When kick-off finally came around on Sunday, Granada were without their manager, assistant manager, matchday delegate and physio. They didn’t have their captain, vice-captain or goalkeeper. They didn’t have the second keeper either, or the third, or the fourth. Most of all they didn’t have a choice. And by the time the final whistle went on a game they hadn’t wanted to play they didn’t have a team – not a legal one, anyway. When the match finished, there were only four members of the senior squad on the pitch and that breaks the rules, which is why this still might not have ended yet.
Granada’s visit to Anoeta should have been among the games of the weekend, a celebration of the two biggest success stories this season and last: first versus sixth, back from European victories. Instead, it became a cautionary tale, a warning of what will probably happen again in Covid times. A “strange”, “uncomfortable” and “difficult” afternoon in the words of Real Sociedad’s manager, Imanol Alguacil, whose wonderful side – scorers of 14 goals in the previous four matches – returned to the top with a 2-0 win that could become 3-0 if Granada are forced to forfeit the game for fielding an ineligible lineup.
It was dark by the time Granada’s bus pulled away and headed south, defeated for the first time in nine games. No one said anything publicly; they just wanted to get out. They had been in the city barely four hours, the journey arranged as hurriedly as the team, and that was already too long. Caught by suspension, injury and a coronavirus outbreak, they had requested a postponement but had been obliged to play with what they had. In the end, what they had was not enough, which is what they had said from the start.
Granada had 10 positive tests in the worst possible week, a chain of circumstances conditioning everything. Last Friday the club’s sporting director Fran Sánchez tested positive for Covid-19. Two days later, so did Roberto Soldado. Neither mattered much – Sánchez could self-isolate and Soldado, who had first tested positive a fortnight earlier, was already doing so – but on Monday things started unravelling when there were three more: centre-back Jesús Vallejo and two of coach Diego Martínez’s assistants, Raúl Espínola and José Morcillo.
The following day, results for Martínez and goalkeeper coach Juan Carlos “Fish” Fernández came back inconclusive. Neither travelled to Cyprus on Thursday, where winger Antonio Puertas and matchday delegate Maneul Lucena then tested positive and were isolated in the hotel. When they got back, there were two more, including Martínez. According to the league, there were 10 cases. Only two were players – Vallejo and Puertas – but the league protocol defines three cases within 72 hours as an outbreak, obliging isolation. The league informed Granada it was not enough for players to test negative: they could only go to Real Sociedad with players and staff who were negative and have antibodies against Covid or players who had tested negative and had not been in Cyprus.
That didn’t leave much. Granada, planning to head straight to San Sebastián from Nicosia, had taken 24 players – including both goalkeepers and both B-team goalkeepers. Darwin Machís, Luis Suárez, Jorge Molina, Robert Kenedy, Yan Eteki, Roberto Soldado, Nehuén Pérez, Maxime Gonalons and Yangel Herrera had all been through Covid. But Herrera’s antibodies level wasn’t sufficiently high, Soldado had only tested negative on Friday after almost three weeks not training with his teammates, Gonalons was suspended and Molina and Kenedy had left Cyprus not fully fit. In other words, they said, they had four players.
Granada requested the game be postponed, alleging force majeure and insisting that Soldado, Kenedy and Molina should not play. According to the protocol signed by every club in September, though, in the event of Covid cases games would still go ahead as long as a 13-man squad could be named with only five having to be first-teamers, although all five must be on the pitch at all times. The league also accused Granada of travelling to Cyprus without a La Liga inspector, questioned whether they had done so with the backing of the regional health authorities, and announced possible disciplinary proceedings.
On Saturday night, the game still wasn’t confirmed, a decision from the competition committee yet to be announced. Granada hadn’t trained. They did no prematch press conference and didn’t announce travel plans. But, like a Sunday league team, they did set about trying to put together a side. They drew players from the B-team, meaning the B-team drew players from the U19s, the coach saying they had literally stopped the U19s bus as it pulled out. Shirts were printed ready, names applied and actually needed this time, even by their own teammates: Brunet, 36; Bravo, 37; Barcia 42. At midday on Sunday, they boarded a plane to Pamplona.
The substitutes warmed up in masks. On the touchline Fernández wore two of them: the goalkeeper coach had not travelled to Cyprus, allowing him to be emergency manager. In the starting XI were four debutants, one man making his first league start, and two making just their second. Of the 19-man squad, 12 had never been called up before. There was a winger at full-back, a centre-forward in midfield, a striker who hadn’t seen teammates in three weeks, and kids everywhere.
In total, eight players made their debuts which should have been cause for celebration but the director general described these as sad days and this was a strange match, if it could be called a match. Only in the last few minutes as afternoon drifted into evening did the result look in any doubt at all and even then it didn’t really, Granada missing a last-minute penalty. With Real Sociedad 2-0 up within 30 minutes, it had been over for a long time: the penalty was Granada’s first shot on target, their second in total; La Real had 22.
It was all Granada could do, one member of staff declaring it a miracle they had got that far, which was also further than the last four teams to face La Real, who had conceded four, four, three and three. Amidst the regret and anger, there was reason to feel proud – especially for the appropriately named Ángel, an 18-year old from Granada who should have been playing on a municipal astroturf pitch against Dos Hermanas and flew about the home of the league leaders, a career emerging amid the crisis. He even stopped a penalty from Willian José, prompting one paper to adapt Rafael Albertí’s famous ode to Hungarian goalkeeper Franz Platko, written in 1957, all heroism, golden wings, burning tigers and flowers:
“Oh Ángel, Ángel, Ángel, so far from Granada…” Manuel Sampalo wrote in Ideal, “no one will forget, no, no one, no one, no one.”
The game though was over before it had started, raising many doubts, not least the question of what happens next time. Imagine this before a clásico, say. The question of what happens now, too. At half time Kenedy and Soldado were withdrawn. In theory, that can be judged alineación indebida, an illegible lineup, given the minimum seven first-team players stipulated in normal RFEF rules. What happened next definitely can: with 14 minutes left and the score 2-0, Molina was withdrawn, leaving Granada with four first-teamers, an infringement of the Covid protocol. All three players Granada had declared unfit had been taken off, the rules broken.
If Real Sociedad make a formal complaint, which they have yet to confirm, they will be awarded the game 3-0 and Granada could face a fine of between €6,000 and €9,000. With the game gone, Molina struggling and the difference a solitary goal, Granada felt they had nothing left to lose and a point to prove. This was protection for their players and perhaps a statement too. If it was, it was the only one. There was no press conference, no pitchside interview.
Only Soldado spoke, writing on Instagram: “For me today is a good day because I overcame Covid and could join six teammates and lads from the B-team and the U19s. Thanks to the young lads for their effort and for helping us out in delicate circumstances. Common sense, empathy and health were pushed into second place today.”
“There is a protocol we all signed, there’s nothing else we can do. We did what we had to. It wasn’t easy for them or for us,” Alguacil said. “It’s going to be like this to the end. This will come to all of us.”