Real Racing Club de Santander celebrated an historic Copa del Rey victory with a slap up meal at a service station in the middle of nowhere and a fourteen hour bus journey through the dark and through the night, from one end of Spain to the other.
On board there were card games and a Play Station. One player had packed the television from home. Most of all, there was singing and laughing but as time went on and daybreak approached they drifted off, shattered and emotional, slowly sinking into the pillows, blankets and bed rolls they'd brought with them.
Phones kept ringing too, people wanting to congratulate them. Calls and messages came flooding in and one man was especially insistent -- but no one was answering.
No-one on board that bus wanted to talk to Racing's president. Not now, not ever. Nothing and nobody was going to spoil this moment, least of all him. This moment was special. It had been exhausting -- of the past forty-eight hours they had spent more than twenty-four on a bus, squeezed in, and it was the second time in a fortnight they'd done so -- but the journey had been worth it. They would never forget this.
Racing play in the Second Division B, Spain's third tier. There, 78 clubs are spread across four regional groups and play many of their games in small stadiums in front of smaller crowds. But here they were again: first they had defeated Sevilla over two legs, then they did the same to Almería. Two First Division teams knocked out and Racing were into the quarter-finals. No other Second Division team has got there, let alone a Second Division B team. One of Racing's players was a sixteen year called Fede, the second youngest footballer ever to play for the club. He'd taken his school textbooks on the bus; there was homework to be done.
Racing hadn't just beaten Almería, either: they had been the better side, winning 2-0 in Almería just as they had won in Seville at the Sánchez Pizjuán. Both goals, from Mariano and Durán, had been superb. Mariano had even produced an outrageous flick, "Escape to Victory" style. He had spent two years in the youth system at Osasuna but was released, unlikely to ever make it to the top flight. Now a picture was circulating: someone had photo-shopped a snap of Messi receiving the Ballon d'Or last year, but superimposing Mariano's head on top. Round it went, round the bus.
Almería to Santander is a thousand kilometres, from the south-east of Spain to the northern coast. The journey was done by bus as Racing couldn't afford to fly: they'd only been able to even go by bus because sales in the club shop had been good in the previous week and the cash was set aside for petrol. So off they went on their road trip. Now they were heading back, happy.
When Mariano took a call from the radio show Al Primer Toque a little after midnight, he was asked where he was. Giggling, he admitted that he didn't know. "We stopped to eat somewhere," he said. "We left Almería an hour or so ago, so where are we? An hour from Almería. Just the twelve hours to go, then."
Just the twelve. Racing's bus arrived in Santander early the following afternoon and the fans were waiting for them. As the players got off, bleary-eyed and a little dishevelled, carrying rolled-up bed mats under their arms, they were given a guard of honour and applauded. Then a photo was taken with all the players and the fans on the pitch at the training ground: unity expressed, in this together. As they arrived there had been pats on the back and chants. One song reversed the normal accusation made at "mercenary" footballers and ran: “You do deserve to wear this shirt!"
Another went, simply: "Harry, pay them!" And there, in a nutshell, it was.
"Harry" is the nickname of Racing Santander's president, Ángel Lavín. And Harry has not paid his players for three months. Paco Fernández gave up his job as a teacher in Asturias, along the coast, to become Racing's coach in the summer. He and his staff haven't been paid for four months; he has had just one month's wage in Santander. The situation is repeated with virtually all the staff at the club. At the Second Division B level, that matters. These are not players with cash in the bank: if they go without the money they are owed, they can't pay the rent.
Racing's players sought refuge in the AFE, the footballer's union, and there will be support. But the law that allows players from the First and Second Division to walk away free if they are not paid does not apply to the Second Division B as it falls outside the scope of "professional football" -- even though the players are professionals.
As such, Racing's footballers are up for sale: Koné, Sostres and Saúl will almost certainly leave. Agustín and Nieto already have. The hope is that while the team gets dismantled, at least those that stay could be paid. But some still harbour serious doubts, and not without reason.
Put simply: the people who "own" the club are not to be trusted. Meanwhile, the club is in administration and income is embargoed. Starting from next year, Racing will have to begin a court-ordered payment plan, returning 5 million euros a year over five years. They do not have five million euros.
Before the Almería game, Edu told the newspaper El País: "The Almería game should be a great moment but the situation is screwed up." That's an understatement.
In Racing's Second Division B group, the fixture list published at the start of the season included a game against "Team 20," a space held open for a team that they hoped would be Salamanca. But it never happened. Last weekend another team from Cantabria, Noja, played against Real Oviedo. Historically, a First Division team, Oviedo themselves were rescued from going out of business in November 2012; now their opponents are on the verge of liquidation. And in the Copa del Rey, Algeciras went to San Sebastián to play Real Sociedad, travelling 1,100 km and playing on just four hours sleep.
But Racing's situation is even more dramatic.
The best thing about their extraordinary Copa del Rey success might just be that it highlights the terrible reality at the club. At the start of the first leg against Almería, Racing's players stood still for the first twenty seconds in protest. Later, the supporters joined in. For a long time now they have protested against the board of directors with chants in the thirteenth minute, chosen to mark the year of the club's foundation, 1913. In the first leg against Almería, it went further. Supporters clambered over fences and made their way to the directors' box, where "Harry" sat. So too did his bodyguard.
There were confrontations, some of them physical, and the pictures made for dramatic viewing -- probably exaggeratedly so. Almería's president, who clearly had no real understanding of what has happened to Racing over the last few years and certainly not of who is to blame, was shocked. To judge by the interviews he gave afterwards, he had been scared too. As for "Harry," he described the players' protest as "absurd." He also insisted of the fans: "These people do not represent Racing."
But they do -- far more so than he ever will.
It is only two years ago that Racing Santander was a First Division club. A struggling First Division club, but a First Division club nonetheless. In January 2011, the Indian businessman Ahsan Ali Syed took over, welcomed as the saviour at a club in debt. His arrival was assisted by the former president Francisco Pernía and the politician and former president of the Cantabrian government, Miguel-Ángel Revilla -- a moustachioed, attention-seeking, populist caricature at the head of his own party, the Cantabrian Regionalist Party.
Pernía brought Ali to the club; as president of the Cantabrian government which owned shares in the club, Revilla gave the deal the go-ahead. Together they did more than that. Pernía and Revilla championed Ali even though his previous attempt to take over the English club Blackburn Rovers broke down amid accusations of fraud that were made against him by an Australian newspaper, which Ali denied.
Revilla later tried to distance himself from the whole sorry mess, acting like it had nothing to do with him, but Pernía effectively remained Ali's emissary in Spain.
Ali Syed promised to make Racing a power to compete with Madrid and Barcelona. Instead, they are on the verge of collapse. Two relegations followed, their players were sold and the economic crisis grew. The tax authorities went unpaid and so did players. Promise after promise was broken.
Now 50 million euros in debt, Racing are in administration and on the edge of the abyss. Ali disappeared but when that looked like it might offer Racing a way out -- fans groups were prepared to take on the club -- his lawyers made a last-minute AGM appearance to retain control of the club. He didn't show personally.
At the time, Racing’s sponsor was a chorizo manufacturer. The word "Chorizo" (also slang for "thief") was splashed across their shirts. For some, it could hardly be more appropriate.
A month ago, a court found that the club should not belong to Ali because he never actually paid for the shares he had "bought" from the previous owner in the first place. Pernía, who was recorded allegedly trying to fix a match at the end of last season to avoid relegation, was called before the judge in November 2013 to be questioned on suspicion of "disloyal administration."
"Harry," the man put in place as Racing's president in May 2012, will be called too.
The case was brought by the association of ex-players at Racing after the court-appointed administrators prepared a report that showed at least four million euros had gone missing and was unaccounted for -- money which had come from the signings of two players and the purchase of a Brazilian club which never materialised, and for which Pernía was held legally responsible.
But so far the courts have not yet acted on that case, nor reached a final conclusion on the ownership of the club. Ali appealed against the ruling that he had to return his shares to the previous owners, putting everything on hold. Over the last year alone Racing have spent 700,000 euros of club money on legal fees to protect the men who stand accused of having illegally taken and kept control of the club. By the time there is a resolution, it may be too late.
They are also in the hands of Harry, the representative of an "owner" and his partners who should never have been allowed to own the club. Their club. "Harry" is a lifelong friend of Pernía, which is his only qualification for the role. He is a straw man with Pernía behind him, a man whose motives they, not surprisingly, do not trust. There are questions too about the sales Racing need to make to survive, which agent will be used to complete the deals and why. There are questions about why they're hanging on, what is in it for them.
The players do not trust Harry either: like the fans, they have learnt the hard way.
"It's hard to see that however much you break your balls, it's the same: every day there's a piece of bad news, and another and another," said Saúl. After the victory over Sevilla, Harry appeared in the dressing room to ask for a shirt. The players ignored him. After the victory over Almería, which the president didn't attend, Mariano admitted: "I've not heard from him and I don't want to. Others had; again, they ignored the messages.
All of which makes Racing’s Copa del Rey success even more extraordinary and even more important. As one player put it, simply: "Hopefully this can help us get paid."
What the success has done, at least, is bring Racing's fight to people's attention. It has provided some joy, too, to those who truly deserve it: the supporters and the players. A bit of good news at last, triumph in the face of adversity.
Incredibly, Racing Santander are now in the quarter-final of the Copa del Rey. Better still, their opponents are Real Sociedad. Another first division team, this time from San Sebastián.
San Sebastián is just two hours away by coach.