“It would be a national disaster if Recre disappears. Because if it can happen to El Decano, it can happen to anyone.”
A decade is a long time in football. In December 2006, Recreativo de Huelva enjoyed one of the greatest moments in their history with a 3-0 win at Real Madrid.
The Bernabeu was stunned into silence as Spain’s oldest football club produced one of the biggest shocks in La Liga history.
The Spanish press called it a “humiliation.” It was inconceivable that Real Madrid’s Galacticos, featuring David Beckham, Robinho and Ronaldo, could suffer such a humbling defeat by the Andalusian side, newly promoted to Spain’s Primera Division after three seasons out.
But now Recreativo is languishing in the country’s third division and 126 years of footballing history is being threatened with extinction.
“This is precisely where football entered Spain. This makes us very proud,” says Jose Antonio Cabrera, president of Recre’s supporters’ organisations – the man who talks of a national disaster.
Spain’s oldest football team was founded in 1889, when two Brits formed a club for overseas workers in the Rio Tinto mines. It’s a story well known in Huelva and one that has put the small port city, with a population of just 150,000, on the map.
A bust of Recre’s first president, Charles Adams, stands to remind those that pass of Huelva’s heritage. Football is more than just a game here.
“Recreativo de Huelva passes from grandfathers to fathers, from fathers to sons,” said Cabrera. “When we go to watch the team play we remember our grandfathers and great-grandfathers. We are the inheritors of the 1889 spirit.”
A year before Recre’s famous victory at the Bernabeu, Antonio Nuñez watched from the bench, an unused substitute, as his Liverpool side came back from 3-0 down to win the Champions League final against AC Milan.
Now the veteran Recre midfielder is very much a part of the comeback as his club fight for survival. And though they were born two centuries ago, Recre’s problems are very modern.
“We owe around 20m euros, mostly in taxes,” he tells me. “Two years ago the tax office blocked all the money coming into the club. That’s why we are not receiving our wages and that’s why we can’t sign any new players. We currently have just 14 players in the first team and we are playing with our kids from the second team.”
A team once owned by the town hall is now under private ownership.
“The situation is really difficult for all the employees of the club, because we haven’t been paid for eight months,” added 37-year-old Nunez.
“These are people with families, who need to pay their rent. We are just fighting trying to save the team.”
Recre now pulls in crowds of around 5,000 members on matchdays. Not bad for a third tier team perhaps, but it barely covers the bills.
“We are surviving just with the money that comes from the ticket sales. We just use it for the most basic things; paying the referees and paying for the bus and hotels for away games. These are the two things we have to pay otherwise we can’t play anymore,” added Nunez.
The fans are desperate for change at the top. A march last October saw more than 10,000 protesters, including former players, musicians and even the city’s mayor. They took to the streets of Huelva to demand that the club’s owner, Pablo Comas, and majority shareholder Gildoy España, sell up and leave.
Since then the financial situation has reached breaking point, with staff fundraising for medical supplies and kick off times being moved to earlier in the day to save on the electricity costs of stadium lighting.
And matters on the pitch are just as bad. “We know we are carrying the weight of this club’s history on our shoulders,” admits manager Alejandro Ceballos.
With the club dangerously close to relegation, Ceballos is fighting to keep his team focused on on-field matters.
“This club can’t die. We are already in Segunda B, which is already bad in a sporting sense but mainly bad in an economic sense. If this club falls down another division again, it would be an inferno,” said the 51-year-old.
When the Recre’s owners turned down an offer to sell the club last week, its employees took drastic action.
An S.O.S. was sent by the employees ahead of Saturday’s home match against Granada B, urging fans to show Recreativo “united and fighting for their colours”. They wanted the Estadio Nuevo Colombino filled to its 21,000 capacity, not just to raise money but in protest at the current situation. Tickets were priced at a symbolic one euro for what they warned could be El Decano’s last game.
The match sold out in 24 hours and the rallying call was heard throughout the country.
Local buses offered free rides towards the stadium and taxis gave discount fares ahead of kick off. The club received messages of support from almost every club in the Spain’s top two divisions.
A protest in the street ahead of kick off saw thousands of fans chanting “Recre” in unison, with flags, banners and flares. They had come not just from Andalusia, but from all over Spain. I spoke to Atletico Madrid, Sevilla and Cordoba fans who all told me the same thing.
The Nuevo Colombino stadium was full for the first time in recent history and Ruben Mesa’s winning goal after a hard fought 90 minutes served as a reminder of Huelva’s fighting spirit.
“We saw a great example of that,” said Ceballos. “Not just from the fans and the city of Huelva, but from all over the country, with so many messages of support for Spain’s oldest club. This helped us to fight until the end.”
Recre desperately needs to avoid relegation and find new investment otherwise 126 years of history could yet be lost but the huge turnout for the game means its long story has at least another chapter.
But will Recreativo de Huelva survive long term?
“I think so,” said a hopeful Nuñez. “This week I probably think so even more. Because seeing how everybody came to fill the stadium, seeing so many people helping us, I think there is no way this will disappear.”