UD Ibiza and their accelerated rise up the divisions

Words By Euan McTear Illustrated by Philippe Fenner
August 30, 2018
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“Can you imagine a team from Ibiza in the first division?” said Amadeo Salvo, the man who did. It was the summer of 2015 and Salvo had just left his position as president of Valencia CF, so was looking for a new venture, something a little different. And what could be more different than trying to bring LaLiga football to one of the most famous islands in the world for the very first time?

“I am passionate about this island, which I first came to when I was about 16 or 17,” the former Valencia president explained in an interview with the Periódico de Ibiza y Formentera, adding that he considers Ibiza one of the strongest brands in the world. “I always felt that Ibiza was a football island. Lots of football-related deals are done here and many footballers, presidents, agents and UEFA or FIFA-related people come here. We could have invested in other clubs from the mainland who were in the second division and, therefore, have been a part of professional football immediately, but the most important thing isn’t the destination, it’s the journey.”

Just three years into the project, Salvo can already say that the journey has been a true thrill. In 2015, UD Ibiza was an extinct club. Now, two promotions later, they are competing in the Segunda B division, one tier away from professional football. It’s been quite a ride already, and the beat hasn’t even dropped yet.

To get his project off the ground, Salvo and his family, who own tech firm PowerElectronics, paid the €70,000 debt of Unión Deportiva Ibiza-Eivissa, which had gone bust in 2010. This meant that Salvo could resuscitate the club and begin competing straight away in the 2015/16 season, rather than having to wait until the following campaign, which is what he’d have had to do had he tried to build a new club from scratch, given the time it would have taken to acquire the appropriate accreditation and licence.

So UD Ibiza-Eivissa, more commonly referred to as simply UD Ibiza, competed in the Regional Preferente division in 2015/16, in the fifth tier of Spanish football. With Juan Ibáñez Barrué, a coach with experience in the third tier, including with the previous incarnation of UD Ibiza, they did well in their maiden season and finished second in their group, behind Ciudad de Ibiza, a neighbouring club on the island.

The next year, under new coach David Porras, who even had second division experience on his CV, they topped the group and won promotion to the Tercera, the 364-team third division, made up of 18 different regional groups. There was, though, a fear that they’d won promotion too quickly, as the rules state that a club must have competed in the regional divisions for at least two years before being allowed to enter the Tercera. UD Ibiza had indeed completed two regional seasons, but CD Santanyí – who had lost out on promotion to the newbies – alleged that UD Ibiza had signed up to the Balearic Sporting Entities Register after the beginning of their first competitive season and that they had not, therefore, been in competitive existence for a full two years. The local federation, though, sided with the Ibicencos.

Now a Tercera club, their next strategic move was to join forces with Ciudad de Ibiza. Although the failure to meet a deadline meant this couldn’t be an official union in time for the 2017/18 season, the two clubs promised to work together for the greater good, overnight becoming a more powerful entity than CD Ibiza, the other main rival on the island, while retaining the UD Ibiza name.

Starting the 2017/18 season under Toni Amor and finishing it under Rufete, the former general sporting manager at Valencia who is a close friend of Salvo, UD Ibiza went to the play-offs in their first season in the Tercera and they were just one kick of a ball away from promotion.

They met Levante’s B team in the final round and, after both legs finished with 1-0 victories for the home team, the tie went to penalties at Levante’s training centre in Buñol on June 24th of this year. With three penalties taken each, the islanders led 3-1 and would have won had they scored either of their remaining two spot kicks or had the last two Levante youngsters missed theirs. But two cool finishes from the hosts and two overhit strikes from the visitors saw the shootout levelled at 3-3, at which point Levante’s reserves won promotion in sudden death.

It was a devastating setback to the project and there were concerns over how serious Salvo was now that an extra season, or more, would have to be spent in Spanish football’s fourth tier. But then, this tale took another fascinating turn.

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In recent years the Spanish FA and the league have taken an increasingly tough stance on financial mismanagement, most famously demoting Elche from LaLiga in 2015 for failing to pay players on time. Lorca FC found themselves in a similar predicament this past summer. They were told that they had to pay a debt of €482,831 and 58 cents or else they’d have to give up their place in the Segunda B and play in the Tercera division in 2018/19. Unable to conjure up that kind of money, that’s what the directors at the Murcian club had to do, which meant there was a berth in the third tier up for grabs.

Having come so close, to the point of literally being one successful penalty out of four away from the Segunda B, UD Ibiza were the prime candidate for Lorca’s place. That’s what the island club believed and, fortunately for them, that’s what the Spanish FA thought too. “Of those to apply, UD Ibiza is the club with the greatest right to occupy the Segunda B place left vacant by Lorca FC in the upcoming season,” the Spanish FA said in a statement on August 7th. With 101 points to their name from the 2017/18 season – 88 from the regular season and 13 from the promotion phase – they had more points than any other applicant and were administratively promoted as soon as they could pay off Lorca’s debt, which they did that very afternoon.

This meant that, just three years into a project that Salvo had promised to stick with for 10 to 12 years, UD Ibiza were already in the Segunda B division, the highest level of football that the previous incarnation of the club had ever achieved in its 60 years of existence between 1950 and 2010.

In their first weekend at this altitude-sickening height of Spanish football, they visited Sevilla’s B team, who had competed in the second division last season and who are one of the very strongest outfits in UD Ibiza’s Segunda B Group 4. In what was a shock to many, new coach Antonio Méndez – another fairly high-profile appointment with second-tier experience – got off to a winning start, as Miguel Núñez’s goal proved to be the only one of the game, earning the team from the island a 1-0 victory.

While it remains a huge ask for these players to achieve a third promotion in four years, the progress in undeniable and it is encouraging that those in charge at the club are prepared to take the long path to the top if necessary. “I thought that Ibiza had great potential, as long as the project was one like the one we are doing, a long-term and not immediate one,” Salvo explained to the Periódico de Ibiza y Formentera. “Money doesn’t guarantee success in football, but investment does ensure stability.”

Those in charge also seem keen to grow the fanbase at the same rate as they’re picking up points on the football pitch. They play at the 4,500-capacity Estadi Municipal de Can Misses, a stadium which wouldn’t be too much smaller than some of the LaLiga grounds currently in use in Eibar, Huesca and Leganés, but which might still be tough to fill at this stage. For that reason, season tickets this season start at just €75, less than one night out in San Antonio might cost you. Last year they had 1,300 season ticket holders, 800 to 900 of which are from Ibiza. President Salvo believes they’d attract even more fans if there were more flights available in the evenings, because the lack of late flights forces games to be held much earlier in the day at a more fan-unfriendly time.

But UD Ibiza are working on their attendances, and on everything else. They are trying to keep the locals happy and at the same time appeal to the international market, aware that Ibiza is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe. As part of this push, they have created an English-language Twitter account, at a time when some top-flight teams still lack one.

The story of UD Ibiza’s accelerated rise up the divisions might just be getting started. LaLiga football could one day be played not just in the United States, but also on the Balearic island. LaLiga football from ‘Miami 2 Ibiza’, as Swedish House Mafia would say.

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