Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 September 2020

Copa del Rey gets taste of Balearic beat as third-tier side UD Ibiza play host to Lionel Messi and the mighty Barcelona

Usually a destination for footballers looking for a party or to escape the limelight, the famous Spanish island is about to stage the biggest match in its little football club's history

Supporters of UD Ibiza after drawing Barcelona in the Cop del Rey. EPA
Supporters of UD Ibiza after drawing Barcelona in the Cop del Rey. EPA

Storm Gloria hit eastern Spain including Ibiza this week, stopping ferries to the Spanish island from the mainland with winds of up to 75 kilometres an hour felling trees.

The slender white canvas roof on the main stand at UD Ibiza’s neat 4,500 capacity Can Misses stadium has survived, so far, ahead of the biggest game in the club's history.

Two thousand extra seats have been installed because the third-tier islanders host La Liga leaders Barcelona on Wednesday on their plastic pitch for a Copa del Rey last-32 match.

Though the match-going football culture was strong in the 1970s and 80s, Ibiza is not renowned as a football hotbed and demographics long suggest the island does not have the population to sustain a big team, and yet Eibar reached La Liga from a town of 27,000.

In Ibiza, population 132,000, of those who like football most claim allegiance to the glamour of the perpetually televised Barca or Real Madrid, rather than with local clubs, but Balearic football is in a positive place.

Mallorca, who are based in Palma on a neighbouring island, were promoted back to the top-flight while fellow Palma team Atletico Baleares, along with Ibiza, are riding high in the regional third division group one, aiming to reach the second division.

With average crowds of 2,500 and 1,900, they are the best-supported teams in the league, attracting more than the reserve teams of Real and Atletico Madrid – but it’s tough to survive.

The cost of travel when they fly as long as three hours to play Las Palmas away could be prohibitive to a smaller club after they lose their current subsidy for inter-island flights.

Such costs usually hit sides when they reach this level. They need better players, but they demand more money to come from the mainland.

Both are central reasons why Ibiza have spent the majority of their existence in Spain’s regional fourth level, playing teams from Mallorca and Menorca in front of a couple of hundred spectators.

Not now, though, and they welcome Barca for a first official game between the clubs having overcome second division Albacete and third tier Pontevedra en route to the last 32.

Barcelona players are frequent visitors, but not for football. They're pictured on the island every July when they take their vacations. It’s where Xavi met Jamie Carragher on holiday, where Andres Iniesta and Peter Crouch had photos taken together.

The island has some of the best nightclubs in the world, but it has a laid-back side, too. “When I go to Ibiza all my friends say: ‘why are you going there? You never go out’,” Carlos Puyol once told me. “But I go because I think the island is paradise. Ibiza has everything. People think that you only go to Ibiza to go out every night, but for me it’s totally the opposite.”

Jordi Cruyff, now manager of Ecuador, is another regular. “I first went to San Antonio as a goodbye trip when we finished school,” he said. “We went to have as much fun as we could and enjoyed it so much that we returned there twice.

"When you are 17 and talk about Ibiza you talk about Pacha and one or two other clubs. Visiting Pacha for the first time was like realising a youthful dream.

“Some associated the island with the Ibiza Uncovered programmes that you see on British television, but Ibiza has got two very different sides, something I’ve definitely seen as I’ve got older. There are quiet areas with a family atmosphere, whereas the area on the other side with the nightclubs is full of movement – a real contrast.

Lionel Messi, left, celebrates with teammates after scoring the winning goal against Granada on Sunday - New manager Quique Setien's first game in charge. EPA
Lionel Messi, left, celebrates with teammates after scoring the winning goal against Granada on Sunday - new manager Quique Setien's first game in charge. EPA

Cruyff describes it as like a mini Amsterdam. “You can enjoy your life and do your own thing. Nobody hassles you or judges you for the way you dress, the way you move and that’s the way it should be," he said. "People go their own way in Ibiza and that’s attractive.”

The footballers do not frequent the island when it gets colder. “Ibiza is like a bear,” Cruyff says. “In the winter, it is very sleepy, in the summer, it wakes up and appeals to all types of people. I know footballers and basketball players who go, hippies, models and actors. Those people go to Ibiza for privacy.”

Ibiza’s main football team has had several different names since 1956 as they’ve gone through several boom and bust cycles.

In 2007, this writer watched them being promoted to the third tier after the local discos were encouraged to sponsor the football club and for the players to become full-time professionals while Spain’s economy boomed.

There had never been a cooler collection of advertising hoardings at a football ground, but the recession and bust followed and the football team needed to be reformed again.

It was nothing new and success came with a note of caution since their previous title win in 1992 followed the involvement of a flamboyant French businessman called Calixto Bragantini.

His money helped fund a formidable squad; his contacts meant that Air France planes were regularly chartered to carry the team to the mainland after they were promoted.

The team initially did well in the higher division, until police arrested Bragantini on suspicion of mafia-type business dealings. He was jailed, never to be seen again on the island, and the plug was pulled on Ibiza’s cash supply. Ibiza certainly attracts characters.

The current reincarnation was formed in 2015 and has risen through the divisions, capturing the imagination of locals on the white island.

Football fever is evident everywhere again and t-shirts with “Por Ellos! Ibiza.” (Let’s get behind Ibiza!) are on sale.

Season ticket holders are being rewarded for their loyalty with a free ticket for the game, while other fans will pay €70 (Dh285) for the match on the outskirts of the island’s capital, Ibiza Town. Forty tickets were stolen from the ticket office on Monday.

The former Valencia president Amadeo Salvo and his family are the current owners having paid €60,000 to pick up the club’s debts in 2016, with Pablo Alfaro, who played with the new man in charge of Barca – Quique Setien – at Racing Santander, the first-team manager.

Amadeo Salvo, pictured when he was president of Valencia in 2014, is now the owner of UD Ibiza. Getty
Amadeo Salvo, pictured when he was president of Valencia in 2014, is now the owner of UD Ibiza. Getty

After the draw, the club objected to images on state television which portrayed them as an extension of the Pacha nightclub, with Salvo claiming it was disrespectful to a serious football club.

He won’t have been enamoured that memes of Lionel Messi holding glow sticks on a packed dance floor went viral. Ibiza’s clubs are closed in January.

Gianluca Simeone, the 21-year-old son of Diego Simeone, plays for Ibiza’s reserve team. He’s one of four South American players; the rest could be described as journeymen.

Ibiza are in one of their boom stages, but their current average crowds and stadium is sufficient for this level or even the second division.

The cup game against Barca will help boost their profile and their bank balance but the current ownership have no intention of returning to the over-ambitious excesses that caused so many problems in the past.

Updated: January 22, 2020 04:53 AM

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