By Martyn Herman
PALMA, Mallorca (Reuters) – There were a few people pinching themselves after Real Mallorca’s unlikely 1-0 victory over Real Madrid on Saturday, none more so than matchwinner Lago Junior and American co-owner Robert Sarver.
Ivory Coast forward Lago Junior was one of two Mallorca players in Saturday’s line-up who experienced the crushing blow of relegation to the third tier of Spanish soccer in 2017.
That fall from grace left Sarver, owner of the Phoenix Suns NBA basketball team, wondering what he had got himself into by investing $20 million to buy Mallorca in January 2016.
Yet 18 months later Mallorca’s unsung heroes, put together on a shoestring budget compared with Real Madrid, produced one of the greatest nights witnessed at the Son Moix stadium.
Lago Junior’s sensational seventh-minute solo goal proved enough to clinch victory and encapsulated the old adage that you must face the lows to appreciate the highs.
“When things have gone badly (coach) Vicente Moreno has always had confidence in me,” said the 28-year-old, who has made more than 100 appearances for the club.
“That goal was for him and for believing in me.”
Like Lago Junior, defender Antonio Rahillo also suffered the ordeal of relegation to Segunda B before becoming a key part of back-to-back promotions. On Saturday he comfortably snuffed out the threat of Madrid’s 60 million euro ($67 million) summer signing Luka Jovic.
Nine of the Mallorca players that started on Saturday played in last season’s promotion season in Segunda Division.
Even in his wildest dreams Sarver could not have imagined when Mallorca slid into the Spanish football wilderness little two years ago that he would soon have a La Liga club on his hands, let alone a win over Real Madrid in front of a sell-out 20,000 crowd.
“The first game I went to see in Segunda B was in northern Spain and there were about 1,000 fans and there was a swimming pool next to the pitch, which the ball kept going in,” he told Reuters as the celebrations continued on Saturday.
“I was wondering what I had got myself into, where am I, what am I doing? But that’s part of sport. Adversity can make you tougher and stronger. Just to be playing against Real Madrid was pretty remarkable. But in sport anything can happen and tonight was anything.”
Maheta Molango, CEO since 2016 and the man who made the shrewd appointment of coach Moreno, said Saturday’s result should dispel any doubts that Mallorca deserve to be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid.
“It’s hard to believe 18 months ago we were playing against third division teams in our stadium,” lawyer Molango, a former professional with Brighton and Hove Albion, told Reuters from the club’s pitch-side VIP area on Saturday.
“At times (in the defeat here by Atletico Madrid) I thought it felt like we were asking for approval, or to be pardoned for being in the Primera Liga. But they deserve to be here.
“These types of wins give you the confidence that you can beat anyone.”
The key now, according to Moreno, is to maintain the momentum of successive wins that have taken Mallorca out of the relegation zone with 10 points from nine games.
“We have recorded two consecutive victories, which isn’t easy, and we have to try for a third. Next week’s game (at Leganes) is just as important.”
($1 = 0.8953 euros)
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by David Goodman)