I’ll never forget the first time I listened to John Lee Hooker. It was in a modest farmhouse in the south of Italy, a place enveloped in heat and silence, an evening after a good meal and a long day of work. Aurelio, a proficient guitarist as well as farmer, set up his sound system and hit play. I was instantly struck by the violence of Hooker’s self-assurance, his ethereal connection with the groove. He radiated melancholy and defiance.
It was the blues, the music of the periphery. As a philosophical concept, this is a concrete idea in rural Spain just as much as it is in rural Italy, and nowhere more so than in Andalusia, that ancient land of full-blood and inimitable passion. Despite Andalusia’s historical and cultural caché within Spain’s self-perception, it’s dwarfed in industry and economy by the Basque Country, Catalonia and Madrid.
This comparative insignificance is as true of its football as it is of its society. Seville is the capital of the region and it’s also home to its two biggest football clubs, Sevilla and Real Betis. The former is the most successful in Andalusia while the latter is the best supported, overshadowing the rich network of smaller clubs throughout the region. These overshadowed clubs, the periphery of the periphery, are the subject of this piece, specifically Granada and Málaga. Both offer an interesting insight into the differences of culture within Andalusia, as well as the differing degrees of success enjoyed by its football clubs. The former are punching above their weight and flying high, while the latter are undoubtedly underperforming.
Granada currently sit 10th in LaLiga, comfortable in their second season back in the top flight after their promotion in the summer of 2019. It’s their second stint at Spanish football’s top table this century, having previously earned promotion in 2010 after coming up from Segunda B, the third tier, just the season before. Between 2002 and 2006 they had actually sunk as low as Tercera, Spain’s fourth tier. Under the leadership of Diego Martínez, however, they’ve excelled, finishing seventh to qualify for the Europa League in 2020. Just last month they beat Napoli over two legs in the last 32 of the competition to earn their place in the last 16 for the first time in their history.
“Granada are in the best period of their history, without doubt,” José Quesada tells La Liga Lowdown. “The club is almost 90 years old, but this is the first season they’ve competed in Europe. Granada had a 30-year stretch where they didn’t set foot in the Primera, and a 22-year period where they didn’t even play in Segunda. There are two generations of Granada supporters that lived with the club in Segunda B and Tercera.”
“Granada have always been a modest club, especially compared to Sevilla, Betis and even Málaga,” Heath Chesters tells La Liga Lowdown. “This is despite the fact their history stretches back to 1931. Granada’s peak years came in the 1970s, when they finished in the top six twice in the space of three years. In those days it was only the champions that got into the European Cup, so finishing sixth then isn’t comparable to what it means these days. Martínez has already broken a variety of points records that comparatively diminish the success of the 1970s, especially with the achievement of qualifying for Europe.”
“The club’s support base is somewhat complicated as Granada have historically battled for prominence with other clubs from the province of Granada,” Quesada says. “They’d play Motril and Loja in the lower divisions, so people would see Granada come to play on their patch and always viewed them as the team to beat. On top of this, the club was basically bankrupt, so there was a good deal of fickleness. People saw Granada as almost a waste of time, and the city council even considered turning their back on the club to create a new one that the people of the city could get behind.
That emboldened the club’s true supporters, inspiring them to double down on the club. They endured. Then, as Granada pushed through Spanish football and returned to the Primera, the wider public began to get behind the team again. That’s when the Eterna Lucha slogan came into being, printed on the shirt and used as a Twitter hashtag. The slogan encapsulates the club. They’ve never had it easy, even now when they play important games in Europe with many injuries. This willingness to fight is intimately linked to the character of the granadino.” Chesters agrees. “The club is defined by the Eterna Lucha,” he says. “They’ve always had to overcome obstacles, and they never do things the easy way.”
“I consider Martínez to be the key to Granada’s success,” Quesada says. “Some clubs are marked by a player, like Barcelona have been by Lionel Messi. Granada are marked by their coach. He’s the differential element. Without him, Granada wouldn’t have made it to the Europa League. He’s our crack.” Chesters argues Granada’s success is the result of wider work. “The club’s philosophy has completely changed,” he says. “It’s not just Martínez, it’s the whole coaching team around him. The club very much works as a team in a manner that permeates the whole club, and his philosophy is very much linked to this. It’s game-by-game, everyone pulling in the same direction. They’ve recruited players to fulfil certain roles and also fit the mental character of the club, something evident in their post-match interviews. They talk about the group rather than the individual.”
“Granada is a unique city,” says Quesada. “The architecture, the history, the weather, the proximity of the mountains and the beach. It’s a place where you can ski in the morning and swim in the evening, something practically no other city in the world can say. That’s without even mentioning the cultural and historical importance of Granada, a city marked by its Arab past. It was the last Muslim city in the Iberian Peninsula to be conquered.” Chesters is similarly glowing when discussing the city that he’s made his home. “I’m originally from Manchester and I think the granadino’s sense of humour, with its irony and sarcasm, is very similar,” he says. “Their character is like the Spanish equivalent of the north of England, in their mannerisms and their way of being. I’ve felt at home ever since I moved here, always welcomed as opposed to treated like a foreigner.”
“Granada and Málaga is the derby,” Quesada says. “Neither city has a strong second club so historically it’s always been the big one for both. It’s very much a historical rivalry, and I can remember as a child how intense it was during the years that we were both in Segunda B. It was different back then, though. It’s not as strong as it was.” Chesters agrees, but opines that it’s a fixture with a difference in many ways. “I don’t think there’s any real animosity, aside from things peaking every once in a while,” he says. “There were some Granada supporters that used to throw rotten tomatoes at any cars bearing Málaga scarves by a spot on the motorway that connects the two cities, but that was as aggressive as it got. The game’s more about a party atmosphere than anything else, and that’s how football should be celebrated, with both sets of supporters enjoying each other’s company. It’s one of the games I miss the most.”
Málaga sit 10th in the Segunda. They finished 14th last season but are a Primera club in all but name. Since the dawn of the 21st century, they’ve competed in LaLiga in 17 seasons, with this current campaign being only their fifth outside of it in that time. Having said that, it’s true that their first season in the top flight was the 1999/2000 campaign. Málaga won the Intertoto Cup in 2002, reaching the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup the following season. They also made it to the quarter-finals of the Champions League as recently as 2013. They’re a long way from such heights now.
“Things are bad, to be honest,” Paco Alba tells La Liga Lowdown. “The club’s in a transitional stage. The owner has been removed from the management of the club but there’s been a series of irregularities, contracts that weren’t fulfilled and questionable loans. The major thing at the moment is removing the most expensive players from the squad and reducing the wage bill, and that’s a slow and gradual process.
“There’s a lot of interest from the wider public when things are going well, but as soon as things become a little complicated there aren’t so many behind the team. People get involved with the club, but only to a certain extent. There needs to be more involvement at the local level, but it’s tough for people to take that step. They prefer to remain mere spectators without becoming directly involved in the club, something that becomes a problem when the people in control of the club aren’t from Málaga. In that sense, the club has a different culture to Sevilla or Betis, for example. Their people commit to their clubs and place a great deal of value in it, they treat it like it’s theirs. That doesn't happen to the same extent in Málaga. They care about the cultural and historical significance of the club, but they don’t commit to it in the same way they do in Seville.”
“I’ve got this theory about football that a lot of fans almost get off on the sadomasochism of their team being rubbish,” Matt Harrison tells La Liga Lowdown. “The situation at the club was not good when I got my season ticket, but I didn’t care. Then, as it unfolded, I became more and more invested. I loved the pre-match atmosphere, so relaxed and fun, more than I loved the football team, as the football team I stumbled upon was pretty useless.
“The rivalry with Granada is really more of a friendship than anything else in my experience. Especially with their recent Europa League run, the feeling is more congratulatory than anything else.”
Alba agrees. “I don’t feel like there’s that much of a rivalry with Granada,” he says. “I have a good friend from there, for example, who’s also a passionate football man and our relationship is cordial. There’s a lot of respect there rather than it being a harmful rivalry. Perhaps in the past, when the clubs were locking horns on a parallel sporting plane, it was more intense, but I don’t really see that nowadays. Sevilla are the big rivals. Betis too, but not to the same degree. There’s also a strong rivalry with Cádiz.”
Harrison concurs. “Sevilla are the ones they really hate,” he says. “I always compare Málaga with Newcastle. I used to go there with Swansea and I always felt, rightly or wrongly, that the city lived and breathed its football club. Málaga feels very blue and white to me, in step with its sea and sunshine. I think Málaga are a big club, but they could be massive. There’s so much potential with the Costa del Sol. I live in Marbella, just an hour away, and there’s a beautiful stretch of towns between them.”
“One of the best things about Málaga is the weather and the propensity to enjoy it,” Alba says. “The street life here is vibrant, and visitors can go to the beach or simply sit in the open air.” Harrison was similarly effusive. “I think a lot of Andalusian cities are quite similar,” he says. “They’re all quite fiery and in your face, but always in an almost loveable way. One of the major differences with Málaga is that it’s got this big hinterland, but the football club also feels somewhat isolated as they don’t have a major local rival. The locals who go to the game are remarkably proud of their football club, however, and a lot of them question why there isn’t a 60,000-seater stadium and more don’t go to the game, especially when you consider the size of their catchment area.”
As well as being the rivals of eastern Andalusia, Granada and Málaga are two very different expressions of ideas of the region. The former is inextricably linked with history and culture, a place where visitors are confronted by the past around every corner. The latter is more modern, a city where life is lived in the present tense and there’s a voluminous stream of new people always seeking its sea and sunshine. Despite their differences, both are one-club cities home to institutions that, while they aren’t necessarily neck-and-neck with the Seville giants, are immensely proud of their own identity. It doesn’t matter if you go to Los Cármenes or La Rosaleda. Both are Spanish football in a way you might not have known, living on its periphery but doing so with defiance.
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