Cadiz: The conquerors of Real Madrid and Barcelona who do things differently

BBC Sport Insight bannerGuillem Balague's BBC Sport column

After an absence of 14 seasons, seven of which were spent in the third tier, Spanish football's own Crazy Gang, from the wonderfully vibrant, party-loving city that is Cadiz, are back in the top flight.

Since their return, Cadiz are proving as unpredictable and as entertaining as the city itself. They have won at Real Madrid and beaten Barcelona and are 10th in the league after 14 games, just three points off the European places.

A peninsula city with a wealth of attractive vistas and well-preserved historical landmarks accessed by two main bridges, Cadiz is most famous for its annual carnival, a two-week long fiesta dating back to the 16th Century, second only in importance to Rio de Janeiro's annual knees-up.

Known throughout Spain for impenetrable accents that even some Andalusians find hard to understand, the people of the port city of Cadiz are renowned for their fondness for cracking jokes and having fun.

Now their team are putting them on the European football map.

So how did they get here?

Cadiz boss Alvaro Cervera
Alvaro Cervera has helped transform Cadiz into a top-flight force

Alvaro Cervera arrived as manager in 2016 with Cadiz in the third tier. By the end of the campaign, they had won promotion to the Segunda A before finally making it back into the top flight last season at the fourth attempt.

This is a team moulded in his image. They have a catchphrase emblazoned in initials on club T-shirts, and printed on the walls of the training ground and the stadium changing room. It is the driving force behind the club ethos: LLNSN - La Lucha no se negocia (the fight is non-negotiable).

The origin of the phrase goes back to a news conference Cervera gave when, in his second season at the club, one of his players went missing during a training camp. He explained how hurt he was by it because he had always considered himself very open when negotiating player freedom, rest periods and so on, for the simple reason that he had also been a footballer.

"But," he added, almost as a footnote, "the fight is non-negotiable." The phrase stuck and from that day on it became the Cadiz mantra.

Cadiz score the winner against Real Madrid
Cadiz have won 1-0 at Real Madrid and 2-1 at Barcelona this season

Cervera's side don't crave the ball or go looking for possession; he realises Cadiz do not have players of sufficient quality to play the possession game to a standard that can ensure victory. But he believes his method is a legitimate way to win too.

And this season, the knowledge they were not going to have much of the ball has been the key to their victories.

The match against Barcelona was a case in point. Cervera concentrated his side's efforts on packing the middle of the pitch with three holding midfielders. Alex Fernandez, normally an offensive midfielder, was asked to do a shift at the coal face so they were always guaranteed at least two in that position if one of them went AWOL.

With their lines compact, Cadiz ensured Lionel Messi would be denied the chance to turn with the ball in the centre or to receive it where he could do most damage.

The carnival of Cadiz is famous for its comedic elements and Barcelona played their part with some hysterically funny defending to complete the most unlikely of wins for Cervera's side.

What is most important for Cervera is that he has players who believe totally in his philosophy and he has built his team around them.

The team understand unlikely victories against Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona are proof positive of the old maxim that sometimes what is most important is not the dog in the fight but the fight in the dog.

There have been blips along the way, not least when an abject first-half display at Celta Vigo saw them go in at the interval 4-0 down. Cervera's incandescent rage from the bench was palpable and made you fear for the players' safety when they returned to the dressing room at the break.

But you sensed that anger was not because they were losing but rather because in that dreadful first 45 minutes, they had committed the unforgivable sin - they had not been up for the fight.

A club which has never followed convention

Cadiz waterfront
The peninsula city of Cadiz boasts a picturesque promenade and retains some of its 18th Century walls

The most famous footballing son of Cadiz was Magico Gonzalez, the El Salvador forward who Diego Maradona said was "without a doubt among the greatest 10 players I have ever seen play".

He could have had his pick of numerous bigger clubs in Spain and Europe but his passion for Cadiz meant he stayed for nine seasons - apart from a brief spell away when he fell out with then coach Benito Joanet - and remains a club legend to this day.

That was probably just as well because it would be difficult to imagine any other club putting up with Magico's "lifestyle" and, specifically, his notorious inability to arrive for training on time.

Valladolid tried it for nine games in 1985 before giving up and allowing him to return to Cadiz.

One coach charged with the responsibility of trying to get Magico to work on time was Argentine Hector Veira, a king of the football one-liners who once said it is "harder to be a football manager than it was to be a plumber on the Titanic". In a recent interview, he revealed that Johan Cruyff had described Magico at the time as "one of the top five foreign players playing in Spain".

"But," he added, "I would call training for 10:00 and he would arrive at 11, at 11 and it would be 12."

In desperation he went out and bought the biggest, noisiest Donald Duck alarm clock he could find and presented it to him in front of everyone after one training session that Magico had seen fit to attend minutes before it finished. When that failed to have the desired effect, he turned up at the player's house with a full flamenco orchestra and sang a song begging him to get out of bed.

When Magico emerged from his pit, he announced he had done so not because he was going to come to training but because he was enjoying the music so much.

At Cadiz, things are done differently.

For their fans, these are heady days after years of having very little to celebrate. Not that it stopped them trying. Watching Cadiz was always about much more than just watching a game of football. It was all about having fun.

During the lean Segunda B years, when crowds weren't so much small as non-existent, it became a weekly event at home games for a group of loyal fans to stand directly behind the linesman and mirror his movements running up and down the line.

This season, around 10,000 Cadiz supporters who watched all of the club's 15 home games last season before it was temporarily suspended will be rewarded for their loyalty with free season tickets to watch what might remain of the 2020-21 season.

Not all the fans are in the stands. Take kit man Juanito Marchante, who has been with the club for the past 25 years. When asked where he would go if he couldn't keep his job with the first team, he said: "Cadiz B, probably. I can't imagine being anywhere else."

After laying out the players' kit before every match and putting on the 'chirigotas' folk songs so popular at the annual Cadiz carnival, he burns rosemary in the dressing room, then fans the smoke around, as if performing basic aromatherapy. Presumably it worked at one point in the past; whatever the reason, it has now become standard procedure at the club.

While Marchante does his bit for morale, Cadiz know they have to put in the work when it comes to recruitment too.

Earlier this year in a bid to find new talent, Cadiz sent four coaches to India. Over a period of four weeks, from 18 January to 16 February, they conducted trials in 22 cities across India to select students for this scholarship, three of whom were finally selected to come to Spain for trials.

Maybe from that, they will find a new club legend - someone to make a mark in their own way, just as Gonzalez once did.

What are this season's expectations?

The man at the helm of this new La Liga project is Manuel Vizcaino, a former vice president at Sevilla.

Vizcaino, the Cadiz president since 2014, is under no illusions regarding the club's task, even as they enjoy flying high in La Liga.

He told me last week that, in the short term, the only priority is to avoid relegation.

"The first step is to maintain our position in La Liga," he said. "If we can do that, then we concentrate on building the future of Cadiz. Now we are in the top division we will try to write a new chapter in our history."

The size of the Cadiz project will depend very much on how they fare on the pitch. A continued presence in the top flight will ensure more income from avenues such as television rights and with that more opportunities to compete in the transfer market.

Vizcaino added: "I want Cadiz to be the team of the man and woman in the street, the normal people.

"We know our level, we know our position and we are sure that each year we will be better - thinking in the same way but improving our players, our game."

But for now, he says, the greatest joy he gets from being president comes when "I hear the referee's final whistle and we have scored more goals than our opponents".

It has become a surprisingly regular occurrence, against some of the world's biggest clubs.

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