“Yes, Barcelona are a great team – but could they do it on a wet, Tuesday night at Stoke?”
In England over the last couple of decades, most successful clubs and top-level players that hail from warmer climates will have been subjected to the above, now clichéd, argument from both supporters and pundits alike. Some of the players in question have arrived on our shores and blossomed, some have struggled to adapt; and although this season’s Manchester City team are close, we haven’t had a completely European-style team in the English game. This level of ambiguity has left the question open – can a truly continental-style team flourish in English football?
Putting this to the test are Deportivo Galicia. Sticking strictly to their principles on how to play the game, Deportivo have made their way to the Combined Counties Division 1 (Step 10 on the football pyramid) following last season’s victorious campaign in the Middlesex County Premier League.
On matchday at their home ground close to Heathrow Airport, I met with their manager Leo Decabo, General Secretary Rogelio Loureda, and centre-forward Anton Fernandez, to discover all about this Spanish football club moving through the English football system.
The foundation of the club may be older than you think. Following an influx of Spanish immigrants to the UK in the 1960s, a Galician social club was formed in London in 1968. Here the members could enjoy typical traditions from their north-western region of Spain such as dancing and, interestingly, bagpipes. Inevitably, a football team was put together in around 1972-73 and they entered the Harlesden Sunday League. As the seasons went on the team improved and in the early 1980s Deportivo Galicia won the treble in the Harlesden Sunday League top division.
Rogelio explained how this accomplishment was the catalyst to move the team to higher things;
“After this treble, we reached a point where we wanted to improve, to organise, and to progress to the next level. So, we applied for the Middlesex County League and entered the football pyramid”.
Deportivo Galicia then spent around thirty years working their way up through the divisions of the Middlesex County Leagues before being crowned Premier League winners last season. A fantastic achievement for any club, but for a unique side like Deportivo Galicia it’s all the more impressive.
Despite this relatively long time in English football, Deportivo Galicia’s identity has been kept fully intact with the squad still around 90% Spanish. However, the manager, Leo Decabo, explains to me that it’s the club’s principles that override which nation the players are from, and are the fundamental elements of the football team.
“I get a lot of requests to join the team and the most common question I get is ‘Do I have to be from Galicia?’. To which I reply, ‘Can you play football?”.
“We have, and have had, players from England, South America, Jamaica, all over; but we have a style of football that you’d probably describe as typically Spanish – on the floor, good football to watch. If you join the team and start punting it long you’re dropped, put in the reserves, and if you still don’t adapt to our way of playing then you’ll have to leave the club”.
The recent success of Spain’s national team and the ‘tiki-taka’ Barcelona sides have only strengthened Deportivo’s views on how they want to play the game. However, throughout the club’s existence, the question of adaptation has always been prevalent. Rogelio, who has been amongst Spanish football in the UK basically since the beginning, made clear that there had to be a degree of adaptation when Deportivo first entered English football.
“In the early days it was very hard, very aggressive, with lots of winding up because we were Spanish, and, of course, we had to adjust ourselves to play in these environments. England had just won the World Cup in 1966 and there was an arrogance about the other teams on how to play football. If we mentioned that Spain won the European Championships in 1964 then they would say that it didn’t count!”.
This first batch of Deportivo players gradually became accustomed to the physicality of English football but with every new player that arrives in the UK there is a period of adjustment. Indeed, current striker Anton Fernandez, whilst showing me a big wound his leg, was taken aback by the differences in the sport compared to back home in Spain.
“Look! This was apparently a foul by me!”
“Yes, football is very different in England compared with Spain – the tackles, but also the referee decisions. Sometimes it feels like I’m playing a completely different sport. But I’ve been here three years now and I’m definitely a better player – I protect the ball better and I’m stronger”.
Through years of experience, the Deportivo coaches are now well-versed in helping players acclimatise to England in a way that has no detriment to their continental style. With the players then still playing their natural game, the team plays to their strengths and therefore the club has done very well and gradually progressed through the leagues to where semi-professional sides play. This combination of success with style has, however, been met with cynicism from opposing managers. Coaches from slightly higher echelons of non-league football have tried to influence Deportivo’s head staff to change their ways, as Leo described;
“The other managers, year after year, they say to me ‘Eventually Leo, you’ll have to adapt’. To reach where we are now playing our style of football and to then just change it – it’s something I’ll never do”.
“But I’ll tell you, if we have to go through a tough period sticking to our principles then we’ll go through it – and if we come out the other side I think it will be very hard for anyone to be able to beat us”.
Cynical, and seemingly jealous, comments from other managers along with tough, ‘welcome to England’ type tackles from opposing players are possibly inevitable for a successful immigrant side not fully conforming to English football. Although unfortunately, throughout Deportivo’s history the line of what is acceptable has been crossed and the Deportivo players and staff have had to deal with abuse because they’re not English. Leo explained that even to this day it’s something Deportivo still have trouble with;
“It’s upsetting; we get ‘Spanish this, Spanish that’, recently it was ‘speak f***ing English’ directly to me from another manager. My challenge though is to just make sure my guys concentrate on their game”.
More positively, Rogelio did mention how it has drastically improved since they first started;
“People talk about racism now, but in the 1970s it was really bad. It was nasty sometimes, pure fighting; and what made things worse were the biased referees and committees. The early days were really tough in this regard, it’s so much better now”.
Deportivo Galicia’s hardiness in working through the darker days of racism in this country and the club’s unshakeable belief in the brand of football they want to play is admirable. From meeting key members of Deportivo, one gets the feeling that there is a robust, confident and level-headed character to the club.
Another characteristic is ambition. Talking me through the club’s 5-year plan, Leo explains that qualification for the FA Cup and securing good sponsors are the club’s main aims – with everyone at the club working towards ascendance to the next level.
“FA Cup qualification should have been granted for this season, one year ahead of schedule, but that’s another story, and therefore the target for this season is promotion.”
“One of the biggest challenges has been sponsors. We are by far the biggest Spanish community type organisation in the UK but the support from the Spanish businesses based here has, frankly, been embarrassing.”
Rogelio interjected, “Almost all the other teams in our league pay their players. Our players are here because they love the club but we need sponsors to progress”.
This desire for exposure and sponsorship is not only confined to the coaching and backroom staff. Indeed, two players went on a ‘missionary’ type escapade in search of sponsors. The players waited outside Chelsea and Arsenal’s training grounds and travelled to Spain for support from back home. The players’ efforts were rewarded with recognition from some of the world’s biggest footballing names. Fernando Torres, David De Gea, Juan Mata, Robert Pires and the UK-based journalist Guillem Balague are some of the names that have sent ‘good luck’ gifts, messages and now follow Deportivo Galicia on Twitter. Also, my visit aligned with the debut for Deportivo’s big new signing, the ex-Chelsea midfielder Enrique De Lucas who a member of the squad managed to get involved – which also brought some exposure.
These impressive endeavours show there is a real determination from everyone involved at Deportivo to grow and progress the club; as well as highlighting the true importance and difference a sponsor could make to this club and its members with an investment.
Overall, my visit to Deportivo Galicia was insightful, interesting and heart-warming. The history of the club, the adversity that they have come through and the strict footballing principles show that this is a tough, strong-willed, and open community club. I’ve watched Deportivo on two occasions now and the style of football is a breath of fresh air to what you are normally treated to in any English league – a testament to the quality of training that Leo and the other coaches, Jose Andon and Mick Hamaida put together for the players.
However more than purely the footballing element, Deportivo Galicia is a fantastic Spanish community for helping newcomers to the UK settle and integrate. As Anton put it “this is more than a club to me, it’s my family”, and Leo unashamedly admitting he felt like crying at that statement, I was left with a feeling of intense positivity about what football can do for people. I wish Deportivo Galicia all the best for the future, I am sure they will continue to flourish and also prove that, yes, continental football teams can do it on cold, rainy Tuesday nights in Blighty.