It’s the most unusual of football clubs, co-owned by thousands of people in hundreds of countries across the globe, but with one of the world’s richest men holding a controlling stake.
Those thousands of people and billionaire Carlos Slim had huge smiles on their faces this weekend. After 12 years in Spanish football’s third tier darkness, Real Oviedo stepped back into the light, winning promotion to the Segunda division.
The headline in Spain’s El Pais newspaper said it all: “Oviedo is reborn in the bay of Cadiz.”
The goal that defeated fellow play-off contenders Cadiz CF 2-1 on aggregate was prosaic in execution – a far post corner thumped in from close range by burly defender David Fernandez – but divine in significance.
The 30-year-old later told reporters that he had no idea how he’d done it.
“I only know that it was my head,” he said. “And that it was the most important goal I’ve ever scored in my life.”
The Real Oviedo supporters crammed in the corner of Cadiz’s stadium erupted in delirious celebration. The blissfully partial commentators on Asturias radio indulged themselves, finding a hundred ways to almost sob the word “goal!” as their emotions ran riot.
Around the world, another group of interested observers, watching or listening via streams on their laptops or smart phones, were doubtless jumping around their living rooms.
Because what makes this club so different, and why a Spanish third division play-off game is of global interest, is that Real Oviedo has become so much more than a Spanish club.
On the brink of liquidation two years ago, it issued a share offer that eventually saw more than 30,000 people in 190 countries become co-owners.
Central to this story is the Madrid-based British journalist Sid Lowe, who kick started the successful campaign to save the stricken club.
Unable to attend either playoff leg, he was watching at home.
‘The impossible step’
“My personal reaction was, bloody hell, it’s actually going to happen,” Lowe told CNN.
“Néstor Susaeta, who took the corner that led to the goal, summed it up very well when he said ‘in a way this is even bigger than getting promoted to the first division, because this is the impossible step’.
“And it’s true, getting out of the third tier, because of the way it’s structured, was almost the hardest thing to do.”
Having freed themselves from their lower league prison, Oviedo now faces a further tie against Gimnastic de Tarragona to determine whether the side is the champion or runner up.
But the important work is done; promotion is in the bag.
“I’m sure they’ll all say the right things, that it really matters, but really and truly it doesn’t. It’s a nice way of having another celebration thrown in, though. For me it will be nice to actually be able to attend, but the result doesn’t really matter.”
Lowe is, understandably, feted in Oviedo. He will never need to buy another drink in the city again.
“It’s bizarre. In fact on some levels it’s slightly uncomfortable in a way,” he admits. “But people are extremely nice to me.”
He has no formal role at the club.
“I was never officially part of the club, and never aspired to be either. It was never really the intention, and since then I’ve never really had a role; but everybody, the people who know me at the club of course, are fantastically nice to me all the time.”
The other key figure in the story is Slim, the Mexican businessman who Forbes describes as “one of the three richest men in the world.”
Slim bought a controlling interest in Real Oviedo at the original share offer. Lowe has been impressed by the way the billionaire has looked after his investment.
“I think the really important thing this year is the sense of everyone being involved, and the momentum building. An important factor in this has been the fact that the Carsa Group, Carlos Slim’s company, has really led it this time.”
Slim’s purchase, added to the vibrant mix of shareholders in places from Argentina to Nepal, has given the club an enormous sense of stability, but the Mexican has also changed the way the once failing club is run.
“It’s not that they bought their shares and disappeared,” says Lowe. “Over the last 18 months or so their involvement has been really big. The long term future, if the Carsa Group gets properly involved, is very bright indeed.
“There’s investment behind it, but the club is becoming professionalized, and better organized, and that’s brought with it a real sense of momentum.”
Lowe has also been delighted by the way the character of the club has evolved, wrapping itself in its patchwork quilt of international owners and changing its outlook as a result. The fans themselves have been integral to this.
“Oviedo fans have really embraced the shareholders from around the world. A lot of international fans travel there and go to games and they get really looked after.
“There’s a real sense of ‘we’re better for you being here,’ ‘we’re a bigger and better club and a more enjoyable club with a new identity because of you.’
“Having encouraged people to get involved, it’s really gratifying for me that they have truly become involved.”
Matias García Fernández from the Real Oviedo Supporters’ Trust says more than 600 international shareholders have so far made the pilgrimage.
They have travelled from the U.S, Britain, Australia, Russia, Singapore, China, Germany, Japan, Mexico and more. The trust’s Twitter account has gathered 8,500 followers since the share issue.
On Sunday, as thousands of Real Oviedo fans thronged to the city’s centre, dancing in fountains dyed blue and honking the horns of flag-draped cars, thoughts also turned to next season.
“I think they will buy, and there will be changes in the team,” Lowe told CNN. “But I’m not convinced there’s a big gulf in class. Even if they made no changes at all they would probably survive.”
Part of Real Oviedo’s appeal to international fans is its history of creating top players.
Manchester United’s Juan Mata, Arsenal’s Santi Cazorla, and Swansea City’s Michu – who has been on loan at Napoli this season – all came through the club’s youth system.
All three have continued to identify themselves with the club, and Lowe says all three have bought “very significant” numbers of shares.
“I can imagine playing again with Real Oviedo,” Mata told a local radio station this week. “One always thinks: ‘I hope everyone can meet there.’”
“Of course, this is in the back of everyone’s minds, to have Mata, Cazorla and Michu back at the club,” Lowe told CNN. “In professional terms I can understand why they might not want to. I certainly wouldn’t rule it out; it would be great if they did.”
If Oviedo can take that final step to Spain’s Primera division next year, then this most romantic of football stories could well have the ultimate fairy tale ending.
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