The creeping dread of relegation was at the door when the man who ‘feels Mallorca’ put his club’s destiny back in their hands
“There are times when you doubt your heart can hold up; you get the feeling they’re trying to scare you to death,” Javier Aguirre said, and he didn’t even know the half of it. It was wild enough just where he was: “inexplicable,” “liberation,” “magic,” in the words of the man who had made it happen. The bench emptied on to the pitch, fans tumbled down the stands, arms were everywhere. Over 91 minutes had gone in the penultimate game of the season when the ball dropped to Abdón Prats and he scored the goal that pulled Real Mallorca from the relegation zone, their destiny back in their own hands at the last.
“That’s the good news,” Aguirre said; it was the only news the Mallorca manager had wanted to hear all day, at least until it was over. On a weekend when nine games were played at the same time, fates decided on faraway fields, a series of interconnected stories unfolding together and each more powerful because of the others, in which his team were one of a handful who could still go down, he decided that he didn’t want his players to know what was going on elsewhere. He didn’t want to know himself, either. “It’s a bloody mess,” he claimed. “You can’t manage your own issues, let alone everything else that’s happening.”
Everything else that’s happening was, he would later find out, a lot – although not quite like what went down at Son Moix, survival suddenly possible at the point when hope seemed to have slipped the net. At the end of Mallorca’s 2-1 injury-time win over Rayo Vallecano, Aguirre dashed straight down the tunnel. He had been busting for a pee, he admitted – “I am 63” – and by the time he did his first post-game interview, he still didn’t know all the other scores, asking the reporter: “Are Granada still in the equation?” “Yes, they’re one, no two points off relegation,” she replied, actually right the first time. “Ah, I had no idea, that’s good news you bring,” the Mallorca coach said. “So there would be three of us.”
At the start of the day, there had been five. By the end, one had gone at each end: a 0-0 draw against Barcelona meant Getafe were mathematically safe, while Alavés’s defeat at Levante sent them down to segunda, leaving Mallorca, Cádiz and, yes, Granada to fight to avoid the final relegation place next week. Sevilla reached their third consecutive Champions League after Youssef En-Nesyri’s 85th minute goal gave them the point they needed at Atlético, and Real Sociedad qualified for Europe three years running after they defeated Villarreal.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, and very nearly wasn’t. Alavés, on 32 points at kick off (counting the point from the draw the games start with) were at newly-relegated Levante. Mallorca, on 34, faced Rayo Vallecano. Above them, Cádiz, starting on 36, played Real Madrid at home. And Granada, on 38, were at Betis. It took just five minutes for the scores to start moving.
It was hard to keep up, hard even to calculate after event, but it went something like this: First Mariano Díaz put Real Madrid one-up at Cádiz, then Vedat Muriqi gave Mallorca the lead against Rayo, and next, Juanmi scored for Betis against Granada, meaning that 291km away Cádiz replaced Mallorca in the relegation zone. Then Joselu scored for Alavés, putting them on course for a win at Levante and leaving just three points between themselves, Cádiz, Mallorca and Granada. And the next minute, Rubén Sobrino equalised for Cádiz against Madrid. At half-time Cádiz were level on points with Mallorca (but still behind on head to head), the table reading: Alavés 34, Cádiz 36, Mallorca 36, Granada 37. Everyone was a goal away from everything turning again.
Early in the second half, Óscar Duarte scored for Levante. Alavés dropped to 32 points, safety out of reach, and it got even worse: Roger Martí would add a second for Levante on 74 minutes and José Luis Morales a third on 95 to put Alavés bottom and down, five points adrift. Then in Palma, where Aguirre’s inhibited team were struggling, Pathé Ciss scored for Rayo meaning Mallorca slipped into the relegation zone. Worse, Cádiz were about to take a four-point lead that would leave Mallorca down there for good, when they won a penalty a minute later. Álvaro Negredo would take it, survival in sight. But Andriy Lunin – the Madrid backup goalkeeper that Cádiz coach Sergio hadn’t played when he was on loan at Valladolid – produced a superb save.
At 2-1 down 15 minutes later, Alavés were slipping sadly away. “We don’t deserve to be in this division,” Joselu said later, speaking for everyone except him, responsible for almost half their goals. In Cádiz, the home side kept going, racking up 21 shots but not getting a winner. “It’s hard to do more against a team like Madrid,” Sergio said, and yet at least their fate still remained in their own hands at that point: they would go to Alavés on the final day knowing a win would be enough. In Seville, Granada had hit the post against Betis, but couldn’t get the goal that would have made them mathematically safe, then conceding again in the 88th minute. In Palma, Mallorca still hadn’t scored.
And then, on 90.20 Mallorca thought they had the goal that would change everything. They won a free-kick just outside the area, cameras closing in on a small boy who couldn’t watch, chewing on his finger nails. Kang-in Lee bent the ball past the wall and off the bar. From the other side of the ground, it looked in, some leaping up, the cheers dying in their throats. Then, 49 seconds later, they were given another chance. Prats controlled a deep cross and squeezed the finish into the far corner.
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It had to be him, owner of the most magnificent moustache in Spain: Mallorca-born, a Mallorca fan and youth-team product, a man who made his debut a decade ago, who has had three spells in the first team, starting the latest in the regionalised, 80-team Segunda B and winning back-to-back promotions to primera. The man who got the 82nd-minute goal that took them there in the playoff final against Deportivo; who has lived three promotions, three relegations and doesn’t want to live any more of them. Who vowed to “cling on tight to Son Bibiloni”, the training ground, and “never leave”. Who a month ago told Aguirre: “Count on me: you won’t regret it” and immediately scored against Alavés to give them hope. “He’s from here and you can tell: he feels Mallorca,” his manager said.
At that moment, they all did, the place erupting. “Yes we can,” they chanted. Mallorca were out of the relegation zone after half an hour in there but they knew they could still be dragged back in. On 94.04, Rayo forward Mamadou Sylla missed a huge chance, an entire stadium holding their breath, and even the final whistle didn’t end the agony. In the stands, radios were turned up. On the touchline, players gathered round someone’s phone, watching. Granada were beaten, Alavés too, but in Cádiz it wasn’t over. On 96.25, Dani Carvajal jumped in on Fali inside the area, and referee Mateu Lahoz grabbed the ball and put a finger to his ear. Everyone stopped. Not for the first time, no one knew what he was doing. In the VAR room they were looking at something. Might this even be a penalty?
No. It took a while, but eventually he kicked the ball to towards the tunnel and invited them to follow. Silence there, cheers in Mallorca.
A Bilbao 2-0 Osasuna, Atlético Madrid 1-1 Sevilla, Cádiz 1-1 Real Madrid, Celta Vigo 1-0 Elche, Getafe 0-0 Barcelona, Levante 3-1 Alavés, Mallorca 2-1 Rayo Vallecano, Real Betis 2-0 Granada, Villarreal 1-2 Real Sociedad, Espanyol 1-1 Valencia
“I play with my hand on my heart and I’m so happy to write history at my club, my home. I came here to watch my idols when I was little, and it’s very special to be able to live these wonderful years with Mallorca, watching the club grow,” Prats said. “This will go down in history and I hope it can help us survive on the last day.”
Next Sunday, there will be no going back. Cádiz, on 36 points go to Alavés, who have been denied their one last shot at survival in front of their fans. Mallorca, also on 36, go to Osasuna, where Javier Aguirre is a hero, the man who took them to the Champions League 17 years ago now. Granada, on 37, play Espanyol, a situation their coach, Aitor Karanka, admitted they would have signed up for a month ago but they’re still in the equation despite their revival. So are Mallorca, destiny unexpectedly in their control, no need for the radio or a calculator, just a lifeline to hold on to and the support of their own.
“At moments like this I think of all those of us who suffer with Mallorca. I have faith in this team,” Prats said. “I’m calling on the fans to come to Pamplona. I’ll speak to their bosses to make sure they get the Monday off work.”