The first clásico weekend has a habit of shaping the season, a glimpse of the way things are and the way they’re going to be, pieces starting to fall into place. Take last year, when Barcelona beat Madrid 5-1 at the Camp Nou in Week 10, got Julen Lopetegui the sack and won the league. Or the year before when they got a 3-0 victory at the Bernabéu in Week 17 and won the league; the year before that when Madrid got an 90th-minute Sergio Ramos equaliser that felt like a winner in Week 14, held on to top spot and finished as champions; or the year before that when, in Week 12, Barcelona beat Madrid 4-0 en route to claiming La Liga. Actually, take almost every year for over a decade. Ten of the last 13 teams to win the first clásico won the league and 13 of the last 15 teams to come out of clásico weekend top went on to take the title.
This time, the team that emerged from clásico weekend top are: Granada.
That’s Granada, the newly-promoted club whose manager insists that never mind winning the league all he wants to do is play in it. Forget success, it’s about survival. Forget being first: even if it’s only a few days and has got a little asterisk by it, Diego Martínez says he’s not even looking at the table and nor are his players, busy doing what their manager says as usual. “We’re not looking at the numbers,” defender Germán Sánchez insisted on Sunday, lying quite a lot, let’s face it, before adding: “I’m sorry to be like this, but this is what’s taken us so far.”
It has taken them further than anyone imagined and further than anyone, full stop. And just because Germán says he’s not looking at the numbers doesn’t mean no one else can: the Granada starting XI that beat Betis 1-0 on Sunday cost €6.1m. Only one of them played in the first division last season, and he only started five times. These are players, their manager says, who’ve been “down in the mud”. As for him, he’s 38, the youngest in La Liga and he’d never been in primera before, either. Their salary cap is €35.46m, only ahead of Valladolid (€32.03m) and Mallorca (€29.96m), making them the 18th poorest club and making their limit 18 times lower than Barcelona’s, at €671.43m. And yet here are the numbers that matter most: they’ve won six, have 20 points, and their league position is one.
Granada finished week 10 top, the seventh leader this season. In part that’s because this was a clásico weekend without a clásico – and, whisper it, but it was actually quite nice – but only in part. The postponement of Madrid’s visit to the Camp Nou after the trouble in Barcelona and the league’s determination not to let it become a political platform means Spain’s big two will have a game in hand until 18 December. Realistically, they’ll have already overtaken Granada by then, as might any of the top seven – currently separated by just three points – but that doesn’t make this less impressive. “Unthinkable,” Martínez called it.
Granada’s fans had started gathering at 11am. By the time the team bus arrived, soon after noon, there were thousands outside Los Cármenes. “Spectacular,” the manager called it. “I got goosebumps.” At one end of the ground, a huge banner was unfurled, Oliver Atom and his teammates in Granada’s red and white hoops. They knew a win would put them top, where they hadn’t been for 46 years. They’d never been there this late in a season. And they’d never expected to be there again. But an Álvaro Vadillo goal means that there they are, 10 weeks in – just about the time the table gets taken seriously.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. When Granada went down in 2016-17, they won four games all season; they’ve won more already this time. They collapsed in crisis back then, Tony Adams taking over for the final weeks, knowing hope had already sailed. They used 39 players from 21 countries, most of whom they didn’t own. John Jiang, the owner, had bought virtually an empty shell from Gianni Pozzo: the stadium wasn’t theirs, the training ground wasn’t either, 13 of the squad were on loan and only 44 of 106 players across the first team, second team and under-19s belonged to them. Adams fielded a team of 11 different nationalities – if team was ever the right word.
It didn’t happen fast, but things did eventually change after Antonio Cordón, Antonio Fernández Monterrubio and Fran Sánchez took over the running of the club – 12 of the squad are now from Andalucía, for a start – although the legacy was not easily overcome. The former president Quique Pina was charged with money laundering and bugs were found at the stadium and the training ground, hidden inside smoke detectors. Granada finished 10th in that first season in segunda.
By the start of the second season there, they employed Diego Martínez. By the end, they’d conceded just 28 goals in 42 gamesand finished second, earning automatic promotion back to the top flight. They needed reinforcements but the league reduced their salary cap by almost €5m. “The summer was difficult; what we planned for we couldn’t do,” Martínez admitted. “But we came out of it stronger, it brought us together.”
They drew 4-4 with Villarreal on the opening day, which was unlike them. Next they lost 1-0 at home to Sevilla. But then it began: they won four and drew one of the next five, beating Barcelona 2-0. At the Bernabéu, they almost turned it around, losing 4-2, Martínez gesturing for his players to keep their chins up. Two more wins followed. At Los Cármenes they’ve won four in a row, keeping a clean sheet every time. Betis became the third consecutive team to lose 1-0 there, the goal on Sunday an illustration of who Granada are: aggressive, pressing in packs, quick to rob the ball high.
Asked what the secret was afterwards, Martínez said: “The players.” There was a long pause, silence, everyone was waiting for something else. “You asked where the secret was,” Martínez said at last, fixing a stare. “In the players.”
The players and him. A full-back who never made it beyond tercera división, Martínez is a Galician who studied sports science at Granada University – just across the road from the training ground – married a woman from Granada and started coaching aged 25 at tiny local teams. He was eventually taken to Sevilla by Monchi, where he stayed for eight years, took the youth team to the title, won promotion with the B team, and finally worked under Unai Emery.
Back in Granada he’s built a group via barbecues and hiking in the hills. He takes inspiration from other coaches in other sports, like Phil Jackson, but he is a born leader, charismatic and convincing. Words are scrawled on the white board – cohesion, unity, intelligence, maturity, bravery, determination – and he talks of work, sacrifice and strength, insisting there are no stars; the group is the star. It can sound obvious, cliched, but the squad buys into it. They believe him and that makes it true.
“We haven’t got millions of euros but we have effort, enthusiasm and ambition,” Germán says.
The day Martínez took over, he said: “If I have lemons, I’ll make lemonade; if I have oranges, I’ll make orange juice.” The team is “chameleonic”, he says. On Sunday he noted they have to “wear a lot of different suits during every game”. But, he insists, he will never ask his players to do anything they haven’t worked on in training and it shows. Granada are only the third newly-promoted team ever to be top as late as Week 10. In week two, Martínez insited his team had “looked Sevilla in the eye”; now they look at the rest over their shoulder. “This is like chewing gum – let’s see how long we can stretch it out,” Germán said. The run, he meant, not the position. “We know where we come from, and the table is just a quirk,” Vadillo insisted.
Yet even if they don’t stay there, even if the dream is salvation as Martínez keeps saying and said again this weekend, well, that dream is closer. Just over a third of the way through the season, Granada are already halfway to safety. “It’s an absolutely incredible amount, but we’ve worked for them and they’re deserved,” he rightly insisted. Now, they can enjoy them, whatever happens next. At the final whistle, the first manager to take Granada top in almost half a century turned to where supporters leapt and cheered, barely able to believe it, and he roared, clenching his fists. “You can feel it; they’re enjoying this too,” he said. “The connection was tremendous, for two hours everyone forgot their problems; when fans identify with you, share your values, it’s extraordinary. How nice it is to be in this situation.”