Miraculous Levante Are The Best In La Liga

"No one imagined this. You pick up the newspaper and see the league table and you feel like taking a photo and putting it in a frame on your wall." - Francisco Fenollosa, Levante's honorary president
This is a miracle. Levante found itself top having won six games in a row and drawn its other two. You couldn't even say that it had been the beneficiary of an easy start to the season: it had just come back from hammering Villarreal 3-0 and had also beaten Malaga and Real Madrid. The same Real Madrid that it now led in the table. It was a point above Jose Mourinho's side and two above Barcelona. It stood five points above Valencia too - the team in whose shadow it has always lived.

And that's the thing: Levante, whose fan base initially hailed from the tough maritime neighborhood of Cabanyal, has always been the "other" team in the city of Valencia, lacking power and lacking support. Its stadium holds just 25,000 and yet last season it only averaged a 49 percent attendance. Valencia is the giant, not Levante. But that is not the only thing that makes the leadership so astonishing. Nor, even, is the fact that a week ago it fielded the oldest team in La Liga history with an average age of almost 32 and a back five - defense and goalkeeper - with a combined age of 170. Or that its superstar is Sergio Ballesteros, a 36 year old who frankly looks a little large; an antihero who has become a hero.

What is amazing is that less than four years ago, Levante was relegated out of the First Division and looked like it would go out of business. It was 2008 and Levante's players threatened to go on strike after not being paid for the entire season, while accusations abounded of money being siphoned off, away from the club's coffers. It is not entirely coincidental that the current president of the players' union in Spain, Luis Rubiales, took a harder line than any of his predecessors. He saw just how bad the situation can get: he was a Levante player during that spell. So, indeed, was Damiano Tomassi - now the leader of the Italian players' union.

Levante were forced into administration and Francisco Catalan eventually took over as president and his handling of the club since has been extraordinary. Levante's debt was over €30 million ($41M). Every year €3M ($4.1M) is paid back to the club's creditors; this year it has successfully paid back €6M ($8.3M) - and paid its players. That is impressive enough; this is barely plausible. It has come back from the Second Division and survived against the odds; now, unbelievably, Levante is top.

As those figures suggest, Levante has had to do it on a war economy, under the watchful eye of the administrators. Levante has the smallest budget in the First Division - and by some way. Its budget stands at €22M ($30.6M); Barcelona's is €461M ($641M). Each year, it makes around 2 percent of what Madrid and Barcelona make - and then it loses it again, paying off its creditors. Last season coach Luis García admitted that he did not use the computer program that measures players' every move because "every time I put it on, it costs €3,000 - and we haven't got €3,000." A week ago, it did not play Xavi Torres against Malaga, the side he is on loan from, because to do so would have cost them €50,000 ($69,600) - and it hasn't got that either. Even though €50,000 is a pittance.

Building a competitive team in those circumstances is virtually impossible but somehow Levante has done it. The club's sporting director Manolo Salvador admits that he has to wait until every other club has signed its players before Levante can move. "There are," he says, "Second Division clubs who can offer double what we can. Agents run away when they hear what we have to offer." What they have to offer is an average (annual) salary of €300,000 ($417,000). To put that into context: it is less than Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi make in a week.

Levante's team is made up of players that other clubs didn't want, a squad built on the cheap. At the start of the season, one La Liga guide book laid down the expectations for the club in a three-point list: Objective? Survival. Successful? Survival. Disaster? Going down without even competing. It was a logical enough analysis. One banner carried by fans said it all: "Poor, ugly and bad at football." The striker it signed this summer, Aruna Kone, had scored one goal in four La Liga seasons.

Kone now has three in just seven games, including the goal that defeated Real Madrid. Levante has successfully built a formidable group; it may be poor, it may even be ugly, but it sure isn't bad. Last year coach Luis Garcia papered messages from the fans over the dressing room walls and got his players throwing themselves off walls and into each others' arms to foster togetherness. Garcia departed in the summer but Juan Ignacio Martinez - a coach who had never worked in the First Division before - has continued the work. Improved on it, in fact.

Levante is committed, intelligent, and aware of its limitations; there is no pretense about it, just what the Spanish describe as oficio - knowledge of their vocation, a love of it too. They know some of the oldest tricks in the game like few others; they understand football intimately. Many of them are players rejected elsewhere, with a point to prove; players who the coach has sought to convince with a simple message: you are good footballers, you really can play a bit. It is a message that comes easily: the manager - who bizarrely once worked as a bodyguard for the flamenco singer Isabel Pantoja - has also taken the long route there, after years coaching in the second division.

Levante is extraordinarily industrious, aggressive, defensively sound (it has conceded just three league goals in eight games, the best record in Spain), and effective in attack, fast on the break: it does not enjoy much of the ball, in fact only Racing Santander has attempted fewer passes, but it has scored more than anyone other teams except Madrid or Barcelona

"No one imagined this. You pick up the newspaper and see the league table and you feel like taking a photo and putting it in a frame on your wall," said Levante's honorary president Francisco Fenollosa, who has been at the club for over 50 years.

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