A year ago, Levante earned a draw against Real Madrid, the best, wealthiest, handomest team in all of La Liga. It was a big moment for the Levante Granotes (that means frogs): Striker Rafa Jordá likened the 0-0 decision to "chewing the face off your girlfriend." (We'll blame shaky translation for that one.) Winning, however, would have been something else entirely—"like kissing Miss Spain," according to head coach Luis García.
Yesterday in Valencia, the frogs kissed Miss World. Levante upset a 10-man Real Madrid squad 1-0. It's a classic story (the underdogs triumph) made more interesting by Cristiano Ronaldo's speculation last week that he is booed by opposing fans because he is "handsome, rich and good at football." Levante proudly endorses the opposite reputation: A banner at the stadium Sunday reportedly read "ugly, poor and bad at football." The Guardian helpfully contextualized what the win meant for a team like Levante:
Those who remember Levante from last season will recall they are so poor that the coach admitted he could not afford to use the Spanish equivalent of ProZone and that the sporting director admitted to picking off the scraps, missing out on players who would rather play in the Second Division than rough it in the First; that, despite the presence of qualified hairdresser Juanfran, they were ugly, that they had the oldest, most lumbering and unrefined defence around; that they were so talentless that the one experience most shared was relegation. They will recall that the average wage at Levante is less than Ronaldo gets in a week, while their most expensive player cost €300,000 – one-320th what the Portuguese cost Madrid.
And yet last night, Levante—historically broke Levante—found a way to beat Los Blancos.
Madrid went down a man in the 40th minute, when German import Sami Khedira was sent off for a red card after the incident you see in the video here. Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho has since partially blamed Khedira for the loss, but he's also credited Levante for its own play:
I congratulate them for being clever. They know how to waste time and how to not give the ball back. They know this because it's also part of football. Our players don't feel comfortable in this sort of habitat and Levante [knows] it.
Mourinho certainly saw that Levante had a tactic. Gamesmanship was certainly a part of it: It doesn't hurt to effectively psyche an opponent off the field. And head coach Juan Martinez told the press it all had to do with their counterattacking style. What else has Levante figured out, though? They've hung around in the LFP for the past 20 years, and every now and then—despite player protests and relative bankruptcy—they pull off upsets like this one. The poor team beat the rich team using a new game plan. Sound familiar?
But you can't really apply Billy Beane's statistical strategy to soccer; it's a different game that isn't as amenable to precise numbers and long-term predictions (although there's certainly an effort to change that). Levante's win over Real Madrid isn't watershed—it doesn't suggest actual parity in a league that has virtually zero financial regulations for its teams—but it is intriguing. Levante paid for a player this summer for the first time in four years; Real Madrid can almost literally pay for any player it could ever desire. So was the win for Los Pobres Granotes' just a fluke? Or have they figured out some kind of formula to beat a team that should be unbeatable?
Probably not. But it's nice to see that a team that plays in a world without revenue sharing or draft lotteries can still pull off an upset like this one every now and then.