LLEIDA, Spain — Not long ago, when Spain began lockdown, coronavirus cases were skyrocketing and the crisis was getting worse by the day, a not-so-well-known footballer, responsible for a small team, featured in the third League plays, a video available on Twitter to work for any health center or hospital that needed him. It wasn’t an empty gesture for the likes: He doesn’t have Twitter and not only immediately started messaging friends and begging them to let him know if there was anything he could help with, but he might actually help too.
After all, Diego Cervero is a qualified doctor. He’s also the greatest footballer in history, even if he doesn’t say so himself.
Cervero once said he had two problems: one was his left foot and the other his right. He only ever started one game in the second division, although he led his team there and not only made good on a promise, but went well beyond. (He never made it to the top flight, either.) And he was never the most graceful footballer, a man with the turning radius of a 10-ton truck. But ask anyone in Oviedo, the northern Spanish city where they’re mighty proud of their club, and they’ll tell you.
Ask some people in Marbella, Logroño, Fuenlabrada and Miranda where he has also played and they might say something similar. Maybe even in Barakaldo, where he scored five goals, one of them from the halfway line, but where the pandemic ended everything prematurely. Check with Atletico Sanluqueno where he found a place in the south and his team won historic promotion; Of course, ask teammate Dani Guiza. Ask any of his teammates: there’s something different about him.
Maybe even ask her at Oldham, where he never played a competitive game, but even one summer on probation was enough to leave a mark on some. Some would take him back immediately.
And look at how they reacted to him announcing his retirement from Numancia last week, which he did during their promotion celebrations. Oh, and combine the whole thing with a marriage proposal. He was only there four months and has only scored two goals, but the impact goes beyond that. Catch the Honor Guard at his last home game last week at the age of 38. On Sunday he played the last game of a career that stretches back two decades.
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There may not be a player like him at Segunda B, perhaps the closest thing to a legend at this level, but what matters, Cervero said, was what he lived, the people he met along the way. How they cared. “I wasn’t the best player,” he told Radio Marca’s Rafa Mainez, “but buddies would come and watch me play, even if it was just eight minutes. That’s the business.”
Everywhere he went he left a mark on what really is a lifetime – and excuse me, maybe it’s time to acknowledge bias here – and especially in Oviedo. ask Michu “The greatest player in the history of Real Oviedo,” he told the Spanish football podcast, “is… Diego Cerveroooooo.”
Michu knows. Everyone does. Maybe not the best, but the biggest. The player they loved the most. The player they felt connected to, the player they knew, was one of them. And that’s ultimately what being a cult hero is: a connection, some… Matter. Immaterial maybe. Inexplicable maybe. Not even quantifiable. But something.
Wait a minute: not quantifiable? Not exactly. Cervero has scored more goals for the club than any other player apart from Isidro Lángara – the striker with the best goal difference in the entire history of the national team – and Eduardo ‘Herrerita’ Herrera. Lángara and Herrerita were part of the “Delantera Eléctrica” (“the electric striker line”) that gave Oviedo its best-ever league results just before the Civil War. Two men objectively far, far ahead. And who are emotionally far behind.
Cervero scored 141 goals for Oviedo. He was once asked what goals he would have liked to have scored. One in the first division, one in the second division and one against Sporting Gijón in the Carlos Tartiere – against his rivals and in front of his fans. He never got a chance to meet either of them, but that didn’t stop them from loving him. In fact, it made her love him more.
He was there in good times and bad…but mostly in bad. Very, very, very bad. And that’s why they loved him. Because that was his club too. When asked what Oviedo means to him, he bursts out into a song in English, which he can barely speak. “It is mine liiiiiilife.” And it was, still is – he approaches them when they play – and always will be. Honestly, don’t be surprised if one day he ends up there as a doctor.
Joining his hometown club at the age of 9, he was eventually called up to the first team because, to put it bluntly, there weren’t many other players. Oviedo, historically a top team, was relegated from the first division in 2001. A double relegation ensued, two divisions in one fell swoop – one on the pitch, one off, a punishment for their financial crisis after unpaid players were denounced at the club. Within two years, Oviedo had risen from the first division to the “third”, which is actually everything from the seventh to the 24th division. It was the end. Or so it seemed. They were on the brink of bankruptcy, the local council turned their backs on them and the players left. There was practically nobody there. There was no hope either.
But Manolo Lafuente, the President, refused to budge. Just like Cervero. Oviedo built a team from those who were left in the youth system. Cervero got the call in his car one day as he was driving out of town, telling him they wanted to offer him a first-team contract. The salary was practically non-existent. “Go home, talk to your family and come back tomorrow and let us know,” he was told. He stopped the car, turned around, drove to the club’s office and signed barely 15 minutes later. There was no way he was going to risk it she To change her Throughts.
He was a striker – tall, burly and with huge sideburns that became his trademark – but he didn’t score in nine games. In his 10th he got four. It was November 2003. At the end of the season, Oviedo made the playoffs but didn’t make it up. He was devastated. He was in tears and took an oath. “I don’t think I’m good enough to play in the first division with Oviedo,” he said, “but until Oviedo gets promoted to Segunda B I die or I don’t leave here.”
The next year they did. He scored 18 goals. He also left after scoring 31 goals in 92 league games, in part because of the need to complete his medical studies.
In 2007 he was back. Oviedo had slipped back into the “third” division. Time to repeat his vow. He scored 26 that year and 35 the following year. Oviedo rose and scored as they did in Mallorca. Hope returned and he left, his job done: 61 goals in 76 league games. Oviedo was alive, there was a future. He had left her where he had promised.
As local newspaper La Voz de Asturias put it: “Diego Cervero is much more than a footballer; he’s the symbol of a team’s resurrection, one of those characters who are irreplaceable when it comes to telling the story of a sporting institution. When Oviedo went through the worst of it, away from professional football, he was the man who best represented the struggle of a whole fanbase on the pitch.”
Yes, Oviedo was alive. Only over.
“It’s impossible for Oviedo to go away,” Cervero promised at Logroño in 2010 (where he also scored many goals), but it was becoming increasingly possible. The economic crisis was acute and the owner who had provoked the crisis had gone into hiding, fled across the Atlantic and been pursued by Interpol. Cervero returned for a third time in 2012, amid an interim board of fans – heroes, all – desperate to keep the club afloat.
By November, Oviedo was 15 days from going out of business, a desperate stock offering being their final roll of the dice. Amazingly, it worked: the response was huge, the fans again rushed to the club’s rescue and saved him in the 11th hour. As fans queued in the cold outside club offices to buy shares and poured their money into the club, Cervero delivered pizzas. He also bought shares himself. Many of them.
Unfortunately, there was no promotion this year. Two years later the time had come. Back then, Cervero was no longer really considered good enough. He was the club’s captain but he wasn’t in the team. He hardly played, his career seemed to be coming to an end. But he came on as a substitute in the first leg of the playoffs against Cádiz, the draw that finally brought Oviedo back to the second division – and what the Spanish refer to as professional football.
Cervero had known he would only play when they were in trouble, and they were. He had prepared for it, working every minute of every day, knowing that if he got anything at all, a handful of minutes would be all he would get. Despite everything, he had a feeling that he would, a feeling that his time had come as fate had dictated. He was right. A cross from the right and there he jumped. His header, the most important goal anyone had scored in 20 years at the club, maybe more, flew into the net and 30,000 people lost their minds.
Nobody went insane like Cervero, a man prone to losing his head. A lovable madman. There he was in the midst of madness: his and hers, the whole place raging, could hardly believe it. His goal had allowed Real Oviedo, his Real Oviedo, to rise to a league he knew deep down he wouldn’t get a chance to play in. There was no choreographed celebration, just the rawest of emotions, screaming, pounding his chest and then his head, getting on his knees and banging his fists on the grass, tears in his eyes.
There were even more in the past week. It’s all over, the end of an era. One career ends, another opens. There is a doctor in the house.