FOX Soccer Exclusive
Pina engineering Granada experiment
The Alhambra, looming above Granada from its perch on the southeastern Assabica hill, dominates the city. This masterpiece of Islamic art and architecture was constructed over a hundred years stretching from the mid-13th century and is a constant reminder of this fascinating hub’s capacity for creativity.
Today, Granada CF is not experiencing the same influx of Arab wealth connected with its illustrious past – or, indeed, Andalucian rival Málaga CF. Given the current environment of Spanish soccer, in which Barcelona and Real Madrid tower over the Lilliputians that make up the rest of La Liga, something different has been needed to bridge the gap to the promised land. The result of this extraordinary project has taken the club back to the top tier for the first time since 1976.
The rise of Quique Pina
This story has unfolded under the watch of the club’s president, self-styled entrepreneur Quique Pina. Pina has a more than curious relationship with soccer in Granada. After a career as a lower-league player, he created his own local club, Ciudad de Murcia, in 1999, with the plan to fly up the league ladder with the help of loans and favors from influential contacts, and simultaneously stimulate his nascent career as a player agent. It worked, with the club reaching the Segunda A (second tier) by 2003.
In 2007, he sold out to Segunda B (third tier) sloggers Granada 74, with the purchasers thus buying and assimilating Ciudad de Murcia’s rights, assets and most importantly its Segunda A league place. The new club was an outcast in Granada, shunned by the city’s soccer community and local government, and ceased to be in 2009. Meanwhile, Pina had moved on.
His next connection became his most important one. He got to know Gino Pozzo, a fellow agent and the son of Udinese president Giampaolo. Having set up a deal for the Friuoli to sign Chile’s Mauricio Isla, he became Udinese’s representative in Spain. In 2009, Pina persuaded the Pozzos to invest in Granada, then an ailing, indebted Segunda B side owned by former Real Madrid president Lorenzo Sanz. They agreed, and Pina became president.
What happened next was extraordinary. With a raft of players loaned from Udinese, Granada were promoted in successive seasons under journeyman coach Fabri González. Following the reintroduction of promotion play-offs from the Segunda A last season, Fabri’s fifth-placed side beat Celta Vigo in the semis before beating Elche in the final. Odion Ighalo scored the crucial second leg goal, from a pass by fellow Udinese Dani Benítez.
Meanwhile, president Pina has stayed true to his busy nature. In his capacity working for Udinese, he was heavily involved in Alexis Sanchez’s move to Barcelona this summer, all while still serving Granada. He is also the major shareholder and ‘sporting advisor’ respectively at Segunda B clubs Cádiz and Tenerife, having understandably acquired a reputation as an expert at this level. His father Juan serves as president at Cádiz, who have taken nine Granada players on loan.
It should be emphasized there is no evidence of underhand dealing or conflict of interest. Still, it’s rather reminiscent of the election scene in British comedy show Blackadder III, where Rowan Atkinson’s Machiavellian butler participates in the Dunny-On-The-Wold by-election as candidate election agent, returning officer and voter.
Primera Division: Life inside the dream
Nevertheless, as far as Granada is concerned, the approach has borne fruit. Ever since it triumphed in the play-off against Elche back in June, it has been heavy favorite to make an instant return to the Segunda. Yet the club has been able to attract players of a profile far above what the other promoted teams (Betis and Rayo Vallecano) have been able to manage. Carlos Martins – one of three loaned from Benfica, another club with which Pina enjoys a strong relationship - is a current Portugal international who starred in the Champions League for the Lisbon club last season.
The price paid for this exotica is continuity. When FoxSoccer.com visits Granada’s Estadio Nuevo Los Cármenes for the game against Rayo, 10 of the squad for the game is loaned, and another two will be out-of-contract at the end of the season, as things stand. Seven of the loanees are, of course, from Udinese. Left-back Guilherme Siqueira, the side’s standout player this season (and even tentatively linked with a move to Barcelona), arrived on a free transfer from the Serie A side in summer after a loan spell. After the season, he will be moved on at a significant profit.
One of the few cash signings was Algeria international Hassan Yebda. Having just spent a year on loan at Serie A side Napoli, Yebda signed a three-year deal but has the right to leave if Granada are relegated in his first two seasons at the club. Moreover, he has the right to 25% of any transfer fee received; a significant figure, given his buyout clause stands at €7m ($9m).
So what’s the difference between this and Pina’s previous concern? Quite simply, Granada has a soul. That much was evident to Spain as a whole when the team visited the Santiago Bernabéu in the first game after the winter break. It was Granada’s trip to play Real Madrid in 36 years and a day. The last time they played there, Günter Netzer was among the scorers for El Real.
An initial allocation of 3,000 tickets for the away section went in less than two days, and a further 2,000 provided by Real Madrid quickly followed suit; despite the prospect prices up to €165 and a five-hour drive north to follow. With granadinos calling around friends and family in the capital to beg or borrow a ticket, an estimated 8,000 in red and white were there on the night. A 5-1 defeat didn’t dampen the spirits as the Andalusians made all the noise.
There is a real bond between the club and its supporters. The glass table in the reception area of the club’s offices is liberally sprinkled with leaflets entitled ‘El Fútbol y El Arte’, detailing a plan to erect a monument in tribute to the fans; a specially-commissioned sculpture by artist Miguel Ruiz Jiménez.
In the matchday program, the traditional player photo centerfold of Iñigo López is signed with a dedication. “Supporters and players together to stay in La Primera for many years,” he scrawled above his name and shirt number. Meanwhile, before kick off against Rayo, the players parade a banner, printed with: “Orgullosos de vosotros” (“Proud of you”).
They’re playing a fellow promovido in Rayo Vallecano, one with its own financial challenges. After the wild ride of a day out at the Bernabéu, the match marked a return to “our Liga”, as Fabri put it before kick-off. Home form is important. It was the cornerstone of Granada’s promotion season last time out. But the pitch at Los Cármenes isn’t in the greatest shape at the moment. When Rayo coach José Ramón Sandoval says how pleased he is that his side has won on “the most difficult pitch in the league,” he actually means the whole stadium - small, claustrophobic, packed out – but he could easily mean the playing surface itself.
Granada Atlético, a former resident of Las Carmenes, faces Comarca de Níjar in a Tercera Division match in 2006. The same stadium is now hosts the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid for Primera Division matches. (Photo credit: JJ Merelo/jmerelo/Flickr)
While Granada’s rise has been stratospheric, the infrastructure needs to catch up. There is temporary seating in the four corners of Los Cármenes to add to the stadium’s modest capacity. Pina already threatened to quit the club earlier in the year after a perceived lack of help in developing the club’s facilities by the local council.
The experiment's next stage
Defeat against Rayo was perhaps an indication of the danger that Granada is in. It bossed possession, but lacked the knowhow provided by a stone-broke opposition, prompted by experienced captain José Movilla and former Espanyol forward Raúl Tamudo.
Pina’s ambition is plain beyond his wheeling and dealing. The week after the defeat to Rayo (the first at home since the narrow loss to Barcelona in October), Granada were beaten at Espanyol and the president fired Fabri, the coach that guided the club up from the third tier. The coach, clearly emotional, received a prolonged standing ovation from the assembled media at the end of the media conference called after the news was announced.
Fabri has insisted in his curtain call that he “could have saved the team” given the chance. Pina, in a separate statement, said that ”the cycle had come to an end,” amid persistent local media speculation that a number of players had lost faith in the coach.
The appointment of former Atlético Madrid coach Abel Resino is an interesting one, after he delivered the rojiblancos to a Champions League place in 2009 amid administrative chaos. His appointment underlines what Granada wants, and Pina is happy to receive the scrutiny. There will be plenty of that between now and the end of the season for his fascinating business model.
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