for next season. We’ll look after him!”
Tercera is a complex labyrinth of a league structure, and is really the fourth tier after La Liga, Segunda A and Segunda B. Several of the professional reserve sides cut the teeth of their young players there, but the grand majority of teams are part-time. Some teams pay their players a nominal match fee, some pay win bonuses only and some pay nothing at all.
I ask Jorge how they cope in Group 12, when they have play on the other islands. “Yes, it’s expensive. We can go by boat to Lanzarote, but to the other places we have to fly. We cut deals, but it’s still too much. The worst thing is” – he shakes his head at the injustice – “the worst thing is that when we got to the play-offs, there were people at the club who didn’t want us to go up to Segunda B, for that reason.” He rubs together his middle finger and his thumb in the Spanish gesture for money.
There are 18 groups in Tercera, making up a morass of 361 teams. The groups almost tally with the country’s 17 autonomous communities, but the sheer size of Andalucia means there are two groups there, which explains the slight discrepancy. The 18 group winners play a two-legged play-off series, with the nine winners promoted to Segunda B, which itself contains four groups of 80 teams. All of that means it’s difficult to make comparisons with the fourth level of say, English football, where the 24 teams are all professional and usually represent larger urban centres. Nevertheless, Corralejo are technically a mere three consecutive promotions away from the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona. It seems strange to contemplate this on a sunny afternoon in a tiny, deserted stadium.
The night before, we’d driven into town and sought out some distant Spanish football, apologetically chalked onto the viewing list of a bevy of English-style pubs offering a mix of English Premier League, Celtic and Rangers fixtures, and the occasional rugby union game.
In the gloomy cavern of a pub, each corner seemed to have a different screen and game being played, and the cacophony of mixed ESPN and Al Jazeera commentaries blended into a sort of incomprehensible mass. The English owner seemed happy that we wanted to watch Zaragoza-Madrid, but failed to tempt us with further offers of fish, chips and mushy peas. We left in the 80th minute, since my beer had run out and I didn’t fancy another one, and we were fairly convinced that it was going to end in a draw.
Indeed it did, the 1-1 scoreline denying Madrid any false optimism about cutting into Barcelona’s lead after the Catalans’ 2-2 draw at strugglers Celta an hour earlier. The games’ chief interest – apart from Leo Messi’s 19th consecutive scoring appearance – resided in their role as warm-ups for this week’s Champions League action, with the opposition relegated to the roles of mere sparring partners.
Of course, neither Celta nor Zaragoza could afford to drop points, since their reality is very different from planet Barcelona-Madrid and, although both will be pleased at avoiding defeat, Deportivo’s 3-2 win at fellow strugglers Mallorca means it’s getting a bit tighter down there at the bottom. Canary-born veteran Juan Carlos Valeron played 88 sublime minutes at the ripe old age of 37, and Manuel Pablo, of the same vintage, managed to last the whole game.
Last week, Pedro scored the goal that gave Spain their vital 1-0 win in Paris, and David Silva scored for Manchester City in their home win over Newcastle. The Canary Islands continue to wield their influence. And, of course, next Sunday tiny Corralejo (population 14,000) take on Union Deportivo Telde from Gran Canaria (population 90,000) in a mid-table clash in Spain’s colourful and obscure Division Three, Group 12.
I’ll be back in San Sebastián, but Jorge will be there, and perhaps another 500 hardy souls, baking in the sun on the open terracing. It’s always worth remembering that – without these games, these places, and folks like Jorge – the professional game would collapse in on itself and cease to exist in its present form. That’s why I always stop and have a nosey, to remember the roots. Sometimes, the fruit at the top of the tree gets a bit too heavy.
Phil Ball, April 1 , 2013