Granada gains a new attraction
For the tourist, the Spanish town of Granada has a host of attractions. From the Alhambra, the majestic hilltop fortress that overlooks the city, to the free tapas with every drink purchased; the ancient southern city also has a rich history. This was the place where Christopher Columbus got his blessing before sailing the ocean blue on his voyage of discovery in 1492.
However, Granada now has another reason to boast as it will be hosting Primera Division games for the first time in 35 years. While Real Madrid and Barcelona have put Spain on the footballing map, few outside of the country may have heard of Granada CF's exploits. Even one of their biggest fans, a local professor named Javier Martinez de Velasco, asserted when pressed on the side's talent: "They're very bad."
But this sentiment - or truth, rather - that had come to characterise Granada CF in recent times underwent a dramatic and almost instantaneous transformation on Saturday night when a 1-1 draw in Elche won the club promotion to La Liga.
The club's history is a humble one. After its initial promotion to the Primera Division back in 1941, Granada has been back to the top-tier of Spanish football only three times since, the most recent of these seasons ending in relegation at the end 1975-76. Their highest-ever finish in La Liga is sixth, they have never won the Copa del Rey (although were runners-up in 1958-59), and only six years ago the club found itself in the lowly depths of the Tercera Division, the dismal fourth-tier of Spanish football.
Three years after winning promotion to Segunda Division B in 2006, perhaps the club's most important deal to date took place in July of 2009 when new chairman Quique Pina signed a partnership agreement with Serie A's Udinese Calcio. The agreement allowed Granada to bolster its ranks immediately with a diverse influx of talented loan players from the Italian outfit, and El Grana took Spanish football's third-tier by storm winning promotion to the Segunda Division for the first time in 22 years at the end of last season.
The core of these Udinese castoffs - and there were 11 of them in total in a squad of 23 on Saturday - which included Swiss striker Alexandre Geijo and Spanish midfielder Dani Benitez, remained with the squad and continued their impressive form against stiffer competition. Geijo was runner-up for Segunda's top scorer with 24 goals and Benitez tallied nine, helping Granada finish a respectable fifth in the table.
A year ago, that would have spelled the end for Fabri Gonzalez's men as the top three finishers would have been promoted to La Liga. Instead, for the first time since 1987, a promotion play-off for the third and final spot was reintroduced for the teams that finished between 3rd and 6th place.
Granada battled Celta de Vigo in the first round, but after falling behind 1-0 away in the first leg, they rebounded and evened the fixture at home before winning 5-4 on penalties in front of a raucous crowd at the Estadio Nuevo Los Carmenes. The supporters, somewhat unbelievably, could once again - or, in some cases, for the first time - smell La Liga's ambrosial scent. Only Elche, the Alicante province-based club who finished a mere point ahead of Granada, stood in their way.
A scoreless draw in the first leg on Wednesday night at Los Carmenes ended in heart-breaking fashion as Granada's midfielder Abel failed to convert from the penalty spot twice at the death. Goalkeeper Jaime saved Abel's first attempt diving to his right, though an Elche infringement meant it had to be retaken. But Jaime was undaunted and dived to his left to save Abel's subsequent kick once more. This time it counted.
With 90 minutes standing between them and glory, the promise of more lucrative pastures on the horizon, and the backing of a fan base that had endured plenty, Granada looked the hungrier side from the offset in the second leg, their ominous black-coloured third kit complementing their menacing first half attack. The 28th minute then gave Granada and its supporters a moment they won't soon forget when striker Odion Ighalo - on loan from Udinese - tiptoed around an oncoming Jaime, and composed himself brilliantly in curling a shot into the back of the net to give El Grana a crucial away goal and a 1-0 lead. It could prove to be Granada's most important goal in living memory, as they barely hung on despite an Elche equaliser, finally winning through on the away goals rule.
The club was greeted with incredible fanfare when they returned home and over 25,000 people overflowed the streets of Granada to celebrate their club's enormous feat.
"It was a wild evening," said de Velasco, who watched the match at Granada's famous bar Leon. "[It was] comparable to when Spain won the World Cup a year ago."
"The whole city just exploded. I went for a walk with my son, and the entire city was celebrating. I loved seeing not just young people, but a lot of older people who had been waiting for this moment [for a long time]. Many were talking about old regional rivalries like those against Sevilla and Malaga, remembering when people would travel by the thousands to watch those games."
"I always thought there were too many Real Madrid and Barcelona fans in Granada. It was exciting to see so much Granada pride."
For fans like de Velasco, just thinking about the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi playing at Los Carmenes next season must seem too surreal a thought to take in. But so too, in the past, must have been notions of returning to La Liga for this club and its supporters.
Their optimism and excitement for their beloved club, however, remained steadfast and palpable throughout the city this year, and was perhaps best expressed on posters promoting El Grana that could be seen at almost every bus stop. Its tagline accompanying the illustration of a limited-edition Granada CF Alhambra beer bottle and team logo read: Un ano mas seguimos sonando juntos (One more year we continue dreaming together). After 35 years, the dream has come true.