Have you ever typed “azulgrana” into Google Translate and seen the English translation result? It isn’t what it should be which is “blue-cochineal”.
That must irk bored Anglophone Levante fans who would bother to check, because their club also uses azulgrana when writing and talking (in Castellano) about the team.
The Barça and Levante kit colours aren’t the only common ground in the clubs’ identities. Taking a look at their club logo, they even have the same little stylised football in their V-shaped (for Valencia) shield. The Bat of King James (which should have been a swallow and not a bat, but that’s another story), tops their emblem, and this also featured in the very first FCB logo designed in 1899. The Barça bat was dropped in 1910 when a competition for a new logo was won by Carles Comamala who was a club player at the time. His design serves the basis for the logo which is still in present-day use.
Those of you who have read my recent previews have probably cottoned onto my propensity to discover shared player/coach history between the Blaugrana and whichever club they’re playing. With Levante, this was difficult because there has been little overlap in shared resources. The club is based in Valencia which is an autonomous region of Spain, like Catalunya. Along with Castellano, they also speak Valencian which is based on the Catalan language.
I’ll mention players such as Josep Escolà whose history while playing for Barcelona, during the Franco era, was harrowing enough for him to seek exile in France. In later years, he would coach Levante from 1955-56.
There was also Johan Cruyff who, having played for FCB from 1973 to 1978, signed for Levante for the last half of the 1981 season when they were playing in the Segunda División.
Juande Ramos coached Levante (1994- 95) and Barça B (1996-97) as well as a slew of other Spanish teams (Real Madrid 2008-2009) before heading off to Russia.
German Bernd Schuster played for Barcelona (1980-88) and managed Levante for a season over 2004-05.
However, nothing was really compelling enough upon which to base a story.
I then got to thinking about the respective club captains – Carles Puyol and Sergio Ballesteros.
Levante’s Pugnacious Captain
Unlike our capità who has remained with the one club for his youth and adult careers, Ballesteros played 12 seasons at other clubs.
A pupil of Levante’s youth system (In 1998, he was a player in Spain’s successful U-21 European Cup campaign), 1994-95 was spent in the Levante First Team before being loaned to Tenerife for 1996. The Canary outfit bought Sergio where he remained for 4 seasons (1996-2000) before moving to Rayo for a year (2000-01), then to Villarreal (2001-04) and Mallorca (2004-2008); returning to Levante in 2008.
Ballesteros is a man not without a little controversy and it mostly revolves around him and Real Madrid players, although he’s not slow to claim that others, such as Valencia’s Soldado, have “assaulted” him during a game. The Soldado stamping and kicking claim earned Sergio a Yellow card from a disbelieving referee about 4 weeks ago.
While at Villarreal (2003-05), Ballesteros came to Madrid’s attention. After an altercation with beloved Merengue son, Raúl, an article published at the time included a quote from Sergio saying, “If I was handsome like Beckham, they would not say that I’m so hard. For some time there has been a campaign against me in Madrid.”
That campaign followed him from Villarreal to Mallorca. In 2005 in a game against Madrid, Ballesteros slapped David Beckham and was red-carded. “He trod on my foot and I reacted,” was his defence. A few weeks later, he also cuffed Carles Puyol in a Mallorca-Barcelona game and was sent off again. Amazingly, both red cards were over-turned – much to his immense pleasure and vindication.
Last season, he had a running battle with Cristiano Ronaldo. As this video shows, Cristiano constantly griped about Ballesteros and his elbowing, and ultimately it all looked as if it was an orchestrated campaign – attempting to goad Ballesteros into physically reacting and get sent off. Perhaps Sergio had learned from the Beckham experience.
Madrid did win that game, but in the return match later in the season at Valencia, Levante scored to hold Real Madrid to a 1-0 loss. In overtime at the end of 90 minutes, Cristiano was set free to run into the goal when a man, 10 years older than him, outsprinted the former Ballon D’Or winner to strip him of the ball and prevent the goal threat. Ballesteros – all 93kg of him.
This has become one of the most-watched football plays in Spain:
A fortnight ago, the Levante-Madrid game was a rain-drenched, ugly affair which spilled over into the tunnel and dressing-rooms after the game. A wayward Navarro elbow opened up a gash over Cristiano’s eye, but he scored before having to come off. Levante evened the score to 1-1, but Morata scored in the final minutes of the game to give the win to Madrid – 1-2.
Then followed a sorry state of affairs. Pepe was alleged to have victory-danced in front of Levante’s players and fans, as well as punching Ballesteros in the tunnel when the teams left the pitch. Ballesteros, apparently dressed only in a towel, entered the Madrid dressing room to inquire about Cristiano’s injury. While there, a heated exchange broke out which, according to police notes, began when a Real Madrid security employee pushed Levante’s Juanfran. During the fracas, Ballesteros allegedly grabbed Pepe by the throat and punched him. The game referee was asked to intervene, and he did so by calling the police.
Both clubs absolved themselves of guilt, with Madrid publishing a statement stating that their players were innocent. Levante fantastically trolled Madrid’s statement by also publishing one of their own which used similar wording.
Strangely, we haven’t seen any published images of Pepe looking any the worse for wear following the event.
It would be unfair to base your opinion of Ballesteros solely on these incidents. He’s not a violent masochist. He’s not enveloped in a red mist which sees him vindictively lashing out at all and sundry. He’s not a saint either. On the pitch, he errs on the side of “professional fouls” – little nudges and elbows – reminders which bear the message, “hey – it’s me you’re dealing with – remember that I’m here.”
In an interview, when speaking about Levante’s comparative smallness when compared with other clubs such as Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia, Ballesteros said, “We don’t have 80,000 members or 120 million euros worth of TV money. We have to work with what we have.”
Sergio Ballesteros absolutely works with what he has. He’s not adverse to a bit of pushing and shoving, mixed with some psychological warfare on the pitch. He uses his size and bulk to his advantage. Ten years ago, a brave (stupid?) reporter once asked him, “Aren’t you too fat to be a footballer?” To which he restrainedly replied, “No, I’m just stocky.”
The card magnet Ballesteros will never win Fair Play Awards like Puyol has done, but there are inherent similarities between the 2 men.
Like begets Like
Puyol’s and Ballesteros’ respect for each other stems from their mutual recognition of shared values.
Some of these values can’t be trained or coached into a player. Some players are born to lead their teams through example – an innate willingness to fight with all your heart and soul for what you believe is right. On a football pitch, that means for your team, team-mates and club – in victory and defeat. Men of men.
Both captains show a level of commitment which extends beyond the boundaries of merely playing for the love of the game. They play because the game is their mistress for which their passion has not faded. To not be on the pitch is the ultimate torture – a forced separation from something that they adore. We’ve seen it in Puyol’s face and his body tension as he sits in the stands or on the bench, barely unable to resist running out to do the job himself. It’s the same desire which runs through Ballesteros.
They both play in similar positions (Sergio is a tall 6’ 2’’ Right Center-Back and Puyol a 5’ 10” Left Center-Back) and both marshal their back-lines with ferocious intensity and an almost-psychic sense of exactly where each player should be, in anticipation of the next play. When their teams get it wrong, they take it to heart because, no matter whose fault it was, ultimately they believe that they should have personally prevented the error.
Ballesteros is now 37 years old with Puyol 3 years behind him. In some ways, Levante is fortunate that their key man didn’t have an International career which has undoubtedly affected Puyol through injuries and a lot more high-pressure games, including Champions League and games for Spain. Last season, Levante had one of the oldest back-lines and goal-keeper combinations in First League history – a total of 170 years between the 5 players.
Both men will play until they decide that enough is enough. When that time comes, they won’t expect a fuss because they’ve simply been doing what they do. Leave the accolades to the prima donnas, please.
Above all, Puyol and Ballesteros bleed for the red and blue – little matter whether it’s called azulgrana or blaugrana.
What should we expect in Valencia?
A freaking hard game, that’s what. No matter what the score, our boys will finish the game feeling like cars just raced in a demolition derby. Hopefully they won’t look like them as well.
The Levante fans will be baying for Barça heads and their team will be willing to provide, although the mutual respect between the teams should prevent the game from developing into an ugly affair.
Les Granotes (translates to The Frogs) will be without Right-Back Pedro López who was Yellow/Red Carded out of last week’s game against Deportivo.
They have reinforced their side with some considerable talent including Pape Diop (who scored his first Levante goal against Helsingsborg this week) and former Inter and Newcastle somersaulting Striker Obafemi Martins.
Last season, Levante visited Camp Nou for the first round and left on a manita hiding. The return match at Ciutat de València was much closer, and Levante took an early lead through a penalty shot. Wasted opportunities left Barça possibly facing a defeat, until Messi popped up to score a brace (a beautiful shot after brilliant play with Cuenca and Alexis 64’ and a penalty 70’) to seal the win, but it wasn’t an easy game.
Estadi Ciutat de València will be packed to its 25,354 capacity, because Levante has declared this match day to be a Club Day. This means that all season-ticket holders have relinquished their tickets for this match unless they have applied to attend. The club has set the tickets at very reasonable prices in order to fill every seat.
The weather should be fine and clear with a temperature of around 15°C (63°F). The pitch should have had a chance to recover after the drowning it received a couple of weeks ago.
Both teams are coming into the weekend having played mid-week UEFA games where each qualified for the next knockout rounds, and still with one game to play in the Group Rounds.
Both games were played at roughly the same latitude – 56° North. Barcelona played in Champions League on a freezing Tuesday night against Spartak Moscow and won 0-3. Levante won their Europa League match 1-3 on Thursday night in the Swedish cold against Helsingborgs IF.
The Barça players have had a couple of extra days to recover from their game, cold and travel, in which they have also had 2 days off. Levante came straight back and went to work to prepare for Sunday’s game. If they didn’t exhaust themselves with their Europa League efforts, this game will be a humdinger.
The Magic 300
As a team, Levante is also seeking their 300th Primera League goal. Villa will miss this game with an ankle injury – he’s sitting on 299 while looking to score his 300th top flight goal.
La Liga Table Positions
Barcelona heads the Primera table with 34 points – 3 ahead of Atlético Madrid (31) and 8 in front of Real Madrid (26).
On 20 points, Levante is currently 4th. That’s right, they’re in Champions League territory and although it’s early in the season, they have their eyes on a prize that the team will not easily relinquish – especially as they’ve just overtaken Málaga to win that position.
If Levante stays in the first division after this season, it will be the most successful era in team history – the first time in the club’s 103 year history that they have managed 3 consecutive seasons in the top group.
What of Barcelona?
Tito will be taking this game very seriously, as this could potentially be the game in which Barça could drop points because of the Levante pressure and style of play.
Great news – Adriano and Thiago have both been cleared to re-join the team.
VV is reported to be experiencing some knee problems (him and me both), so Oier is also travelling with the team.
Injuries aside, I expect to see VV, Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Alba, Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi and either Tello or Cesc starting.
The game starts on Sunday 25th at 9pm CET. Click here to convert the match time to your timezone: Levante UD vs. FC Barcelona