Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 February 2020

When Real Madrid come to town; a huge night for third tier Unionistas de Salamanca in the Copa de Rey

Spanish giants against a club with a borrowed arena holding 4,000 spectators

The queues began to form before daylight on Monday. Tickets, the early-risers knew, were scarce, and the event they wanted to be at is probably a once-in-a-lifetime.

Unionistas de Salamanca, struggling to stay in the third tier of Spanish football, against Real Madrid, 13-time winners of the European Cup, is a very special Copa del Rey tie, and it has animated a young, unique club and a city that misses the big-time.

There will be space for barely 4,000 spectators in Unionistas’ borrowed arena, and some of those who lined up at the club’s small shop in the El Tormes shopping mall at the beginning of the week for tickets were set to be disappointed.

There had been various manoeuvres to increase the capacity for the grandest match in Unionistas’s short history, but none had been approved, and the whys and wherefores of those sagas tell much about how this particular club operates. They are as unlike Real Madrid as is possible for a professional football club to be.

There was a case to have Wednesday night’s fixture shifted to Madrid’s vast Bernabeu arena. Real were willing and offered to grant their minnow opponents the ‘home’ share of gate receipts, provided Unionistas looked after the financial obligations around stewarding, policing and so on.

According to the Unionistas vice-president, Javier Tejedor, “we did speak to Madrid in a moment of desperation about it and they made the offer, but really we never wanted to take this game away from Salamanca, so that wasn’t an option”.

The profits would likely have been very good, but the spirit in which the club was formed, by supporters, to be run and owned by supporters, would have been compromised.

Another option was to move the match to Salamanca’s larger stadium, the Helmantico, which seats 17,000. But that is the home of local rivals, Salamanca UDS, and neither they nor Unionistas were ready to put rivalries aside for a night.

The antipathy between the city’s two clubs is fierce. Both were formed in 2013, following the dissolution of Union Deportiva Salamanca, a proud old club who in the mid 1970s finished as high at seventh in the top division in Spain. But seven years ago, crippling debts killed UD Salamanca, to the particular regret of the city’s most celebrated footballing son.

Vicente del Bosque, manager of Spain when they won the 2010 World Cup and architect of a pair of Real Madrid’s Champions League titles, is from Salamanca, some 200km east of Madrid, and began his playing career there.

Football in Del Bosque's elegant hometown now divides across two distinct institutions. Salamanca UDS are largely bankrolled by a Mexican investor, Manuel Lovato. Unionistas are run as a collective, most of the directors from the same group of fans who got together in a pizzeria seven years ago determined a phoenix should rise from the ashes of UD Salamanca and be insured against the fate that befell the old club.

Unionistas only spend what they can bring in, which means an annual wage bill for players of around €400,000 (Dh1.63m), or, in modern football currency, about five days pay for Real Madrid’s Eden Hazard.

Members pay no more than €60 for being part of the club, which explains why applications for membership soared once the draw had pitted Unionistas against Madrid. Top ticket prices for non-members on Wednesday are barely more than the membership fee, and the club have suspended taking new applications because of what they call “an avalanche” of requests to join.

Once they had determined to play the game at their usual home, they hoped temporary stands could be erected. But there were problems with those plans, too. Home for Unionistas is a borrowed athletics arena, and the athletes who used it complained that putting extra seating in front of the small existing stands would damage the track.

“It has been a bit of a nightmare, actually,” vice-president Tejedor told El Norte de Castilla, “with all the meetings and the fact we directors all have normal jobs to do. But I hope we can enjoy the day itself.”

Unionistas, promoted three times since they were founded but currently struggling in Spain’s Segunda B, where their neighbours Salamanca UDS also compete, know the tie is a glorious mismatch.

But in their back of their minds is one celebrated precedent that, 10 years ago, gave Spanish football a new word, ‘Alcorconazo’. It describes the night Real Madrid played Alcorcon in the last 32 of the Copa del Rey, and not only lost, but were humiliated, 4-0. Alcorcon were in the Segunda B at the time, just as Unionistas are now.

Updated: January 22, 2020 07:55 AM

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