Nino: Elche’s Dreamer
Written by Alex Brotherton
Sometimes, footballers just find their home. Whether they leave and later return or never fly the nest in the first place, like the rest of us, the feeling of comfort and belonging is impossible to ignore. It’s a feeling so primitive and central to the human condition that, when lucrative contracts, dream transfers, sponsorships and silverware all conspire to dictate a player’s career, the longing for home often trumps all.
Juan Francisco Martínez Modesto, better known as Nino, knows the feeling all too well. At 40 years old, the Elche captain and talisman is in the twilight of his playing career, a journey that’s seen anguish and elation, departures and returns, records broken and a legend forged. Far from a curtain call, his 13th and final season with Elche has been a long time coming. For the opportunity to represent Elche in the Primera, Nino has waited his whole career.
Few players in Europe, never mind just Spain, are as synonymous with one club as Nino is with Elche. While green and white may not be in his DNA, having been born 200 kilometres down the A-7 motorway in Vera, Almería province, Nino embodies what it means to be a franjiverde better than anyone else. “His passion and commitment to Elche shines through”, explains Elche supporter Neil Parsons. “That resonates with the fans, who dream of pulling on our club’s shirt.”
The relationship between Nino and Elche is intense, one of love, dedication and mutual appreciation. It was in November 1998 that Elche gave the 17-year-old striker his professional debut, a year after joining the club’s youth setup from Real Madrid. That day he came on as a substitute to replace future Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova, and as journalist Adrián Díaz Pomares remembers, he never looked back. “They were his first steps as a professional. A decisive added-time goal in 1999 against Melilla, aged just 18, practically gave Elche promotion to Segunda, so he earned his place in the team. Eventually, he became captain.” The faith showed in him at such a tender age sparked a connection between player and club, a relationship that, despite the circumstances, would only get stronger and more personal.
A year later, the striker got his first taste of Spain’s second division. It’s within the context of Segunda that the legend of Nino, both within Elche and the wider football community, is most revered. Over his career he’s spent 13 seasons in Spain’s second division and can boast to be the league’s all-time goal-scorer (194) and appearance-maker (571). In his last season there, 2019/20, he started 31 of 40 league games despite being 39 years old and became the first player ever to score in 23 consecutive calendar years of Spanish football. He’s been promoted to Segunda twice and LaLiga three times. “I will always say that if Nino is the footballer with the most matches and goals in Segunda”, says Adrián, “then it is because he has played in the Primera much less than he deserves”. So how has it come to be that his final season as a professional is his first in Primera with Elche?
This is where this story of mutual love and adoration differs from others - Nino is not a one-club player, no Paolo Maldini or Francesco Totti. Far from it, in fact he spent the best years of his career away from the club of his heart. By 2004/05, Nino was beginning to fire on all cylinders, but unfortunately Elche were not. While only 5 feet and 7 inches tall, he was deceptively strong with a stocky build, and played with an intelligence and guile hard to come by at that level. He was aggressive, tenacious and relentless in his pursuit of goals. In 2004/05, he bagged 20 league goals and followed up the next season with 13, but Los Franjiverdes could only muster 10th- and 14th-placed finishes respectively. Nino had proved that he was too good for Segunda, that he could make the step up to Primera, and potential suitors were circling.
In the summer of 2006, the moment all Elche fans had dreaded arrived. Levante paid €1.5 million for his goals and, without even having to leave the Valencian Community, Nino’s LaLiga dream came true. Only the goals never followed him. In 19 league appearances for Los Granotas he found the net only once, and the following summer he left for Tenerife. Back in Segunda, it was like he never left. The next two campaigns he scored 19 and 29 goals respectively, the latter tally firing the club to promotion. This time round, Nino took LaLiga by storm. Although Tenerife failed to stay up, he still scored 14 goals, proving that he could cut it in Primera. Osasuna took note and brought him to Pamplona in 2011, but in three LaLiga seasons he failed to make much of an impact. After again suffering relegation in 2014 he continued to work hard, and in 2016 won his second promotion to the top tier of Spanish football. Only this time, Nino didn’t stick around.
In 2016, ten years after leaving to chase a dream, Nino returned to Elche. At his unveiling, he had the air of someone who was finally home, comfortable and at ease. “I’m delighted to be here and I still can't believe it”, he said. For Neil, a deep-rooted love for Elche could be the only reason for Nino’s return. “At the time things weren't good at Elche. They were still suffering financial hardship from the poor management at the top which had resulted in relegation from the top flight. Nino returning was the boost the fans needed and helped unite the club moving forward. It wasn’t about money, but his love for Elche.”
But things didn’t go to plan. The club was still feeling the effects of the aforementioned administrative relegation from LaLiga the year before, and it translated into struggles on the pitch. Despite scoring 12 goals and providing five assists in 2016/17, the unthinkable happened; Elche were relegated to Segunda B, the league where Nino and Elche’s paths first met 19 years earlier. Faced with the daunting prospect of regional third-tier football at 36 years of age, he would have been forgiven for walking away. But he didn’t. “Several offers were made from Segunda clubs”, remembers Neil, “but he was happy at Elche. He preferred to stay and show loyalty to his club.”
The following season saw Nino captain Elche to promotion at the first time of asking, albeit through the notoriously difficult play-offs. The ageing striker scored three goals, all off the bench, in the two-legged semi-final wins against a youthful yet robust Sporting Gijón B, before scoring a crucial second in the first leg of the final against Villarreal B. But perhaps more significant than his goals that season were the ways in which he adapted his game. Nino was 37 (38 by the end of the playoffs), so he couldn’t be the bustling, behind-the-lines forward anymore. His desire to still play a part in Elche’s recovery, and the tactical intuitiveness of new coach Pacheta, saw Nino’s influence remain as strong as ever. “Since Pacheta came to the bench in February 2018, Nino has played more behind the benchmark forward,” analyses Adrián, “with more presence in the development of the play, dropping deep and supporting the midfielders. His vision and passing are terrific. He is a very intelligent forward and has a great sense of goal.”
A mid-table season in Segunda followed, before a truly unforgettable 2019/20 campaign. A 39-year-old Nino started 31 of Elche’s 42 league games and, after an inconsistent start to the season, by February Los Franjiverdes were firmly in contention for a play-off place. Neil says one game in particular stood out. “I witnessed first-hand what Elche means to Nino, when I attended the 3-2 away win at Rayo Vallecano. Nino came off the bench after 30 mins with Elche 1-0 down. I saw the passion and commitment he brings to the team, he never stopped running and encouraging the team, all at the age of 39.”
Of course, the season was suspended in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic, yet when play resumed in June, Elche were far from assured of promotion. A run of one win in six, followed by a 3-1 defeat to promotion rivals Fuenlabrada, seemed to scupper all hopes. But fate had other ideas; Nino had to reach LaLiga with Elche. The final day fixture between Deportivo de La Coruña and Fuenlabrada, a game with huge play-off implications, was postponed due to a Covid outbreak in the Fuenla camp. When it was played almost three weeks later, Fuenlabrada knew a point would see them leapfrog Elche into sixth place, the final play-off spot. Incredibly, a 95th-minute penalty allowed Deportivo to clinch a 2-1 come-from-behind win, and Nino’s dream was kept alive.
In the play-offs, Nino cemented his legacy forever. He scored the only goal of a two-legged semi-final against Real Zaragoza, a side that twice beat Elche during the regular season, hammering home a low strike into the bottom corner in the 81st minute of the second leg. Again, fate appeared to play a part – Javi Ros missed an 87th-minute penalty for the hosts, sending his panenka effort straight into the goalkeeper’s gloves.
Now, only Girona stood between Nino’s Elche and the Primera. Like the semi-final, the first leg ended goalless at Elche’s Estadio Manuel Martínez Valero, meaning a winner takes all showdown in Catalonia. Coincidently, Nino’s two previous promotions to LaLiga, in 2009 with Tenerife and 2016 with Osasuna, had been secured at Montilivi against Girona. “There is no two without three”, he joked to the press before the game. He was right. In typically last-gasp fashion, in a season where Nino and Elche defied the odds, Pere Milla headed home a 98th-minute far-post header to send the travelling contingent wild.
It was clear what a first promotion to LaLiga with Elche, his Elche, meant to the now 40-year-old Nino. Turning to the TV cameras after the final whistle, he pulled off his shirt to reveal a vest bearing the words “Estrella, Alejandro, Nuria”, the name of his wife whom he met in Elche, and their two children. Nino’s connection with Elche goes way beyond his club-record 427 appearances and 125 goals, or even being captain. Local journalist Pablo Salazar wrote: “he personifies to the maximum the values of this sport: professionalism, effort and dedication.”
After promotion to Segunda in 2018, Elche’s hero was invited to be the town crier for the annual August festival. He’s been an ambassador of the Elche Marathon, and has been bestowed the honours of Knight of the Royal Order of the Lady of Elche, and Protector of the Misteri d’Elx. Nino is embedded in the very fabric of the town. He is their saviour.
In the aftermath of that triumphant night in Girona, Nino said: "I've played for this team at almost every level, and I've always wanted to pull on this jersey in LaLiga. So, it's a really nice moment. It's going to be special and emotional because it's taken a long time to get here". On 26th September 2020, the captain made his LaLiga bow for his boyhood club, albeit in a 0-3 defeat to an excellent Real Sociedad side. He has since struggled for game time, but if he finds the back of the net at any point this season, he will become the oldest goal-scorer in LaLiga history. It would be the latest in a long list of records, but he won’t care about that. In pulling on the shirt of his boyhood club in LaLiga, Nino has realised the dream of millions. Helping keep Elche up would be the perfect end to a magnificent 23-year career, but regardless, he has taught us all a valuable lesson; to fight, to love, to be dedicated. To dream.
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