Cádiz: A City And Club Laughing Through The Pain
Written by Alex Brotherton
It’s 20 September 2020, and as Álvaro Negredo wheels away in celebration, a pivotal moment in Cádiz’s history is born.
The veteran striker has just poked home his side’s first LaLiga goal in over 14 years and has sent them on their way to a first Primera win since 2006. For a generation of Cadistas who have never experienced the top flight, glimpsed its riches or suffered its cruelty, it is a moment of jubilation. Although, of course, there are no yellow-clad patriots present in Huesca’s Estadio El Alcoraz, not because of the mammoth journey north but due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s unlikely that they’ll get to witness their team’s first season back in LaLiga at all.
It’s a cruel twist of fate in an otherwise fairy-tale journey, but like the people of their home city, Cádiz and its followers have endured more than their fair share of pain and suffering. In Cádiz there’s a simple remedy for life’s trials and tribulations; humour.
Speak to a Spaniard about Cádiz, and three things will likely come up; carnival, football and humour. All three are woven into the fabric of this ancient sun-kissed port, creating an affinity between the city, Gaditanos (the name given to locals) and the club seldom found elsewhere in the country. This shared identity and belonging is not born out of hatred and rivalry with other cities or football clubs, but of the unique way in which Gaditanos approach life, always laughing, joking and satirising the rich and powerful. It’s a city long associated with freedom and possibilities; the first Spanish constitution, one of the first in the world, was written here in 1812.
“Cádiz is a wonderfully laid-back and cheerful city”, explains travel writer Isabella Noble. “Gaditanos are very warm and welcoming, keen to tell visitors all about their city and province and have a good time.” The roots of this shared joviality appear to lie in the Carnival of Cádiz, a 10-day festival of singing, dancing and comedy dating back to the 16th century. But unlike carnivals elsewhere in Spain, this one focuses heavily on comedy.
Murgas, costumed groups of up to 45 people, roam the streets performing satirical sketches, while 12-person Chirigotas target politicians with scathing humour, double meanings and irony. Carnival is a cultural event that goes far beyond simply having a good time – it has become a critical part of the local psyche.
In the absence of any significant success on the pitch, it's this humorous and jovial outlook that sets Cádiz apart from the crowd. After all, Los Amarillos are no strangers to hardship and struggle. It wasn’t until 1977, 67 years after its foundation, that the club debuted in the top flight, its previous existence spent bouncing around the third and second tiers. This campaign is only its 13th at the top table, the majority of those coming during the golden years of the 80s. A plummet to the third tier was followed by a brief return to LaLiga in 2005/06, before another disappearance into obscurity. But as local journalist José Antonio Rivas explains, struggle is in Cadistas’ DNA.
“The way of accepting things, the sense of humour, feeling our colours regardless of the division the team is in… these are not very common things,” José explains. “The nature of Cádiz and the Cadista is to be accustomed to suffering and agony, that nothing is easy, and if it seems it is, that fate will take another turn of the screw.”
Things seemed to be getting easier between 2011 and 2016, when Cádiz qualified for the Segunda División B promotion play-offs four times. They were eliminated on each occasion. Current coach Álvaro Cervera eventually secured the elusive promotion, subsequently leading the club back to the promised land of Primera in the summer, but those failures in the third division only served to confirm José’s assertion: “The supporters know how to lose, because they’re used to it and take it naturally. They are very faithful.”
The times of despair saw Cadistas adopt the humour of carnival as a coping mechanism, so much so that they are now widely regarded as the best humoured, innovative and amusing supporters in Spain. “The irony, the sense of humor and the way of taking life in general, it helps a lot”, says José. Cádiz is carnival and carnival is Cádiz.
One match in particular, a Copa del Rey meeting with Real Madrid in December 2015, showcased the best of Cádiz’s approach to life. Los Blancos manager Rafael Benítez had selected Denis Cheryshev in his starting eleven, seemingly unaware that the Russian midfielder should have been serving a suspension earned while on loan at Villarreal. The penalty for the error would be a bye to the next round for Cádiz. As match-goer Thomas remembers, the Cadistas knew this even before the game had begun.
“[The news] was going around on WhatsApp during the first half; Rafa twigged at half time and took Cheryshev off but the damage was done. The whole ground was singing ‘Cheryshev, te quiero’ (Cheryshev, I love you) as we all knew. We celebrated going through despite losing 3-1. Absolute Cadismo.”
Carnival has even been incorporated into club traditions, such is its importance. “Cádiz and carnival have always been linked”, explains 20-year-old fan Rafa Posada. “When carnival arrives the whole stadium sings ‘Que bonita está mi Cádiz, que bonita es mi ciudad, que rebosa de alegría, ay cuando llega el carnaval’ (how beautiful my Cádiz is, how beautiful my city is, which overflows with joy, oh when the carnival arrives)”. Even the unofficial club hymn, La familia Pepperoni, was created by one of the greatest chirigotas in history, Don Manuel Santander.
Speaking to the fans, it becomes clear that the club and the people of Cádiz are intrinsically linked; one cannot survive without the other. Once a fortnight families and friends would meet up hours before kick-off, hit the tapas bars and head to the Estadio Ramón de Carranza. Francisco Romero has been a club member since 1976, and having learnt the ways of Cadismo from his father, he’s now passing the tradition on to his daughter.
“Cádiz transcends sport, it is a difficult feeling to explain. It is a part of the idiosyncrasy of the city. It is there, like its parks or monuments, and is a badge of Cádiz as a city itself. It personally affects my mood, whether we win or lose. It is a way of life,” Francisco says.
Rafa is part of a younger generation of Cadistas that have tasted little success in recent years, but that hasn’t made them any less passionate. “It’s incredible that being a small city of just over 100,000 inhabitants, the stadium is always filled with 15,000 people cheering for the team”, he explains. “Even in Segunda B the stadium was full.”
It’s this deep-rooted love and identification between the club and the local community that makes Cádiz so special, but by no means are non-natives excluded. If there is one man that embodies the fun-loving and free-spirited nature of Cádiz, it’s Salvadoran phenomenon Jorge Alberto González Barillas. Most know him as Mágico González.
El Mágico, as he is affectionately known, is, without doubt, Cádiz’s greatest ever player. Few would have predicted that after arriving in 1982, off the back of a World Cup that saw his El Salvador side lose 10-1 to Hungary, the striker would have such a profound impact on the club’s identity. During eight seasons at the Ramón de Carranza, which coincided with the club’s longest spell in LaLiga, Mágico did things on the pitch that most could only dream of. Diego Maradona, who arrived in Spain at the same time, once said to a journalist: “there is a player even better than Pele and I. He is Jorge González, El Mágico – he’s phenomenal.” Does praise get any higher than that?
“He was possibly one of the most gifted players of all time”, remembers journalist Paco Polit, but for Cadistas, his cult hero status was also formed by his antics off the pitch. Like Maradona, Mágico was determined not to let football dictate his lifestyle. “He made the absolute most of Cadiz’ nightlife”, admits Thomas. “It’s not a centre of hedonism by any means, but the way Mágico lived captured the spirit of carnaval.”
Tales of the Salvadoran’s insatiable desire for drinking, partying and the women of Cádiz are aplenty. Cádiz assistant and first team coach at the time, David Vidal, would often scour the city’s nightclubs looking for his wayward star. On one occasion, Mágico hid under a DJ booth to avoid being sent home. Always unapologetic for his lifestyle choices, González told El Pais: “I like living my way. I tried to go as far as I could, but sometimes I didn’t make it. Not because I didn’t want to, but sometimes I would get home a little late.”
Despite his extra-curricular activities and distaste for training and professionalism, El Mágico led Los Amarillos into an unparalleled period of success. Cádiz became an established mid-table LaLiga club and even reached a Copa del Rey semi-final in 1990. The fact that he helped to bring such success to the club, while seamlessly integrating with the city’s fun and care-free nature, made him a Cadista for life. “I don’t like treating football as a job”, he once mused. “If I did that, I would not be me. I just play for fun.”
Non-native Spanish speakers are welcome too; when the late Michael Robinson arrived in the 1990s, he quickly became much more than a visitor. The much-revered former footballer-turned-broadcaster proved that the city adopts anyone who speaks well of it. Robinson adored Cádiz. He never played for Cádiz, but the love affair started when his Osasuna side faced them in the Primera relegation group. He loved the city, the humour of the people, the enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures, the anarchy of the place. He tried to trace his family roots to sailors from the Spanish Armada shipwrecked on the coast of western Ireland, so desperate he was to be a Gaditano.
He later invested in the club and became its director of football, and on numerous occasions struggled to remain impartial when his broadcasting duties saw him cover Cádiz. But what tied him most to Cádiz was his humour, his cheeky smile and his easy-going approach to life. He saw that the people there led simple lives and were happy; he identified with that. “These chaps know something the rest of us don’t”, he once said about Gaditanos.
And if that isn’t enough of a link between this city, a sense of humour and the beautiful game, perhaps the best example is Spanish football’s quintessential funnyman Joaquín Sánchez Rodríguez. Born in El Puerto de Santa María, literally across the water from Cádiz, the evergreen Real Betis player embodies the spirit of a Gaditano in everything he does: from posing supposedly naked with the Copa del Rey trophy in 2008 while with Valencia, to his impromptu stand-up show instead of doing keepy-uppies as he was being presented as Málaga’s latest signing in 2011, and, bizarrely enough, there is even YouTube proof of Joaquín hypnotising a hen on live TV in 2015.
His antics were as much for his teammates’ amusement as his own. As Jordi Amat told La Liga Lowdown in an interview in June 2018, “maybe I’ve laughed more this year than in my whole career. Did you see the video of him dancing to Jennifer López on Instagram? He’s like this every day.” But the tone changes when the pressure is on: “You can see a difference from…he’s making jokes and then he’s so serious: ‘Maybe today is the most important game of the league…’ – he is el capitán del equipo.”
Recently, dark times have hit Cádiz hard. As young people started leaving for work opportunities the city’s docks crumbled, as did the livelihoods of many locals. This year, Coronavirus has had its own devastating effect.
While infection rates and death tolls have not reached the levels of Madrid and Catalonia, the pandemic has severely damaged Andalusia’s tourism industry, on which Cádiz’s economy relies on heavily. But perhaps more importantly, the virus has deprived the people of Cádiz of their two main passions. Carnival was of course cancelled, while all football games now take place behind closed doors. Cadistas could not witness, in person, their team’s long-awaited and much-deserved return to LaLiga. But promotion is promotion, and nothing was going to spoil the historic moment. When faced with adversity on the pitch or off it, Gaditanos always find a way.
It usually involves a laugh and a joke.
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