Do we all know why the Elche people, and their football team are known as the ‘Illicitanos’? A long time ago a visiting Phoenician Queen so liked the area and its inhabitants that she decreed that they should not pay taxes as everyone else did, and so the citizens of Elche became known as the Illicit Ones, or ‘Los Illicitanos’ in Spanish.
Now this week with full modern irony, somehow history seems to have caught up with the city to right old wrongs. For ‘illicitly’ running their club contrary to La Liga regulations the Elche Football Club has been demoted from the mighty La Liga down to the Spanish second division (2A) after only two seasons back in the big time, despite finishing a creditable 12th. The Elche administration has not been paying its due taxes correctly, amongst a number of other ‘minor’ items – like not paying their players. Apart from those ‘poor’ footballers, if you have an ounce of football sympathy spare a thought for the innocent, very long-suffering Elche fans who have had to put up with a great deal from the Elche CF administration over the years. This latest situation has already provoked angry demonstrations in the City of Palms, because this demotion is a really savage kick where it hurts. I know, because I was an Elche fan for fifteen years until I stopped going at the end of last season. Quite simply, as an Englishman brought up on UK football I could stand the administrative side and organisation at Elche no longer. So I voted with my feet – despite the fact that Elche had, at last managed to get back in La Liga, a considerable feat after 26 long years away.
I moved to Spain in 1998 and a friend and I soon yearned to watch a decent class of football locally (no disrespect intended – and he‘s a Brighton fan…). Valencia was too far away, but second division Elche, a half-hours drive away ticked most of the boxes. The huge two-tier ‘Martinez Valero’ stadium at one end of the city is impressive, swathed in green and white, Elche’s distinctive colours giving them the secondary nickname of the Franjiverdes (greenshirts). The stadium was built for the 1982 World Cup which was held in Spain when Elche were doing well in La Liga, and the easily-approached stadium is also used for internationals, cup finals and pop concerts etc. Elche have been big in Spanish football in their time, and were once managed by the great Russian ex-goalkeeper Lev Yashin.
For the first few seasons we paid at the door and tried several positions around the ground, taking into account matters like price, weather, and the all-important view . Wherever we went we made friends on the terraces, despite the language barrier. It’s the same the world over: football fans are fierce, friendly, and frenetic about their team. One day early on, while losing one nil at home an over-excited Elche forward blazed the ball miles over the bar from a few yards out when faced with an open goal:
’Polla!’ yelled the irate Spaniard next to me. That insult refers to someone practicing hand relief – and I fully understood and agreed with the sentiments, perfectly put in any language. In those days Elche always seemed to have a decent defence that didn’t concede many, but conversely the attack didn’t score many either. ‘Brighton’ and I eventually decided to go for season tickets that showed decent savings versus paying on the day, a good deal especially when compared to UK prices. Eventually by turning up early when the season ticket sales were announced we worked our way up to excellent seats near the half-way line. These were just under cover for when it persistently hissed it down, when the rain in Spain wasn’t mainly on the plain, but also the cover providing some pleasant shade when the sun was fierce: all good stuff for diehard, experienced fans: so far, so good…
As a football fan you hope and dream for success at your club: year in, year out. For Elche the dream was always to get back up to La Liga; the club had steadfastly remained in the Seconda A League for over 20 years. Some seasons it looked at times as if the ‘Illicitanos’ might manage promotion, and conversely there were a few when we were all nervously looking over our shoulder. Then in 2008/9 ‘things’ began to look better. For once Elche got themselves a real goalscorer, one Jorge Molina who banged in 27 goals to win the prestigious ‘Pichichi’, Spain’s annual award for each league’s leading goalscorer. After the by-now-usual Elche practice of losing the first few matches of the season, firing the manager and then playing catch-up all season Elche eventually came sixth at a time when the top three were automatically promoted (that changed the following season to the more lucrative and exciting play-off system). Elche finished sixth – but to we fans’ amazement and fury the day after the season finished the club sold Molina to fourth-placed Real Betis. Demonstrations on the terraces got nobody anywhere in the meaningless pre-season friendlies – and off we went again.
But actually with a now-decent manager this new season carried on well, this time Elche reaching the play-offs in fourth place. The Franjiverdes beat Valladollid 3 – 2 in a thrilling semi-final, at one point two nil down on aggregate. Old enemies and very similar cities in size and football tradition-wise Granada were the final opponents and obstacle to the Green dream. In a tense 0-0 draw in Granada, the Elche goalkeeper twice saved a retaken penalty in the final minutes. But true tragedy struck back at the Martinez Valero for the return leg when a 1 -1 draw meant Granada went up to La Liga on a solitary away goal. Despite being a season ticket holder, I had to queue for hours outside the club in the blazing June midday sun to get our tickets for both semis and finals: despite cold drinks and umbrellas people were fainting and ambulances called. Grandads, dads, sons and also many female fans partied at the games with specially made palm trees and mascots, flags, banners and effigies of Elche, but ultimately the golden promotional prize eluded Elche. Back to the drawing board…
Three years ago with a sound new team manager, Fran Escriba, Elche stormed the Second Division as champions, and at long, long last won promotion back to La Liga after 26 years away. But sadly by now the club were developing nasty, irritating habits off the field like hiking the prices considerably on the day, even to committed season ticket holders like us. Soon in the new rarefied season mighty Real Madrid came to town. After a huge administrative cock-up it would take too long and is too irritating to describe, we had to pay a whopping extra €50 each for the privilege of watching the Galacticos from our own seat. 4,000 seats went unsold – the club had overcooked the minimum €80 terraces price – and then to rub it in we unjustly lost 2 -1 with that git Ronaldo scoring a free kick and a winning penalty in extra time after we’d equalised in the 90th minute.
Surely now Elche were back in the big time the administration would get better? But it didn’t, it got worse … Why did we never know what day and what time the next home kick-off time would be, hardly a week before the match? Apart from away trips to Murcia and Alicante (the home of the detested enemy, Hercules) I didn’t travel far to watch my team, but plenty of Elche diehards regularly do. The Franjiverdes supporters have the ‘honour’ of being the most vociferous supporters in the land at away matches – but with the short notice how did they always manage the time, money and effort to get all over the country? Spain is the second largest country in Europe – true fan loyalty or what? Back at the Martinez Valero, I began to get really fed up with turning up well in time for the game, only to be sent back from my entrance gate to a surrounded hole in the wall, sharpen my elbows and after a struggle pay an extra whatever, just to see the game: it had often started by the time we got the inflated tickets. What a shambles, especially when compared to UK matches where you know everything about the game months in advance, even re-arranged fixtures. Why does everything have to be so complicated in Spain?
Well, to facilitate the great Real Madrid and Barcelona, and the all-conquering TV companies provincial clubs like Elche play third fiddle, as after the big two decide comes the might of big city teams like Sevilla, Valencia and Athletico Bilbao, not to mention Atletico Madrid who all then arrange their games so as not to clash with the giants. This means that relative minnows like Elche decide to kick off at ridiculous times – like 10.00 pm on a Sunday night – meaning supporters, including small children get home in the early hours – no thanks.
How we Greens all laughed in recent years when our local rivals fell foul of the rules that govern Spanish football and were both demoted accordingly. In a country where rubbishing the opposition is par for the football course I can imagine the Hercules and Murcia (equally long-suffering) fans wetting themselves at Elche’s current distress when the news was announced. I read that Elche currently have 10 players on their books for the new season – who would want to come and play for a club in such distress? Miracle manager Fran Escriba is reportedly off to Sevilla or similar – good luck to the man, he deserves it.
And so to today. Elche are now starting next season exactly where Brighton and I found them fourteen years ago – in Spain’s Second Division. And I’m sorry and feel a bit guilty that I won’t be there to support ‘em. So with all that in mind, here’s this week’s special offer:
FREE TO GOOD HOME: Elche supporter’s kit including promotion year shirt, scarf, hat, sunshade, razor blades (used once).