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Bad intentions, little consequence: Atlético's package deal of 2000

In 2000, as Atlético struggled to assemble a squad, a package deal of three Rayo players was arranged against their will. Sarthak Kumar has the story.

Carlos Llorens playing for Rayo Vallecano.
Carlos Llorens playing for Rayo Vallecano.
Nuno Correia/Getty Images
"It was an agreement between clubs. What happened was that I did not want to leave, I was very comfortable at Rayo; we were going to play in Europe and I wanted to stay in Vallecas. I identified with the club and I felt important inside. But they had already reached an agreement and I had to leave; The truth is that it was the saddest moment I had while at Rayo. "

-Carlos Llorens
The 1999-2000 season was painful for Atlético Madrid. Manager Claudio Ranieri was dismissed after matchday 26 with the club in administration due to accumulated debts and former double-winning coach Radomir Antić took over a squad that was already in a tailspin, sitting in 17th and barely hovering above relegation zone. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was the second-top goalscorer in the league, and he belonged to a team fighting relegation.

Atlético were soon to slip into the relegation zone and never came back. They were eliminated from the UEFA Cup in the quarterfinals by Lens, and Antić was fired after matchday 37 after they were already mathematically relegated - the team actually had to bring in a new manager, Fernando Zambrano, for the last match. And even making the Copa del Rey final for the second consecutive season didn't paper over the cracks - Espanyol beat them to that trophy.

As many players left and Atlético struggled to assemble a squad, Zambrano, who had started his managerial career in Rayo Vallecano's youth teams, brought in three players from the club.

On a small football field in Madrid, Alfredo Di Stefano stepped on for a veterans match. He was retiring, and this was his sendoff.

Used to large crowds and noisy football stadiums, he probably was thinking - where am I?

Spain's districts are divided into neighborhoods, or barrios. Southwest to Puente de Vallecas is the working class district of Villaverde, where a small barrio of about 18,000 inhabitants resides, called San Cristóbal. It has historically been isolated - from the north and east by the railroad, to the south by the old Army Car Park and to the west by the old highway to Andalusia (A-4).

Forty percent of the population is made up of immigrants - in the 1960s, immigrants from Extremadura, Andalucía, Murcia and Castilla La Mancha came in hoards, looking for a way to escape the poverty of their towns.

On Rocafort street, a small football field serves home to CD San Cristóbal de los Angeles - one of the most prestigious youth academies in Madrid. For just a taste, Raúl, the Raúl, came from here.

Former Atlético center back Iván Amaya did too. He played 18 games for the club between 2000 and 2002 - one of the darkest periods in Atleti's 114-year history.

Left-back Carlos Llorens was a late bloomer. He had to wait until the age of 26 to make his professional debut, in the second division with UE Lleida in 1995, after having played for Tomelloso, Cartagena, Elche and Levante. He scored 10 goals for Leganés in the 1997-98 season, and helped Rayo gain promotion to LaLiga the season after.

For the penalty-kick specialist, a long and arduous journey to La Liga was coming to its final stop on the verge of turning 30.

That La Liga debut was a 2-0 win at, oddly enough, Atlético Madrid.

El País summed up the team perfectly: "A lady who has gone from housework to being interviewed by the Herald Tribune, a coach whose fame began - and ended - in Logroño; an American goalkeeper, a German with a ponytail, a group of disinherited players with just one star - a former youth product raised by Cruyff himself.

And Cota, as ever - Cota."

In the 1999-00 season, newly promoted Rayo Vallecano did something unheard of, something that they had never done in their 75-year history.

In weeks 4, 8, 10 and 11, they led the table. Not defending champions Barcelona. Not eventual champions Deportivo La Coruña, or eventual Champions League winners Real Madrid.


Teresa Rivero, the owner who was considered a maternal figure by fans and players alike, oversaw a team coached by Juande Ramos, a team whose goal was defended by Kasey Keller, a team that ticked because of Gerhard Poschner, a team that was full of energy because of Luis Cembranos, raised with, and then replaced by, Jordi Cruyff by Johan himself, and a team that was represented by the Vallekas-born-and-bred one-club man Jesús Diego Cota.

But that description leaves out two men (apart from Carlos Llorens and Amaya, of course): Jon "Bolo" and Jean-François Hernandez.

Bolo, the striker, scored 10 goals in that 1999-00 season. When he joined in the 1998-99 season from Athletic Bilbao, coach Luis Fernández said that Bolo would not be able to score ten goals even in the Segunda.

(He was right - Bolo scored nine that season.)

The other was Hernández. He was the "boss." He was the defender who put everything on the line, who was comfortable on the ball, who Juande Ramos called the Fernando Hierro of Rayo, who inexplicably was let go of by Compostela, who along with Cota formed an impenetrable partnership in the center of the park.

With Jesús Gil in charge, things were always going to be turbulent at Atlético. Zambrano got off to a rough start in 2000-01 and was sacked after just five games, and the three players who joined him from Rayo immediately saw their futures thrown into doubt.

Llorens played 12 of the first 13 league games but jumped at the chance to leave, signing for Osasuna in LaLiga after six months.

Amaya wasn't even there at the start of the season. He led the Spanish national team at the 2000 Olympics and won silver in Sydney but, in the decisive match against Cameroon, scored an own goal to make it 2–1 for the Europeans (eventually 2–2) and also missed in the eventual penalty shootout loss. He never recovered from that incident, and by the time he came back his confidence, and Zambrano, were both gone. 

Hernández returned to Rayo after just one season - his appalling disciplinary record of four yellow cards and four reds in 14 games not exactly helping his case for more game time. His older son Lucas is a defender today for Atlético; younger son Theo is set to sign for Real Madrid this summer.

In the end, the players who didn't want to be there who ended up having success elsewhere. Llorens ended up having a second stint at the club he loved - Rayo - which he joined at the age of 37 and where he retired three years later. Amaya had only fleeting La Liga moments but helped Getafe get promoted and helped Granada and Murcia to the Segunda in successive years. Hernández retured to Rayo for one more season before calling it quits.

And Atlético? They were going up in 2001 if not for a 72nd minute Hugo Morales goal for Tenerife at Leganés on the final day, and went up anyways as Segunda champions in 2002. The rest is history.