x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Elche up for big stage entry into Spanish Primera Liga

The backwater city team are ready to announce their arrival in the first division.

The Martinez Valero Stadium was built with provision for large crowds and that dream could come true. PA
The Martinez Valero Stadium was built with provision for large crowds and that dream could come true. PA

The Primera Liga is set to welcome back a long-lost friend next season.

Elche, who have not played top-flight football since 1989, are 10 points clear at the top of Segunda A. Promotion has been coming for some time.

In 2011, they reached the play-off final, only to lose out to a Granada side who have stayed up on away goals. They then led the second division last season, until their nerve failed and they plummeted to 11th, something they surely cannot do again this time, given their lead.

Historically, the club, from a city famous for making shoes, close to Alicante in eastern Spain, cannot be accused of lacking ambition.

Their stadium is one of the biggest in Iberia. Holding 38,750, it has staged cup finals and hosted games in the 1982 World Cup finals.

The story of how a backwater city staged World Cup games is down to the man the stadium is named after.

When the club president Martinez Valero told the 200,000 Elche residents that he would bring the World Cup to the city, most considered him crazy.

Yet he had already overseen a new stadium, even if it had not been paid for.

Valero's logic was simple: since the club had not paid for the first phase of the development, why not double the debt and the size of the stadium?

Elche's new home held 53,000 by the time it hosted three games involving Hungary, El Salvador and Belgium in 1982.

The local bishop may have called the stadium a miracle, but the extra capacity was not needed as all three games attracted less than 40,000 in total.

Still, it has staged Spanish cup finals and will be fit for the visits of Barcelona or Real Madrid.

Elche were a top-flight side in all but two seasons between 1959 and 1978. When the stadium opened, they were in the second division and they spent most of the 90s in the third. Second division stalwarts since 1999, Elche are in rude health.

Managed by Quique Sanchez Flores's former assistant Fran Escriba, they enjoyed the best ever first half of the season in second division history.

Crowds average 12,000 but can go over 20,000 for the visits of neighbours Hercules and Real Murcia.

They face a tough game at relegated Sporting on Sunday. The new Elche, who have conceded just 12 goals in 25 games, the best record in Spain's top two divisions by far, will not be troubled.

sports@thenational.ae