Javier Poves has turned the football world's axis on its head by deciding to rename his football club Flat Earth FC. Poves, who is president of a Madrid-based football club in Spain formerly known as Mostoles Balompie, launched the new name at a flat-Earth convention in Barcelona a few weeks ago. The world's sporting press has taken notice.
Poves claims he has been inundated with interview requests and will be the subject of a Vice documentary that begins filming in August. He says the story has been picked up by "105 to 110 countries" around the world. Recently, Spanish daily sports newspaper Diario AS ran an interview with him. Alongside the digital version on its website, there was an article about Neymar's transfer saga.
The article on Flat Earth FC generated more than 450 comments, 15 times as many as the Neymar article. Poves is exercising opinion. It's just the way he likes it.
When I ask him why he decided to mix together his two passions—running a football club and investigating if Earth is flat—he says it sprung from tedium. "We live in such a boring world. Everything is so monotonous. Always the same. Let's speed up the heart rate a little bit," he says, clapping his hands.
Poves, 32, used to live nearly every boy's dream. He scaled the ladder of professional football.
The game is in his genes. His cousin is Oscar Tellez, a former Spain international who played for Alaves against Liverpool in the epic 2001 UEFA Cup final at Dortmund's Westfalenstadion, which Liverpool won 5-4 after extra time.
Like his cousin, Poves was a decent centre-back too. Growing up in Madrid, he passed through the youth academies at Atletico Madrid and Rayo Vallecano before being picked up by Sporting Gijon. He made his debut against Hercules in La Liga in May 2011. Then, fed up with the game, he packed it in at only 24 years old.
It came as a shock to his father. He couldn't believe it. "My father cried," says Poves. "All his life he was the father of a son who was a footballer. 'Ah, dad,' I said to him. 'Don't annoy me. I know you're sad about this decision [but you'll get over it].'"
His mother was more philosophical about the path he took in the road. "She's very Zen about everything," says Poves. "'If you want to, Javi, perfect,' she said."
Poves shares a bohemian streak with his mother. He has always been drawn more to artistic circles than to football's machista culture. When he moved to Gijon as a 21-year-old, for example, he pursued his love of the Italian language. While studying at an Italian language institute in the city, he got to know a woman whose boyfriend was an Italian painter, the visual artist Enrico Ingenito. Poves didn't want to live alone—and he earned more money than he needed from football—so he told her she could move in with him for free. He became firm friends with Ingenito, who came over from Genoa and stayed with them.
"Enrico is a spectacular artist," says Poves. "He has had a lot of influence on me, on a creative level, on the way to live."
Bit by bit, Poves became disenchanted with the world of football, feeling more comfortable among his artistic friends. "To live in this social milieu was not compatible with a career in football," he says. They were Yin and Yang. He was disillusioned with the brutal, competitive nature of professional football. He saw it as an industry, a cog in what he perceived as the drudgery of capitalism.
When he got his first paycheck at Sporting, he went to the club and asked them not to pay him with a bank transfer because he didn't want to be part of the banking system's flow of cash "for one second." When the club gave him a car, he returned it the next day. He felt he didn't need two cars; he already drove a smart car. He said he didn't want to vote because he rejected conventional politics and the parliamentary system.
The press flocked to his door to hear his "anti-system" pronouncements. When he announced his retirement in 2011, he took a final kick at the game: "Professional football is only about money and corruption. It's capitalism, and capitalism is death. I do not want to be in a system that is based on people making money thanks to the death of others in South America, Africa, Asia." He felt his "inner soul" couldn't take any more.
His team-mates in the Sporting squad couldn't believe he was walking away from the riches football had to offer. They laughed at his antics, but his decision to leave the game left them baffled. "You're crazy," they said. "You're mad to leave here. What do you want to do after this? Better to make some money and then you can see."
Poves, however, harboured no doubts. He enjoyed swimming against the tide. "I felt happy," he says. "I believe that when a lot of people think like me, I stop and I think, 'Oops, this is bad.' If I follow what everybody else is doing, that means I'm crazy as well. For this reason, many times I need to step out from the crowd and say and do the opposite."
Poves was abandoning the game so he could lead a "clean" life. He decided to walk the earth. He wanted to travel. He couldn't stomach what he saw as football's role in the capitalist enterprise, but he wasn't naïve about how money works. He set himself up by using the €1,000 per month he got from renting out an apartment he owned in Madrid to fund his travels.
"I'm not against money, but how it functions," he says. "The flow of money around the world is the problem. How it is used to create capital. The system is so Machiavellian. I'm not a communist—[believing] that everyone should be equal—but I don't think someone should have one billion dollars while someone else has to live on the street."
Poves had the time of his life. He spent five years living in the most obscure corners of the globe, including Iran ("the safest place I lived"); Los Angeles ("parts of the city are so dangerous, more dangerous than Caracas [in Venezuela], where I also spent three months"); Kyoto, Japan; Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Senegal (where he got malaria).
"People say, 'Oh, football is the best'," he says. "No, no, no—I spent five years travelling around the world. I lived things you couldn't imagine. You know Blade Runner? The Rutger Hauer character said at the end of it: 'I have seen things you people wouldn't believe.' That's how it felt."
What on earth made him come home? "This is the question. Why? Why? Why?," he says rhetorically. While on the road, he fell in love and returned to Madrid with his girlfriend. They opened a cafe, but the relationship foundered, and Poves fell back in love with football. Or the business of football.
Poves has no desire to play football anymore. "It bores me," he says. He is energised, though, by the possibilities the most popular game in the world affords. He sees it as a powerful vehicle.
"I left Sporting because I was tired of following the orders of the club," he says. "Now I make the decisions. I can do what I like. I can achieve a lot of things. I see football as something that I can use. I don't want to talk about the sport [tactics etc.] or play the game. Professional football is more like a tool for me. It's a mechanism I can use to get across a message."
Three-and-a-half years ago, Poves decided to take over a club in Madrid neighborhood Mostoles with Dani Marquez, an old friend who had come up through the ranks with him at Atletico's youth academy. They twice won promotion, most recently this past season, ascending to Spain's third division.
Then Poves took the decision to rename the club to Flat Earth FC. Marquez has gone a separate path, taking the guts of the old club, and its 150 members, to create a re-formed entity called UD Mostoles Balompie, adding a union deportiva (UD) prefix to the old club's name and staying in the same neighbourhood. The breakaway by Poves led to a complete schism between the two clubs.
"The relationship between both clubs is nonexistent," says Walter Zimmermann, director of communications and marketing at UD Mostoles Balompie. "We don't have any type of relationship anymore. It's totally broken. We're now two clubs that are completely different, like Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao."
The members of the old club were taken aback by the new direction Poves was taking.
"When you buy something, you can do whatever you like with it, but of course we were very surprised [by the renaming]," says Zimmermann.
"We didn't get to know until a few days before [it was made public]. For us to be linked with the flat Earth thing was damaging; it was going to do more harm than good, so of course we wanted to break our ties as soon as possible. We are very clear about the Earth being a sphere. We don't really understand why you should think it is anything else. Most of the people in the club are just normal people. I didn't even know the flat Earth movement existed until I met Javi."
Poves came to the conclusion that Earth is flat two years ago. "When I travelled around the world, I still believed the Earth was round. It wasn't until I returned to Madrid that I concluded the Earth was flat. One day I was thinking about water. How is it possible that it doesn't curve? Water never curves. It's impossible. Water and liquids always find their level," he says to me, turning and balancing a bottle of water in his hand by way of illustration.
Poves took his enquiry onto the internet, where he encountered the flat-Earth community. He found like-minded spirits. "I spoke with a lot of YouTubers around the world," he says. "Boom. Boom. Boom."
Daniel J. Clark, director of the Netflix documentary about the flat-Earth movement, Behind the Curve, disputes Poves' conclusions: "There is no shred of evidence that proves that the Earth is flat—that it is not spherical. All flat-Earthers have all these different things they say, like, 'Water doesn't bend'; 'You can see this, and you shouldn't be able to see it (if the Earth was round).' All these sentiments are not scientifically true. If you ask any scientist, that's what they're going to tell you. Everything we know tells us that we live on a sphere in space."
Poves, however, is all-in. As well as being convinced the Earth has to be flat, he harbours other anti-establishment theories.
He sees climate change as a money-making ruse for big business. "It's possible there's climate change but because of changes in the sun, natural cycles," he adds.
On evolution: "Charles Darwin was a theologist. He wasn't a scientist. There are a lot of flaws in his model. Why was his theory accepted as a perfect model? Because it aligned with Adam Smith's neo-liberal economics ideas. It suited the capitalism of the day. I know that I didn't come from a monkey."
He shows me a Wikipedia page of Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian astronomer and mathematician who came up with a precursor of the Big Bang theory.
"How is it possible that a Jesuit from the Vatican [came up with this theory]? The Vatican controls everything," he says. "They control the official model, the dissent. They control the anti-dissent side as well through the Mossad, the CIA, the MI6. The world's [military-industrial complex] is controlled by the Vatican too. Obviously."
Poves is dizzying once he gets into a flow. His most defining physical feature is his pair of piercing cobalt-coloured eyes, and he can catch you off-guard. It's hard to keep up with the thoughts that tumble out of him, from rubbishing the moon landing 50 years ago to why the Windsors ("a family from central Europe") were gifted the British royal crown.
"People start blaming the Jesuits and the Jews and the Muslims. It always makes me laugh," says Clark. "Not everyone is working together—that doesn't make any sense. To believe in a flat Earth, you have to believe every other conspiracy is at the very least plausible. The moon landing being the most obvious because, if there's no spherical Earth, if it's flat, there's no space, there's no moon. So how did we land on something that doesn't exist? It must have been faked.
"It's really easy to point the finger at something and say, 'It's fake' when you don't have the burden of proving that statement. It doesn't surprise me that a person in 'flat Earth' is giving a lot of creedence to tons of other conspiracy theories."
Poves says he's got messages of support since he launched Flat Earth FC from celebrity screen actors and singers, as well as footballers all over Spain, except those from the country's premier division. He claimed the club's season ticket sales had gone up. When I ask Poves about the percentage increase, he says it's potentially "infinite," as the club didn't have any season ticket holders before. The average attendance for a game last season was 15 people, he told me, laughing.
The reactions from people in the club to his unilateral renaming decision have been mixed. His father—who works with a drinks company and is one of the club's backers—is sceptical about the idea that the world is flat. "He doesn't want to have doubts," says Poves. "He is very lazy. He doesn't like to have to think, to question. He prefers to say, 'Bah!' He's 56 or 57 years old. It's all the same to me."
His cousin, Tellez, questioned the decision: "Javi, I don't know. You're crazy, man. You're crazy."
There is a lot of overhaul in a semi-professional club the size of Flat Earth FC. Its players earn between €200 to €1,000 per month in wages, and only two remain from last season's promotion-winning side. The general reaction from the squad to their club being renamed Flat Earth FC was laughter, said Poves.
Left-back Christian Martin Villar, 22, is the club's youngest player and joined from CD Ciudad de los Angeles, another Madrid outfit, during the off-season. He's open-minded about the new name.
"I didn't have any idea [about the flat-Earth movement]," says Martin.
"I came here because the club is 'particular' [unique]. As [Poves] says, we'll have a good season in the third division. That's all that matters."
He's undecided about what shape Earth is.
"Is the Earth flat or round? I don't know," says Martin. "I'm on neither side. There isn't much evidence. At the end of the day, what he's saying isn't lies."
Poves jumps in: "What I want for the club is that Christian does more investigation. I don't want him to say 'The Earth is flat' because I said it.
"For sure," says Martin, nodding his head in agreement.
When I ask Martin about the reaction of his friends and family to the news that he's playing with a club called Flat Earth FC, he says they're mostly pragmatic.
"They don't have an opinion about the idea of the club. They are more interested in what's good for me—if I have a good relationship with him," he says, pointing at Poves, "with the trainer, if his football model is going to work. They don't think about the philosophy of the club. Sure, their [initial] reaction was: 'He's crazy! But neither is he telling lies.'"
Poves guesses that the Royal Football Federation of Spain isn't thrilled about his move, but he hasn't heard from them. "I think the federation doesn't like it," he says, "but what I have done is legal. It's possible that the federation sees it as something dangerous—that next year other clubs will change their names. So it might have to change its rules to avoid a club changing its name to, for example, Anti-Vaccines Football Club or NASA Football Club."
Poves has "a right-hand man" in 37-year-old ex-player Raul Montero, who helps him with all the club's footballing decisions (transfers, sponsorships etc.). Poves handles all the club's media duties.
"The theme is too difficult, too complex," he says. He dismisses the notion that the decision to rename the club Flat Earth FC was a publicity stunt.
"Look, if I wanted to make money, there would be other much better ways to do it," he says. "There's not a lot of money to be made here. If it was a marketing ploy, it would be very easy to expose me if I wasn't for real. I wouldn't be able to answer any questions on the topic, but I've spent two years investigating it."
Poves has run the gauntlet. He's drawn Pedro Duque, an astronaut and Spain's Minister for Science, into the debate. He's gone on Spanish television to be scoffed at on panel shows. It doesn't faze him. In fact, the ridicule—when people laugh at him and call him "loco"—motivates him. He shows me a headline on his smartphone which declares that Manchester City manager and football icon Pep Guardiola is "crazy."
"It happens to me a lot as well [people calling him crazy]," he says, elaborating on a comparison between himself and arguably the world's greatest football coach. "In my life, I need it. My motivation begins with your antagonism. I need to use your energy to argue about something. For humans, one of the most gratifying things in life is when you talk if people listen. It's good to get a reaction whether it is positive, negative or irregular. But you need a reaction. The hate comes with the territory."
He says, for example, that he wasn't bothered when the presenters on Spanish television show Todo es mentira (Everything is a lie), made fun of him: "I believe sincerely that they are not at my level intellectually, at my level of experience. People who—for now—are down there," he says, pointing to the ground. "So when you're inferior—on a TV station—the only thing you can resort to is insults."
Poves' superiority complex doesn't surprise Clark, who came across similar characters while making his film: "That checks out, just from my experience with flat-Earthers. They know they're going to be ridiculed. A lot of flat-Earthers will point to people ridiculing them as a sign of fear or that the host of the show is super brainwashed.
"There's a superiority complex that deflects any kind of [criticism]. If you're being taunted by somebody that you don't respect—who has no power over you—it doesn't hurt. It sounds like on that television show, they played into exactly what he was expecting them to do."
Poves has big ambitions for the club. They need three more promotions to get to Spain's premier division. He has his sights on winning the UEFA Champions League title. He points to Nottingham Forest, who won promotion, a First Division title and two European Cups in four successive seasons (1977-1980) as a role model. Whatever happens, it won't be a dull road.
Next season, the club has to rent a pitch in Lucero, a working-class neighbourhood in Madrid. "No public council will give a pitch to a club called Flat Earth FC," he says. "Everybody says, 'Get out of here!'" He's going to allow the people of Lucero to watch the team's games for free.
"In the 1990s, Lucero was very conflicted," he says. "It had a lot of Romani people, a lot of marginalised people, a lot of drugs, and we're going there," he says, starting to laugh, "to get them to rise them up. If the water doesn't curve, I will kick it to try to curve it. It's no joke. Our main objective is to knock down the worldwide educational and scientific systems, to totally destroy social structures."
He's laughing maniacally now.
"The next step will be to take control of the Spanish army and declare war on China, and that the people march out onto the streets and burn everything!"
But before putting a torch to the world, he wants to get Flat Earth FC promoted from Spain's third division next season.
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz