Down by two goals midway through the second half at the Camp Nou, most teams would have packed it in. Some may have kept attacking only to be obliterated for daring to do so, but even fewer would have been able to stem the tide, far less muster a comeback.
When Barcelona go ahead, the tie is rarely in doubt, and the question then becomes: How many goals? But this past weekend with linchpin Neymar stuck on the sidelines taking selfies with fellow Brazilian Rafinha, Deportivo La Coruña had other ideas. Two goals in the last 14 minutes, courtesy of Lucas Perez and Alex Bergantinos (the latter’s first goal in the past three years), were enough to earn a draw away to Barcelona and give Deportivo a vital away point as they continue to push for European soccer. The Galician outfit currently sit sixth in La Liga after 15 games and are already only 12 points back of their entire point total from last campaign, when the Brancoazuis barely escaped the drop.
For the first time in a decade the fans have reason to be optimistic about the club’s future; a future that was for so long myopically mortgaged in favor of the present.
Only five teams have won La Liga since 1985: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Valencia and Deportivo La Coruña . It was 15 years ago when Deportivo claimed theirs, making La Coruña the second-smallest Spanish city to ever have a title-winner.
Deportivo’s was an incredibly well-balanced outfit, lead by the likes of Noureddine Naybet, Mauro Silva, Djalminha (a YouTube highlight reel player way ahead of his time) and Roy Makaay. That summer, the club would forge ahead, bringing in the likes of Diego Tristan and Juan Carlos Valeron – supreme talents that would keep them at the pinnacle of European soccer for the next few years.
The influx of talent directly correlated with the heavy investment that long-time club president César Augusto Lendoiro injected into the club right before the turn of the millennium. He invested up to €250 million into the club in the form of transfers and the redevelopment of the team’s venue, the Riazor. He also made a genius move recruiting Javier Irureta, then a promising coach at fierce rival Celta Vigo. Before the 98-99 season, they would build a European giant.
Like Leeds United, Deportivo is a club that always elicits an empathetic response from fans the world over. Both teams seemed to be on the rise in the early aughts, challenging the status quo, with lengthy European runs while playing an impressive brand of soccer. Depor, in particular, will always be remembered for recording one of the most famous second-leg victories in Champions League history when they steamrolled a star-studded AC Milan side 4-0 at the Riazor, overcoming a three-goal deficit from the first leg of the teams’ 2003-04 quarterfinal.
But Depor would only flirt with Europe’s loftiest heights before coming crashing back to earth. After 2004, their form became increasingly inconsistent. Star players left in tandem, and future investments failed to pay dividends. The €11 million signing of Paraguayan center midfielder Roberto Acuna was particularly burdensome. As he struggled with injuries and form, he was loaned out multiple times, only playing 14 times for Depor between 2002 and 2006.
During this time, Lendoiro took massive gambles by using advance television rights money to finance other purchases with the expectation that the revenue would remain the same. When the TV market crashed, however, Depor found themselves stuck with impossibly high wages, unpaid transfer fees and unsustainable running costs. The club banked too much on their current success, and without a viable long-term plan, they eventually suffered the consequences.
The decline was gradual until Deportivo were relegated in 2011. In Segunda, the problems remained, as Depor’s debt continued to rise without Primera Divison money to offset their costs. Soon, the club once affectionately called “Super Depor” would enter administration, and Lendoiro would eventually resign, ending his 25-year reign at the helm.
Depor would bounce between the first and second division for a few years, returning to the top flight again last year. It was disaster of a campaign , though, with humiliating 2-8 loss to Real Madrid summing up their woeful performance. Once a club sitting at the pinnacle of Spanish and European soccer, Depor’d become a ragtag group compiled of old warhorses and loanees. The club barely survived, finishing in 16th position, just three points clear of the drop.
This season however under Victor Sanchez, who guided the team to safety after taking over with eight games to go last season, Depor have solidified. And one man in particular has been leading the charge.
The Prodigal Son
A La Coruña native Lucas Perez left his family at 16 because he wasn’t good enough to play for his beloved Depor. He became a journeyman in his teens, moving from Deportivo Alaves to Atletico Madrid and Rayo Vallecano before jetting off to Ukraine and Greece. Last year, he finally achieved his dream when Deportivo took him on loan. His storybook return began with a goal in his debut, with Perez kissing the badge in front of the adoring fans.
Perez was signed full time after the season, and in this campaign he’s taken his game a step further, becoming the de facto talisman of the squad. He’s been responsible for 13 goals thus season, scoring 11 while assisting on another two.
But goals do far too little to explain the impact the 27-year-old has had on the team. Perez is one of the rare breeds who combines effort and workrate with talent and ability. He’s incredibly likable, and in an age where most players have simply become mercenaries, he embodies the vitality of the city and a club that’s looking to reclaim the glory of old.
Perez and Nolito of rival Celta Vigo have been the best Spanish strikers in the league . As a result he’s beginning to pop up on the radar of European giants. Just yesterday rumors emerged that Arsene Wenger, reportedly impressed with Perez’s talent, is looking to bring him to Arsenal in the upcoming January window. There have even been numerous calls for Vicente Del Bosque to take him to next year’s European Championships. Perez has never been capped, and it’s unlikely Del Bosque, never one for experimentation, brings someone new into the fray so close to 2016. Besides, one gets the sense that Perez’s playing for his childhood club is already a dream come true.
Deportivo may struggle to ever reach the heights of old but there is a renewed sense of optimism at the Riazor. They’ve started well, but their longevity will be the true test. Still for 90 minutes last weekend, we saw a brief glimpse of “Super Depor” once again.
More La Liga:
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- Why Atletico look set to mount another La Liga challenge.
- You must-knows about La Liga at the one-third mark.
- Real Madrid’s turnaround will start when the new Galactico era stops.
- From Xavi to MSN: The numbers behind Luis Enrique’s Barcelona makeover.
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