The devout club football fan is one who appreciates the players who only ever wear their shirt. Who rise through the ranks of the youth teams to fight their way into the first team roster, proving many of their own cynical fans wrong. In theory every club has this prototype player, to greater or lesser extent. We are nurtured on the idea that each club has its own unique philosophy. Not just a philosophy of style of play (as perhaps not all do), but a more all-encompassing cultural philosophy of virtues, values and humanity, that only those who are of pure roots can ever fully embody.
The great clubs have their club symbol, much like an insignia of the club itself, a hometown hero. What Steven Gerrard is to Liverpool, what Xavi Hernández is to Barcelona, what Raúl or Casillas is to Real Madrid, what Sergio Ballesteros is to Levante UD. Behind them in the ranks are the aspirants to the throne, or the captaincy, the canteranos, each arising in a burst of new hope, anxiety and speculation. Can the latest call-up stick to more than just the practice squad? Football is an ever evolving darwinian ecosystem, where 1 out of tens of thousands battles for years to earn the right to be the standard-bearer for their club. They are legends in the most medieval sense of the word.
At Levante, the current standard-bearer is without a doubt, Sergio Ballesteros. A former canterano, who left to taste European glory with Tenerife, Mallorca and Villarreal and who returned to lift Levante in its 100th year to a historic promotion. Juanfran took a similar road, his tears of pure sentiment after a 3-2 come from behind win against Espanyol the truest indicator of what Levante means to him. Vicente Iborra seems poised to succeed both in the not too distant future as both captain and standard-bearer of Levante if he so desires, himself a true embodiment of Levante values: humility, work ethic and discipline.
However, perhaps more rare even than the 1-club man, the club standard bearer, is that rare breed of player who can come to a club from another part of the world and not only win the hearts of the fans, but more importantly become an embodiment of the club itself and the fans in the way the standard bearer does. A non-homegrown leader, who seemingly still carries the club in his DNA. Simply put, if Levante could be embodied into one sole football player in terms of trajectory, size, personality and sheer fight, it would be Juanlu.
At the start of the 2008-2009, Levante, a storied and historic club in Spanish football, was on the verge of disappearing all together. Levante had hit rock bottom. Fans were disillusioned, the club was bankrupt and there literally was no team. Preseason started with 6 players training.
The same season, Juanlu, once a goal scorer for an Osasuna side that competed in Champions qualifying, was on the verge of disappearing from professional football and becoming yet another irrelevant reject who never quite made it. He went the entire season without playing a single minute for Betis, a club that had signed him to a four year deal and after several loans, left him for dead. He was not even training with the first team, but rather the fourth division B team. They made a mockery of him.
At the start of the 2009-10 campaign, Juanlu joined with Levante, and the roads of the two continued similar trajectories. In that season, Juanlu, and Levante, were reborn. Since that magic season, Juanlu has come to be almost a metaphor for the club itself.
In terms of size, Juanlu stands small in stature, just as Levante is known as a “little” club. Both have been belittled and overlooked on account of their size. His personality very much represents the happy go lucky, relentlessly positive and insurmountable spirit of Levante. He can make even the most stern faced fans laugh themselves to tears. Whether its advising fans to put him in their fantasy roster, calling for David Beckham to become a shareholder for Levante, instead of Málaga as has been rumored, or when warning Segunda foes that when they went up against Levante, they were going up against the big *expletive for human excrement*.
In the author’s personal experience, Juanlu can make light of any situation, much as Levante have done over the last 103 years, find the light that keeps you moving forward, even after failing time and time again. When injured last season, Juanlu told me that I had come all the way from the United States to Valencia, only to miss the chance to see “the best player”. A missed opportunity for which I hope to make amends later this season.
In terms of footballing ability, Juanlu might not look like much to the casual spectator, who makes the same miscalculation some rivals make when they face Levante: underestimation. His quickness and foot skills, even at 32, are surprising, his wisdom on the field and desire to do whatever it takes to win, even if that means taking one of Di Maria’s elbows to his face. Metaphorically and figuratively, Juanlu has done it all for Levante.
His 1-0 goal against Castellón pushed Levante to a 3-1 win to guarantee promotion to first division in 2010. His lone strike in Sevilla against the club that dashed his dreams, Betis, vaulted Levante to a virtual tie with Barcelona for first place in the 6th round of La Liga in 2011. One round later a 1-0 volleyed strike against Villarreal put Levante alone atop the table of La Liga, with 7 games played, a historic feat.
Not even a devastating, long-term injury could do away with Juanlu, just as time nor tragedy have done away with Levante. Juanlu recovered and became Levante’s first European goal-scorer just a few weeks ago in a historic first european 0-2 win for Levante against Motherwell FC in Scotland.
At the end of the day, it seemed fitting. Newer arrivals El Zhar, Gekas and Ángel will net their goals this season and work their way into the hearts of fans in the future, but a goal so important to fans could only be scored by someone so intrinsically representative of the club and the hearts he fights for when he wears the Levante shirt. Juanlu, you may not be a Levante canterano, not even a native of the Valencian region, but somehow you have entered a place in our hearts where only the most loyal and true have before. Here’s to you Juanlu, Billy the Kid, El Señor Cagazo, the comedian, the welterweight champion, the friend and the little engine that could.
Sempre AMUNT LLEVANT
-Dean Burrier Sanchis – website