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Granada lose hope, fans and La Liga place in a footballing death foretold | Sid Lowe

Carlo Ancelotti had the cool cat shades and the big fat cigar but this wasn’t the time, not just yet. Real Madrid’s party, the manager taking to the mic, and the dancefloor, a conga line forming round the most famous fountain in the city, would have to wait a little while; first they had a funeral to go to. On Sunday morning, the champions boarded an open top bus down the Castellana and a stairway up Cibeles, goddess of fertility. But not before they headed to Los Carmenes on Saturday evening to face Granada – a week after they won the league, three days after they reached the European Cup final, and two hours, 38 minutes after Granada were relegated.

The calendar and the contrast were cruel, and it could have been even worse. When Madrid wrapped up the title last Saturday – finally confirmed two hours after beating Cádiz, the players watching together as Barcelona were defeated by Girona – the federation announced that they would hand over the trophy before their next match. Which might have made sense except the next match was away against someone almost certainly going down, and Madrid said no, give it to us the next morning, the cup eventually presented behind closed doors in silence then carried into the city where thousands waited. They were going to dance, sure, but not on Granada’s grave.

A Madrid win would have relegated Granada, and it wouldn’t do to be parading a cup around the pitch as they slunk off and into segunda. So instead Madrid turned up, played, and hurriedly went home again. They won too, which is what they do, but in the end that wasn’t even necessary: it was over before the game began. By the time the Granada squad left their hotel for the ground, they were already down. They had just watched Real Mallorca beat Las Palmas 1-0 in the 2pm kick-off, relegation confirmed with four matches they could do without still to play.

This one especially, the pain still raw even though they knew this was coming, the opponents a “predator” according to their coach, José Ramón Sandoval. “You can have the day in your mind, imagine it, but when it comes … ” captain Carlos Neva said after, all they could do to get through it somehow. “It was the hardest team talk I’ve ever had,” Sandoval said. “Today was not an easy day. There were players already crying on the bus.”

As the Granada team bus arrived, it was met with a few kicks, a firework hitting the roof. When the players came out, there were whistles. In the 31st minute of each half – Granada were founded in 1931 – supporters demanded the board resign. There were hankies waved, that classic protest. There was the equally classic accusation of players as mercenaries, men who literally risk their life. And when the Granada team made their way to the middle at the end, they were met with chants of “Off! Off!” Mostly though they were met with a kind of indifference, quiet. Like a crematorium waiting room, as El País put it.

The misery is complete for Granada’s fans, who gave up hope of staying up long ago. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The fact that it was not worse almost made it worse, more fitting somehow: a symbol of how long ago they lost hope. Granada had declared this Dia del club, a criminal habit many have where even season ticket holders have to buy their seat. In a city with lots of Madrid fans, at a time when their team are down, asking supporters for an extra effort is an affront. The result was a stadium washed in white. Yet this went deeper, a reflection of the resignation, a sense of impotence then played out on the pitch, a footballing death foretold; no resistance, nothing left to hold on to. “There is nothing we can say,” Neva said. “Just thanks and sorry.”

A few weeks ago Sandoval, who watches too many westerns, claimed his team were “like the Indians: hard to kill.” After they beat Osasuna 3-0 in week 33 he insisted: “We weren’t dead; we were alive, we just needed a blood transfusion.” A great, big emotional bear of a man with enthusiasm as his default setting, for a moment you wondered if he could be right: that was their second win in three, the other coming against Alavés, and they had drawn at Athletic. The problem was those two wins in three were as many as Granada had collected in the previous 30, and time was running out.

The season started badly and never really got better until it was too late. This is the seventh relegation in Granada’s history, the third since they were bought by Chinese owners Wuhan DDMC for €37m in 2016. It is probably the worst, not least because the lessons have not been not learned. Someone has to go down. Granada went 36 years before returning to primera in 2011, having slipped all the way to tercera and even regional in the meantime. And they are no giant. But seven teams have a smaller budget and it is one thing to fall, quite another to barely fight that fate. Granada slipped into the relegation zone in week five and never came out again.

The first relegation, in 2017, came as everything unravelled, a growing awareness that what they had bought from Giampaolo Pozzo was virtually an empty shell, just a badge. (And there is an ongoing investigation). A team with players on loan from everywhere and Tony Adams taking over as coach were soon down. The second, in 2022, was a shock: under Diego Martínez they had been a revelation, European quarter-finalists a season earlier – what an even more monumental achievement that appears now – and they thought they had secured survival only to drop on a final day Hitchcock could have written. As for this, they had not planned to be there at all: in the summer DDMC had tried to sell up but they never found a buyer. Not for the club, anyway.

That paralysis contributed to 49 days passing between them winning the second division and making the first signing. On the opening day, Samu Omorodion, a 19-year-old striker from the youth team scored and impressed hugely away to Atlético, who immediately signed him for €6m. The idea had been to loan him back to Granada but league rules did not allow it so he went off to Alavés instead, where he is top scorer. Granada had Bryan Zaragoza, another B teamer coming through, the most exciting arrival in primera. At Christmas, he was sold to Bayern Munich for €15m, his departure brought forward six months from when originally planned, only for him to hardly play. He is still Granada’s second top scorer.

Granada pay tribute to Real Madrid’s La Liga champions before the match. Photograph: Fermin Rodriguez/AP

At the same time, a dozen – yes, a dozen – players came in. Apart from goalkeeper Augusto Batalla and Facundo Pellistri, it is hard to think of a meaningful contribution. By then, Granada were on their second coach. They were also on their second sporting director, Matteo Tognozzi replacing Nico Rodríguez. With Paco López, who had taken over when they were eighth in the second division and brought them up, they had been sort of fun at least. With Alexander Medina, a manager with no experience in Europe, they weren’t. If the approach was different, though, the results weren’t. Granada got one win and seven points in 14 weeks under López and one win and seven points in 14 weeks under Medina. They were knocked out of the cup for fielding an ineligible player.

And so, just like 2017 and 2022, Granada moved on to their third manager. Enter Sandoval, out of work since leaving Fuenlabrada two years earlier a last desperate throw of the dice. He came as a “fireman”, wrote Rafael Lamelas in El Ideal, “but when he arrived, the ranch was already burnt to charcoal”. They were 13 points off safety – more than four wins worth of points for a team that had two all season.

Quick Guide

La Liga results


Real Betis 3-2 Almería, Valencia 0-0 Rayo Vallecano, Atlético Madrid 1-0 Celta Vigo, Cádiz 1-0 Getafe, Athletic Bilbao 2-2 Osasuna, Granada 0-4 Real Madrid, Villarreal 3-2 Sevilla, Mallorca 1-0 Las Palmas, Alavés 2-2 Girona.

Monday Barcelona v Real Sociedad.

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Two more did arrive, seven points in three games, a glimmer of hope. “At least we got the fans working out the numbers, calculating our chances,” Sandoval said but the numbers didn’t make pretty reading, even for optimists like him. Along with Almería and Cádiz, Granada make up statistically the worst bottom three in history. This century the last team to survive had 41, 39, 36, 37, 41, 43, 35, 39, 35, 40, 37, 42, 44, 37, 42, 43, 40, 40, 39, 42, 43, 42, 42 and 45 points. Granada’s relegation was confirmed on Saturday on 21. They went out there already down, gave the champions a guard of honour and lost 4-0. “If they had put their foot down, the accident would have been much worse,” the coach admitted.

This was bad enough already; it had been from the beginning. “Granada belong in the first division,” sang the Madrid fans spread around Los Carmenes, sorry they were the ones attending the funeral. The home supporters had clapped Luka Modric but now mostly just started into space, sunk weeks ago. Sandoval embraced Ancelotti and headed inside. “We tried. I can assure you this hurt my players; now I would like to go through this mourning with my people,” he said. As for the Italian, dressed in a dark suit and tie, he had paid his respects; now he had a party to go to, time for the shades and the cigar.

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