REAL OVIEDO: A PHOENIX FROM THE ASHES

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Football has a tendency to make you feel as though there is indeed humanity across the world, even when it doesn’t seem that way. While entertainment on the pitch is a natural desire, the by-product from the rivalries and passion is an overwhelming respect for one another across the majority of fanbases. At the World Cup, one of the lasting impacts is the brotherhood between fans of different nationalities, all brought together when they never might have, just for the love of football. It triggers a sense of warmth inside one’s heart. It was this sense of goodwill that Real Oviedo harnessed in their attempts to stay afloat. They are now everyone’s club, a shining example of football’s power to unite people.

Going into the 2018-19 season, Oviedo have deigned on promotion, continuing what has been a steady path to stability. In 2015-16, their first season back in the second tier after promotion, they finished ninth in the league, five points off a playoff spot. They went one better the following year, finishing just two points behind sixth placed Huesca in the playoff spot, and then one better again last season. They were close, but there was no cigar. Last year was particularly tight for they were edged out on goal difference to Numancia, who were ahead by five goals. A 3-0 away loss to the same opponent was the decider. It felt like Oviedo faded away towards the end of the season, but they had their bright moments. A first heated Asturian derby in 15 years was marked by a draw at Sporting Gijón courtesy of a late equalizer, and then a 2-1 win at home. For fans who feared for the very existence of the club, that win would have been sweet.

Their troubles in 2012 were not new. After spending 13 seasons in the top tier, they were relegated in the 2000-01 season, when they were relegated at Mallorca on the final day, and then again two years later. A double relegation has a huge impact on finances in any club, but it was stark in Oviedo. Coupled with a lack of support from the city’s government, the team was unable to pay its players, consequently dropping down to the fourth tier. The club’s president and the city’s mayor were on two sides of the political spectrum. When the players formally declared the non-payment to the players’ union, it was the first of numerous blows. A year later, the local government decided to back third-division Astur instead. Their kit was changed to similar colours, the badge was altered, subsidies came in and their name was changed to Oviedo AFC (they eventually switched back in 2007). The municipally-owned Carlos Tartiere Stadium might have been taken away too. But if they tried to take away everything, the spirit remained unbroken.

The fans fought back and united to save the club, raising money. It was not much – but the spirit of 2003, Espíritu 2003, ensured the club survived. They switched between the third and the fourth tier since then, managing to stay afloat amidst continual financial difficulties. But they looked set to consume the very club itself in 2012. Crippling debts led to the realization that the order to close shop was imminent. It was then that they appealed to the fans.

Previously in 2006, there was a false dawn in the shape of Alberto González. The fans allowed him to take a controlling share in the club. He paid €200,000 for a team bus and had no interest in paying tax. It would only go one way. He was eventually sentenced to a stretch in prison, while he also fled to Panama in between. It left the club in disarray. After his shares were frozen, a new five-man board took over, with the supporters’ voice heard and represented. One of the bigger shareholders was an Oviedo fan himself, representing the local council under a new mayor. Having fans that cared for the club could only mean well.

But all those measures were not enough to reverse the growing tide. The ultimatum was steep. They needed €1.9 million immediately to avoid a winding-up order, €2.5 million to make it to the end of the season and €4 million to secure the club’s medium-term future. At €10.75 per share, it was left to the fans to save the club they so dearly loved. It tapped into Espíritu 2003, but on a level unimaginable. The response to the final throw of the dice was immense.

In 2003, Santi Cazorla and Juan Mata left for Villarreal and Real Madrid amidst uncertainty, aged 17 and 15. They eventually developed into bonafide playmakers in the Premier League, but they have never forgotten their roots, returning to their home regularly. Mata himself is behind the ‘Common Goal’ initiative that looks at giving back to the sport. Michu, meanwhile, was a cult figure of his own accord: he made his debut at 17 in the third tier, spent four seasons at Oviedo, winning promotion together. He turned down rivals Gijón, preferring Rayo Vallecano. His exploits at Swansea as a one-season wonder is well known now, and injuries curtailed a blossoming career. But he managed to wind down his early at Oviedo too, proving that it all starts and ends at home.

These three horsemen of the club saw it upon themselves to drive the campaign internationally, promoting the initiative to buy shares. They purchased a significant number of shares too, but while it was about the quantity, it was more about the thought and what Oviedo represented to them. Shares were bought by players and fans across the world. And their fanbase multiplied exponentially too. The campaign was also led by Sid Lowe, a Madrid-based sports journalist who had studied in the city for a year. It was not a favourable situation to be in, but Oviedo made themselves prominent worldwide. It is rare for a third-tier club to garner such interest, but when you hold the pedigree that they did along with the support garnered by adored stars, it was no surprise. After all, football is supreme.

In two weeks, the club’s short-term future was secured, while they were making strides towards the long-term too. Carlos Slim, the Mexican business magnate, stepped in and bought €2 million of shares himself. He was then the world’s richest man: reflective of the reach Oviedo had managed to create. On the verge of extinction, they were able to attract a man of Slim’s wealth. Oviedo have never gone under 10,000 season ticket holders since their relegation in 2001. Coupled with their new found international fanbase, they could boast a following that was unheard of in the third tier.

Oviedo’s story is unusual. Their identity is shared by thousands of co-owners around the world, ensuring that their legacy and story will not be forgotten. The power of media has never been more apparent, and yet it was the desire of the football lovers to be part of something bigger, something personal, something human that appealed to their senses. To see a football club dissolve is one of the game’s regretful sides – and while Parma found the ride back to the top easier, the Spanish leagues are a mishmash of chaos and disorganization bubbling at the bottom.

There are several tiers, several ‘B’ sides, where the probability of being in with a shot for promotion is too low. To bounce back from the bottom would be a herculean task. If Real Oviedo had gone, it would have been a hole in the heart for the thousands of die-hard fans. They must live every game now with a sense of relief, and a renewed sense of belief in their team. They lived through dark times, but the light is shining upon them. There is no reason not to be positive. They will go into this season aiming for promotion once again, and it would be a real story if they succeeded. But above all, they’ll be grateful for their second life, granted by football lovers across the world. They rose like a phoenix from the ashes.

Real Oviedo’s story is a miracle, but also a testament to what focus should be on in sport. It’s about breaking down cultural barriers and celebrating them. Sport is inclusive, not exclusive. Fans can belong to any country and still support whichever team they want, for football has no borders. Their revival is a reminder of what the game truly stands for. The fact that Oviedo could sell as many shares as they want at this moment, with numerous fans wanting to be a part of the historic club, is testament to that. Viva la Vida, truly.

BY RAHUL WARRIER

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