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Lincoln, Lincolnshire, United Kingdom
Senior news reporter at the Grimsby Telegraph, UEA History graduate, former BBC Kick Off sports reporter & Lincoln City fan.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Udinese in La Liga

18th June 2011 – the day Granada CF defeated Elche CF and were promoted to Spain’s top division via the playoffs. Sounds fairly unspectacular, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s an engrossing tale that is worth our full attention, as I’ll try and explain.

Written by Matt Scrafton.

Granada are a modestly sized club who have been around for over 80 years now, and have predominately played their football in the lower leagues of the Spanish league system. Despite a flurry of top flight successes in the 1940s and 1950s, which included a club record sixth position and a cup final defeat to Barcelona, Granada are your typical definition of a yo-yo club.

However, things became so bad for the Andalusian side back in the summer of 2009 that they stared closure directly in the face, following a host of financial difficulties whilst they were struggling in Group IV of the third level. Their saviour came in the form of Udinese owner Gino Pozzo, who saw a money-making opportunity that turned out to be of benefit to both of his clubs, on and off the pitch.

His strategy was a simple yet entirely novel one. Pozzo’s solution to the crisis came in the form of an  agreement with Udinese Calcio, with the Spaniards incorporating large numbers of players contracted to the Italian club as well as receiving its youth players and reserves as part of the deal. So come the end of the 2009-2010 season, Granada unsurprisingly finished top of the third tier of Spanish football, gaining promotion to Liga Adelante. And they followed up their success with a 5th placed finish this season in the second tier of Spanish football, meaning a semi-final against Celta Vigo; a side more than accustomed to plying their trade in the top flight.

Granada successfully progressed to the playoff final in dramatic fashion, defeating Celta on the virtue of a penalty shootout after the game had ended 1-1 after 120 minutes. Granada took to the field with 6 out of their 11 first team players being Udinese-owned. In fact, in total Granada have 11 players ‘on loan’ from the Italian club, including stars such as Dani Benitez and Ghanaian international Jonathan Mensah. Elche could not halt the rapid progression of El GranĂ¡ either, who were victorious in the playoff final courtesy of a 1-1 draw, sending them to La Liga on the away goal rule. And the crucial goal was scored by a Udinese-owned player, 22 year old striker Odion Jude Ighalo to be precise.

The man who made it all possible: Udinese and Granada CF Owner Gino Pozzo

Now we’re left with the peculiar situation where essentially, Udinese have a team in both Serie A and La Liga. The majority of Granada’s squad is effectively a Udinese B side, the rest made up of local Spaniards. The club has incurred a complete transformation thanks to Pozzo’s entirely original scheme. Yet will the club maintain their current strategy in La Liga?

In fact, only in the past few days the club announced their intentions to provide a competitive team for their return to the top flight after a 35 year absence. The Andalusian outfit have still to fill a third of their squad, resulting in the restlessness of their fans, many fearing an instant return to the second division.

However, Director of Football Juan Carlos Cordero said: “We will have a competitive team to stay up, but there is no hurry and we don’t want to bring a player in just to appease the supporters”

Granada plan to have a 23 or 24-man squad for the start of the season in August and Cordero insists his club will not get carried away: “We know the players we want and they will come,” he says. “We are already in advanced negotiations with a few and they will occupy the places vacant at present. But we will not bow down to the demands of any player or another club.”

Clearly, owner Gino Pozzo is committed to the long-term future of Granada CF, not just selfishly providing a competitive platform for Udinese reserve and fringe players as some may claim. Already people are beginning to question whether or not Granada’s success is sustainable, whilst some are even questioning the legality of such an approach. However, Pozzo has ensured supporters that the partnership is not one sided, and is a permanent one. The deal is mutually beneficial; Udinese gain vital experience for their bright young talents whilst for Granada, it has completely revived the club and has elevated them up two tiers. Just maybe I’m getting too carried away here, but imagine if Granada had a successful year next season and qualified for Europe; and ended up playing Udinese in the Europa League. How intriguing would that be?

There are several loose connections between clubs around the world, yet none are as impressive as this.  If anything, it’s a surprise that such a deal has not been manufactured before. So is this something we’re likely to see more of? I see no reason why not.