x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Xerez playing with a smile

Xerez may, statistically at least, be the worst club in top-level European football so far this season, but you will struggle to find evidence of a downbeat mood.

Xerez may, statistically at least, be the worst club in top-level European football so far this season, but you will struggle to find evidence of a downbeat mood at the club from close to Spain's south west border with Portugal. The promoted Andalusians are playing in the Primera Liga for the first time in their 62-year history after winning last season's second division.

They have lost all four games, conceding 11 and failing to score a single goal - apart from two own goals. Xerez have not played badly and they have been unlucky. Cristiano Ronaldo scored a first-minute goal against them, but a Real Madrid side whose annual budget of ?420 million (Dh2.2 billion) dwarfs Xerez's ?9m could not get another for 75 minutes. It was Xerez's obdurate English style, expected of Bolton or Blackburn, which troubled Real.

Xerez look doomed for reasons other than their performances, but you would not guess it clicking on to their official website. There, the giggling players greet you by saying hello. A match report jokingly blames their bad form on witches putting a spell on them. And in the stands, Xerez's cheery supporters can lay claim to being the most impressive in Spain so far this season. Despite the poor start and their status as clear favourites to be relegated, Xerez sold 16,000 season tickets for their 20,000 capacity Chapin stadium. Running tracks are usually derided in football stadiums, but it does have some justification at the Chapin: home city athletics club Jerez have been Spanish champions seven times this decade.

Like their fellow Andalusians from Cadiz two years ago, they seem intent on enjoying every minute in the top flight, even if they fall short of the 13 points won by Sporting Gijon over a season in 1997/98. More than 7,000 of them travelled to the Bernabeu and outsang the 72,000 home fans to the point of shaming them. They sang about drinking - no surprise given that the main industry in Jerez is the export of wine and sherry (which originates and takes it names from Jerez). Fewer will make the journey to Barcelona today, where Xerez play an Espanyol side going for a third win in a row, but then it is a 15-hour road journey from south west Spain to the north east.

Still, they have already sold more tickets than Real did two weeks ago, with support expected from the strong expatriate community in Catalonia. Xerez's problems extend beyond the playing field. In the spring, just as their promotion push was reaching a peak, the Xerez president was involved in a drive-by shooting at a brothel. Forced to resign, the club owner, Joaquin Morales, unconvincingly claimed that it was the sort of thing which could happen to anyone. Morales wants to sell the club - in fact he did not want promotion in the first place. At the start of last season, Xerez cut their wage bill and were content to consolidate their 14th-place finish the season before.

Their team was made up of loan players, yet the coach, Esteban Vigo, defied the odds and won the title. Rather than looking forward to a season in the Primera Liga, he fell out with Morales and was dismissed. Thirteen of the mostly loaned players left Xerez and the new coach, Jose Angel Ziganda, took over with just 12 footballers to work with. Given that the Spanish second division does not finish until June, he had little time to dip into a contact book developed over six years coaching at various levels at Osasuna.

New players were signed, but none for a transfer fee. Instead, Xerez's loan players arrived such as goalkeeper Renan, from Valencia, Victor Sanchez, from Barcelona, and David Preito, from Sevilla; promising talents rather than wily old performers. There is a slight hope for Xerez. Promoted Sporting Gijon lost their first five matches last season but stayed up. Ziganda, despite admitting last week that his players "are scared", remains upbeat.

"We just need that first point," he said. "This team is still new. It is still growing, but has many good characteristics and we are good enough to beat Espanyol. We have to have the confidence to attack and get a little luck. We're due that." Few would argue that their luck must surely turn soon, but whether this is enough for long term safety is doubtful. amitten@thenational.ae