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  • Writer's pictureSam Leveridge

The Fans That Spanish Football Could Never Leave Behind

2020 has been a difficult year for everyone. As football fans, it’s been a unique year. One in which from March onwards, only a select few club employees and journalists have been lucky enough to attend a live football match at an elite level in Spain. Such circumstances have only made us value fans more. Replaced by digital confetti and the sound of FIFA, the essence of fans in stadiums was gone. And it simply couldn’t be replaced.

Like anywhere in the world, Spanish football is built on the foundation of characters. After all, when going to a football stadium to watch a game, what stays in the memory for years to come is not just Lionel Messi’s magnificent free-kick or João Félix’s fancy footwork, but the people. “Football without fans isn’t football,” said Real Sociedad captain Mikel Oyarzabal ahead of the return of the game earlier on this year.

The saddest part of 2020 has been that it has robbed us of some of the greatest characters in the Spanish game. In this article, we will take a look at those who have provided golden stories, unforgettable memories and made Spanish football what it is today. Some, like El Txapela and Blas, have unfortunately left us this year. While tributes have been paid behind closed doors, San Mamés and Ipurúa will never be the same. Others have tried to soldier on, sending their support from afar, and in the case of one special supporter, Vicente Navarro, he was never absent after all. Here are the stories of some of Spain’s greatest football fans.

Jesús Arrizabalaga, ‘El Txapela’ - Athletic Club

One sad passing which has hit LaLiga in 2020 was that of Jesús Arrizabalaga, also known as ‘El Txapela’ for his recognisable hat. Jesús was regularly one of the most animated figures at San Mamés, even leading up to the final years of his life before he sadly passed away aged 89. Positioned behind the dug-out, he was in his element at the old San Mamés, where he would climb up security fences to wave and shout to those in the dug-out.

Featured regularly on El Día Después, his energy and motivation never faltered. Even when the team was struggling, he would be hauling himself up that fencing, demanded down by the same, tired stewards, who couldn’t help but laugh and embrace the enjoyment he got from the game.

“Jesús, El Txapela, was a very loved man in Bilbao, iconic for a very healthy way of understanding football, always being very close to the team and the players,” Athletic fan Beñat Gutiérrez says. “In a time of social media and polarised fans, El Txapela was an example to follow. Whenever a new coach arrived, part of the induction ritual was always El Txapela’s first salute to the man in charge, he never had a bad word against anyone.”

His legend spread far and wide, beyond the walls of San Mamés. He had become an emblem for all that Athletic Club had come to represent and won praise from fans across the country, who would often seek him out on their visits.

“He was a favourite with the peñas (supporters’ clubs), and whenever one visited San Mamés they’d ask him for a photo and he never turned them away,” Beñat explains, but it goes beyond that. El Txapela was so loved that he even had a peña named after him, the Peña Jesús 'El Txapela' de Belmonte in Cuenca with 35 members.

“His legendary expression was ‘¡Garrote!’, meaning something like strength, in the sense of hard work and effort, ability to fight,” Beñat recalls. “This garrote recalls the Athletic of yesteryear, the one Jesús loved. I hope Athletic never loses its garrote.”

Having attended Athletic games from the age of 10, and been a socio for more than 50 years before he passed, the final few years of his life saw his trips to San Mamés become less frequent as cold, Monday night scheduling did him no favours and his health deteriorated. His visits remained special, desperate to take selfies with players, even those who had already taken hundreds of photos with him before.

“The figure of Jesús El Txapela will always remain in the memory of Athletic fans,” Beñat insists. “The first time I took my son to a game, he asked me ‘Dad, who’s the guy with the big hat?’ and I just replied ‘A great guy’,” Potxolo Irugeli wrote for El Desmarque. It’s hard to imagine San Mamés without his towering presence behind the dugout, watching his Athletic.

Blas Sánchez, ‘El Pintor’ - Eibar

Another sad passing in the north of Spain was that of Blas Sánchez, fondly known as ‘El Pintor’ (The Painter). Blas was a man who not only loved Eibar, but he loved that other people came to see his Eibar. Having had the fortune to have met him myself, it’s hard to imagine anyone who has ever been in the Fondo Este of Ipurúa not having met, or at least heard, Blas.

“Blas was and always will be one of the most legendary Eibar fans, always present behind the east goal with his cigar and his blue and red umbrella – complete with all its cigar ember holes,” explains La Liga Lowdown’s Euan McTear, who got to know Blas well as he worked on his book, Eibar the Brave: The Extraordinary Rise of LaLiga's Smallest Team.

When Blas passed, Euan shared a touching tribute on Twitter, recalling how Blas welcomed him to the town on his first visit, later demanding an introduction to his girlfriend as if he were an older relative.

It is the perfect example of how Blas was far more than a fan at Eibar, but he was an institution. Players and officials paid tribute to him, with his umbrella and hat laid out on the side of the field. It was a touching moment which showed just how well known he was around not just the club, but the town.

“He’d followed the team for decades, since long before it was cool to do so,” Euan adds. “Off he went on away trips, but it was at home that Blas really came into his element. On a matchday, he’d station himself at one of the bars in the main square and the camera crews of ‘El Día Después’ knew exactly where to find him, with Blas and his jokes, rants and chants often appearing on the show.”

I met Blas on my first visit to Eibar with Euan in 2019, a grey and rainy Sunday morning kick-off against Real Valladolid. It would be fair to say that it’s a fixture which, on paper, would struggle to motivate even the most avid of LaLiga fans. Once in the stadium, Blas made a beeline for us. Having heard Euan’s stories, we were keen to meet the man in the flesh, but there was no need to find him. He was just desperate to tell us his stories, recalling the days of Eibar in the lower divisions and his excitement at seeing an Englishman, a Scot and a Greek stood in the Fondo Este at Ipurúa.

“Even though he was tiny in his final few years, before falling victim to the coronavirus pandemic, he stood out and nobody who went to a game at Ipurúa left without noticing him,” Euan says. And whilst his presence was always felt, his absence upon the return of fans will leave even more of a lasting impact.

Manuel Cáceres Artesero, ‘Manolo el del Bombo’ - Spain

Anyone who has ever attended a Spain game, either on the Iberian peninsula or at a tournament, will recognise Manolo el del Bombo (literally translated as “Manolo the guy with the drum”). Now aged 71, up until the pandemic he still followed Spain to every home game and major tournament, with a Spain shirt donning the number 12, or if it’s cold then a full tracksuit in team colours, an easily-identified hat and his trademark drum.

He owns the bar ‘Tu Nuevo Museo’ next to Mestalla, packed to the rim with sporting memorabilia from his travels, fans and others who donate. He’s so famous that he’s even got his own website. At games, he wanders around the stadium, banging on his drum and getting fans to join the chants.

I saw Manolo in his element for myself for the first time as Spain took on England in Alicante in November 2015. It was the same night that terror attacks took place in Paris, and as the game wore on and news filtered through, there was a tense atmosphere around the stadium. The moment that cut the tension was the arrival of Manolo, followed by a crowd of cheering children desperate to get their photograph with this icon. It wasn’t just children though, as fans of all ages joined in the chanting and queued up for selfies. Years later, at a game at the Bernabéu against Sweden, from my seat in the lower tier you could see crowds forming in the top tier. “What’s going on?” asked my partner, confused by the crowds of people running and dancing. With squinted eyes, you could make out a bald man banging his drum, Manolo.

Manolo has his critics. Some have accused him of being a freeloader, taking advantage as the Spanish Football Federation pay for some of his travel costs and he has done advertising around major tournaments. To do so is to criticise blindly, ignoring a man who has risked everything to follow his country across the globe.

The costs of following his country, running a bar and being driven into the ground by a pandemic, financial concerns have led to him even having to consider selling his drum. “I’m going to have to sell the drum to be able to eat,” he told CV Radio. “With the bar shut, I don’t have any income, I have a pension for €800 and a €420 mortgage.”

El bombo no se mancha,” or ‘my drum won’t be stained’ was his reaction when asked if he’d advertise on it, but he may finally be convinced to part ways. In 2017, after undergoing an operation on a heart issue, he travelled to Murcia to follow Spain in a friendly against Colombia, and his drum was stolen from his car. Fortunately, police retrieved it after a widespread public campaign.

His love of Spain goes beyond money, though. In 2010, as Spain were on the path to winning their first ever World Cup, Manolo fell ill in South Africa and was sent home to Spain. Still recovering, he went against medical advice to return to the southern hemisphere in time for the semi-final clash against Germany.

"I lost everything for football: my family, my business, my money, the lot,” he told The Guardian in 2012. “But I would do it all over again tomorrow. There is just nothing like representing your country.” For Manolo, there is no limit to his commitment, at least not for his Spain.

Margarita Luengo - Atlético Madrid

It would only be right to include the good, too. A story of how one legendary fan has not been lost or forgotten. One of the best of these stories belongs to Margarita Luengo, a loyal Atlético Madrid fan who places a bouquet of four red carnations and four white carnations in the south-east corner of the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano ahead of every match played there in a tradition dating back nearly 25 years.

It all began when Margarita took the flowers from a bar at the Estadio Vicente Calderón and threw them on to the pitch. Her favourite player was Milinko Pantić, Atleti’s corner-taker at the time, and so she threw them towards the corner. She took four flowers, saying they would signify the four goals Atleti would score that day. It was 27th June, 1996, and Atlético would beat Athletic Club 4-1, with Pantić scoring one and assisting two. Margarita’s trick had worked.

She went on to start the new ritual, placing the flowers in the corner before kick-off in every game. It worked a treat and became part of Atleti’s folklore. Banners were made praising Margarita and her flowers, a fundamental part of life at the Calderón. Ahead of the final game at the stadium, Atleti’s ultras in the fondo held up three banners forming “El espíritu del Calderón” (The Calderón’s spirit) and Margarita’s flowers were among them.

It continued at Atlético’s new home, and having witnessed it myself from my seat in the Fondo Sur, fans eagerly await Margarita’s stroll around the edge of the pitch minutes before kick-off. Players are often seen to wave and nod over to Margarita, particularly those who have taken or scored from corners in the past game. It has become a ritual that Atlético fans cannot be without.

When games were forced behind closed doors, Atleti continued the tradition. Before their first game at the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano post-pandemic, against Real Valladolid in late June, Atlético officials called her. To her surprise, they asked exactly what flowers she included in her bouquet so that they could prepare it and lay it out in her absence. On the day of the game her surprise only grew as captain Koke video-called her as he strolled across the turf with her flowers in his hand.

“I’ll leave them here and let’s hope they bring us luck and we win and score a goal from a corner,” the Atlético captain said. 81 minutes in, he took a corner from that very spot which Vitolo converted to give Atleti the three points.

For Margarita, her Atlético can’t play without her good luck symbol in the south-east corner. Luckily for her, Atleti aren’t making sure that even in her temporary absence, her flowers are never missing.

Vicente Navarro - Valencia

Throughout the closure of stadium doors to fans, one seat in the stands of Mestalla was always occupied. If you head to row 15, seat 164 of the Tribuna Central, you’d find the only fan who was able to attend every game behind closed doors: Vicente Navarro.

An avid fan in his youth, Vicente’s legacy would live for years to come. He followed the club at home and away, travelling all over Spain to attend matches. At the age of 54, a detached retina meant he lost his sight. But he was adamant and continued to attend Mestalla for every home game for another 35 years. His son, Sento, would sit next to him and commentate the game into his ear, amid the cheers and chants around him.

That’s not to say that Vicente’s enjoyment was ever diminished. He described the double year of 2004, when Rafa Benítez led the team to LaLiga and Copa del Rey success, as “one of the happiest of his life”.

It didn’t mean that there weren’t any moments of confusion. “Where we sat, there were often delegates and officials from the opposition sat near us. I remember one game, against Real Madrid, where they scored and all stood to clap and cheer, shouting ‘Goal!’ and my dad started to celebrate too, he thought we’d scored,” recalls Sento Navarro, son of Vicente, talking to La Liga Lowdown’s Paco Polit in a podcast for Veus Fé Cé.

When he passed away in 2016, the club were keen to pay tribute and in 2019, the club built a statue to occupy his seat. That statue has been the sole fan present at Mestalla, watching on as Valencia have been through a rollercoaster ride on and off the field.

Valencia’s 18th-longest holding socio at the time of his passing, Vicente’s story is a touching one. At a time when so many of us have felt detached, struggling to connect with the game we love from a distance, Vicente’s love of the game and his club provides hope and inspiration.

“Becoming blind made him even more Valencianista,” Sento said when speaking to Paco. His ability to connect to the game, regardless of his lack of vision, saw him develop a unique connection with Valencia. For Vicente, heading to Mestalla on a weekend afternoon was his opportunity to live as if he could still see.

“If my father was still alive to know that they’d built a statue of him, he would have died again, only this time of pride,” Sento added. As we lose so many of the privileges that had become a part of our daily lives, it’s stories like that of Vicente which can bring us back down to earth to appreciate what really matters. In his case, it was his Valencia.

And the rest

Anyone who has attended a football match in Spain, like anywhere in the world, will know that stadiums are full of characters. But in Spain, the loyalty is different. It goes beyond people who dress up or chant loud with drums, it becomes the life of some. For they are not just Eibar fans at Ipurúa, they are Eibar fans in the café on a Tuesday lunchtime, they are Eibar fans on the train to work on Thursday morning, they are Eibar fans with every breath that they take. This generation of incredible fans will be followed by more, other Spaniards with the same sense of loyalty, the same sense of commitment to the cause. A world removed from the rage and fury of social media, these are the true fans of Spanish football.

If you'd like to see more up-to-date Spanish football news, match information or want to know where El Txapela bought his hat, you can find us on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown.

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