Meet Las Palmas, the tiny team making waves and capturing hearts in Spain
They never dreamed of this, and their manager never really dreamed at all. Have a look at the league table, just as they have had a look daily -- hourly, even -- for the last fortnight as if scared that it might have changed, determined to enjoy every moment of this. You'll see what they see. The best team in Spain right now, the team at the top of the league, isn't FC Barcelona or Real Madrid. It's Unión Deportiva Las Palmas.
Las Palmas haven't been there for 38 years. Until last season, they hadn't even been in the first division for 14 years and eight weeks into the 2015-16 campaign, they sacked their manager. The team lay second from the bottom, and the truth is that many thought it unfair and, frankly, pretty pointless. After all, Paco Herrera had brought them back up, more than a decade later and there wasn't much more he could do. They wouldn't be any better under a different manager.
Actually, it turned out that they would. They won just four of their first 17 games last year but slowly, things would change. Under Quique Setien, they lost just four of their last 13 and three of those came when their season was as good as over, safety secured. They lost just 2-1 to Barcelona and 2-1 to Madrid, actually unfortunate not to overcome both. Now, momentarily at least, they have: Spain's big two sit beneath them this weekend.
It's only Week 3 of the campaign, sure. And it won't last; everyone knows that. But still: 38 years. Thirty-eight. And this isn't purely a fluke; last season shows that. The football they have played so far this season shows it too: two wins out of two, nine goals scored, no scraped victories, no lucky wins. Last season it took until December for them to score as many; this time, they managed it before the end of August. No one dreamed of this. And no, Quique Setien didn't dream at all.
That's what he says, anyway. Setien was a talented footballer, smooth and technically gifted. He says he would have cut off a finger to have played with Johan Cruyff's Barcelona "Dream Team." Setien went to the 1986 World Cup with Spain without getting a game. But he also says he was a bit different and when it comes to management, he didn't really have any ambition. He was a player. He liked playing. And that, it seemed, was pretty much that.
When Setien took over at Las Palmas last season, he was making his first division debut as a coach... at the age of 58. In part because he had been overlooked, yes, but in part because he had never chased it either. "My ego had been satisfied by playing," he said. At the end of his career, he played beach football (he was a Spanish international for seven years), and when he did take over as coach at Racing Santander, his hometown team, he said it was "circumstantial." He had not so much as coached a youth team game before.
Spells followed at Poli Ejido, Logrones (where he went unpaid for seven months) and Lugo. He took Lugo up. Oh, and he had a couple of 10-day periods in charge of Equatorial Guinea, an experience he describes as absolutely unimportant in his life but one from which he learnt.
Setien once admitted that he doesn't live to coach; rather, he coaches to live. It was a job, and he needed the money; he wasn't driven by the competition or the ambition, exactly. Or so he said. "I like to be happy, comfortable," he admitted. It was just a pity that meant that he tended not to see things quite the way that directors do. Directors, he would add, that know nothing about football. Well, quite.
It feels different now. Las Palmas is very much his team; this is what the Spanish describe as an "author's team," one where it's clear who is behind it. Right from the start, he thought (or perhaps hoped) that it might be. This was his kind of place, his kind of club. "The kind of place where they understand me, and that's not easy," he said. Setien is "stubborn," his assistant coach Eder Sarabia adds -- "He may not look like it, but he is a perfectionist."
He's something of an idealist too. He says his approach to football is non-negotiable, and he laments that youth development has taken the fun out of the game. He talks about football as something lúdico -- about enjoyment. Kids are taught to move, to position themselves, when to pressure and when to cover, but he says, "no one lets them dribble any more." They're on the pitch, alright, but are they actually playing? "They can be there for half an hour and not touch the ball."
There's a contradiction here: as coach, he has his team playing quick, incisive, athletic football. There's idealism, but there is realism too: he admitted that he loved watching Juan Carlos Valerón play, claiming he was a footballer so good as to bring tears to his eyes, but he also admitted that he couldn't always play him. "Football has become very hard; you have to run a lot," he said.
For all the contradictions, those principles do come through. And Las Palmas does feel like the right place for Setien. It is partly a cliché, of course, but the Canary Islands have often been seen as Spain's Brazil: a three-hour flight from the peninsula, west of Africa, hot and sandy, a place where football is played with technique and flair, a sense of adventure and fun. Setien's Las Palmas do that; few teams are as enjoyable to watch.
Spain's league leaders are a team that robs possession and runs but does so with pace and precision, not just a hoof up the pitch. When they defend, they do so to attack. They're a team where the full-backs push and the midfield breaks beyond the striker, where the ball is moved quickly, with one touch, and is treated well. If they lose it trying to make the right pass, there is no reproach, just encouragement to try it again.
Setien is a keen chess player who even played against grand masters Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov (or so the story goes) and believes that chess helps him understand football. The centre is the key, the collective functioning; improvisation, yes, but mechanism too. All of it through the ball. They have scored nine times from 11 shots on target this season but not because they are unusually effective and certainly not because they are lucky. Rather, it's because the chances they create are so clear, having expertly sliced their opponents open.
It was happening last season; now they look even better. Las Palmas have kept Roque Mesa, despite the pursuit of Sevilla -- he won the ball back more times than any other player last season -- and have seen Jonathan Viera pull on Valerón's shirt and play the football of his career. They also signed Kevin-Prince Boateng this summer. He admits that he watched them last season against Madrid and loved it even though he didn't know where Las Palmas was. "Tiki-taka," he called it. Who were this daring team in yellow playing like this?
"Why join Las Palmas?" Boateng was asked this week. "Why not?" he replied. The former Milan midfielder has scored twice this season; he is enjoying this. They all are. Everyone is. Nine goals already this season, four against Valencia, five against Granada, and the leadership. Tomorrow they go to the Sánchez Pizjuán to face Sevilla, where there were ten goals on the opening weekend. This should be fun; football should be fun.
Setien says so.
"A lot of the time I would rather play chess than watch football," he said once. A lot of the time, perhaps, but not always. Not any more. And not when his team is playing.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.