Two minutes before midnight on 23 August 2020, the full-time whistle sounded at Girona’s Estadi Montilivi. Just moments previously, Pere Milla had scored a stoppage-time winner to earn Elche a 1-0 aggregate victory in Spain’s promotion playoffs and the 20th place in the country’s top tier.
It was a moment for celebration for the Elche players, for the fans and for CEO Patricia Rodríguez, but the following morning it was time to get to work. There were just 33 days until the start of Elche’s 2020/21 LaLiga Santander campaign, and the club from Valencian Community had to build a squad capable of competing against the best in the game.
Fast forward to 23 October 2020 and, two months to the day of their promotion, Elche defeated regional giants Valencia 2-1 to make it ten points from their first five matches of the new season. It has been a shockingly positive start considering they started from the back of the grid in terms of expectations, budget and, most importantly, preparation time.
“Only a month after getting promoted on 23 August, we started the new season playing in LaLiga Santander, rendering our pre-season almost non-existent,” Patricia Rodríguez, who has been Elche CEO since summer 2019, explained in an exclusive interview with These Football Times.
“We have been very busy, working very hard during these weeks to add more than ten new players to the club. On transfer deadline day, on the bell, four players arrived to reinforce the team. We are happy with the players that we have in the squad. We consider that we have formed a practical, serious, intelligent and competitive team, managing the balance between the expected performance of the players on the pitch and the budget allowed to invest it.”
It’s never easy to turn a second-division squad into a first-division squad, but even more so when that original squad was built on what was barely a second-division budget in the first place. As Rodríguez outlined: “Last season, our budget was the lowest of LaLiga SmartBank if we discount the teams promoted from Segunda B. Of course, promotion to LaLiga Santander was not our initial objective for the season. The goal of the season, regarding the sporting side, was to avoid relegation.”
As we now know, Elche did far better than simply avoiding relegation. They finished sixth and burrowed their way through the playoffs – but just getting into the playoffs was as dramatic as Pere Milla’s last-minute winner in Girona because of what became known as “Fuenlagate”.
On 20 July, the final matchday of LaLiga SmartBank’s regular season was scheduled to take place. Elche went into that round in seventh, two points behind Fuenlabrada in the final playoff spot. Elche won their fixture against Real Oviedo 2-1, but Fuenlabrada’s didn’t even take place.
A coronavirus outbreak saw that match postponed and led to weeks of finger-pointing and legal ramblings, most of them from Fuenla’s opponents Deportivo, since they were relegated even before they could kick a Matchday 42 ball. Eventually, on 7 August, that match went ahead and Elche needed an already-relegated Depor to win. With a goal in the 95th minute, they did. A shock 2-1 win sent Elche to the playoffs.
But those three weeks had been tough, since Elche’s players had to postpone their holidays because of what was only a very slim chance of making the playoffs. “For weeks, we kept training just in case because that game had to be played in order to properly finish the regular season,” Rodríguez recalls. “It was very hard to keep the squad motivated in such an uncertain situation.”
A lot of the credit for keeping the players sharp must go to coach Pacheta, who then led his team to a second promotion in his three seasons at the Estadio Martínez Valero. It was a surprise, then, when his contract wasn’t renewed in the off-season and when Elche went out and hired the Argentine Jorge Almirón, a coach with no experience of working in European football, as his replacement.
“The decision was not easy,” Rodríguez admits. “We are aware that it was difficult to understand for our fans, but we have the responsibility to try to do our best planning of the season for the team. The performance of last season was extraordinary and we are very grateful for it.”
One of the criticisms made about this coaching switch was the fact that the new coach’s agent is Christian Bragarnik, the majority shareholder of Elche since last year. When These Football Times put this to Rodríguez, she responded: “I have no doubt that Jorge Almirón is our new coach on merit. He has a solid background. He guided Lanús to achieve their second league title ever and reached the 2017 Copa Libertadores finals.
“In addition, some Spanish teams like Las Palmas or Celta enquired about him at the end of 2017 and 2018. I think that he is performing a good job, motivating players in the culture of hard work.”
Given Elche’s league position five fixtures into their season, Almirón has certainly won people over. The sporting objective this season is simply to avoid relegation and, if the target for that is 40 points, then Elche are already a quarter of the way there.
But what about the off-the-field objectives? As Patricia outlined: “Since I arrived at the club, I have been preparing a strategic plan which we started developing last season. The first step was to overcome financial problems and difficulties and to complete the rebranding process of the club. Once this first step is completed, the roadmap continues for the next three years investing in long-term assets for the club.
“The three axis of the project, financial, sports and business areas, are defined around the long-term sustainability of the project in which internationalisation, the development of talent from other countries, innovation and disruption are key. The model that we are following is to build an investment project in which we will be focussing on the long-term sustainability of the club in all matters: stadium, squad and facilities.”
Internationalisation is an increasingly popular concept in football and Rodríguez understands why. “I am a strong supporter of internationalisation of clubs and I agree with the strategy of LaLiga in this field and the project launched called ‘LaLiga Global Network’. At Elche, at this moment, we are focused on Argentina, Mexico, Japan and Malaysia. In each of these countries, there is a special reason and specific strategy to make Elche known there.”
The financial problems alluded to were a concern for fans for a long time, as they even led to Elche’s fall from LaLiga Santander level five years ago. When Los Franjiverdes last played in the top division in 2014/15, they actually finished 13th on the pitch, only to be administratively demoted.
Even though this came several years before Rodríguez’s arrival, she outlined what happened then and explained the situation she inherited: “The club was relegated to the second division, in accordance with Spain’s sports law and LaLiga’s social statutes, because the former owner and management of the club did not attend the debts with tax authorities within the deadline established and did not negotiate deferring the payment or providing guarantees for the outstanding debt with the state tax collection body.
“The fans deserved to be in the first division, but sadly other factors prevented that and they had to go through that very hard moment. Now we are trying to give them back their excitement little by little.”
Curiously, the current CEO was very close to that 2015 demotion in her then-role as finance director of Eibar. The Basque side actually finished in the relegation zone in that 2014/15 season, but were granted a reprieve when Elche went down and, for some, this was fitting since the sustainable financial model that Rodríguez had overseen had been hailed as a Spanish football success story.
In 2016, she was promoted into Eibar’s top boardroom job to become one of the very few female CEOs in the sport. This season, Rodríguez is the only one in LaLiga Santander. How does that feel, then, and how important is it for the next generation of businesswomen to see someone like Rodríguez in LaLiga presidential boxes?
“Some stakeholders are underrepresented,” Rodríguez replied. “We need more women in the top leadership positions in sport. Less diverse boards lack multiple perspectives that promote sound decision making, problem solving and strategic planning. I consider it very important to show to the future generations that there are women in these positions because I always say that if we cannot see something then it does not exist. We need to explain to future generations that it is possible for a woman to be as a leader of sports organisation.”
Not only has Rodríguez made history within individual clubs, but she also became LaLiga’s vice-president for the second tier and the first woman to hold that role. With the club’s promotion, that was a short-lived experience but it was still a fulfilling one. “I was the vice-president during a short period because I was representing clubs from second division and, with Elche promoted to the first division, I cannot continue at the position,” she explained.
“It was a short and intensive experience. I worked representing my colleagues from other clubs of LaLiga SmartBank, defending their interests and keeping them updated about the strategy of LaLiga and changes coming from COVID-19 during this period.”
As confident as Rodríguez is nowadays in assuming important roles within football, it wasn’t always like this. She reflected: “[When promoted into the CEO role at Eibar], I was very happy but at the same time I felt I did not deserve it. I felt that I was not good enough for the promotion. At that time, even though I knew I was capable of doing the work, I was riddled with doubt. It was years later that I learned there was a term for what I felt: imposter syndrome.”
As recently as 2014, Rodríguez was still working in the financial sector with PwC, but left to take on the finance director role that year. So, six years, two clubs and one LaLiga vice-presidency later, are there any regrets? “It was a significant change when I made the transition from a large multinational to a company with a very small structure that was beginning to become professional. The challenge was as big as it was attractive. That’s why I decided to change.
“Now, without any shadow of doubt, I can say that it was a very good decision. I love challenges. I like being able to improve myself continuously and joining Eibar was an opportunity to start something new. It was a different job and that attracted me and that has permitted me to continue growing professionally.”
By Euan McTear @emctear