Álvaro Cervera had the look. He also had the T-shirts, the slogan and even the sign, a symbol all of his own. Not for him a bat beamed across the sky but a pair of stylised yellow specs, like some sort of short-sighted superman. Which he kind of was and always will be now, even for those who accepted it was time to let go: a cult figure in Cádiz, city of carnival and comedy. This great counter-cultural anti-hero who changed them and let them change him too, if maybe not quite enough in the end. ‘Mr Glasses’, Salvi Sánchez called him.
Salvi knew what he had done, they all did. Born in the province, across the bay in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Salvi had been at Cádiz when Cervera turned up as an unknown and unlikely coach in April 2016 and he was still there when he left last week, sacked after six years and bidding farewell to appreciative applause. Back then, Cádiz were in the Second Division B, Spain’s 80-team, regionalised, third-to-seventh division, and on the edge of the abyss; by the time he had gone, they had been promoted twice and were a top-flight team, having returned at last in 2020.
Cervera always insisted he wouldn’t be remembered like Mágico González, the forward they were as fond of for sleeping in and sitting on the beach strumming his guitar as for scoring goals. In a place with a reputation for silliness and fun, where the football team supposedly fit that ideal too and fans pride themselves on being a little different, blowing kisses rather than hurling insults at opponents, he was unapologetically practical, a defensive coach who celebrated being more boring than bohemian, a prophet of parking the bus.
He was also wrong, as it turned out. Even when his superpowers waned, Cervera’s popularity didn’t. He had taken Cádiz back to the first division after 15 years. Within three months, they had beaten Athletic, Madrid and Barcelona, the three teams who have only ever been there. He is, the club’s president said, the best manager in their history, the achievement too huge and the gratitude too great to get hung up on aesthetics. On the pitch anyway. Because if there was a sort of joy taken in being so bloody-minded, something almost funny about the way they socked it to the man, off the pitch there was something about him too.
When he turned up in bright yellow glasses, Cádiz colours, it worked somehow. Something in how the city reached him reached them. Even in his style there was a straight-talking humility that hit home. When he used the phrase “fight is non-negotiable”, it got printed on T-shirts that soon sold out. One fan called his house that – and found Cervera popping in to say hello. He was the club, breaking down in tears when they returned to primera. Everyone knew this wasn’t easy and hadn’t been easy on him. They also kind of knew they shouldn’t really be there.
The problem was, they weren’t likely to be there much longer. Last year Cádiz survived surprisingly comfortably but the second season was always likely to be harder. Their enemies had got wise to them, which didn’t take much. “It worked last year, but teams watch a lot of videos,” said striker Álvaro Negredo. Their signings have not had a particularly significant impact. Beaten 2-0 at Osasuna, Cádiz ended week 20 second bottom, three points from safety. They hadn’t won in nine games and had only two wins all season. Something was broken, between president and coach particularly, while defender Juan Cala understandably sounded like a man who feared they had already given up, relegation inevitable now. Talking of the need to “swim and swim, even if we die on the shore”, “to pull together, even if the boat is sinking”, he insisted: “No one escapes the fire.”
Not even Cervera, and he knew that better than anyone. “We won’t survive like this,” he said after the Osasuna game, “salvation is possible but a lot has to change, and you could think of me in that too.” The following day he was sacked. The day after, Sergio Fernández was introduced as his replacement, arriving on a mission to keep them in the division. On a mission to give them the ball back too.
It wasn’t just that results were bad; it was that even good ones might no longer be enough. When they drew 0-0 at Madrid recently, it was described by full-back Carlos Akapo as pure Cervera. But while that felt good, it was still only a point at a time when they need wins, and only lasted seven days. The style that had served them started to divide not bind. When he was sacked, Alex Fernández was one of many players calling him “a father”, but the fun had gone.
Cervera, though, clung even tighter to the way they were, doubling down on his discourse to the point where it felt deliberate. Asked if Cervera had been “asking to be sacked”, the president said no, but there was something in how he spoke that seemed that way. He talked about how the more they tried to do, the worse they were, how he didn’t want the ball. There had been a perverse pleasure in that message before; now, it sounded like a self-parody. At times, the tone felt taunting, challenging. For players, it didn’t exactly feel like faith in them. The weight grew. “We’re a long way from our target and there’s a sadness about the team,” the president Vizcaíno said.
Which is why Cervera was sitting there behind a picture of his specs and his hashtag – #LLNSN, fight is non-negotiable – last week, a shirt listing his achievements alongside him. “Gracias Álvaro” was written across the shoulders, the glasses symbol beneath. “I never imagined that I would come here at 50 and find a place that would change me so much,” he said, “but now I have a family that is waiting for me.” He closed by reciting a line from the club’s unofficial anthem, a pasodoble from the 1998 carnival called Me Han Dicho Que El Amarillo. “Long live Cádiz, long live cadistas, long live their bollocks!” he said, slapping the desk and standing to leave for the last time.
Fans were furious, audible outside the ground. A banner declared Cervera the best manager in their history and they were sure the blame lay with Vizcaíno instead. A week on, at Cádiz’s first league game under Sergio against his former club Espanyol on Tuesday night, some called for the president to resign and chanted Cervera’s name.
They owed him so much, after all. And it wasn’t like things were getting better, at least to begin with. Cádiz timid, inhibited, second to every ball: a team that looked beyond help. Espanyol were one-up and should have ended it. But at half-time, something shifted. “We had nothing to lose,” Negredo said afterwards. “Sergio told us to take the ‘rucksack’ off our shoulders, that we have to enjoy this.” Cádiz took control and took the ball. Negredo scored an equaliser and had two ruled out by VAR – “it’s been a long time since I had so many chances,” he said – and around the ground something shifted, a hint of hope, and then a chant. “Yes, we can,” it ran.
They almost could too. In the 91st minute, Iván Alejo escaped up the right, and slipped a superb finish through Diego López’s legs to put them ahead. The place went wild, and no wonder: they had not been in a position like this for as long as anyone could remember, on the verge of a first home win of the season to take them within a point of salvation. Hope reappeared. All they had to do was hang on, defend one last throw of the dice and the ball, and they could experience something they hadn’t experienced for too long.
The throw was taken on 94.58, the ball hit their net on 95.02, Raúl de Tomas heading in and skidding to his knees in celebration while Cádiz’s players fell to theirs. “It hurts,” Sergio said. It wasn’t just the points, how they were caught or that Cádiz had not won at home all season, or since the ground’s name had been forcibly changed from the Carranza to the Nuevo Mirandilla, a curse that needed lifting. It was worse: when at last Cervera had brought Cádiz back, they did so without their supporters; when the supporters came back, the team stopped winning. The fans had not been there to see a first division win since May 2006.
It’s been 5,726 days. Playing like this, it won’t be much longer. They will get another chance. Cervera won’t, the best coach in Cádiz’s history bringing them back but unable to share that particular pleasure with the people who made him one of their own, an anti-hero in yellow specs.