On Saturday morning, Leganés captain Martín Mantovani gathered his team-mates in a circle. “The whole week they have talked about our opponent,” he began. Their rival that morning was FC Barcelona.
It would be the first time mighty Barcelona travelled to Estadio de Butarque in the Madrid suburb Leganés. For two days people stood to get a ticket for the nearly 11,000-capacity stadium.
“Today the day has come to talk about us,” Mantovani continued. “So let’s go out there and be the protagonist. Let’s kick some ass. Let’s do it for those who can’t.”
Those who can’t, those who would never get the opportunity to play a football game against one of the best football teams in the world.
For 88 years ‘those who can’t’ had been Leganés. That was something unexpected to change. Just the idea of playing in La Liga was so far-fetched, it hadn’t even been thought or dreamt.
Despite Mantovani’s words minutes before the game kicked off, Leganés wouldn’t be the protagonist on the pitch that Saturday morning. Instead that role would, as so often before, be taken by Barcelona’s trio Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar.
The big build-up…
Leganés marketing team released two posters. One online version and one posted around the city. Though they really hadn’t needed to promote this particular game, the posters were both humorous and brilliant.
“This is a trap game, we can’t be overconfident” the print version read in reference to Barcelona’s surprise loss to Deportivo Alavés the week before. While the online poster was even better – a cloud formed as Messi over the Butarque, with a caption reading: “Let whatever God wants to happen, happen… Or not”.
Sadly for Leganés it seemed like Messi, aka God, only read the top part as on Saturday he decided everything. Within 64 minutes Suárez, Neymar, Rafinha and Messi (2) had all scored.
Leganés weren’t “kicking ass” instead theirs was getting kicked. Then on the 80th minute, a free-kick outside the box. Gabriel stepped up to score.
“Lega, Lega, Lega” was shouted louder than ever, scarfs waved in the air. For Leganés it wasn’t just a consolation goal, it was a La Liga goal, their first at home in history.
Though 1-5 against Barcelona might have been an expected result, the 1-0 win away to Celta de Vigo was not and neither was the 0-0 draw against Atletico Madrid. In four games, Leganés have picked up four points.
“They said we weren’t going to take a point until November but here we are with four,” their coach Asier Garitano told Spanish newspaper Marca.
An almost unimaginable situation considering that Leganés only three years ago were last in the Spanish third division, Segunda B.
Reaching the first division wasn’t even a target. “We were happy in the second division,” Garitano admitted to Marca.
As they reached the final game of last season, Mantovani gathered his team-mates in a circle, picked up a tablet and started to read. “Today here I am, speaking from my heart,” he said. For almost two minutes he went on before ending his speech saying, “If we lose, we will remain the best but if we win we will make history.” They went on to beat Mirandés 1-0, making history and reaching La Liga.
The Leganés captain stands out: not just for his inspiring pre-game speeches but for his blue hair. Some might wonder why a 32-year-old has decided to dye his hair blue; some will say it’s ugly, maybe even childish. Mantovani won’t care because having blue hair means he is playing professional football.
Mantovani first promised to dye his hair blue if Leganés won promotion to Segunda Division A in 2014. He made the same promise again this year but this time if they won promotion to La Liga. So they did and this time the blue was permanent instead of a three-day job.
He is one of only three players left who have been with Leganés on the entire journey from the third division to the first. Despite being Argentinian, Mantovani has found his home in the Madrid suburb.
Argentinians aren’t especially popular in Leganés after Argentinian music producer Daniel Grinbank almost destroyed the club in 2003-04.
Grinbank promised to invest and take the club to La Liga. When he brought in Argentinian coach Jose Pekerman – and replaced 17 Spanish players with 15 Argentinian footballers – the locals protested by not coming to the games and leaving the stadium standing practically empty on matchdays.
Players felt unwanted and Grinbank abandoned the project a few months later leaving the club in big financial debts.
With Mantovani it’s been different. At 22, he was about to quit football. When an opportunity to play for Atletico Madrid’s C-team arose, Mantovani travelled to Italy, to gain dual nationality [his grandfather is Italian] to be able to play football in Europe.
It wasn’t an easy trip. With little money and unable to afford a hotel, he was forced to spend the night sleeping on cardboard boxes and newspapers among the homeless before boarding his plane to Spain. “It was four hours of hell, a nightmare,” he recalls talking to Marca.
Mantovani ended up playing at Atleti for three-and-a-half years, crossing paths with players like David de Gea and Koke. But he never made it further than the club’s B-team.
He came to Leganés in 2013 and with promotion the following season, finally reached professional football.
With two promotions, several inspiring team talks and his blue hair, Mantovani is an Argentinian they’ve come to adore in Leganés.
He wears the captain’s armband with pride; and it’s him the Leganés marketing team always use, whether it’s to talk about cucumbers [Leganés is historically more famous for their cucumbers than their football] or to promote the new strips with a “scratch and sniff” badge.
On Saturday he was, for tactical reasons, left on the bench for 90 minutes. But on Thursday, he will give a new inspiring team talk in the dressing room before they face Deportivo La Coruña,
Leganés never planned to reach La Liga, they are hoping to stay but aren’t counting on it. For now, though, Mantovani, his blue hair, and Leganés are enjoying the moment – a historical moment. Losing 1-5 against Barcelona doesn’t change that. This is their time.
“Today the day has come to talk about us,” Mantovani said. So let us talk about Leganés.