Last season, little Levante were the toast of La Liga. This season again has been one of relative success for the small side from Valencia. However, a murky match-fixing scandal now threatens to place a cloud over what has been a remarkable two years.
A team of vastly experienced journeymen thrown together for virtually no money on account of Levante having no money. With financial fair play far from prevalent in La Liga—the big two cut the pie accordingly and leave crumbs for the rest—president Quico Catalan has done a magnificent job to keep the club afloat. On the pitch, they have perhaps done even better.
Marshalled by pragmatic manager Juan Ignacio Martinez, they dared to upset the elite early in the season by leading the table. They certainly upset Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid, beating them 1-0 at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium in a bad-tempered affair.
Come the end of the campaign, the preseason relegation favourites finished in sixth place, ensuring a foray into the Europa League. A team of players that no one else had wanted—Arouna Kone, Nabil El Zhar, Juanfran, Sergio Ballesteros and Vicente Iborra to name but a few—had dumbfounded the critics.
Over the summer, Martinez had to deal with his best player leaving when Ivorian striker Kone left for Wigan. In came another freebie, Obafemi Martins, who has since been sold to the Seattle Sounders in MLS.
However, Levante continued on, always keeping that step ahead of relegation's forever-looming spectre, seemingly entrenched in the top half of the table (just about).
In March, their European adventure came to an end, with Rubin Kazan needing extra time to see them off at the last-16 stage. However, they remained comfortable at home, well clear of the relegation zone.
Nonetheless, on April 13, the Levante story took a dark twist.
Playing at home to relegation candidates Deportivo La Coruna, they crumbled in a 4-0 defeat. Martinez called it "the worst game since I took over" afterward. Indeed, the Galician visitors, with nine points from their previous three matches, had won with ease, having been up three goals by half-time.
A mere off day? Perhaps. After all, they were theoretically safe in mid-table, and with a squad somewhat lacking in depth, the team had had an exhausting season up to that point, with many members of the ageing squad having played in excess of 45 matches.
Or was it something more sinister, maybe?
It has since emerged that the club's central midfielder Jose Barkero accused teammates—namely Ballesteros, goalkeeper Gustavo Munua and Juanfran—of not trying. According to the radio station Cadena Ser, he yelled: "This is a big lie of a game—I don't want to participate in this farce."
Although Barkero has since apologised to his teammates, Martinez has dropped both Munua and Ballesteros, reference points over the last 20-odd months, from the starting lineup. Juanfran's remained, but for injury this past weekend.
Certainly, it appears to have acted as a dagger through the Levante heart. Since Deportivo, they've taken two points from a possible 12, scoring just one goal in the process.
Catalan vowed to uncover the truth behind the scandal when he spoke at a recent press conference, as reported by ESPNFC:
We believe fully in the professionalism and honesty of all the players in our squad.
We will fight to the death to find out the truth, which could be that something happened, or that nothing happened. Because if anyone is losing with all this, it is the club and its fans. Any player who has done anything like this, cannot play for Levante.
According to Catalan, he will work hand-in-hand with Javier Tebas, who recently ascended to the role of president at the LFP. Tebas has long been vocal about his distaste for match-fixing and illegal betting. Regular watchers of betting exchanges where late-season Spanish matches are concerned will know why. However, little, if anything, has ever been proven.
"I have spoken with Javier Tebas," continued Catalan. "We are at the disposition of the LFP, RFEF [Spanish FA] and ordinary courts to clear up any matter. Levante stand for fair play and fight for transparency in the competition."
For 22 months, Levante have fought hard. Each week they've battled and scrapped to prove themselves and (figuratively) to laugh in the faces of those who have consistently and unreservedly tipped them to fail.
They've garnered respect and support for their continual resistance in the face of adversity. However, their biggest battle—to prove their own innocence—could well be coming.
And it's one that they seemingly cannot afford to lose.
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