In the 101st minute of the 35th week, still playing way after midnight and well into summer in Europe’s hottest city, the two best things that can happen in football happened at the same time: a forward who had gone in goal saved a shot from a goalkeeper who had gone up front, stopping the man he had beaten from beating him back.
It was that kind of season.
“I never imagined this,” said Sevilla’s Lucas Ocampos, trying not to giggle after he had pulled on the gloves and denied Eibar’s Marko Dimitrovic. No one really imagined any of it. Never mind imagining it: by then, it was hard enough to remember: where it had all begun, who had been there. Fran Escribá, anyone? David Gallego? Looking back on 2019-2020, one feeling recurs most: wait, what, that was this season?
Some time in September, Barcelona striker Luis Suárez said “we’ve got a long, hard season ahead of us”, but even he couldn’t have imagined how long, and how hard – and not only for Barça, although boy had they packed a lot in. Just not the title, not this time.
By the time the league finished, it was a full year since Real Madrid had let in seven against Atlético Madrid in New York and everyone lost their heads. “Keep calm,” Zinedine Zidane had said amid the gathering storm, “we’re going to see good things.” As usual, he was right somehow: 12 months on, they had won the title.
Just as importantly, though not all of them were good, we saw a lot of things, alright. Just not much from the season’s three most expensive signings, João Félix, Antoine Griezmann and Eden Hazard. And even less from Luka Jovic, the fourth.
Things like endless bloody VAR delays, more penalties than ever before, loads of coaches – 11 sacked during the campaign, four more gone at its finish – the youngest kid to get a goal in La Liga and the oldest man to get three of them. In just 19 minutes, too. All that stretched over an 11-month season.
In the autumn, the clásico got postponed until December, and later so did Eibar-Real Sociedad. In mid-March, as coronavirus took hold, it all was, 2019-20 eventually becoming two distinct seasons stuck together and not always holding well. When football returned after lockdown nothing was the same, like it belonged to a different season, a different time, a different world. Eleven matches squeezed into five weeks, nobody squeezed into stadiums, bird song accompanying the ball.
La Liga had become a place where 170,000 watched Leganés-Madrid on the PlayStation and closer to 170 watched the actual game in the stadium, bag of sweets replaced by a bag of wipes, handwash, gloves and a face mask. Television coloured in the stands and applied a canned soundtrack where a premature, trigger-happy technician had Real Sociedad’s “fans” shouting “gooool” at a shot that went wide. Miles better than the “tech” were the cardboard cut-outs and even former players “cheering” Villarreal. And the only place an actual fan could watch an actual game was from the 14th floor of the building next door. The men in the VAR room meanwhile gave the distinct impression they weren’t watching at all.
This was the kind of season in which a game was finally stopped – not because of racist or homophobic chants, but anti-fascist ones. And in which the Spanish Super Cup “of equality” was played in Saudi Arabia, won by neither the champions nor the cup winners, with fans helpfully reminded not to take pork products – even if they are vacuum packed. A season so strange even Javier Tebas and Luis Rubiales briefly stopped fighting, heads banged together by the minister of sport.
In a secret eight-hour meeting at the Viana palace, summoned there in silence, their mobiles confiscated, they had agreed to ensure that this was the kind of season that was completed, at least. They thought they had succeeded, too: as the first division was played out, there was relief and pride too: the protocols had worked. They’d made it. They very next night, the final round in the second division couldn’t be completed because of an outbreak of coronavirus in the Fuenlabrada team, leaving everyone in limbo, collapsing into chaos and accusation. One player was taken to hospital, the rest were stuck in their hotel and there were 28 positives – a timely reminder of how serious this all is.
The second division is not the only unfinished competition. There is still Europe to come and the best Copa del Rey in memory provided the perfect climax only for a first final between Real Sociedad and Athletic to be postponed, the clubs agreeing to wait as long as it takes for their fans to be able to join them. The first division, though, is done – and that didn’t always seem certain.
Nor did the outcome, and who knows how it would have ended had the season not been so strange. On the day general elections were held – although that doesn’t narrow it down much – AS announced the end of the “end of the two-party system” with six teams within two points at the top. Spain had reached week 10 with six different leaders: Madrid, Sevilla, Athletic, Atlético, Barcelona and Granada. By the end, though, Madrid and Barça were way above the rest.
Winners of eight of the last 11 leagues, Barcelona “won” 2019-2020 part one, but not part two, a seven-point post-lockdown swing costing them a title too many took for granted. They had been top, if not that good, when they sacked Ernesto Valverde. The coach’s capacity to contain a crisis had gone from a club with problems and maybe he was better off out of it. Quique Setién, lifted in from among the cows in Liencres, admitted he had never handled anything like this and couldn’t save them from themselves.
Real Madrid hadn’t exactly started well and, while it’s forgotten now, Zidane might have gone the same way. Beaten 3-0 in Paris, defeated in Palma, Madrid travelled to Istanbul with the coach on the edge. “If you love him, win,” Marca demanded, which they did. Stabilised but still under pressure, a first clásico victory at the Bernabéu set them up nicely, only for them to immediately lose to Real Betis and go into lockdown behind Barcelona.
The restart suited Madrid: when the league turned into something like a Champions League – the Coronavirus League, Sergio Ramos called it – they won it. Ten consecutive wins took them there, culminating in victory over Villarreal at the training ground that had become their home. On the final day, job done and Gareth Bale on holiday, they drew 2-2 in Leganés – the city hit hardest by Covid-19 and the ground where 18 shirts sat in silent homage.
Struggling from the start, Javier Aguirre’s arrival had brought Leganés hope but winter brought departures, an already limited team losing Yousef En-Nesyri and Martin Braithwaite. A measure of the impact: when they went to the Pizjuán and the Camp Nou, Sevilla and Barcelona’s teams had more Leganés goals in their teams than Leganés did. They fought to the finish but with the last kick, Oscar’s shot sailed into the empty stands, taking hope with it.
If you thought the emergency signing rule didn’t make sense when Braithwaite left, in mid-June Celta were allowed to sign striker Nolito because of an injury to … a goalkeeper. His goal against Betis proved the difference between going down and staying up. Well, that and Óscar’s shot, which Celta’s terrified subs watched on their phones. Despite having Iago Aspas, a midfielder who was Okay and a team miles too good to go down, Celta were perilously close to doing just that.
Leganés went down with Mallorca, who knew relegation was likely right from the start but had resisted almost to the last. Also down were Espanyol, the club where Abelardo explained his presence by saying “maybe I’m a masochist” and the sporting director got though three managers before putting himself in charge. Which only really changed his view of a pitiful team sliding sadly into Segunda 26 years later.
At the other end, Atlético and Sevilla joined Madrid in the Champions League. Real Sociedad, the most enjoyable team until lockdown and, weirdly, one of the worst after, missed the grand prize but at least clinched a Europa League slot along with Villarreal and Granada. “We’re still not conscious of what we’ve done,” Granada manager Diego Martínez said. A newly-promoted team with the division’s third smallest budget, they reached Europe for the first time.
That meant Valencia and Getafe missed out – which was no more than Valencia deserved, having undone all their good work, opened up a divide with their fans and gone through with their claim that a manager should be a mere “functionary”, sacking two of them before sticking the delegate in charge again.
It was, in contrast, perhaps less than Getafe deserved. On the final day, they were defeated by a 99th-minute goal having missed a penalty and had three goals ruled out, leaving them with nothing. Well, not nothing exactly. There are always the awards they really, really want. And how about starting with something serious before it gets silly?
Most unexpected hero
Getafe president Ángel Torres, who refused to take his team to Milan, even though there was history to be made, and forcing Uefa’s hand. It may be no exaggeration to say he saved a lot of lives.
Pablo De Blassis extended his Eibar contract for three weeks to finish the season – and gave the money to the club’s cleaners and kitchen staff. Then there’s the club captain who saw a small boy waiting in the cold outside the ground and took him onto the team bus. Ten minutes later the boy was back and beaming, carrying an autograph book full of signatures.
Real Sociedad, who invited an entire town to watch them play.
Most principled club
Third-tier Unionistas de Salamanca, turning down more money than they had ever seen and insisting on playing Real Madrid at their tiny home rather than at the Bernabéu. Almost beating them, too.
Leandro Cabrera, booked for calling referee Carlos del Cerro Grande a cockroach when he had actually said an opponent had ducked. Well, se agacha does sound a tiny bit like cucaracha. But that’s nothing compared to Fuenlabrada’s Cristobal: mistakenly sent off, sent back on again, and immediately sent off once more.
Cédric Bakambu got stuck in Hong Kong, his move to the Camp Nou called off halfway there, so it can’t be him. It could be one of many at Sevilla, Ocampos especially. But, come on, it’s got to be Chimy Ávila – at €1.35m a thigh.
Nabil Fekir’s 90th-minute knee slide, Bruno’s return, Vinicius’s tears? This contest is over. Referee Xavier Estrada Fernández’s Hans Moleman moment works on so many levels. Others have heart but this has a football in the groin.
El Mundo’s headline said “this Christmas, give the gift of Osasuna-Real Sociedad”, which neatly summed up a wonderful 3-4 in which Martin Ødegaard and Ávila slugged it out and Always Watch Real were words to live by, at least until lockdown. Their trip to Madrid, the visit of Barcelona, that night in Seville. Madrid-Valencia was good and Valencia-Madrid was decided in the 94th minute when the 35th shot ended in the net, thanks to Thibaut Courtois going up for a corner. Yet here’s hoping that the best is the one match that hasn’t been played: Athletic v Real in the Copa del Rey final. One day.
José Luis Mendílibar was asked what he thought of Eibar 0-0 Leganés. “Well,” he said, “it was behind closed doors, meaning nobody had to pay and I’m glad about that.”
Best movement off the ball
An example of losing your marker from Celta striker Fyodor Smolov, slinking out of Spain and into Russia during lockdown to celebrate the 18th birthday of his girlfriend, Boris Yeltsin’s granddaughter Maria. Still, at least he flew: teammate Pione Sisto had driven all the way to Denmark.
Who thinks it’s this? Aidoo.
Habitual winner Leo Messi had his worst season for years, still scored 25 goals, provided 22 assists, and flew into the Death Star trench to destroy Atlético, leaving Diego Simeone shrugging “all you can do is applaud”. Not least when it comes to his free kicks, the best of which might have been the one he didn’t score but, wise to plans to deny him, dropped on to Suárez’s head instead. Iago Aspas scored a clever one the same day.
The best free-kick taker was actually Leganés forward Óscar, one last-minute winner prompting coach Aguirre to admit: “I hugged him [but] I’m not sure what I said. Almost certainly: ‘Very good, you son of a bitch! You’re the fucking business, I shit on your fucking mother, I shit on the mother that gave birth to you, how brilliant!’ Something like that.” And if that was tasty, this was just silly.
Even the pink beach ball couldn’t ruin Ocampos’s touch against Getafe. Jorge Molina sent two men out for milk against Valencia. And Iñaki Williams left Valladolid on the floor. Meanwhile, what made José Luis Morales’s goal so good was the fact that he only did it because he couldn’t be bothered to do anything else. Gonçalo Guedes got knocked down and got up again, Doctor Diego Cervero scored from the halfway line and if Sergi Guardiola meant this, wow.
But joining Aduriz on the podium are Luis Suárez’s bouncing backheel, Benzema’s ridiculous volley, and Damián Suárez morphing into Maradona. Ávila scored two the same man shouldn’t be able to score in the same game – the first a delicate dink, the second a human wrecking ball, bashing everyone out the way before heading in his own cross. But even more unique, absurd and beautiful than that was a goal you haven’t just not seen before, you won’t see again. Put up by Santi Cazorla, put away by Gerard Moreno. The touch, my God. And the finish, bloody hell.
Some people can start a fight in an empty house; Iago Aspas can start a fiesta in an empty stadium.
Zidane went away, came back, risked that legacy and somehow managed to be better than before, even magicking a clásico goal out of Mariano, for goodness’ sake. Aguirre nearly performed another miracle. Arrasate is Osasuna’s Klopp, they say at El Sadar. And Getafe’s fans still love last year’s winner José Bordalás, even if they can’t serenade him any more. Better known as Agerre II, José Antonio Lopetegui is a champion harrijsotzaile or Basque stone-lifter whose son Julen is a pretty good coach. And surviving with Valladolid is Sergio’s success again. But there is one, clear winner. Diego Martínez is the youngest manager in Spain; next year, he’ll be the youngest in Europe.
Strip it down to basics and Messi is still the best around, a victim of his own standards. His worst season in a decade was better than just about everyone else’s best ever. Probably the most consistent player overall was Casemiro. Until lockdown, Ødegaard made a strong case. And after it, Ramos did. Then there’s Cazorla. But the player of the year is the man whose two goals clinched the title on the penultimate night and whose goals on 16 other nights did so too. Benzema’s goals earned more points than anyone else’s and he also gave eight assists but he shouldn’t be measured solely in stats. Asked about that backheel, he shrugged, looked a bit embarrassed and replied: “Sometimes things come from within me.” “That’s Karim,” Zidane said.
And finally: God bless, Michael.