The 1965-66 La Liga season may not seem like much of a high-water mark, but for some it meets the criteria. There were 16 teams in the top flight and Atletico won the title with 44 points over 30 matches (wins were worth 2 points at the time, so in today’s world the colchoneros’ 18 wins, 8 draws, and 4 losses would be worth 62 points). The usual suspects of Real Madrid and Barcelona followed up in 2nd and 3rd, with Real Zaragoza and the omnipresent Athletic next in the table; but it’s the team in 6th that we’re interested in: Elche.
This remains the team’s best ever finish. Their best Copa del Rey finish is as the runner-up just a few years later in 1968-69 when it was called the Copa del Generalísimo and it was “Club Atlético de Bilbao” that beat them 1-0. Their stadium, the Martínez Valero, is more famous for having served as the venue for the 10-1 annihilation of El Salvador at the hands of a rampant Hungary during the group stage of the 1982 World Cup than it is for anything related to Elche CF. More than 60 years is a long time to wait for another good year, but such is the way of life for most football fans. Your average team hasn’t won a title or if it has, it’s been a few generations. Teams that casual observers would note as having passionate fan bases haven’t won in so long it’s possible that no one alive remembers their last league victory: Real Betis last won the league in 1935. If you’d been born on the day they won, you’d be almost 87, yet here they are on the streets, being, uh fanatical.
Just down the road from Elche in Alicante is Hércules. The team doesn’t even have a trophy section in its Wikipedia page, although perhaps it should because they won the Segunda title in 1934-35 and won the Tercera Division 5 times. Still, they don’t have a particularly large amount of success, but remember when they beat an absolutely star-studded Barça at the Camp Nou? Consider this: that is perhaps the team’s greatest achievement to date and yet there are still fans who turn up to matches and root passionately for their team. That’s dedication.
But why do these clubs have such dedicated fans? I’ll admit it’s hard not to root for the teams that have never seen any real success, the minnows who are fighting an upstream battle against financial currents. They’ve never tasted the joy of flooding the streets to see an open-topped bus parade, a huge trophy being lofted by their captain, or even a minor trophy that the big clubs roll their eyes at. I mean, Real Madrid has so many trophies they throw them under the bus. Obviously, the time it’s easiest to root against an underdog is when the favored team is my team, like it is this weekend when 13th-placed Elche gets a visit from newly reborn and 4th-place Barça, but a few weeks of “crisis” in the Catalan club and we were all feeling like a trip to Elche could be difficult, even a match of nearly equals.
Well, just a couple of months ago, a visit from Elche really was somewhat difficult. 3-2 with a late winner from Nico after a bright start and then an absolute collapse gave Barça the 3 points, but also signaled that there was maybe a bit of work to do. Sure, Koeman doesn’t agree about why there was so much work for Xavi to do to make the team maybe not suck, but there was still work to do. League position (10th) and goals scored (2 in the Champions League group stage, hello) speaks for itself.
Elche, then: they’re not very good. I don’t say that to be mean, but they’ve scored 28 goals and remember when I just said Barcelona wasn’t great at scoring? Well, they’ve got 46 goals. Additionally, Elche has allowed 37; Barça, kind of known for defense lapses, has only allowed 28. Elche hasn’t beaten Barça since a 1-0 victory during the 1974-75 season. So they’re not good, but they also haven’t lost at home since November 21 when they got drubbed by Real Betis 0-3. They didn’t even lose at home to Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey.
So this isn’t a slam dunk, although with the way Barça is playing (4 goals in each of their last 3 matches and in 4 of their last 6)…well, listen, I know I’ve buried the lede here a bit and Kevin would make me rewrite the whole thing if I bothered to show this to him before I published it (which I won’t because I don’t have that kind of time), but: Barça is fun again. And that’s my answer to why I’m still a fan: fun is still possible, at least occasionally. I know there are those whose fandom sinks to the level of a personality trait rather than a conscious choice and that’s fine (for what it’s worth I think that’s where I am at this point), but what makes it special is the ability to enjoy it, to have fun.
Look, I have a lot of gripes about things–the treatment of Dembele, the curious question of where is all this money coming from?, and why don’t I have a job in Barcelona so I can go to every match? What is life for if not spending it at the Camp Nou and maybe also sitting in the sun on a nice Catalan afternoon?–but since I don’t know the answer to 2 of those questions and my thoughts on the first bit are well documented, let’s just say that Xavi’s Barça is now fully his and we’re looking at a manager who knows how to communicate his ideas really well. I doubted him when he arrived and I still have some lingering questions about long-term viability, but for right now, he’s doing a bang up job. Exceeds expectations, I write on his progress report.
Yet despite having been in the doldrums just a few weeks ago, insipid performance after insipid performance sucking the joy out of the room, it was more a frustration of what could be but simply wasn’t clicking rather than any sort of anger with the results. Struggle is a part of sports fandom and that’s okay, but a Real Betis that plays well can be enjoyed despite its losing from time-to-time. This is where I want Barça to be: invested in itself through youth, invested in the outside world through community-oriented projects and its foundation. We’ve at least got the first part down again.
Along came Hlebruary and…things got better? A lot better? What is this inverse world we live in? Obviously the world is objectively worse, but Barça is here to save me from self-destruction at the hands of All The Bad News that bombards us throughout our daily lives (and currently if you’re in the Western world, you’re probably fairly well inundated with News About Bad Things to the point where you might just tune it out because it’s so bad all the time). So I often think about Barça instead of casualty numbers and sometimes I try to distract myself with other things (Alec Baldwin should play Millard Fillmore in a biopic). And it makes it so much easier when it’s fun. And the team is finally playing like it wants to be on the field and not like a lost bunch of mopey teenagers (some of whom are certainly teenagers and some of whom were just mopey).
But mainly I just want to say that the match this weekend should be approach cautiously because it feels like a trap. We’re having too much fun, but obviously since we’re having so much fun, I’m very much looking forward to another match. The fan’s paradox.
Prediction: 1-4. Wooo.