Something amazing happened on Saturday: Levante Unión Deportiva won a game of football. “How lovely! I’m very emotional. How lovely it is to win, to feel this again,” their captain, “commander” José Luis Morales, said when the longest wait ever was at last over, a little hope let in at 3.54pm on 8 January 2022. They hadn’t experienced this since 10 April 2021, eight weeks from the end of last season. They hadn’t experienced this at all. That day, Levante defeated Eibar 1-0. Since then, nine months and 27 matches passed, every team in primera: they didn’t beat any of them.
Twenty weeks into the season, 273 days later, this weekend at last they did. Officially the worst team in La Liga history – Sporting Gijón’s 24-game winless run from 1998 was surpassed a month ago – on Saturday afternoon Levante defeated Real Mallorca 2-0. “No, it’s not the Champions League, but it’s a first,” their coach said. It might still prove to be nothing, relegation a reality, only this moment will always be something. “The best gift The Three Kings could bring,” Morales called it, having recovered from Covid and come on to clinch victory.
If it had to happen sometime and it probably had to happen like this. At the end of a week in which furious fans waited for the bus, whistling them home from a 5-0 hammering in Villarreal; in which the manager, their third this season, admitted “I don’t know if we’ve hit rock bottom” but it felt like it, and the president said he would willingly walk, pleading with everyone not to “self-destruct”. At the end of a game where they were somehow still standing, their goalkeeper saving a penalty and their opponents having two goals disallowed, but still not safe until the very last kick which must become come the first.
Asked to sum it up, Soldado said: “Relief. Suffering. Need.”
Soldado had scored the opener just after half time, his first for the club he joined for €500,000. Roger Martí had then hit the bar. But Mallorca had pushed Levante back. Brian Oliván saw a penalty saved by Aitor Fernández, aided by a spot of what Morales called kirikocho or jinxing from afar. Fer Niño then had a goal ruled out for a handball spotted by the VAR and Takeshi Kubo had one taken away when he was ruled offside straight from a short corner. Now, Aitor said, Levante were “all hanging from the goal posts,” desperately holding on.
Until at last they could let go. The clock said 95.47 when Mallorca got a last corner, goalkeeper Leo Román up, only for Levante’s centre-back Róber Pier to clear it up the line, past another ball on the pitch, for Roger. Way over on the other wing, Levante’s subs and staff were on their feet waving frantically. Some pleaded for the whistle, others for Roger to run. Up the wing, anywhere, just out of there. The camera on them, poetry in pictures, they soon changed their minds: Roger had seen Morales sprinting alongside. With the clock on 96.35, he scored, all those months and all those defeats falling away as he pulled at the badge on his shirt.
Liberated, the rest set off down the touchline to join him. They were everywhere, impossible to keep count of them all, something almost biblical about the sudden, surreal glimpse of Shkodran Mustafi’s crutches raised somewhere in the stampede. This was the resurrection and in the corner they were roaring, the pile of people growing, fans tumbling down the terrace. Everywhere there were embraces, screams. Duarte lifted Morales like a trophy. Jorge Miramón was in tears. They had actually done it. A boy in the stands fell exhausted into his dad’s arms.
Standing alone on the touchline, Mallorca manager Luis García silently waited for the Levante coach to return from the corner to shake his hand and congratulate him.
His name is Alessio Lisci and he had done what more experienced and supposedly more qualified men could not, the first coach to win with Levante this season. He is younger than the man who had just scored the winner and looks it too. Born in Rome in late 1985, Lisci never played beyond the seventh tier in Italy and began coaching early. One day, he wrote to every club in Spain. Three replied: one fell through; Atlético Madrid offered him a job coaching seven-a-side; and Levante invited him over to work in the academy. That was over ten years ago. Now, at 36, he is the youngest coach in La Liga.
The 10th Italian to manage here, on some list with Sacchi, Capello, Ancelotti and the rest, his experience was a little different. At youth level, coaching is not well paid so Lisci worked as salesman for an Italian food importer, visiting restaurants in the providing parmesan, pasta and tomato. “That helps,” he says, “because when hard times come, you know you have been through harder ones.” He briefly departed when the coach he worked under with the Juvenil A (U19s) was sacked but was called back, able to continue thanks to the Leonardo Da Vinci programme.
Nicknamed the Conte of Buñol, Lisci is methodical, open, ambitious, dedicated to the point of admitting it damages your personal life. He coached the Alevin D (U12), Infantil E (U13), Infantil C (U14), Cadete B (U16), Juvenil B (U18), and was been assistant coach in the Juvenil A (U19). In December 2020, he was given the B team. A year later, he was announced as first team coach.
Unable to afford anyone else, Levante knew there were few other options but also that they could trust him; he knew that if an opportunity ever presented itself, it would be because things were bad but that there was something there somewhere. Paco López had taken charge of more games than anyone in the club’s history, he was Levante, yet was sacked after picking up four points in eight games. Javier Pereira left having picked up three in seven, the entire sporting directorate sacked with him: Manolo Salvador, David Navarro and Manu Farjado. Lisci came with good will – he is one of them, a club man in the middle of the crowd talking to angry fans last Monday – but on an impossible mission, or so it goes.
His first game was a 0-0 draw with Osasuna. That was followed by three losses in which they conceded 18 goals but on Saturday there he was, leading his players into a celebratory circle, a win finally secured nine months later, fans chanting: “Yes, we can!” “Thanks for your patience, thanks for your support, sorry for the delay,” Lisci tweeted.
“This is a day we deserved,” Morales said. As he ducked into the tunnel, Levante’s captain recorded a message, thanking the fans: “With you, we can do it,” he shouted. “Come on! Shit on the mother!” After the goal Lisci had embraced him, then stepped back to point at him. Asked afterwards what his manager had said, Morales replied: “That we’re going to get out of this.”
He has done it before. Last season, Lisci took over and lifted the B team to salvation. “And that was harder: that team was sunk,” he said. “What I went through last year helps a lot this year”. There is a plan too, he told Cadena Ser: forget every game is a final, it’s about short and mid-term targets, achievable objectives.
Levante remain bottom, three points off Cádiz, five behind Elche, six behind Alavés and safety. Getafe are seven in front, Mallorca nine. Lisci knows his defence is a mess, that his best players are two or three years past their best, that there is no money and that relegation remains likely. But least it’s not a certainty any more. After Villarreal, Lisci insisted “this is not our league”, but this is: Mallorca was the first of a three-game relegation run followed by Cádiz and Getafe, and they won. That, he insists, changes everything, bringing hope, unity, a shared cause. “This has to be the start of something,” Aitor said.
“It’s very hard: the players suffer it a lot, there’s tension, the team doesn’t let go,” Lisci admitted after Levante’s first La Liga win in 28 and his first ever. “But weeks ago, I said the first would come like this, with suffering. You’re not going to end the run with a 3-0. This is how I dreamed it and it’s good to win this way because there will be more games like this. Things change now. In the dressing room the players had another face, other thoughts. You can say I’m mad but this has cleared our minds. It’s hard but you can do it.” Ten months later, longer than any other club had ever taken, Levante finally did. Now they just have to do it all over again.