Getafe and the incredible UEFA Cup odyssey of 2007/08

Getafe and the incredible UEFA Cup odyssey of 2007/08

The present LaLiga campaign is fast approaching its home stretch, with no more than 12 fixtures separating any given team from the lowering of the season’s final curtain, and certain seemingly inevitable eventualities are so typical one could almost roll their eyes at the Spaniards for electing to schedule classic reruns in place of new and exciting programming.

Barcelona top the table, with the intangible Lionel Messi streaks ahead of the pack in lavishing both goals and assists, while the Madrileños of Atleti and Real give chase; the likes of Sevilla, Valencia, and Betis are gunning for Europe; Sociedad, Espanyol and Athletic striving to stave off mid-table mediocrity; and relative minnows, Rayo = and Valladolid, among others, face an engrossing battle to retain their top-flight status. Some may be struck thinking, have we not seen this one before?

Yet there remain teams in the unique moulds of Alavés, Eibar and Girona, whose relative positions see each of them flying in the face of convention, fighting valiantly to bring to life their anomalous ambitions and set this season apart from others. It should be said, on the subject of breaking with convention, a dishonourable mention also goes to unlikely relegation candidates Villarreal.

It can, and surely will, though, be claimed by many that no Spanish side have defied their humble pre-season projections quite like Getafe, as, with less than a third of the season remaining, the side appear to hold within their grasps a chance at qualifying for their first tilt at the Champions League greater than ever before.

As grand and inspiringly unlikely an adventure as the opportunity to dine at Europe’s most elite table would represent, Getafe aren’t complete strangers to competing on the continent. Prior to their most recent, and only second ever, appearance in European competition – the 2010/11 Europa League – the Azulones made their European debut in the 2007/08 UEFA Cup. Despite lacking in even the slightest overseas experience, the team conspired to craft a quite unforgettable campaign. This is the tale of Getafe’s first ever skirmish on the continental trail.

Getafe’s first brave foray into the stirring world waiting beyond their domestic borders represented the thrilling and once utterly unthinkable denouement to an extraordinary journey through the Spanish leagues. After their initial founding in 1946, and almost four decades spent competing in second and third tiers, the club was forced to liquidate in 1982 and ceased to exist without ever having graced their country’s top tier. Just a year later, though, following a merger between two local clubs, Getafe were reborn and their legacy swiftly began a new chapter.

The mid-80s and early-90s were defined by Getafense fortunes that fluctuated wildly, oscillating quite rapidly from tremendous highs to disastrous lows and back again in time for the new millennium. The club crafted an extraordinary streak of four consecutive promotions to leap from the regional leagues and into the country’s third tier, and by 1994 were back in the Segunda División. Yet, by 1997, only a dramatic two-legged victory over Huesca prevented an untimely return the fourth tier and another potentially ruinous dissolution of the club. 

For some years, any given Getafe campaign seemed to be defined by the tangible drama of a promotion or a relegation, with no prolonged period of calmness or stability in any one division to afford the club’s modest but magnificent supporters a chance to catch their breath. But calculated growth and sustained on-field success eventually culminated in promotion to the top tier of Spanish football, as Getafe finished as runners-up in the 2003/04 Segunda, joining Levante and Numancia in making the step up to LaLiga.

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A year on, Levante and Numancia had their bags in hand once again, sent packing and ordered to return from whence they came, finishing 18th and 19th in the league. Getafe, however, finished in 13th and clung to their top tier status. The proceeding season saw the Azulones end the campaign in ninth and, the year after, ninth was their season’s final resting place once again, only this time they had secured a place in the subsequent UEFA Cup, courtesy of a thrilling voyage of discovery through the season’s Copa del Rey.

Prior to 2006, Getafe hadn’t experienced the thrill of a Copa del Rey semi-final; the last eight, historically, their unassailable hurdle. Momentum gathered, though, in the latest edition of the cup as they drew great optimism from the style in which they progressed through the rounds.

Having scraped past second-tier Xerez in the round of 32, Getafe took on Valencia and followed an initial goal-apiece draw with a resounding 4-2 victory. Osasuna required beating in the quarter-finals, against whom Getafe obliged with a comfortable 3-0 opening leg victory that proved sufficient to see them beyond a 1-0 defeat in the return leg. Into the last four they marched, for the first time in the club’s history. Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona awaited them.

At the Camp Nou on 18 April 2007, Barça did precisely as they do to so many foolish enough to wander onto their turf in search of a fair duel: they blew Getafe away. Five goals – Xavi, Guðjohnsen, Eto’o and a brace from Messi – left the travellers’ faint hopes of a first Copa del Rey final on life support. Getafe weren’t to leave Barcelona empty-handed, however. The irrepressible Dani Güiza struck, before Ignacio ‘Nacho’ Santamaría grabbed another two minutes later. Consolation though they seemed, Getafe’s two goals gave them reason to believe.

Three weeks later, both teams arrived at the Coliseum Alfonso Pérez. Sevilla had already booked their place in another Copa del Rey showpiece the night before, thumping Deportivo. Barcelona knew they were just 90 routine minutes away from joining them. Getafe knew they needed a miracle – and they got one.

On 37 minutes, a poorly cleared corner made its way to Javier Casquero, who improvised a half-volley, thumped into the ground. Skidding off the slick turf, the ball whipped up and over the dive of Albert Jorquera in the Barça goal. The players on the pitch, the staff on the sideline, the fans in the stands; all of a Getafe persuasion shouted with joy and shook their fists in determination, willing on the comeback that their opening strike teased.

Six minutes later, some neat interplay down their side’s right flank orchestrated space for a crossing opportunity, which was dinked hopefully into the box. The ball avoided two attempted headers before finding the shins of Gianluca Zambrotta. Ricochetting into the path of Güiza, who stood barely six yards from goal, the static defenders could do nothing but call out in search of an offside flag that would never come. Güiza tucked the ball away: 2-0. Getafe were within a goal of their giant opposition. The comeback was real.

With little over 20 minutes of the tie remaining, Getafe earned a free-kick out wide on the left side of the field. Curled into the box by Cosmin Contra, midfielder Ángel Vivar Dorado stole a march on the swathe of retreating Barcelona bodies and nodded in his team’s third of the night. Jorquera sat on the pitch, an expression of dejection plastered across his face. Ronaldinho looked to the heavens and shook his head. Carles Puyol raged. Though level on aggregate, an absence of away goals put the home team in the driving seat for the first time in the semi-finals.

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Before Barcelona could even devise a plan to claw their way back into the tie, a long ball found the head of Manu del Moral. The forward’s flick found the run of Güiza who took the ball into his path with a puff of his chest before whacking it past the goalkeeper with a ferocious right-footed shot. Güiza almost tore his shirt from his midriff during his wild celebrations, before a 15-man bundle almost buried him. Equally crazed were the celebrations of his euphoric fans.

In the closing stages of the game, Getafe held their 4-0 lead and stunned Rijkaard’s men to progress onwards to their first ever Copa del Rey final.

Caring not in the slightest for the nature of Getafe’s journey to the final, nor to the relative poverty of their opponents’ trophy cabinet in comparison to their own, Sevilla gave up nothing to Getafe and, in late June, before some 80,000 fans at the Bernabéu, they captured the trophy for themselves, defeating Getafe by a single Frédéric Kanouté goal to nil.

For the Getafense, their beloved team’s rousing quest for silverware was pushed beyond breaking point a game short; tragically extinguished by Sevilla almost as quickly as it had sparked to life. There remained, though, plenty of good reason for the Azulones’ high spirits.

They would get no closer to the Copa del Rey than a solemn walk by it but, given that the cup’s winners are traditionally awarded a place in the UEFA Cup for their victory, and with Sevilla having already earned a spot in the Champions League with their third-place finish in LaLiga, a ticket for the following season’s UEFA Cup was, for the first time in their enrapturing history, Getafe’s.

As the agonising wait for the club’s historic season ebbed towards a close, Getafe head coach Bernd Schuster announced his immediate departure, head-hunted by their giant neighbours, a club from his own playing days, Real Madrid. And so, the duty of guiding El Geta through their debut campaign on the continent fell to another legendary Blanco: Michael Laudrup.

Entering the competition in its first round, Getafe were made to face Dutch side Twente, with the right to partake in the UEFA Cup’s group stage at stake, and the hosts delightedly welcomed their opponents to central Spain for the first leg of the tie. The game appeared to all in attendance as though it were destined to end in a stalemate, something of a damp squib given that it was Getafe’s first competitive game against foreign opposition. That was until Ikechukwu Uche fired home in stoppage time, ensuring the Spaniards would carry with them to the Netherlands a goal advantage.

The action on the field at Twente’s rocking Arke Stadion throughout the return leg proved to be everything its preceding leg wasn’t, and Getafe learned they would be granted no easy passage to the group stage. Not a team to stand on ceremony, Twente headed themselves into the lead on the half-hour mark, as Rob Wielaert’s glancing effort proved to hot for Getafe goalkeeper Roberto Abbondanzieri to handle. The ‘keeper, though, redeemed himself by saving a penalty from Blaise N’Kufo in the second half. Not to be outdone, Twente ‘keeper Sander Boschker later performed an equally effective trick, denying Manu from 12 yards.

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Level on aggregate, the game reached its final whistle without a second net being breached, as not even 20 minutes with a player’s advantage, following N’Kufo’s ejection for an off-the-ball incident, could bring Getafe the winning goal. That was until extra-time, when whatever hexes or charms protecting the goals were lifted and whatever shackles had kept the goalscoring down were sent flying. The game exploded into life.

Ten minutes into the first period of extra time, David Belenguer forced home a corner to give Getafe the aggregate lead and an all-important away goal. Barely three minutes later, Esteban Granero led a counter-attack which he finished by thumping the ball beyond a helpless Boschker. Two-one on the night, two away goals to savour, the tie seemed to be Getafe’s for the taking. The second half of extra time would surely be merely a procession.

Twente, though, had ideas of their own and struck twice in the game’s dying embers, first through Orlando Engelaar then courtesy of Ramon Zomer. Thankfully for Getafe, and guttingly for Twente, the referee called time on the occasion before a sixth goal could be conjured. Getafe made it into the UEFA Cup group stage by the skin of their teeth and with not a goal to spare.

Off the leash and released into the group stage, the Azulones found themselves among an eclectic set of rivals boasting plenty of European pedigree. Making up Group G, alongside themselves, would be two-time UEFA Cup winners Tottenham and 1983’s victors Anderlecht, with Aalborg and Hapoel Tel-Aviv. The latest leg of Getafe’s adventure began in London.

Getafe arrived at White Hart Lane to find a Tottenham team preparing to bid vaarwel to their Dutch manager Martin Jol. The travelling Spaniards took advantage of their hosts’ insecurities and shocked them on their own turf. Jermaine Defoe opened the scoring for the home side but, following a swift response from Rubén de la Red, two minutes later, Getafe re-established parity. Twenty minutes from time, forward Braulio flicked a cross beyond Spurs ‘keeper Radek Černý to ensure his team would journey back south with their first three points on the continent safely stowed away.

Buoyed by their opening win, Getafe welcomed Hapoel Tel-Aviv to the Coliseum Alfonso Pérez, anticipating another fine result. The Israelis, though, hadn’t travelled 3,500-kilometers just to roll over for their opponents. With scarcely half an hour played, El Geta found themselves two goals down and could respond with no more than a stoppage-time consolation through Pablo. Their flying start in the competition had been grounded and to the solar plexus of their swelling hopes was delivered a winding blow.

The following fixture, away to Aalborg in the north of Denmark, afforded the Spaniards an immediate shot at redemption. Win here and the fate of their fortunes would surely be kept well within their own hands. Win was precisely what Getafe did. In a reversal of their preceding encounter with Tel-Aviv, it was Getafe who fired themselves into a two-goal lead, Pablo and Granero on target. The game’s climax was made uncomfortable for the visitors when Aalborg struck late on, but the points travelled back to Madrid.

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The final of Getafe’s four group stage fixtures took place back among home comforts, as the team played host to Anderlecht, and the Getafe faithful were made to feel plenty comfortable when Pablo continued his fine goalscoring form, edging his side ahead with just four minutes on the referee’s watch. Though Cyril Théréau would bag a goal for the Belgians, by this time Fabio Celestini had already nabbed a second for the Spaniards and 2-1 the score remained beyond the final whistle.

With three wins and a solitary defeat, Getafe topped Group G ahead of fellow qualifying clubs Tottenham and Anderlecht. For their troubles, El Geta found reward in the form of a two-legged tie against AEK Athens.

When Rubén de la Red pounced upon a scuffed clearance and slammed the ball into the AEK goal, with no more than four minutes of regulation time remaining, the swell of jubilant Getafe globetrotters watching on from up among the gods in the Greek capital’s Olympic Stadium would’ve been forgiven for believing they had just witnessed the game’s winning goal. Only, substitute Ismael Blanco had other ideas and backheeled a 93rd-minute equaliser for the home side. Getafe were made to settle for a stalemate, albeit with the reassuring caveat of a potentially vital away goal.

As would become the story of the return leg, back at home in central Spain, Getafe’s away goal would prove superfluous as they put the Athenians to the sword with an emphatic 3-0 victory. First Granero found the impetus and the AEK net, before two goals in two late second-half minutes – a penalty from Contra and a smart strike from Braulio – put the game beyond all doubt. Getafe cruised into the round of 16.

Having edged past Nürnberg, a bold Benfica side stood between Getafe and the competition’s last eight. Despite harbouring their own hopes of a deep voyage into the UEFA Cup, the good ship Benfica was steered unwittingly into rocky wards after striker Óscar Cardozo’s decision to rough up Getafe defender David Belenguer earned him an early bath after just nine minutes. The Spaniards pounced on their man-advantage and took the lead after 25 minutes, through that man de la Red once again.

Another name becoming increasingly familiar to scoresheets across the continent, Pablo grabbed a second for the visitors before they found themselves pegged back by a Mantorras goal. Able to protect their lead, Getafe challenged Benfica to follow them back to Spain and attempt to overturn their deficit.

Six days later, the two sides met again and, once more, Getafe triumphed. A lone Juan Ángel Albín goal was the difference on this occasion. By an aggregate lead of three goals to one, Getafe stormed into the quarter-finals, exuberant at the opportunity to lock horns with their latest rivals, one of the titans of European football, Bayern Munich.

On the evening of 3 April 2008, Getafe lined up alongside Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena. Peering down from the stands to see Oliver Kahn, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Franck Ribéry, poised among an assortment of stars standing opposite their beloved Azulones, few places on earth could have made the Getafense feel further from home, or further from the lower reaches of Spanish football they had come to know so well just a decade before.

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When, on 26 minutes, a Luca Toni header flashed past Óscar Ustari to give the Bavarians an early lead, many in and out of Bayern black believed the remainder of the game, and the wider tie itself, would become a formality. Yet both goal-lines remained untroubled until the 90th minute, when, incredibly, it was Bayern’s that was breached.

Flooding forward in search of an equalising away goal, Getafe attacked down the right wing. De la Red scooped a ball wide to Manu del Moral, who found himself swiftly set upon by goalkeeper Kahn and his chance smothered. But with the ball still alive, del Moral gave chase, denying the chance of a corner and instead lofting a curled cross back into the mixer.

Martín Demichelis obliged with a flicked clearance but his effort only found the edge of the area and there, alert, was Contra who feigned to shoot, chested the ball and, in the process, careered into the box, before dinking an effort over the once more onrushing Kahn and into the Bayern goal. Again, Getafe had a precious away goal to treasure and hopes of another hard-earned progression to make good on.

Given the score draw earned in Germany, the 0-0 with which Getafe’s home tie with Munich typically began would technically have seen them through should they have held it to the final whistle. Yet when the referee adjudged de la Red to have been acting as Getafe’s last defender, as he hauled down Miroslav Klose to halt a perilous attack just six minutes into the game, the red card sewed serious doubts throughout Getafe’s hopes for a clean sheet.

Remarkably, it was Getafe who stole the initiative and scored first on the night. When a Bayern attack fell foul to some slack passing, the ball was quickly cleared to the advancing Contra in the right-back position. With yards aplenty to gallop into, Contra just kept running and running and running, even when two Munich defenders attempted to halt his progress. Contra squeezed between them, continued into the area, before thumping the ball past a helpless Kahn. The 10-men of Getafe lead.

Tragically, that unlikely lead would remain with the Azulones until the 89th minute. Bringing down a long punt forward, Toni forced a panicked defensive header which only found Ribéry who in turn found the bottom corner of the Getafe goal with a smart volley from the area’s edge. The home side’s impatient whistles, sounded with the hope of beckoning an oh so distant full-time whistle closer to them, were immediately drowned out by a chorus of Bavarian cheer. Bayern were level.

The game ticked over into extra time and, once there, Getafe flew out of the traps. Two minutes into the added period, an in-field pass from Braulio afforded Casquero the opportunity to unleash one from distance – and unleash one he did. Free from backlift, straight and true, the ball thundered past Kahn, ending an expedited journey that began some 25 yards away, to give Getafe another shock lead.

All the more unbelievable, 90 seconds later, Getafe’s extra-time lead was a goal greater. A quick counter, swept into the area from the right, was cut out by Lúcio but an untimely slip allowed Braulio possession again. Deep inside the Bayern box, the forward swivelled and slammed his shot into the roof of the net. Getafe led 3-1 on the night.

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But, as the best of heavyweights do, Bayern dragged themselves back up off the mat. With five minutes left of an absorbing encounter, a lapse in concentration from Getafe goalkeeper Abbondanzieri allowed a routine catch to squirm free from his grasp. Ever alert, poacher Toni pounced and stabbed the ball into the net to dial the nervousness all the way up for the final few minutes.

Then, with all but 120 minutes elapsed, Toni struck again. As the kitchen sink and all were tossed into the box, with even Kahn making himself a nuisance, a back-post cross was received by the head of Toni. Nodded into the ground, the ball bounced, looped over Abbondanzieri and somehow ducked under the bar to make a new home for itself in the Getafe goal. With three away goals, and scarcely enough time left to kick-off, Bayern had done enough to flip the tie on its head and emerge victorious.

The Getafe players slumped to their knees. Laudrup shook the hand of his opposite number, Ottmar Hitzfeld, with a lump in his throat and regret stinging his eyes. In the most extraordinary circumstances, Getafe’s first European adventure was finished. In the following weeks, Bayern would progress no further than the UEFA Cup’s semi-finals, dumped out in unceremonious fashion by eventual winners Zenit Saint Petersburg.

Back on the domestic front, the heartache refused to relent for those in Getafe blue. The 2007/08 league campaign saw Getafe drop to 14th and though, incredibly, they endeavoured to reach a second consecutive Copa del Rey final, they arrived only to be bested by Valencia.

As difficult to swallow as these close-calls with excellence were, they were only made possible in light of the stunning journey the club had made from the humble origins they called home while merely dreaming of the kind of nights they’d suddenly made a habit of experiencing. If, to fans in 2008, these results were hard to take, to fans of 1998, they’d have been hard even to imagine.

Should present form persist until the end of this season, Getafe will undoubtedly find themselves back in the starting blocks come August, awaiting not only another treasured season in Spain’s top flight but anticipating a season unlike anything they’ve experienced before; inevitably made historic by a long-awaited and markedly deserved taste of Champions League football. 

For the region of Madrid, weeknights spent duelling with a litany of familiar footballing forces from across the continent is no new fad. In fact, far from merely making up its numbers, winning European football’s greatest competition has long since been viewed as an annual expectation by a selection of El Geta’s noisiest neighbours.

For the good folk of Getafe, though, even just a single ride of the rollercoaster will prove sufficient to keep them coming back for more for some years yet. After all, they’ve spent decades waiting patiently in line to be given a go and, should they finally be permitted to ride, they’ll certainly have had to earn their place in getting there and there’s not a chance they’ll do anything less than treasure every single moment once they’re there.

By Will Sharp @shillwarp

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