Do Aesthetics Matter? Levante and Alavés’ La Liga Relegation Answers a Persistent Question

New seasons lunge into action with vigour and excitement, and the old fade into antiquity; such is the speed of time in football. The finale of that past age was a year kneecapped by exhaustion visible in the legs and minds of players, even up to the eyes of the fans. There was barely time to close off the sentimental balance sheet before transfers invaded the news cycle—one that only finished on the 19th of June in Spain. 

Girona had just 54 days to make their plans after they found out they would take part in La Liga, having sneaked under the dropping steel door between the Primera and the Segunda. What was gained and what was lost? 

In La Liga’s case, the ascetic answer to the latter is Alavés, Granada, and Levante.

La Liga teams answer what's more important in football. The results or the aesthetics?
Art by Charbak Dipta

Those clubs and their fans came towards the end of their existential summer of introspection. Presidents fought through months of messy trial by opinion. In Granada’s case, that arrived after a shock—nobody really thought that the 2021 Europa League quarter-finalists would descend as rapidly as they rose. To suggest that the neutral fan in La Liga will mourn the loss of Alavés and Levante is a little hyperbolic, but there might be a fleeting pang of regret that Los Granotas are no longer in the first division.

It begs the question as to why exactly they might be missed but not the team that finished one place below them. For Alavés and Levante are both similar-sized clubs. The former arguably have a greater claim to a place in the minds of a neutral. El Glorioso have had an excellent 21st century, appearing in the UEFA Cup final in 2001 and then finishing as runners-up in the Copa del Rey as recently as 2016. 

Alavés call Mendizorroza home—that name glorious, too—and it’s one of the better atmospheres Spanish football can call on, certainly per capita. There’s a tight feel to it. The stars come so close that they are humanised—larger but also smaller in stature.

Tucked inland in the Basque Country between rolling green hills, Vitoria-Gasteiz is a pleasant surprise. The pace slows to a stroll as part of a preference rather than an imposition from the heat. Not that there is a large culture of travel amongst La Liga teams, but visiting Vitoria can be packaged to family and friends as a leisure trip with football on the side. It’s a charming place.

So why is there such a lack of feeling of loss compared to Levante? 

The Valencian side have been in La Liga since 2017, a year less than Alavés. In that time, Levante reached a historic Copa del Rey semi-final, and their highest finish was 12th. On average, Levante have ended the season 15th. 

As Levante returned to the division, Alavés secured 9th place, their highest within a six-year stay, and over the piece, they have averaged out closer to 14th than 15th. All in all, the difference between the two is marginal and any minute advantage belongs to the Basques. Yet it doesn’t feel that way.

By the end, the loss of Levante felt like the killing off of a spunky bit-part character that had endeared themselves to the audience. By the end, Alavés had a hard time endearing themselves even to their own fans—a banner held up in their final La Liga game reading: “Dedicated and committed support. Looking for a board, technical staff and players at their level.”

Such was the plight of the dedicated Alavés diehards that opposition fans met them not with the typical angst that accompanies two tribes eyeing eye each other but rather with a mixture of pity and sympathy—both genuine, which can only have served to increase the Alavés fans’ fury against the board. Noticias de Álava described their farewell to the players as “a mixture of timid applause, criticism, insults and whistles.” Aside from the above advert, another banner in the same game read: “Born to suffer, not to crawl.”

In no way were Levante a collection of heroes that fell short due to a cruel twist of fate. Their fans proved as much when they ambushed their players and manager Alessio Lisci following a 5-0 defeat against Villarreal in January, asking for their own answers. They had waited outside the training ground in the early hours of the morning for them to return. President Quico Catalán was forced to call a vote of confidence on his own future to let some of the tension out of the air; such was the discontent at their mismanagement. Critics were audible around Orriols long before it reached the national narrative.

By the time the post-mortem was being conducted, Catalán was almost in tears as he begged for forgiveness. That he had chosen three different managers to lead Levante before Christmas was symptomatic of a ship that had lost its compass. El Desmarque managed to list ten different reasons as to why it went so hopelessly awry, while Mundo Levante recounted the final months of the season as “the agony of an endless number of bad decisions, games and protagonists that will endure in the black books of Levante’s history.” No matter the exact quantity of problems, the sentence was the same.

Yet, on the whole, Levante added their own personality to La Liga. That spunky character was the everyman that managed to take on the aristocracy and won often enough to make it inspirational. They looked every team in the eye and dared to step forward wherever possible. In particular, during Paco López’s time at the club, they were never cowed by the fear of defeat. When the curtain did finally close on their La Liga spell, El Desmarque termed it “a glorious era.”


“I am here to remind the world that football is about skill, heart, honour, joy, team spirit,” a hairy Eric Cantona thundered into the Joga TV camera 15 years ago.

Claiming that Levante did all that might be allowing the narrator a little too much licence, but there were elements in Cantona’s dramatic monologue visible in Levante for several years.

Cantona’s Nike advert speaks of a joyous football relatable to every fan, but the following shots focus on the dizzying feet of Ronaldinho, of a lost Brazil, of Ronaldo Nazario. For a humble team like Levante, none of those things should have been possible.

Their record signing is a sturdy Serbian midfielder Nikola Vukčević, but they provided enough space for José Luis Morales to flourish. His story, making his professional debut at 27, was romantic in of itself. Few teams would have trusted him, but fewer trying to stave off relegation would have given Morales the creative freedom to weave defenders into knots. More than just a curious statistic, though, he became a renowned artist who brought paying customers to his exhibitions.

For the duration of Levante’s stay, any fan could tune into one of their encounters with La Liga’s big three and be assured that they would watch a match full of heart, skill, team spirit, and joy. In the last two seasons, Atlético Madrid failed to beat Levante, losing twice. Barcelona were beaten three times since Levante came back up in the 2017-18 season, and Levante were the only Spanish team capable of doing so. In 10 matches against Real Madrid, Levante won three and drew as many. This spell includes a historically good Atlético Madrid, a Lionel Messi-fired Barcelona, and five-time Champions League-winning Real Madrid. Levante dared to pit their wits against all of them.

Steering clear of moralising on the way football should be played, Levante employed a variety of styles and schemes during the last five seasons. Sweet, satisfying volleys became an art form practised at the Ciutat de Levante as often as they were anywhere else in the world. Patterns of play were neat and tidy; passes fell into place like dominoes. Paco López created a culture and setup that allowed fans to see just how talented their supposedly unheralded footballers were. Above all, Levante enjoyed having the ball. 

Any fan of theirs will tell you that, at points, it was a long way removed from beautiful too. There were times when they went to Atlético Madrid, champions of the underdogs, to defend with their guts and fight with their hearts. At tougher moments, being brave no longer meant daring passes; rather, it turned into risky challenges and nervously dangled legs in their own box. It was a more economical use of touches but an equally admirable show of moxie.

However, particularly for football’s more modest sides, when glory isn’t available in terms of titles and trophies, it arrives in the form of moments and memories. In Levante’s case, that was coming out on top of Barcelona in nine-goal thrillers and ripping Real Madrid apart on the counter.

For their partisan fans and neutrals alike, Levante made an indelible mark on La Liga over the last five years. They were a spicy and succulent part of the division, enriching Spanish football. 

In the most gruesome fashion, it went tragically wrong last season. Yet unlike this incarnation of Alavés, that team will be remembered. In terms of results, Alavés had the better of their fellow descenders. Who had the better time, though?

Levante are definitive proof, contrary to those that say otherwise, that aesthetics do matter. For the fans, at least, it’s not just a results business.