Football Features

The rise, fall and resurgence of Elche: La Liga’s most unexpected promotion ever?

By Paco Polit

Published: 15:05, 25 September 2020

Even the strongest connoisseurs of La Liga might struggle to come up with some decent factoids on the division’s newest recruits.

Here’s one: Elche Club de Fútbol are that green-and-white-striped team who play near Alicante. Not bad, but have you got anything juicier than that? Well, there’s plenty of turmoil and drama in Elche’s rise, fall and recent resurgence to reach the top flight. It’s fitting that their new golden age is happening just as their centenary appears on the horizon: the club will turn 100 in 2022. But only a couple of seasons ago there was serious, tangible risk of Elche disappearing as many other football institutions have done before.

So how did they avoid that fate? And how the hell did they manage to climb out from the depths of Spanish football?

The starting point of their redemption arc has to be the 2014/2015 season, their most recent adventure in La Liga. The financial crisis had struck hard and, despite finishing 13th in the table, Elche were demoted to Segunda due to their unpaid debts to the Spanish tax authorities. It was a pretty bold move from La Liga and president Javier Tebas, which also favoured 18th-placed SD Eibar, who had already given up on staying in Primera.

Through the hectic summer of 2015, possibly suffering a guilty conscience, Tebas tried to help the club by paying some of the money from TV rights in advance so that Elche’s board could at least partially repay their debts. The move was received by the Franjiverdes as some sort of manna from heaven, as that injection of cash made it possible to avoid an even harsher penalty (in other words, being administratively relegated to Segunda División B). They were able to pay the players’ salaries after selling top stars such as Jonathas (his move to Real Sociedad was closed for around €7 million) but eventually filed for bankruptcy in August 2015.

A painful trek through the desert

The scenario didn’t improve the next season. In fact, it got worse. Managers with impressive football CVs, such as Valencia CF’s Rubén Baraja, landed in a minefield of financial and sporting booby-traps, unable to make proper signings and with a laughable budget for Spain’s second division. The only bright spot was the return of the prodigal son, the legendary striker Nino (more on him later). Under the administration and close monitoring of legal authorities, the club faced a 20-month period where every single euro was spent with extreme caution.

Even after steadying the ship and improving their finances, the path had already been set and it was only a matter of time before disaster struck again as Elche suffered another relegation, to Segunda B in June 2017. Their final stretch of games was abysmal, with 10 defeats in the last 12. It was the first time in almost two decades that they had been in the third tier of Spanish football.

At that point, many were ready to give up. Disgruntled fans lamented the poor direction which had economically dragged the club to its knees. The board, after enduring much financial hardship, could never have expected a scenario where Elche were playing for their sheer survival on plastic pitches, having rubbed shoulders with the Spanish elite only a couple of seasons earlier.

Things began awfully in Segunda B, not helped by managerial instability. Vicente Mir was put in charge but was soon sacked and former Villarreal player Josico took his job in the dugout. Results continued to disappoint, but then came a turning point, and a huge one at that: in February 2018 Elche contracted José Rojo ‘Pacheta’ as their head coach.

Pacheta’s football machine

Elche were lacking consistency. Pacheta solved that. Elche were lacking self-confidence. Pacheta addressed that. Under the Burgos-born manager, the green-and-whites strung together a run of good results and were able to clinch a play-off spot at the end of the season, albeit with a catch: after finishing third, they would miss out on home advantage in every single play-off round until the end of the season.

They faced two historic clubs in the first two rounds (Real Murcia and Sporting de Gijón). These fixtures would have been like playing mirror-images of themselves, clubs pondering how they, who too were formerly among the mighty, had fallen. But Elche held their nerve, with the help of clutch Nino goals and top performances from academy graduate Sory Kaba. In the final, Pacheta’s side beat a talented Villarreal B who had finished higher than them in the regular season.

So, after being on the brink of football extinction, Elche had bounced back to Segunda in only 12 months. But now the context was different: in the intervening period, the TV rights money had increased and, therefore, the quality and value of the other 21 Segunda squads was significantly higher than their own.

After such a demanding play-off campaign, Elche were the last team to reach Segunda in the summer of 2018 so it was no surprise their first season back in the division would be a huge challenge. But they had a secret weapon named Juan Francisco Martínez Modesto, or ‘Nino’.

If anyone can claim the title of ‘Mr. Segunda’, it’s him. Nino’s Elche journey had started way back in 1998, making his debut at only 17. He then came back to the club as a free agent in a time of need, when nobody even knew if they were going to get paid. In the 2018/2019 campaign, at 38, he played 38 games, scoring seven goals. The following season, he netted 16 times.

Pacheta was smart in his planning, the squad delivered on the pitch and, even though the league authorities threatened more financial wrangling with Financial Fair Play issues and the salary cap, Elche finished 11th in the table comfortably, avoiding a drop back down to Segunda B, a fate which had befallen many sides before now.

Home form was key, the Estadio Martínez Valero being where Elche earned two thirds of their 55 points. A 3-0 win was their biggest margin of victory, but this ground had actually been the venue for a World Cup record scoreline almost 40 years before. Having been built back in 1976, it was one of the chosen venues six years later when Spain hosted the tournament. Hungary beat El Salvador 10-1 in the first group stage, a record which still stands today.

The most unexpected promotion ever

The 2019/20 season will always be remembered as the year football ground to a halt globally, and signalled a big shift in how we understand, watch and enjoy the sport. For Elche, though, the season will particularly memorable as it ultimately resulted in their unexpected return to the promised land. The March hiatus was crucial for a side who were inconsistent in the first 31 games but somehow found themselves sixth when coronavirus struck.

After the break, every game was an absolute battle for Elche. Through sheer grit and determination, they wouldn’t let go of this chance. But nothing could compare to the drama of the final round of games. Fuenlabrada, one point and two places below Elche in the table, were unable to play against Deportivo La Coruña because they had reported positive covid-19 cases. For weeks, Elche looked at the standings and kept training just in case, because that game had to be played in order to properly finish the regular season.

Even though they only needed a draw to snatch that final play-off spot, Fuenla fluffed their lines in letting a 1-0 lead at Deportivo slip in the final 10 minutes, losing 2-1 and instead propelling Elche into the post-season contest. As the most bizarre season in recent memory was heading towards its climax, who would have thought that Nino would help write Elche’s fairytale ending? After a 0-0 scoreline at home in the first leg, the now-40-year-old striker scored a clutch 80th-minute winner at La Romareda against favourites Real Zaragoza, driving the city of Elche into utter bedlam, even as local authorities pleaded with fans not to celebrate on the streets.

A few days later, on August 24 2020, Elche reached a truly heightened state of being in Girona. Again after a goalless draw at home, Pacheta and his battle-hardened soldiers exploded into sheer ecstasy when Pere Milla squeezed in a 96th-minute promotion-to-LaLiga header. Madness ensued. Tears were shed. Elche were back. What a crazy, crazy ride.

Elche will make their La Liga return only a month after getting promoted, rendering their pre-season almost non-existent. But the club has seen many changes in that time, with Pacheta’s exit as possibly the most traumatic for fans.

Christian Bragarnik, owner of the club since 2019, has brought in fellow Argentinian Jorge Almirón to replace Pacheta, but at least club legends Nino and goalkeeper Edgar Badía remain in the squad. A few days ago, the team played the Joan Gamper friendly game against Barça at Camp Nou. One of the highlights took place even before kick-off, when Leo Messi and Nino shook hands on the pitch. Even a genius can respect the achievements of a journeyman, and Elche’s journey continues.

Article written by Paco Polit and produced in partnership with La Liga Lowdown, your home for Spanish football in English with reporters based in Spain. Find them on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown