A trip into the elusive but ever-improving world of Andorran football

A trip into the elusive but ever-improving world of Andorran football

 

Nestled within the Pyrenees mountains, between the European hegemons of France and Spain, is Andorra, an independent microstate known almost-exclusively for its winter sports and duty-free shopping. Advertised as a combined airport shopping concourse and ski resort, the country of 73,000 is a mere three hours from Barcelona and four from Toulouse, and is a tourist hub for affluent thrill seekers and upscale brand bargain hunters from both states.

The bus trip from Barcelona winds through the Catalan countryside and is dotted not only with Catalan independence flags and graffiti, but with billboards advertising the destination. A photo of a ski season-dressed woman gleefully slinging a bag of presumably-designers bags over her shoulder is accompanied by the words ‘Andorra Commercial Center’.

Andorra drafted and adopted a democratic constitution in 1993; in the same year, the country joined the United Nations; a year later, Andorra established its own football federation. By 1995, football aficionados inaugurated an official domestic league, the Primera Divisió, codifying a pre-existing sporting culture, as since the 1970s, individuals formed an amateur league and operated it “without headquarters or an infrastructure or membership of any organization.” By 1996, Andorra was a member of both FIFA and UEFA.

Founded in 1986, Vallbanc FC Santa Coloma is the most successful side in Andorran history, with 11 domestic championships – the last four of which have been consecutive. Throughout my time with her, Annabel Llevot, the club’s general manager, politely prods me to include Vallbanc – the name of an Andorran bank – when referring to the club.

Santa Coloma is the first Andorran club to have a bank as a sponsor as “usually, football sponsors here are more restaurants,” Llevot says, further touting her professionalisation of the club. “When I closed the agreement to sell [Santa Coloma shirts], it was also a surprise because it’s the best store specialised in sports of Andorra – Viladomat – it’s an institution. No one had ever bet on the potential of Andorran football.”

Annabel Llevot

While Andorra la Vella, the capital city of around 22,000, is home to two stadiums – the Estadi Communal and Estadi Nacional – the league match I attend, between Santa Coloma and Inter Club d’Escaldes, is apparently not qualified to be played in either. Both stadiums are open to the public. Communal, due to the track surrounding the grass pitch, is a favourite of local runners. Nacional, the stadium used for Andorra matches, was unguarded and being used for a youth rugby practice when I visited. In recent years, it has also hosted Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, and Edin Džeko.

The match instead takes place at Centre d’Entrenament de la FAF, the national team’s training ground. The miniature pitch – reminiscent of a foosball table-top – is one that can be found in every Barcelona vicinage; it’s the type of pitch where youth teams play matches in front of half-filled stands, with those in attendance almost exclusively parents and family.

In Andorra, however, this pitch hosts players with legitimate Champions League, Europa League, and for some, national team ambitions. Despite their mediocre surroundings, many of these players have and will continue to compete both in European competitions and against contemporary virtuosos like Ronaldo and Bale.

Llevot walks me past the pitch and into the stands. As the general manager, one might expect her to monitor her players, along with others in management, from a sequestered executive area. Instead, she ensconces herself within the Lilliputian scrum of Santa Coloma’s most loyal supporters.

The facility has only four rows of seats. Club president, Alain Molné Oviedo, stands for the entire match, a row behind Llevot. He politely declines an interview, flashing a quick smile, citing his lack of English skills. Club secretary Xavier Torné stands quietly to his left.

As the afternoon sunlight and sapphire sky break the customary wintry grey of Andorra in March, Llevot prods Tornét to converse with me English – he refuses so she translates. “Am I proud to be Andorran?’ Of course I’m proud to be Andorran!” he says. “We’re a very small country, but I’m very proud to be Andorran.”

Pepa Barbero

Discussions with this conglomerate are repeatedly adjourned, with management and fans alike diverting their attention to the pitch with Santa Coloma twice failing to convert crosses that flew in front of goal. “What a pity.”

Pepa Barbero, a well-dressed, middle-aged woman, arrives at the match in the 15th minute, citing parking difficulties. She casually greets both club management and fellow fans. These interactions are obviously part of her weekly routine. A Spanish native, she has lived in Andorra for 35 years.

“You can try to speak English,” Llevot tells Barbero jovially. She refuses. “Nobody will try,” Llevot exclaims, once again proceeding to translate. “She knew one player that was playing for Santa Coloma, he was a friend, and like this, she started to come to the matches,” Llevot says, translating for the quick-tongued Barbero.

“In the first year, she started to come to all the matches. Santa Coloma won the league, so she remembers that first league as a very important point – and after that, the last four years we won too, so she’s always here.”

Borys Rius spends much of the match trying to manage the controlled chaos of his young son’s innumerable toys. A Cuban immigrant, Rius moved to Andorra 12 years ago. “I am a player of the national curling team of Andorra,” he tells me proudly. “I support the other national teams, from soccer to the other sports. This is the family of the sport here.”

Borys Ruis

Rius is outfitted in a Santa Coloma jersey signed by Joan Capdevila – undoubtedly the most illustrious player ever to don the kit. Capdevila, a Spanish international on 60 occasions, played 15 seasons in LaLiga, winning both a World Cup and European Championship with Spain. He played the 2016/17 season – his last – with Santa Coloma. “To my friend Borys with affection, see you soon in Andorra,” read Capdevila’s words.

Unlike the others I speak to, Rius caves to Llevot’s prodding, speaking in English. “It’s a team that has ambition,” Rius says about Santa Coloma. “I didn’t know much about soccer in Andorra because it was not very professional, it was very amateur. But, when I arrived, I saw Santa Coloma and said ‘oh, it’s not so amateur. They know how to play.’ I am here every Sunday with my son.”

He cites Andorra’s 2017 victory over Hungary as a particular moment of pride. “The player who scored the goal was Marc [Rebés] from Santa Coloma – that was a crazy day, everybody [was like] ‘ah, okay!’” he motions, throwing his hands towards the abnormally-azure sky in mock celebration.

In the midst of the interview, Rius’ young son has escaped his father’s grasp, hurtling onto the adjacent practice field to himself play football with the other children. “The future of Andorran football,” Rius says, gesturing to the boys, calling his son back for the second half.

Santa Coloma control the match, winning thanks to a 51st-minute goal from defender Victor Rodriguez, a 17-time capped Andorra international. With the sideline being mere feet from the stands, management and fans are able to address players like chastising parents, neither too spiteful nor particularly congenial. The on-pitch Andorran product spills into the stands in a way that Camp Nou patrons would find incomprehensible.

Andorran players are not buoyed by devout mobs of supporters endowed with a sea of flags and marshalled anthems, but by those close to them, as the stands serve as a provisional weekly domicile for wives, mothers, fathers, children and friends. Those who don’t know the players on a familial level are, at the least, friends of relatives; unaffiliated fans, after a few matches, briskly become part of the family.

“Most of the players, you know people here, or the wife of a player, the mother, someone related or a relative,” Barbero tells me. “It’s a good chance to meet the friends at the match day and after drink something – social life.” This close-quartered nature of Andorran football is reflected in the nation’s civic life, with many Primera Divisió players maintaining their passion with additional professions. “We have a policeman, a bank director, another one is a mechanic; he has his own car shop; one is an English teacher,” Llevot adds.

This dynamic – of an established rapport between fans, management and players – is reminiscent of a competitive school or even an amateur league. These are not $300,000-a-week stars playing for the next cheque, but men playing for the love of the game itself and being supported by those they know personally.

“Andorran players love the football,” Coke González, Inter Escaldes’ Chilean Chief of Press tells me. “They don’t play for money, they play for football, the love of football.” González himself embodies Andorran sporting enthusiasm. “My passion is the football, I love the football,” he says. “When I was in Chile, I watched the Andorran matches and I enjoy it. It’s a team that usually lose, but they love the football. The football is in the air, here in Andorra.”

While a blithe tourist may surmise this match to be that of a recreational league, the Primera Divisió, which exists somewhere near the centre of the professional-amateur spectrum, is one whose victors have the opportunity to compete in tournaments beyond the dreams of standard weekend warriors. Santa Coloma finished the regular season in first place and will, in the coming weeks, fight for their fifth-straight title and the fifth-straight Champions League qualification bid that will accompany such domestic glory.

Noticeably absent from Santa Coloma’s 18-man selection is Ildefons Lima, Andorra’s most-capped player and all-time leading goalscorer, also famous for his jersey collection. “I have about 600-700 shirts,” he says. “Now, I just collect national team, Champions League, and Europa League because a few years ago, I had about 900 shirts and I said ‘oh, I have to stop because my wife will kill me.’”

Ildefons Lima

Tall, slim and affable, Lima is a central defender who has played professionally in Spain, Mexico and Greece, among other countries. Injured and standing amongst the spectators, he’s dressed in an unassuming outfit of light-blue jeans, trainers, and a puffy winter coat. “Hey,” he says, gesturing from his perch. “Let’s do this now,” referring to the interview, zipping up his coat in response to the frigid temperature.

He lights up when I ask about his international accomplishments. “Now I’m at 111 [caps] and I’m so happy,” he says. “Eleven goals is very difficult. I think a few weeks ago, with a friend, we were looking and Gerard Piqué has scored less than me.”

Santa Coloma, Lima’s current club, is the only Andorran team to win a match in a European competition, a feat which they have completed twice, most recently in 2014, defeating Armenia’s Yerevan-based FC Banants in Champions League qualification thanks to a last-minute away goal by goalkeeper Eloy Casals. “It was amazing,” Lima says. “To win a game in the Champions League and pass the round was amazing. I still have my” – he pauses, running his hands up his arms – “goosebumps. It was amazing, one of the best feelings that I have ever felt on a football field.”

Llevot expresses similar emotions about the 12-hour trek to Yerevan. “When we passed the round in Champions against Armenia, Xavi [Torné] and me were there, only the two of us, in the middle of a very big stadium full of Armenian people that were almost celebrating that they were passing the round,” she says. “It was crazy, absolutely crazy because we said ‘Okay, we are losing’ and we were only the two of us there in the middle of all the Armenians. And they were shouting and when we scored there was a moment of silence, absolutely silent, and I said, ‘Oh my God, they will kill us.”

The financial windfall of participating in European competitions is vital for Andorran football. “We don’t have a way to earn money with the team here. The money arrives from the teams competing in Europe – Champions League or the Europa League,” Llevot says, echoing a 2017 New York Times article. “That’s our budget, most of the budget came from [this], that’s the most important thing. The champion of the league gets around €250,000 but this amount, in Andorra, we share it with the rest of the teams of the first division and some of second division too.

“For the three teams in Europe (Andorra’s second place team and the winner of the Copa Constitució both qualify for Europa League qualifying), UEFA gave you around €200,000, more or less the same for both competitions,” Llevot says. “This amount is used to pay the travel to the country where you have to play the European competition, hotel, food everything for the team, the players’ bonuses. The rest goes to next year’s budget.”

Andorra is supported by additional non-incentive-based funding as well. “UEFA has one program called Hat Trick that gave some grants and money to build up stadiums,” Xavi Torné, Santa Coloma’s secretary general, says. “UEFA is helping a lot, of course, giving some money to the clubs. That has helped a lot to let people be more professional, let clubs improve and grow. That is the most important thing in the last 10 years.”

Citing European competition and UEFA funding, Llevot adds: “Without the international help, it would have been very difficult to develop football here because our Andorran government gives us zero.” UEFA, an administrative field in which on-the-pitch sporting stratification is rendered null, serves to legitimise Andorra. “I’m the one in Andorra that goes to the ECA (European Club Association),” Llevot says. “We have a vote, we are ordinary members, we can vote, and our vote is the same as Barcelona’s one or Madrid’s one. We come from a very different place, we are very small, but that is important for us that we can participate in the European decisions too.”

Santa Coloma’s one-room, fourth floor office is tucked in a building next to Andorra la Vella’s Pyrénées mall. “It’s like my home,” Llevot, the only person in the one-desk office says, gesticulating to her jacket and bag, apologising for the fact that they are strewn across the office.

She’s adorned the room with trophies – most which the club has been awarded for winning domestic competitions. Of particular note is a small plate-like trophy, engraved with the inscription: “UEFA Champions League First Qualifying Round Santa Coloma FC vs FC Banants, 01.07.2014, Andorra.” The Champions League does not procure trophies for winning qualification matches, so I ask Llevot about the plate’s origins.

“The day before the match, when we’re all still friends, there’s an official dinner with representatives of both teams and the UEFA delegates,” Llevot says. “After the dinner, we exchange some commemorative gifts in order to remember the match, they gave it to us and we gave them and another one and one to the delegate too.” The trophy’s primary placement indicates that this win – one which most of the sporting world is unaware of – was and continues to be impactful for both club and country.

Along with establishing its domestic leagues, a few mid-1990s football enthusiasts asserted that if Andorra was an independent country, then it was guaranteed to statehood, meaning, as written in FIFA magazine, “they could surely take part in international competitions.” The Andorran national team played its first game in 1996 but failed to win a match for 13 years, from 2004 to 2017 – 66 matches in a row. In March of last year, in the Estadi Nacional, 2017, Andorra shocked Hungary 1-0.

“The win, the win to Hungary, one year ago, is the best moment,” says Jesús Luis Álvarez de Eulate Güergue. Also known as Koldo, the softly-spoken man of few words is the manager of the Andorra national team. Echoing his coach, Lima adds: “When we won against Hungary, that, for us, was like winning a World Cup. Obviously Hungary is not like Spain or Brazil, but it’s an important national team and for us. It was amazing.” He has a wide grin spreads across his face, seemingly in concert with his recollection of the win. “People always say ‘you lose each game, why do you play?’ We play because sometimes we believe this can happen.”

Andorran players and management are not fearful of an on-pitch slaughter, but a David-type ready for their chance to take down Goliath. There are no delusions of World Cup grandeur, but a collective understanding that contemporary superstars are not worthy of fear. “In 1998, we played against Brazil, with Ronaldo,” Lima tells me. “That was the moment when I said, I can play with these players, I can play against anyone. After 20 years, it’s a normality to play against these kinds of players – Bale, Ronaldo. It seems crazy to people, but for us, it’s a normality now to play these games. Some years ago, when the national teams come here, they won 6-0, 7-0,” he adds. “Now, when the national teams come here, they say ‘We have to work hard’.”

Andorra has established itself – both its national and club teams – as worthy of some acclaim. The national team and its clubs are not an easy out in qualifying anymore. Ronaldo’s Portugal and Bale’s Wales have had to work for their victories in Andorra, defeating the country’s unrefined amateurs 2-0 and 2-1, respectively.

The country itself is almost-stiflingly claustrophobic; the state’s original parliamentary chamber in Casa de la Vall is no larger nor grander than a high school classroom, supposedly-distant towns of Santa Coloma and Escaldes are walking distance from the capital, and the Estadi Nacional seats no more 2,000 spectators. Yet, albeit in miniature form, Andorran footballers, fans and management aim to produce domestic competitions and field a national team not unlike those of Spain or France.

National pride and a sense of belonging on the international stage prevents those in Andorra’s football infrastructure from acquiescing to certain defeat; notions of doom are not part of the collective DNA. “A few years ago, no one thought that Andorra can win at Hungary and now our team can beat them. Still, getting points and winning some more matches is our dream and we are working hard for it,” Llevot says. “I think it’s what everyone wants – to get better and grow.”

By Charles Dunst  @cddunst

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