María’s grandson was back in town this weekend, and everyone came to say hello. They waited for his bus to arrive and stood waving when it left again. They sang his name and held signs welcoming him home. They held cameras and things to sign; most of all, they held him and close. Girona’s coach now, he had come to defeat them, they knew, but Miguel Ángel Sánchez Muñoz could never hurt them, even if he won. Especially if he won. They call him Míchel I of Vallecas, son of Benjamin, Candela and the streets of this self-declared Independent People’s Republic east of Madrid, and these streets don’t forget. They always knew he was the best; now, they’re proud to say, everyone else does too.
That’s their boy, the kid from down here way up there. The boy who turned down Barcelona and Madrid because all he wanted was to play for Rayo Vallecano – which he did for 16 years – stands above them both and everyone else as well. That’s his Girona side moving clear at the top of La Liga by coming from behind to win 2-1 against Rayo, their Rayo and his too. Sure, they wanted to win but some defeats are easier to take and his was a success they could share. This, like his team, had been special, from the moment he walked on to the pitch and the Bukaneros, Rayo’s fans, held up cards declaring “María’s grandson, welcome back to the barrio [neighbourhood]”, to the moment he walked away again.
Born in the working class barrio of Vallecas, Míchel I – and, yes, there is a Míchel II – grew up in a tiny two-floor house in what was known as the Madrid shanty town. One of four kids, he lived downstairs with his parents and grandparents while his uncles and aunts lived upstairs, before the shacks were bulldozed for social housing. Given a council flat on the fifth floor of a block, the family moved to Palomeras, still in Vallecas, a traditional point of arrival for immigrants and a place with a marked social conscience and left-wing identity. His parents, from Murcia, had an allotment and worked long hours in a fruit shop 500m from Rayo’s ground – they fed the neighbourhood, as Míchel put it – and his grandmother took responsibility.
When he was seven or eight he would be first in line for the free Rayo tickets handed out at school; if he didn’t get lucky, he would sneak into the blocks of flats that overlook the ground at the end where all there is is a wall and watch from there. He joined the youth team, where his own sons would later play, at 14 and made his debut against Barcelona in November 1993, still a teenager. Left-footed, a player of rare talent, by then he had said no to Madrid and Barcelona. This was his team and he spent 10 years there (with a loan season at Almería in the middle). Sold to Murcia by the club’s owners, against his wishes, he later came back, via Málaga, and played six more seasons.
Possibly the best footballer that ever played for Rayo and certainly the most symbolic, only one player made more appearances and he is the embodiment of everything Vallecas is supposed to be, everything that Rayo are supposed to be too, not just from the barrio but of the barrio: humility and solidarity, proud of his roots. Immensely likable, a man who would play for the teachers’ team against pupils at his old school, 48 but who doesn’t look a day over 14, he was Rayo’s captain, their everything and later their coach. Having first coached at the local Mar Abierto football school as a community service instead of military service, aged 24, he coached Rayo’s kids, took over the B team in 2016 and the first team the year after.
He wasn’t sure it was for him, a little timid at first, but it was. Four times Míchel took Rayo up as a player, once as a manager – celebrated at the same fountain where he kicked a ball about as a boy. When he took over at Rayo they were one point from relegation to the Segunda B, Spain’s regionalised, 80-team third tier. The following year, he had returned them to primera. That was the first of three promotions to the top flight: first Rayo, then Huesca, then Girona. Twelve games into his time at Girona, they were 19th, in the relegation zone in the second division; two years on, given the patience that fans at Vallecas felt he was denied, they are top of the first. And so when he returned to Vallecas this time he did so as league leader, a vallecano rising above the entire country.
It is not chance, which is not to say anyone expected this, that it’s anything other than extraordinary; 44.3%-owned by Manchester City, providing stability, resources, and know-how, it may puncture the romance too, but Girona’s success is not explained that easily. Only two of their first team squad belong to City Group – Yan Couto and Savinho – although Yangel Herrera did, and they have the 12th biggest budget in the first division. One member of the coaching staff told AS that 70% of their players wouldn’t have been wanted by the rest of the first division in the summer.
They would now. Artem Dovbyk is their record signing – at €7.5m. He and fellow Ukrainian Viktor Tysgankov had never played in Europe’s five top leagues. Paulo Gazzaniga wasn’t a regular starter at second division Fulham. Eric García was at Barcelona, via City, and Daly Blind at Bayern via Ajax, but neither club were keen on keeping them. Miguel Gutiérrez is a Real Madrid player, but an academy product on loan. Owned by Troyes, who are owned by City, Savinho was demoted to the PSV B team by unconvinced coaches. Iván Martín had gone down with Alavés. Aleix García had been in Belgium, Bucharest and Eibar, where he was relegated. He’s just become the first Girona player ever to get a Spain call-up.
Together, under Míchel’s guidance, they are top. It is not just the league table that says Girona are the best team in Spain; it is the way they play, and that is his way. On Saturday they came from behind to win for the third time in four weeks – not least because Rayo were excellent – but it’s not epic, it is logic. This is no fluke and the inevitable fall still hasn’t come into view. A third of the way through the season, they lead Madrid by two points, Barcelona by four and Atlético by six, but they are not top because top is cheap. They have 34 of 39 points. No team has ever had more after 13 games. And so that word gets used: Leicester.
Girona have scored more than anyone else, and almost all feel like the product of a process, like the kick that ends each move is not so much a shot as the final pass into the net. They have scored more from crosses than anyone else, except that crosses isn’t really the word; these are not balls swung in, they are passes pulled back, many men there to receive them. The technical quality and combinations in tight spaces would be striking enough if it wasn’t so often done inside the opposition’s area. Míchel talks about a clear collective idea, construction, the nerve to play under pressure. “It’s been a long time since I have seen team like it,” admitted the Rayo coach Francisco on Saturday.
Asked if he had seen a team that would win the league, Francisco said: “At times, yes.” That night, having beaten Valencia 5-1, Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti noted that they have no European football, are playing “better than the rest”, and insisted: “They’re a team who can fight for the league, without doubt.” They still have to face Athletic, Barcelona, Atlético and Betis before halfway, but the original target has been torn up, survival just two wins away already, Míchel talking now about fighting for Europe and maybe more. “What the players are doing is incredible,” he said, sitting under the stand at Vallecas. “Other people’s expectations can create fear; the dream has to be ours. Let’s see what our ceiling is.”
As he spoke, outside they were waiting for him; hundreds of them still there long after the game had finished. They could not be more proud of the man who, as the chant runs, rescued them from the “tomb” of Segunda B. They would not abandon in the worst of times; they certainly weren’t going to do so in the best of them, even if he had beaten them. Instead, they would embrace him. This was the game Míchel said he never wanted to play – he claimed he would have invented an injury if he had to – but he could not avoid it as coach. By the time he said goodbye again, nor would he have wanted to. If there was one thing even better than being top of the table, it was being top here, back in the barrio. “That was, pfff, incredible. My grandmother meant a lot to me,” Míchel said. “This will stay with me, it’s been the most special day.”
At the end of a glorious game, two great, fun teams, going at each other, he embraced Óscar Trejo. As he did so, the ground stood to hand him an ovation, applause accompanying him all the way to the tunnel, where they serenaded him.
He clapped, blew a kiss, bowed before them and headed inside. Down the stairs, in a cramped corner under the stand, through the next door along from the chess club and the boxing gym with its metal bars and graffitied walls, was another familiar face, yet another old friend waiting to embrace Míchel I of Vallecas. “Welcome, Mister Leader,” he said, saying it all.
How, La Liga’s best coach, leader of its best team, was asked, do you feel? “Happy,” he said. “And proud of Vallecas.”