The plane was miles above above Spain heading south, it was dark outside and they were still some way from home when an urgent announcement came from the flight deck. “I’m from Cádiz,” the co-pilot informed them over the loud speaker, “and I just wanted to say congratulations because today you did something historic that will be remembered for ever.” It was late and the passengers – the first Cádiz team to play in primera for 15 years – were exhausted but they began to applaud. From down the cabin, a few chanted his name. “Rufiano! Rufiano!” they sang, the noise level briefly rising again, songs starting once more.
Rufiano was right. Cádiz’s manager, Álvaro Cervera, was wrong: he was wrong before the game and wrong halfway through it too but by the end he was beaming, engulfed in an embrace so tight he could barely breathe, celebrating like they had won something, which they absolutely had. On the eve of his team’s visit to Real Madrid, he had said: “You can forget about being better than them.” At half-time, with his team a goal up, he feared the lead would soon be gone, admitting afterwards that all he could think was: “We’ll lose this.” Now he was leaping about, delighted that neither turned out to be true.
It wasn’t just that newly promoted Cádiz defeated Real Madrid 1-0 on Saturday, Choco Lozano getting the goal; it was that they deserved to do so. It was that Cádiz’s midfielder Alex Fernández insisted “if we’d scored more in the first half, it would have been no surprise” and Zinedine Zidane and his players agreed. “If they had got two or three more, we couldn’t haven’t said anything,” the Real Madrid manager said. Thibaut Courtois admitted “they were better than us in every way and they beat us in everything”.
Cádiz took the lead when Álvaro Negredo cushioned a clever header into the path of Lozano to score, and it had been coming. The game was only 16 minutes in but that was already Cádiz’s sixth clear chance – Ramos had cleared off the line, Courtois had saved two, and Negredo had twice headed wide – and nor did it end there. “We had had the chances to have scored a goal or two more,” Lozano said and he had two of them while Juan Cala headed another just wide.
Madrid looked as shocked as everyone else was. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, or maybe that’s what Cádiz wanted everyone to think. Cervera makes no bones about being a defensive coach. When he said his players could forget about being better than Madrid, he wasn’t renouncing the right to beat Madrid – “we’re not going there to swap shirts” – but suggesting they would do it defensively, which is how they do most things. “We have the data that shows that they’re uncomfortable with teams that sit back and nor does the idea of pressing high, being brave and letting in five attract us much.”
“Our game is A-B-C but A-B-C is good,” Fernández had said. “We’re defensive because we like it.” And when El País’s Diego Torres had suggested Madrid don’t like going all-out attack either, the midfielder José Mari had replied: “Don’t attack us then, and we won’t attack them. Sorted. Why argue?”
Instead, Cádiz tore into Madrid. And while Zidane made personnel decisions that don’t always work well – Marcelo at left-back, Toni Kroos in deep midfield, Casemiro not in the team, Isco in it – and Casemiro complained they had “gifted” the first half, lamenting “our attitude can’t be this”, Cádiz were superb. A “recital,” AS called it, their resident Mad Madridista Tomás Roncero moaning: “They looked like the 8-2 Bayern team.”
Except that by half-time they had only scored one and that, Cervera feared, would cost them. “The normal thing is when you let them off, they make you pay for it,” he admitted. “They don’t let you get away with it: they end up beating you. It’s not normal for what happened today to happen.” What happened was … well, not much. Zidane made four changes at half-time. Karim Benzema hit the bar. Madrid had a lot of the ball. And that was about it. Cádiz defended, dropping deep, but rarely allowed opportunities. “We watched them attack and held on, which is what we like to do,” Pacha Espino said.
At full time Cádiz had only 26% possession but had more shots than Madrid and had racked up 12 corners. “We won because we defended well, not because we attacked well: if we had attacked well, we would have scored five,” Cervera said. “I’m so pleased because it’s not every day that you beat Real Madrid.”
It’s not any day. Madrid had won all seven games at Valdebebas, with an aggregate score of 14-2. They had not even trailed there. And Cádiz had never beaten Real Madrid away. They had only ever drawn one and hadn’t even beaten Castilla, Madrid’s B team, when they came here. In fact, they had conceded five. No wonder they went wild at the whistle, Cervera later apologising that amid the madness he had forgotten to go and shake hands with the other bench. Instead, they leapt about shouting: “How great are we?!”
Pretty great. When they boarded the plane home, they launched into their unofficial anthem: a comedy pasodoble taken from the city’s carnival in 1998 and called Me Han Dicho Que El Amarillo. “They tell me that yellow is cursed for artists,” it begins, players’ palms hammering against the overhead locker, “but for Cádiz fans it is heavenly glory and so they paint their faces yellow and their hearts turn yellow, even though all they get in exchange is a catalogue of disappointment.”
Not always, not any more. The team who were in the third tier five years ago, who had been close to going out of business, a team still in construction whose own president said had performed poorly in the transfer market, with a budget less than a 10th the size of Madrid’s, were joint top of the table as they took off. Decisions going against them against Granada and Sevilla, they might have been higher. They have won in Madrid and at San Mamés . “Giantkillers,” AS called them. “Cádiz never tire of making history,” Diario de Cádiz insisted. “Historic and deserved,” cheered the front of Voz de Cádiz, asking inside: “Where is this team’s ceiling? How far can they go? Because we’ve reached Viking territory already.”
“We were better than them: this is what we dream of,” the defender Carlos Akapo said. Lozano added: “It’s not easy to do what we have done. This is unimaginable for us. If you had said this would happen, we would have said ‘impossible’ but that’s football.” Cervera said: “I don’t know if it was historic but I will remember it for ever.”
It was Cervera’s 199th game in charge, having taken over Cádiz in Segunda B. He immediately won promotion, then finished fifth, ninth, and seventh in the second division. When at last they went up in the summer, he felt liberated, breaking down and crying, a great outpouring of relief. It hasn’t always been easy, he had thought 2019-20 would be his last season, and he says he feels counter-cultural at Cádiz. And yet, a defensive coach breaking from the bohemian, fun-loving ideals and idiosyncrasies of club and city, who insists he “won’t be remembered like Mágico González or Pepe Mejías”, his achievements are huge and he couldn’t be more popular.
One day early in his time at the club, after a player sneaked out, Cervera insisted: “La lucha no se negocia“, the fight is non-negotiable. A friend made T-shirts with it written across the front and before he knew it, it had become a rallying call for cadistas, a lesson to live by and not just for football. It was a badge of identity and it was everywhere – including the home of a Cádiz fan called Carmelo Albaiceta, who had renamed his house La lucha no se negocia. On route to see his assistant coach, Cervera noticed it on the front wall as he drove past. Touched, he got home, told his kids and promised them that if Cádiz ever won promotion, they would call in and see who lives there.
This summer, they did. “When I heard the bell, I thought it was the milkman,” Albaiceta said. Instead, standing on the doorstep was the man who had taken his football team back to primera and still had history to make.