Back in the summer, when the recently promoted Osasuna were building a squad for their return to La Liga, they sent videos to the players they were trying to persuade to join them. They didn’t have much money – only three teams have a smaller budget – and they didn’t have success to sell, either: the second division title is the only thing they have won, and they had just done that for the first time in 58 years. But they could offer something different.
When the tapes went out, sales pitches carefully edited in-house, they weren’t filled with 101 great goals, superb saves, or glorious games; instead, they were packed with people. The footage wasn’t of footballers; it was of fans. It was who they are.
Osasuna sold El Sadar – the place that can feel like the one, last old ground left, even though, opened in 1967, it’s not that old. A ground where the main stand is so steep, so tight you feel like you’ll tumble on to the pitch below, punk is played at half-time, and where fans reach out and touch you, where they sit legs dangling over the barriers, banging the drum, flags waving, noise never letting up, team never letting up either. Where no one wins. The kind of place you’d want to play. If, that is, you’re the kind of player they’d want playing for them. And Ezequiel “Chimy” Ávila was exactly the kind of player they wanted playing for them: the striker with big thighs and an even bigger heart who the sporting director, Braulio Vázquez, introduced as “born to play for Osasuna”. First, though, he had to convince Chimy of that.
Chimy was not the only footballer sent footage – Pervis Estupiñán and Facundo Roncaglia were also among the seven players signed – but he is the new signing who best represents Osasuna’s plans, the identity they were celebrating and reinforcing.
“Our fans are our greatest asset; we don’t have much money or the talent other teams have, but we have them: you have to make players see it’s a special place,” Braulio says. “We wanted them to know where they were coming. Here in Pamplona, players are God. We sent videos of the fans, how they’re on top of everyone, how they react, how they celebrate. And they really liked them.
“We had to conquer his heart; there’s an emotional element to it. I said to Chimy: ‘Imagine the whole of El Sadar chanting: Chimy! Chimy! He laughed at that: ‘I can see it already!’ He had other offers but this was the place for him. I told him: maybe at Betis, say, the fans like a nutmeg more, but here if you sprint back 50 metres, kill yourself to defend, you’re an idol. At some clubs, you might get whistled, but when he missed a sitter against Villarreal they were all: ‘Chimy! Chimy!’ And then he scores a brilliant goal.”
By then, Chimy knew; at his presentation, he already “knew”, the tapes did the trick. “This is a club where I feel people will love me,” he said back then, and he was right. Now, an idol in the city and in a team that have played even better than anyone imagined, he says: “When Braulio sent me the video of them celebrating promotion, it was emotional seeing the fans: that really got me. And being able to experience it for myself is lovely. That’s why I took the decision to come and I’m happy I did.” At his presentation Chimy promised: “Their style’s mine: run, crash into people, never give up,” and that starts in the stands.
There is a reason that Osasuna won 17 home games in a row on their way to the second division title last year, and didn’t lose at El Sadar all season. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say there were eight games we won because of the fans,” says the striker Brandon Thomas, “that’s what this club is.” As the captain, Roberto Torres, told El País: “In that sense, I think Osasuna genuinely is a bit different. Here, unlike other places, fans support Osasuna, not Madrid or Barcelona. Tradition has been lost a bit, the essence of football: few care about the fans, when they’re what really matters. El Sadar’s always been a slightly more ‘English’ ground; they used to say big teams feared coming.”
Now, they do again. Barcelona drew 2-2 there and Valencia were hammered 3- 1, but this is more than just a couple of games and more than fans make a lot of noise or football team is good at home. It’s that – as the manager, Jacoba Arrasate, put it on Sunday night after their 4-2 victory against Alavés – they’re “binomial”: fans and footballers go “hand in hand”; game and ground are inseparable. This team belong in this place; it is this place. Arrasate understands that best: the idea was there but he’s the one who fully re‑established that relationship when he took over before last season, play constructed around the people, their personality.
“From the start, he wanted to recover that traditional identity: to go for it,” says the winger Rubén GarcÌa, superb last season and this campaign. “He told everyone there has to be a communion. With every run, every tackle, the fans lift you; they’re the adrenaline you need.”
Osasuna play like someone has cut their brake cables, and it’s much better that way. At home, at least, they go, go, go, and then when they’ve got their breath back – even if they haven’t – they go again. They isolate opponents and chase them down, terrified. When they get the ball, it’s much the same. It’s relentless; every pass played with intent, going for the throat, every move played as if it was the last, timing running out. On Sunday night a wild game finished 4-2, and the fact there were three penalties and endless stoppages for VAR – El Sadar is one of the few places to make them fun, drum rolls building to the decision – took nothing from a match one paper called “blessed madness”.
Rubén García scored the first, Chimy swept in an exceptional second, first time on the bounce, and Víctor Laguardia got one back for Alavés a minute later with a finish almost as good: another half-volley, hit superbly. Torres made it 3-1 six minutes into additional time at the end of the first half and Lucas Pérez brought it back to 3-2 with another penalty, before a third from Juan Villar made it 4-2. They’d been playing 55 minutes and there had been six goals but, while there were no more, it wasn’t over. In fact, it was getting better. The afternoon had started with Rubén García forcing a save from Fernando Pacheco after 20 seconds and ended with Inigo Pérez smashing off the post in added time, just as Nacho Vidal had hammered off the bar. In the meantime, Alavés had 12 shots and Osasuna racked up 19 to go with the 30 against Valencia.
“Our games are anything but dull,” Braulio says. “You’re winning 4-2 but at the end, you’ve got one full-back crossing for the other.” Osasuna are, he says, like Liverpool; Arrasate is the Spanish Jurgen Klopp. “There’s a big difference, eh,” he adds swiftly, laughing, but there’s something in it. “People have fun watching us. It’s the rhythm, the speed, the intensity, we’re very vertical, it’s all very back and forth. But it’s not just that we run and put a foot in. We play, too. Rubén GarcÌa, Roberto Torres, Chimy, Fran Mérida: they can all play. The full-backs are like airplanes.”
The fans, meanwhile, are like players. “This is a team that’s brave, that takes the initiative, but, bloody hell, behind it are the fans,” Arrasate says. “They make you feel almost invincible.”
They almost are. There is a slight cheat, an asterisk – among their victories is last season’s forfeited match against Reus – but Arrasate has never been beaten as Osasuna manager and this was their 31st game in a row without defeat at El Sadar: four in 2017-18, 21 last year, and six this. Eibar, Barcelona, Betis, Villarreal, Valencia and Alavés have all been now; none won. The run goes back 582 days, to April 2018, and it brought Osasuna up, put them three points off a Champions League place and secured 18 primera points, almost halfway to survival already: 31 is a record beating the previous best, set 61 years ago.
The following morning at Tajonar, the club’s training ground, a man set off rockets. “Historic,” cheered the cover of El Diario de Navarra. “Oé oé oé oé oé oé,” ran the headline inside. El Sadar had become a “place of legend”, it said. At the end, that place rose to applaud, their work here almost done. Players stood and applauded the supporters back.
“In this record, the players will appear but so will they because without the fans it would be impossible,” Arrasate said and it was no empty platitude. It was their third game in a week and fatigue had crept in, but they’d emerged from those with seven points, two more wins at home, and nine goals.
“The manager said to us before the game: today, being tired is no excuse. As soon as the fans raise their voice, you feel yourself lift; the tiredness goes,” Rubén García said afterwards. Outside, some kids waited for a photo. “The record is down to them, too,” García said before heading out to join them, pulling the same silly faces as they did. “This should be the essence of football, something that could be recovered at 99.9% of clubs. And if we’re an example here at Osasuna, it’s a good one.
“Now we’ll always be able to say we’re part of this club’s history. We’ve been talking about that in the dressing room, about how we’re all part of this, the fans especially. When they get home, they’ll talk about this too. In 20 years, they’ll be able to say: ‘I was there the day of the record, I lived those 31 games.’ It’s not chance, and that union means we enjoy it more. What we’ve done together is great.”
It is. So good someone should make a video of it.
• One by one, they fell. Barcelona were one up at Levante on Saturday, seemingly on course for another win, their eighth in a row; 7min 39sec they were 3-1 down, heading instead for another defeat, another collapse, in tatters. Like Anfield all over again, only worse. “What are you playing at?” the cover of one Catalan daily asked, and it is quite a good question. Not just on Saturday, but almost every day. Yes, even when it goes well. “There’s not really an explanation,” Sergio Busquets said.
• That left Atlético with the chance to go top, but they drew 1-1 in a really fun game at Sevilla that had a wild ending. Now, this column might be a bit of a weirdo, but it always thought that when a player makes a great save on the line and he’s not the goalkeeper, it’s a penalty. It also thought that when a player lays on the ball, traps it between his legs and doesn’t let go even while opponents boot him up his backside, it’s obstruction. Even if it is the last minute, like that has anything to do with it. But apparently not.
• And so to Real Madrid. But they couldn’t beat Joel Robles – even though he couldn’t see. The Betis goalkeeper lost a contact lense, looking out one eye, but was still too good.
• All of which means that Barcelona stayed top, and the table got very tasty – although it is legitimate to ask if the equality is as much about errors as excellence, if it may be as much bad news as good. It’s more fun, though. The top three are level, the top five are separated by just one point, the top seven are all within three points and the top 13 are all within five points. “The end of the two-team system,” AS’s cover said on Monday, employing a political pun that rally doesn’t translate well and actually doesn’t make much sense in Spanish either. Barcelona and Atlético, you mean?
• It’s over. Beaten by Betis on Thursday, Celta were beaten again three days later – this time by Getafe. And that means the sack for Fran Escribá. Oh, and it looks like Luis Cembranos won’t continue as temporary coach at Leganés. It’s time for Javier Aguirre.
• Sandro scores! And it’s a belter, too. His teammates applauded him back to the dressing room after the former Everton striker got his first goal in four seasons, three clubs and two years. “I’ve always scored goals and I will continue to,” he said afterwards, which wasn’t entirely accurate. Luckily, his shot had been.