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A tale of three cities

Lots of people have heard of Alicante, but not so many know of Elche, 20k south of the popular resort, about half way to Murcia.

It's one of Spain's stranger areas, where the intensively cultivated fields of the Valencia region begin to give way to the sparser lands of the Murcia province, where the heavy irrigation cannot hide the fact that the semi-arid desert of the south-east is beginning to take over.

Elche might not boast the most exotic urban delights on the peninsula, but is nevertheless famous for the extensive palm forest that surrounds the town - originally planted by the Moors.

The fronds produce dates, but as a source of income are more important for providing the country with leaves for Palm Sunday processions, and oddly enough, as charms against lightning.

But no charms will be able to keep out the 38,000 who will travel from Mallorca and Huelva on June 28th to fill out the stadium for the first time since it was used as a venue for the 1982 World Cup.

The occasion in June, is, of course, the final of the King's Cup, and the Spanish Federation's choice of ground has caused a right rumpus. Mallorca - fresh from slaughtering the poor lambs of Madrid this weekend to the historic tune of 1-5 in the Bernabéu - have not complained.

But Recreativo de Huelva, from the deep south, certainly have. Apart from the fact that they are still hovering just above the relegation zone after being whipped 5-0 up at Deportivo, they are distinctly unchuffed for another reason. Basically, they don't want to play at Elche.

Now it isn't at all uncommon for the Spanish to dispute an executive decision. In fact the nation is proof of that great adage, 'If something is working, make sure you change it'.

No-one is very happy here unless they are proposing an amendment, but the dispute over the June final is a little different.

Recreativo, it should be remembered, have never won a trophy in their very long existence. Profiled before in this column, they are the 'decano' of Spanish football, its oldest living member. 114 years after their foundation they have at last reached a final of something that is not a regional competition, and done it in some style too.

Their supporters, proud of the fact their team were the first off the blocks in 1889, are nevertheless highly conscious of their subsequent lack of achievement, this being only their second season in the top flight (the other year being in 1978-79).

Recre fans are still undecided as to whether they will turn up or not, and instead may turn the day into a protest, allowing the half-filled stadium to speak for itself.

They've been improving recently, and beat Villareal 5-0 the week before last - raising their hopes that the spectre of relegation might just be exorcised this time - but with the Deportivo defeat the hedonistic last rites possibilities of the June final edge ever closer.

They know, in the back of their minds, that it might represent a great day out, a sort of pyrrhic celebration at the end of a complicated but emotional season. And so, as they were hoping to travel to some sort of stadium worthy of the occasion, the Federation announced that the game was to be played in Elche.

No disrespect to Elche, lying mid-table in the Second Division, but the palm fronds and the imaginatively named 'Nuevo Estadio' (New Stadium) re-named 'Estadio Martinez Valero' after the death of the club's president in 1988, weren't quite what the fans of Recreativo had been expecting.

They had been playing against sides like Elche for years, and have thus interpreted the Fed's decision as a 'menusprecio', a resonant term in Spanish that means 'snub' but which also carries shades of condescension within its four meaty syllables.

Consider the contrast with last season. Real Madrid, in their centenary year, were handed the considerable motive of playing the final in their own stadium, with the normal June date being brought back to March 14th to accommodate the club's centenary night.

Though Madrid apologists far and wide saw this as a right and proper concession granted to the country's most distinguished club, others not so sympathetic saw it as evidence of the usual - that in La Liga everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others.

When they lost to Deportivo on their big night, there were plenty of people sniggering up their sleeves. But what would Huelva have given to be playing the final this season in the Bernabéu?

To be fair, Madrid announced some time back that they would be re-laying the pitch and effecting some modifications to the South Stand, so no complaints there. The Camp Nou was also out of the running for geographical and cultural regions - being far too close to Mallorca both physically and in spirit.

Valencia was not really on for the same reasons, and Valladolid was seen as too difficult for the Mallorca contingent to reach. Seville has plenty of stadia that could have been used, but the city is just up the road from Huelva, which would have drawn fire from Mallorca's fans.

Last on the list was Atlético Madrid´s ground, used several times for the King's Cup final and with a 54,000 capacity - 16,000 more than Elche's. But with a whole host of their own centenary events to be played out, they too were crossed off the list, leaving Elche - as the crow flies more or less equidistant between the two finalists.

Recreativo have since pointed out that at least 30,000 fans have applied for tickets, twice the number they have been allocated. Mallorca, surprisingly one of the more poorly supported sides in the First Division, have kicked up less of a fuss because the allocation suits them fine.

Remember too, that it is usually more difficult (and expensive) for a hard-core Mallorca fan to travel to an away game, such that the Elche destination is seen by them as a reasonable compromise.

Besides, the main municipal authority of Mallorca have seen fit to subsidise, to the tune of 300,000 Euros, the travel costs of every Mallorca fan who obtains a ticket for the game.

The club is of course very happy, but the local political opposition have dismissed it as a stunt to win votes before the May 25 elections. As if another example were needed, nothing in Spanish football is ever very simple.

Recreativo sources also claim that Elche had been decided on from the beginning because the sports company Puma, with its main headquarters there, has an under-the-table agreement with the Spanish Federation to advertise a new line in shirts that will coincide with the June final.

Even worse, one of the Spanish Federation's directors, Borrás del Barrio, just happens to be the President of the 'Federacion Balear' which of course includes Mallorca. Well - he's actually suspended from this office for five years for a case of corruption, but that hasn't impeded him from continuing in his other role with the main Federation.

Before the Elche announcement was made official, the claim from Huelva is that everyone in Mallorca knew - with the result that the island's travel agents booked up all Elche's hotel space in advance. Recreativo themselves have had difficulty in reserving accommodation, absurd though it may seem.

Poor Recre seem to have been handed the muddy end of the stick, but Elche's story is an interesting one in its own right. Their first ground back in 1910 was given the unfortunate name of 'El Clot', and their second stadium, demolished to make way for the current one, was called 'Altabix' - which sounds like a breakfast cereal.

Real's Estadio Santiago Bernabeu
Real's Estadio Santiago Bernabeu

The idea for the present one was first hatched in the 1960's by the man whose name the ground now posthumously bears, but finally opened its first turnstiles in 1976 with a friendly against Mexico.

President Martinez Valero, a sort of Ken Bates before his time, fancied turning the out-of-town site into a sports village complex, but failed to obtain the financial backing.

Martinez himself wrote a book on the saga, a saga finally solved by government money in 1981, a year before the World Cup in Spain. The stadium was expanded to accommodate 53,000, and became an unlikely venue for the group that contained Hungary, El Salvador and Belgium.

The ground still sits among fields, palm fronds and huertas (allotments) and has recently become a focus for disaffected youths of an evening who practice the ignoble Spanish art of the 'botellón' (Big Bottle), a habit which involves under-age drinkers obtaining large bottles of coca-cola and cheap wine (among other concoctions), mixing them and drinking themselves to oblivion, before the horrified eyes of a nation that had always considered itself to be relatively exempt from the problems befuddling the northern Europeans.

Elche's ground, never more than a quarter full on match days, has a cleaning-up act to carry out before June in this respect too, but of course its owners are more than happy with the revenue they will eventually accrue from the occasion, plus the standard royal visit.

As Simon Inglis put it in his excellent book 'The Football Grounds of Europe', Elche is 'A lot of stadium for such a little city'. Twenty-one years after the World Cup it's back on the map, but some folks are none too happy with the fact.

Huelva continue to protest, but it remains unclear where they now want the final to be played. However, a contact at the club has assured me that the Recre fans are still undecided as to whether they will turn up or not, and instead may turn the day into a protest, allowing the half-filled stadium to speak for itself.

Their argument, they insist, is not with Elche, but with the Spanish Federation and what they see as underhand practice. Strong stuff. This year's King's Cup may yet turn into the dampest of squibs.

Phil's book on Real Madrid, White Storm, can be bought via the internet. Also available, his splendid story of Spanish football, Morbo.

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