A defeat has been the making of this Getafe team and their extraordinary pursuit of a place in next year's UEFA Champions League.
In January, Getafe were paired with Valencia in the quarter-final of the Copa del Rey and won the first leg 1-0 at home. In the return tie at Valencia's historic Mestalla Stadium, the game turned into a bonfire—the referee doled out 10 yellow cards and three reds.
Getafe went ahead in the first minute of play through Jorge Molina, but the second half was when things really got interesting. Rodrigo scored to pull one back for Valencia, and then Getafe's key central defender, Dakonam Djene, was sent off for a second bookable offence. Rodrigo scored again in injury time, tying the aggregate score. With extra time looming, Molina squandered a chance to pull Getafe back ahead seconds later. Within a minute, Rodrigo scored a dramatic third goal to win the tie.
As the game drew to a close, Valencia's Gabriel Paulista had to receive attention on the pitch. While he was getting treatment, Getafe defender Bruno kicked the ball at Valencia's bench. This incensed one of Valencia's substitutes, French defender Mouctar Diakhaby, who went after Bruno when the full-time whistle blew. The pair had to be separated and both were sent off.
Both teams' players and staff squared up in scuffles around the pitch. One of Valencia's assistant trainers hit Getafe's Damian Suarez from behind. A Getafe delegate fell to the ground amid the tussling. Valencia hat-trick hero Rodrigo had been taunting his opponents by making crybaby gestures, so Getafe striker Jaime Mata, half-restrained by players from both sides, tried to headbutt him.
Police flooded onto the pitch to break up the melee, escorting both sets of players down the tunnel, where the bating—according to the referee's match report—continued beyond the sight of television and phone cameras. It was the talk of La Liga for days afterwards.
When interviewed pitchside following the game, Molina said he was annoyed that Djene had been sent off for what he felt was a harsh yellow card. He reckoned that maybe Getafe had come undone because bigger clubs—like Valencia, who have the fourth-largest budget in La Liga—resent it when a smaller club like Getafe challenges them: "In the end, at Getafe, we're a small outfit. Pff. Looks like we've ruffled a few feathers."
The night was a turning point in Getafe's league campaign, though. It galvanised the squad. It was them against the world. At the time, with 21 rounds of matches played in La Liga, Getafe were lying in sixth place on the table. Today, they're in fourth—three points ahead of the chasing pack for the final Champions League place with two games left to play.
"When Valencia eliminated Getafe from the Copa del Rey, Getafe were very upset and shipped a lot of criticism," says Javier Hernandez, a journalist with Diario AS. "I think that night was what made the team believe in themselves—that they were a team with possibilities. At the end, if a team like Valencia is afraid of you and when they win their players go to their supporters in the stands to celebrate, as if they had won a title, it made Getafe's players sit up and think, 'This is important to Valencia—to beat us.' It made them realise they've won the respect of the big clubs."
Paco Pavon, a former defender with Real Madrid, concurs: "The most important game this season was one that Getafe lost—to Valencia at the Mestalla in the Copa del Rey. It drew the team closer together. Their results until then were good, but since then they've become even better."
Getafe is part of Pavon's blood. He grew up in the Madrid suburb and was made a "socio" (member) when he was a kid by his father, who is one of the 30 oldest members of the club. The stadium was named after a good friend of Pavon's—Alfonso Perez, a former Spain international from the 1990s who, like Pavon, is from Getafe and an ex-Real Madrid player (and Barcelona, incidentally).
Pavon puts Getafe's success this season down to their team spirit: "The important thing with Getafe is the group mentality. One day some players are important, and others not, but the group's level never drops. They combine well together. They compete very well. To play against Getafe is really complicated. They are a team that's very difficult to score a goal against. They yield very few chances, and they take advantage of their opponents' mistakes.
"There isn't one star above the rest in the team. All the players are important. In the other teams at the top of the league, there are two or three players that are very important to their success—Real Madrid depends on [Karim] Benzema, Barcelona on [Lionel] Messi, but in Getafe the strength is in the group—in Molina, who has contributed 14 league goals; in Mata, who has been playing so well that he has been called up for his international debut, and who has also chipped in with 14 goals. The goalkeeper has been vital. It's a group that the coach, Pepe Bordalas, has welded together."
Bordalas, 55, is a fascinating character. His playing career in Spain's lower leagues was cut short by injury in 1992. He immediately jumped into coaching and, 24 years and 14 managerial jobs later, took over Getafe in September 2016, when they were in the relegation zone in the second division. He turned them around, dragging them into the playoffs and ultimately promotion by the end of the season. After a quarter of a century managing football teams, he had finally made it to La Liga.
There are several elements to his successful Getafe team. They play in compact units without playmaking midfielders. Their defence is water-tight—only Atletico Madrid have conceded fewer league goals this season. They press high. There are no flourishes, no fancy flicks.
"Their special characteristic is they don't allow the opponent to play," says Hernandez. "If they get the ball, great; if not, they'll make a foul if necessary, but they never allow the opposition to string four passes in a row together, never. It's an order. But as the season has progressed, they've been pressing higher up the pitch—making it complicated for the opposition to get the ball out of their half.
"Bordalas demands great loyalty. He trusts in those players who give him what he wants. He never tolerates bad behaviour. If one of his players were to kick a water bottle, say, in anger, or get upset with him, or complained to the referee or looked bitterly at a teammate, he'd be out. It happened with Alvaro Jimenez, a young guy from Andalucia, who he shipped out on loan [to Sporting Gijon]. He can't handle lack of respect. He demands order."
Bordalas also has a keen eye for a bargain. All three of the club's strikers—alongside Mata and Molina, Angel has clocked in with eight crucial league goals this season—are over 30, and all came to the club as free agents. He has twice called on Mathieu Flamini—the ex-Arsenal midfielder who moonlights as the co-founder of a multimillion-euro biochemicals company—as a free agent to make 13 appearances in total. Djene was plucked from obscurity in Belgian football two seasons ago. He has become the club's most prized asset.
"The best thing about Djene is his speed," says Pavon. "He's a very alert player—he's always prepared to cut out danger. He's got a good first touch. He's not very tall, but he attacks the ball very aggressively in the air. He's a complete defender. He's made Getafe very solid—alongside Bruno, Leandro Cabrera and Damian [Suarez] in defence. It will be difficult to hold onto Djene next season. He's very sought-after by top clubs around Europe, like Arsenal. Let's see."
Molina is a leader whose Cinderella story is a microcosm of Getafe's. He didn't make his Liga debut until he was 29 while playing with Real Betis. He's now 37 and is indispensable to Getafe's cause—he hasn't missed a league game this season and only sat out two last season. He's ascetic when it comes to looking after his body.
"He works a lot to stay fit," says Ruben Yanez, Getafe's reserve goalkeeper. "To maintain yourself in peak condition at his age is very difficult. He does a lot of unseen work in the background, work that the public doesn't see, not just on the pitch in regular training, but also in the gym. He's careful about his diet because that's very important, especially the older you get. It's impressive watching him score so many goals."
Getafe will likely need Molina to score on Sunday. They travel to Barcelona without his main strike partner, Mata, who is out through suspension, as is Bruno. It's backs-to-the-wall time for Getafe, but they like it that way.
With a three-point cushion over fifth place and a winnable home fixture against 15th-placed Villarreal for their last game, a win or even a draw at the Camp Nou—against a deflated Barcelona side, following their dramatic semi-final exit from the Champions League, who have already wrapped up the league title—would virtually guarantee Getafe that coveted UEFA Champions League place for next season. The fact that Getafe might pip Valencia—lying in fifth place—would make it all the sweeter.
There are few other comparable Liga stories. Barcelona's budget for the season, for example, is more than 15 times the size of Getafe's. Bordalas' starting XI in the 2-0 win against Girona on Sunday cost just over €15 million in transfer fees; three of them arrived as free agents. Perhaps only the Champions League qualifications of Mallorca (1998-1999) or Villarreal (2011-2012) come close to rivalling it, although they had greater bankrolls behind them.
"The story of Getafe this season—to possibly qualify for the Champions League—is the greatest miracle I can think of in my time watching La Liga," says Pavon. "It's due to the work of the president, the good structures he has put in place over many years, the people working for him, and above all Pepe Bordalas. It's due to his merit that it is on the verge of history."
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