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Levante pulls off the impossible

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Raimon is a man of habit too: at the end of every round of games in Spain he strides up the stands and hoists 20 flags up 20 flagpoles, one for every team in the First Division, raised in league order and fluttering over the ground. Just like those old fashioned league ladders in football magazines when you were a kid or a collection of football club mugs rearranged after every game, it is a league table in flags -- from Barcelona right down to Granada.

Except that it's not a Barcelona flag that hangs on the first mast. This Monday, Raimon did something he has never done before: he hoisted Levante's flag up first. The night before, he had turned on the stadium lights, illuminating all around well into the small hours of the morning, even though there was no game on. He had never done that before, either. But this was a special moment. Unique.

It was about 2 a.m. when the team bus turned up, Levante's players arriving back from playing just up the coast, and there were hundreds up supporters waiting there to greet them. Fireworks were set off and, in the shadows, allowing players and the coach to have their moment, the club's president Quico Catalan stood silently puffing away on a crafty cigarette and looking proud.

He was right to. As the players piled off the bus to be mobbed by supporters, their top scorer Juanlu said: "I'd just tell them to enjoy the moment because this doesn't happen often." Not often? Not at all. After eight games in La Liga Levante were top of the table -- for the first time in its entire,102-year history. "It is," Juanlu said, "a miracle." Then he added: "Olé, our bollocks!"

Olé!, indeed.

This is a miracle. Levante found itself top having won six games in a row and drawn its other two. You couldn't even say that it had been the beneficiary of an easy start to the season: it had just come back from hammering Villarreal 3-0 and had also beaten Málaga and Real Madrid. The same Real Madrid that it now led in the table. It was a point above Jose Mourinho's side and two above Barcelona. It stood five points above Valencia too -- the team in whose shadow it has always lived.

And that's the thing: Levante, whose fan base initially hailed from the tough maritime neighborhood of Cabanyal, has always been the "other" team in the city of Valencia, lacking power and lacking support. Its stadium holds just 25,000 and yet last season it only averaged a 49 percent attendance. Valencia is the giant, not Levante.

This is only Levante's seventh season in the top division and the only trophy it has ever won was the Trofeo Presidente de la República, in 1937. In other words, a trophy competed for during Spain's civil war at a time when half the country was under Nationalist control, half under Republican control, and most clubs could not take part. It is a trophy that has never been officially recognized -- in 2007, the Spanish parliament rejected a proposal to give it formal status -- so Levante has in fact never won anything. It has never even been close to the top: its highest ever finish was 10th (of 16) -- and that came almost 50 years ago.

But that is not the only thing that makes the leadership so astonishing. Nor, even, is the fact that a week ago it fielded the oldest team in La Liga history with an average age of almost 32 and a back five -- defense and goalkeeper -- with a combined age of 170. Or that its superstar is Sergio Ballesteros, a 36 year old who frankly looks a little large; an antihero who has become a hero.

What is amazing is that less than four years ago, Levante was relegated out of the First Division and looked like it would go out of business. It was 2008 and Levante's players threatened to go on strike after not being paid for the entire season, while accusations abounded of money being siphoned off, away from the club's coffers.

One strike was averted when Real Madrid players (Levante's next opponents) agreed to play a benefit match for them (it never happened). Levante's majority shareholder Pedro Villarroel, threatened the payers, circulating an SMS to the squad warning them about grave consequences should they speak out. But the situation was dire. The club's "gym" was a couple of weights slung across a chair and one player admitted that the bank had cut up his credit cards and frozen his account.

It is not entirely coincidental that the current president of the players' union in Spain, Luis Rubiales, took a harder line than any of his predecessors. He saw just how bad the situation can get: he was a Levante player during that spell. So, indeed, was Damiano Tomassi -- now the leader of the Italian players' union.

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Levante were forced into administration and Francisco "Quico" Catalán eventually took over as president. A Real Madrid fan, whose mother had run a boarding house that included the Madrid player Carlos Santillana among its guest, his handling of the club since has been extraordinary. Levante's debt was over €30 million ($41M). Every year €3M ($4.1M) is paid back to the club's creditors; this year it has successfully paid back €6M ($8.3M) -- and paid its players. That is impressive enough; this is barely plausible. It has come back from the Second Division and survived against the odds; now, unbelievably, Levante is top.

As those figures suggest, Levante has had to do it on a war economy, under the watchful eye of the administrators. Levante has the smallest budget in the First Division -- and by some way. Its budget stands at €22M ($30.6M); Barcelona's is €461M ($641M). Each year, it makes around 2 percent of what Madrid and Barcelona make -- and then it loses it again, paying off its creditors. Last season coach Luis García admitted that he did not use the computer program that measures players' every move because "every time I put it on, it costs €3,000 -- and we haven't got €3,000." A week ago, it did not play Xavi Torres against Málaga, the side he is on loan from, because to do so would have cost them €50,000 ($69,600) -- and it hasn't got that either. Even though €50,000 is a pittance.

Building a competitive team in those circumstances is virtually impossible but somehow Levante has done it. The club's sporting director Manolo Salvador admits that he has to wait until every other club has signed its players before Levante can move. "There are," he says, "Second Division clubs who can offer double what we can. Agents run away when they hear what we have to offer." What they have to offer is an average salary of €300,000 ($417,000). To put that into context: it is less than Ronaldo or Messi make in a week.

Here are some more figures: in a year Levante spends €6.5M ($9M) on all footballing costs. That would not even pay Ronaldo or Messi for six months. This summer it finally paid a big fee for a player, spending on the €1.5M ($2M) option it had on Felipe Caicedo -- but only so that it could sell him on again. Its total expenditure this summer was €210,000 ($292,000). Most come for free or on loan. Its last 50 players over the last four years have cost the team a total of €410,000 ($570,000); as for Barcelona, Madrid, Malaga, Atlético, all of them spent over €50M ($69M) this summer alone.

Levante's team is made up of players that other clubs didn't want, a squad built on the cheap. At the start of the season, one La Liga guide book laid down the expectations for the club in a three-point list: Objective? Survival. Successful? Survival. Disaster? Going down without even competing. It was a logical enough analysis. One banner carried by fans said it all: "Poor, ugly and bad at football." The striker it signed this summer, Aruna Koné, had scored one goal in four La Liga seasons.

Koné now has three in just seven games, including the goal that defeated Real Madrid. Levante has successfully built a formidable group; it may be poor, it may even be ugly, but it sure isn't bad. Last year coach Luis García papered messages from the fans over the dressing room walls and got his players throwing themselves off walls and into each others' arms to foster togetherness. García departed in the summer but Juan Ignacio Martínez -- a coach who had never worked in the First Division before -- has continued the work. Improved on it, in fact.

Levante is committed, intelligent, and aware of its limitations; there is no pretense about it, just what the Spanish describe as oficio -- knowledge of their vocation, a love of it too. They know some of the oldest tricks in the game like few others; they understand football intimately. Many of them are players rejected elsewhere, with a point to prove; players who the coach has sought to convince with a simple message: you are good footballers, you really can play a bit. It is a message that comes easily: the manager -- who bizarrely once worked as a bodyguard for the flamenco singer Isabel Pantoja -- has also taken the long route there, after years coaching in the second division.

Levante is extraordinarily industrious, aggressive, defensively sound (it has conceded just three league goals in eight games, the best record in Spain), and effective in attack, fast on the break: it does not enjoy much of the ball, in fact only Racing Santander has attempted fewer passes, but it has scored more than anyone other than Madrid or Barcelona.

There is also a connection, a link to the club, the fans and a stadium where the pitch, which they admit is soft and gives way in places, has never been re-laid since its inauguration in 1969. It helps too that it has players who know what Levante is all about, who feel it -- both Ballesteros and Juanfran began their careers there, many, many years ago. They never imagined anything like this, then or now. When they arrived back at the Ciutat de Valencia on Sunday night-Monday morning, they were mobbed. "This is priceless," said Juanfran. "We just have to enjoy it while it lasts."

Not least because they know it won't last. Asked if Levante could win the league, defender Nano said simply: "No." What about getting a European place? "No." Isn't there any room to dream at all? "No." Except that they already are dreaming. And the good news is that when the players wake up they will find that after just eight games they already have 20 points -- and that's halfway to survival.

"No one imagined this," said Levante's honorary president Francisco Fenollosa, who has been at the club for over 50 years. "You pick up the newspaper and see the league table and you feel like taking a photo and putting it in a frame on your wall." No wonder he described Sunday as "the happiest day since my first communion."

For Raimon, that day was Monday. The club's unofficial curator, the man who describes the Ciutat de Valencia as his "sanctuary," had already cut out the league table and on Monday morning he did something he had never done before. Something no one at the club had never, ever done in over 100 years.

He climbed the stands at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium and hoisted Levante's flag, his flag, on the first pole -- the one reserved for the league leaders, the best team in Spain.