When at long, long last it comes, the roar rips right through you, taking you back to a better place. Suddenly there’s a release and in that moment all is right again. It’s just a goal, but it’s not. It’s the 97th minute and it’s the winner, dramatic and desperate, but that’s not it either. It shouldn’t be this good, maybe shouldn’t be good at all, but bloody hell it’s good. Time slips away, tension tears at them, and then it happens: the ball comes from the right and Eneko Bóveda heads it into the net. Deportivo La Coruña have beaten Salamanca on the opening day and there is an explosion, briefly returning everything to where it belongs.
This weekend, for the first time since March, football fans returned to stadiums in Spain. It is tentative, not welcomed by everyone with Covid-19 cases rising, and it is limited, just a small step forward. But it is something. Something big, as it turns out; bigger than you imagined. It is hard not to be carried along, not to get lost in the emotion, to share it. That sound, that feeling, that release: how we’ve missed it.
The capacity at Riazor, Deportivo’s home by the beach in Spain’s north-west corner, is 34,899 and it has seen better nights – but none quite like his. Only 3,400 tickets are sold, wide blue seas of seats, but somehow the noise still fills the stadium, a silence longer than any in living memory broken at last.
Not every ground is open and none this size are. A day earlier 150km away, Deportivo’s rivals Celta Vigo play Atlético Madrid behind closed doors but there is a reason why Deportivo are different: they have fallen.
A long way.
Salvador Illa, the health minister, says opening football to fans is “unnecessary”. In the first and second divisions, where TV money sustains them, doors remain closed. But from the third tier down, where it is officially “amateur”, where if there are no fans there is no football and closing doors would mean permanently drawing down the shutters for many of them, supporters have been allowed to return. The main reason, though, is simpler: professional football depends on central government and La Liga. Below that, protocols depend on the federation and the local health authorities.
And that’s where Deportivo are.
Deportivo won the league 20 years ago this year. It is 25 years since they first won the Copa del Rey, a commemorative shirt in the window of the club shop, modelled by Fran – the captain who also lifted the trophy in 2002 at the Bernabéu on Real Madrid’s 100th birthday. On sale inside, two lovingly produced books tell the story of Riazor and over a hundred European nights, tales of better times.
(Clockwise from top) A Deportivo fan checks out the window of the club shop, including the commemorative shirt worn by former captain, Fran González, now head of the club’s youth system, who is pictured as part of a crowd of 120 watching Silva; and the Teresa Herrera Trophy and Copa del Rey on display at Riazor.
They beat Arsenal, Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Juventus here; they put four past PSG and Milan. They had Bebeto, Mauro Silva, and Djalmhina. They had Juan Carlos Valerón and Manuel Pablo, now the B team coaches, although both are quarantined having tested positive for Covid. And they had Fran, who spends Sunday morning watching Silva in the tercera division before heading to Riazor. They finished in the top three nine times between 1993 and 2004. Super Depor, they had been called – and everyone loved them.
Super no more. Depor paid for those days. The debt was huge, the players no longer came, a social divide opened and they were relegated three times. Down in 2011 and 2013 and when they dropped again in 2018, they did not return. A year ago, a Pablo Mari header was two centimetres from taking them back to primera; a year on, they slipped out of the second division at the other end – the first time a league title winner has been in Spain’s third tier in over 70 years. And “third tier” doesn’t get close to explaining it: Second Division B has 102 teams.
On the final day, Deportivo were due to face Fuenlabrada, clinging to an outside chance of survival, only for the game to get postponed. The league had told Fuenlabrada to travel despite players testing positive. When they reached Galicia, there were more. Fuenlabrada were quarantined in their hotel, stuck. The final round of games went ahead without them and battles began. It was not lost on Deportivo fans that Fuenlabrada’s lawyer is the son of Javier Tebas, the La Liga president.
Eventually, they were called back from holidays to play and beat Fuenlabrada, but it was too late: in their absence, the other games had sentenced them. Details continue to emerge, accusations too, and a legal case awaits, but it was over.
A new start
This weekend, Deportivo kicked off a new season accompanied by their fans. The price they paid was their professional status.
Keko Gontán is nervous. More nervous, he says, than before any first division game. The return of fans changes things. Relegation changes things more. Down here, winning becomes an obligation. In Segunda B, Deportivo are Real Madrid or Barcelona only more so. Giants too big for this, there to be shot at.
Deportivo have 20,000 season ticket holders in a group where opponents Guijuelo, for example, play on an astroturf pitch with a capacity of 1,000. Twelve of the 21 in the squad have been in the first division and in a league of tiny clubs they have over 150 staff. Some players earn €300,000 in a division where there are footballers lucky to reach €1,500 a month. Then there’s the former Uruguay international Diego Rolán, signed two seasons ago but stuck now, on €1.3m.
In short, they shouldn’t be here. And they can’t afford to stay where there is no money, a place where they will play against rivals Celta Vigo’s B team. Only immediate promotion is acceptable. But this is uncharted territory, an elephant’s graveyard that can become an antesala to insolvency. And the structure is labyrinthine. Teams are squeezed into 10 groups and 20 sub-groups, there are three phases, it ends with a play-off, and at the end of it all of the 102 teams only four go up.
“The demands will be for us to win all the time; mentally that’s tough,” says captain Álex Bergantiños.
“Who knows?” one director says, when he runs into a friend on Sunday morning. “We have the players, the size, we’re a big club, but …”
And if Depor don’t win? He nods towards the sea. “Viking funeral,” he says.
The return of fans poses challenges and demands responsibility. What if something goes wrong? The logistics are complex, too. Socios protectores, members who waived their right to a refund after last season’s lockdown, get preference. Tickets go on sale on Monday, the queue snaking round the stadium. Over half the proposed 5,000 have been sold when the Galician government unexpectedly resets the limit at 1,000. There is a panic, a problem. Negotiations begin. In the end, 3,400 tickets are issued, all named and with every supporter filling out a declaration of responsibility.
Stickers have to be put on every seat not to be used, until someone says: wouldn’t it be easier to put them on every seat that is? The club historian is the one going through 5,000 names, mapping out the distribution around the ground, maintaining 1.5 metres between each supporter.
“Tetris,” he calls it.
The players start arriving shortly after 5pm, parking in front of the beach. Small groups of fans await them, this starting to feel like a match day. Most of all, they wait for Fernando Vázquez, a star here even if he doesn’t act like one. A former English teacher (and a Guardian reader) famous for wild touchline dashes to celebrate goals – which are, he says, the whole point – Vázquez has been all over Spain and Galicia especially.
(From top) Fans outside the ground, players Keko Gontán, Nacho Gonzalez and Mujaid Sadick arrive for the match and the manager, Fernando Vázquez, poses for pictures with fans.
The terraces outside the ground fill, so do the alleyways where the ultras gather. At six, gates open. Temperatures are taken, gel applied, masks worn, seats sought. In each row, there are six seats between each sticker, a V-shape created with the rows behind. The spaces are uniform and the lines straight, like a newly-planted forest. It looks a bit sparse and you worry it might end up feeling flat.
(From top) Fans queue to get into the ground, at a hand sanitizer station, get their temperature taken and a fan alone, among a sea of empty and stickered seats.
That is clear as soon as Depor goalkeeper Carlos Abad appears. There’s a sense of responsibility. Not just to the seriousness of the situation, but to their team. The applause is loud and warm, an awareness that they are not just the fans fortunate enough to get in but representatives for the whole of Riazor. The songs begin, “Deportivo never surrender” taking on renewed meaning. “You fell into Segunda B; I won’t abandon you.”
The team pose for the pre-match photo, socially distanced.
And it begins.
Maybe it’s the absence all these months, the longing, the happiness at being brought together again, reacquainted with the congregation, but it’s really enjoyable. There aren’t many of them, but the acoustics work, supporters making a noise beyond their numbers. There is actually an atmosphere.
They sing and don’t stop, accompanying the game, telling its story, its flow, conditioning it. And when Deportivo score the opener, Claudio Beauvue somersaulting, the “Gol!” comes from deep inside. He stands there, handed an audience at last, a reason for it all. Goals are just better with fans, however few.
Salamanca equalise, silence arriving for a second then quickly extinguished again. There are nerves. The team obliged to win is not winning and not playing particularly well either. Seconds run away from them; desperation visits them. There are whistles for the referee and for Salamanca’s timewasting and demands that Depor get forward. Changes are made, the chase is on, and the board goes up. Five minutes, it says.
Those five minutes that have gone when Miku brings a long ball down. Álex Bergantiños plays it wide. Yago Gandoy crosses. And there’s Boveda, unleashing everyone, liberation day. Keko, subbed just before, races on to the field. Carlos Abad runs from his goal almost to Salamanca’s. Everyone seems to be running somewhere, except Vázquez. Suspended, he is stuck in a glass box high in the stand, exploding inside, desperate to be down there.
This. This is it. This is the point of it all.
The whistle goes, the players embrace. They applaud fans, who applaud back. The PA announcer asks them to stay, so they sing. “In the dressing room it was as if we’d won a cup final,” Vázquez tells the press.
“It was lovely,” Bóveda says, “like going back to experiencing feelings that were almost forgotten. I thought it would feel emptier but the noise was great, despite the masks, the distances, not having fellow fans right next to them.”
It is dark outside, quiet again and Keko wears a smile as he heads to the car, released. “That ending, eh?”
Vázquez is the last to leave. “Without fans, we don’t win that,” he says.