The Copa del Rey 4th Round kicks off this week with Segunda B minnows Cultural Leonesa bidding to emulate the likes of Real Union and Alcorcón, who have both dumped the mighty Real Madrid out of the competition over the past decade.
This though won’t be the first time the clubs have met. Way back in the summer of 1955 Cultural y Deportiva Leonesa, to give them their full title, were busy preparing for their first ever season in the top flight. It would prove to be a short-lived stay as the side from historic León were relegated with just 14 points losing both matches against Los Blancos. Six decades later and Cultural Leonesa have not come close to making another appearance in La Liga and it’s now over 40 years since they even appeared in the Segunda Division.
Discounting Leganes, who are making their top flight debut this season, La Leonesa are one member of a curious group of four clubs to have spent just one year in Spanish football’s top flight, never to be seen again. If the years following relegation were tough on Cultural, they were nothing compared to the plight suffered by the other teams in that unfortunate quartet.
Along with Leonesa, two of those sides made their solitary top flight appearance in the 1950’s. The first was Atlético Tetuán, a side based in what was then the Spanish protectorate of Morocco. They finished bottom with 22 points in the 1951-52 Primera Division and were forced to move homes to Ceuta, a small remaining Spanish enclave on the Northern tip of Morocco, when just four years later Morocco gained its independence. They merged with local club Sociedad Deportiva Ceuta in 1956 to form Club Atlético de Ceuta, a title which has recently changed again and the new club competes these days in the regional leagues of Southern Spain despite its location on the African continent.
The year after Leonesa’s solitary jaunt in the top flight, a team by the name of Club Deportivo Condal competed with the giants of the Spanish game. It had been formed as an offshoot of FC Barcelona but had broken free in order to take its place in La Liga in 1956. They shared the same Camp de les Corts with the Catalan giants but were narrowly relegated at the end of the 1956-57 season with just 1 point separating the bottom four clubs as Condal went down with Deportivo La Coruña while Celta Vigo and Real Jaén survived by the skin of their teeth. Just over a decade later they were absorbed into the Barcelona masterplan again as a merger with Atlètic Catalunya created Barcelona’s B team and Condal ceased to exist.
Perhaps the saddest tale of all the ‘one-season wonders’ is that of Xerez Club Deportivo. They were in La Liga as recently as the 2009-10 campaign and despite being bottom for almost the entire season nearly staged one of the greatest ever escapes under Néstor Gorosito. The Andalusian side collected an excellent 27 points from their final 19 games but were still unable to beat the drop following a miserable opening half of the season.
Since then and like many recent sides to drop out of La Liga, they’ve spiralled towards financial ruin and the situation got so bad that fans formed a new team, Xerez Deportivo FC in 2013. They’ve already achieved enough promotions to play at a higher level than the original Xerez CD which has dropped all the way down into the anonymity of the Primera Andaluza although a merger between the two sides has already been muted.
The lower reaches of Spain’s football pyramid can be bitterly cruel with teams folding, merging or re-inventing themselves with alarming regularity. Given that there is certainly something more than admiral about Cultural y Deportiva Leonesa. They’ve retained the same name and identity throughout their 93 years of existence and in a city of over 100,000 they are not without a loyal core base of fans. On-field success has been in short supply though as 42 consecutive years outside the country’s top two divisions more than demonstrates.
There may finally be some light at the end of the tunnel though for a club thats name alone suggests it is a relic from another era. They have a modern stadium that as recently as last month hosted the Spanish national team’s World Cup qualifier against Liechtenstein and a new Qatari owner in Tariq Abdulaziz Al Naama, the first foreign president in the club’s history.
Things also look to be heading in the right direction on the pitch and they head into this week’s Copa del Rey tie with Real Madrid yet to taste defeat this season. They top their section of the Segunda B thanks to an attacking philosophy that has brought 27 goals in 10 league matches and has helped them to three wins in the Copa del Rey to set up this glamour tie.
Whatever the result on Wednesday and in next month’s return at the Santiago Bernabeu, Cultural Leonesa will enjoy their brief moment in the spotlight and who’s to say there won’t be more to come. Perhaps the beauty of Spanish football is that fairytale rises for small clubs are not uncommon as the likes of Eibar and Leganes have recently demonstrated.
As cruel as the perennial struggle for existence can be outside of the top two leagues, the Cultural Leonesa’s of this world can dare to dream and this week’s clash with Los Blancos might just give them the appetite to push on and perhaps ultimately reclaim their top flight status, more than sixty years on from their one and only season in La Liga to date.