FOOTBALL IDOL – The Enduring Legacy of Claudio ‘El Litri’ Barragan

Claudio

Photo: elchecf.es

With SD Ponferradina currently pushing for a play-off place in the Segunda league; it seems like a good time to take a look at the man at the helm. A man who wears the status of legend like a favourite shirt.

Earning the status of a club legend is no easy feat for any footballer. You don’t have to be the most talented player but you must give something so empyreal to the fans that they feel the need to pass it on to future generations. You must inspire them, you must represent them and you must connect with them. Most importantly, you must give them a sense of romance.

When Claudio Barragan Escobar (known simply as “Claudio”) arrived at Levante in 1980 aged just 16, few would have predicted that the thin lad from Manises would go on to be an idol at more than one football club. In fact, the unassuming but talented youngster lurked quietly in the shadows as another footballing legend, Johan Cruyff, arrived at Estadi Ciutat de València in early 1981. Despite his young age, he did manage to break into the first team but a niggling knee injury hindered his progress, and he was subsequently loaned out to AgD Cueta and UD Las Palmas to work his way back to fitness.

In 1984, Claudio signed for newly-promoted Primera club Elche CF, where he would go on to earn the nickname “El Litri” (roughly translated as ‘The Dandy’) after the famous bullfighter Miguel “El Litri” Baez. He was recommended by former Coach Evaristo Carrio who famously said in a radio interview with Santiago Gambin: “If this kid does not play for the national team, I will cut my hand off.” A few years later, Carrio’s prediction came true and his hand was spared.

Claudio was not the most skilful striker and he was certainly not the most prolific, but he gave everything. His style of play was aggressive and intelligent, and he was a natural leader on the pitch. In his first season at Elche, his substitute performances were impressive enough to earn him a regular first team place, and he managed to score two goals, including the first of many he would record at Real Madrid’s Bernabéu stadium. Unfortunately, the season ended in relegation to the Segunda Division.

The following two seasons saw much upheaval at the club, with Managerial and Presidential changes that would hold back the progress of the team, but by 1987-89, things were looking up. Claudio was now playing alongside Sixto Casabona Martínez with Milijov Bracun linking up, and the three of them formed a formidable goal threat that would propel Los Franjiverdes back into the topflight of Spanish football. Claudio was the architect of the team and provided 11 goals; he also set up many for Sixto who scored an incredible 21, earning himself the nickname of “Sixtogol”. Bracun, who was a defender by trade, also scored 12 goals. This season was one of the most memorable in the history of CF Elche and the legend of ”El Litri” had been preserved in amber.

Once again, Elche would only manage one season at the top level but “El Litri” continued to impress with his battling style of play and a seven-goal tally which included his obligatory strike at the Bernabéu. His performances caught the eye of Mallorca and a transfer was agreed, much to the dismay of the adoring Elche fans who were losing their idol – a warrior on the battlefield whose passion and ardour was matched only by their own.

Claudio spent two seasons at Mallorca, and in 1991 they reached the final of the Copa del Rey, eventually losing 1-0 to Atletico Madrid after an extra-time goal by Alfredo. He was then courted by Cesar Augusto Lendoiro, the President of newly-promoted Deportivo La Coruna, who convinced him that the club was at the beginning of an amazing odyssey.

The Following years were incredible for Claudio and for Deportivo, as the team from Galicia emerged from many years in the wilderness to become a force of European football. Lendoiro was very ambitious but short on funds so he had to be smart in the transfer market, buying in cheaper experienced players (Lopez Rekarte, Paco Liano, José Luis Ribera, Adolfo Aldana, Donato) and picking up promising youngsters to build a team capable of surviving that first season back in La Liga. Claudio made his debut against Valencia on 31 August 1991 and went on to score 10 goals, as Depor retained their La Liga status after overcoming Real Betis in the play-offs.

The arrival of striker Bebeto and midfielder Mauro Silva sparked a new era for Deportivo and Claudio thrived alongside the Brazilians. Claudio and Mauro Silva provided the work-rate and fighting spirit that became the hallmark of the team, and Bebeto provided the flair. Claudio gained a reputation for being a bit hot-headed and would never shy away from a challenge. Despite being a striker, he always fought hard to regain possession, making him the perfect foil for Bebeto, who played the role of a more traditional striker.  Their goals took Deportivo to the top of the table where they remained for much of the season. However, they eventually had to settle for third place behind Barcelona and Real Madrid. Despite their disappointment at missing out on the title, Super Depor still secured a place in European competition for the first time in their history.

As predicted by Carrio, Claudio was called up to the Spanish National team and although he only made six appearances, he was never on the losing side. He made his debut in the 0-0 World Cup qualifying match against Northern Ireland in 1992.

In the 1993-94 season, Deportivo dominated the league and went into the last match of the season needing only a win at home to Valencia to secure the title. Claudio was out injured, but the team were confident they could overcome an inconsistent Valencia side that were sat safely in mid-table. The game was unbearably close and it seemed like a goal would never come until Depor were awarded a late penalty after a foul on Nando. Regular spot-kicker Donato had been taken off and Bebeto did not want to take it, so Djukic stepped up. Unfortunately, he fired a weak shot straight at the goal keeper and Deportivo were denied the title.

Claudio finally won a trophy with Deportivo in 1995 with victory in the Copa del Rey. The squad had been strengthened by the arrival of Salinas, Kostadinov and Manjarín and first-team chances were restricted for Claudio. At the age of 31, he had proved himself to be top-level footballer and he still had plenty to give, but it was time to move on. To the fans at Riazor, he left as a legend.

When he returned to Depor the next season in the colours of UD Salamanca, Claudio was greeted with emotional chants of his name that reverberated around the stadium, bringing tears to his eyes. Once again, his cult status amongst the supporters was confirmed. In what would be his final season in La Liga, Claudio netted 11 goals for the team from Castile and León, but it was not enough to prevent relegation back to the Segunda.

The following season began badly when he picked up a broken nose in a game against Levante. The injury kept him out of the team for several weeks and on his return he found it hard to gain a regular starting place. This alerted several clubs, including Elche, and in December 1996 he made an emotional return to his former club.

The return of “El Litri” gave a massive boost to the fans of Elche, who had watched the club struggle through financial difficulties and failed promotion attempts during the 1990s. Their idol had returned; a man of strength, quality and inspiration who could prove the difference when it came down to the wire.

The first season back was turbulent one which saw three different Coaches at the club. Despite this disruption, Elche made it to the play-offs and  everything came down to the last game of the season at Barakaldo CF. They needed to win, but also needed Cordoba to avoid defeat at Deportivo “B”. After a tense game, victory was sealed with a single goal from Enric Cuxart, while Cordoba prevailed at the Riazor meaning promotion was secured. Many fans still recall the image of an emotional Claudio falling to his knees at the end of the match with tears of joy in his eyes.

The following season Elche were dealt a further blow when they were relegated again but in the 1998-99 season they fought their way back into the play-offs with a team that included current Barcelona Coach, Tito Villanova. Once again it came down to the wire, with a win in the final match in Melilla needed to secure an immediate return to the Segunda league. For the 200 Elche fans that made the trip to the Moroccan coastal enclave, it was a night of destiny.

With the game level at 1-1 and half time approaching, the decisive moment came. Tito Villanova floated in a free-kick from the right and the ball was knocked back into the path of Claudio. The outcome was inevitable; it had already been written.

The goal put the visitors ahead and –  despite the expulsion of Villanova with 17 minutes to play – they managed to hold on and win the game.

Claudio finished the season as top-scorer and had now led Elche to three promotions. He played on for another year and helped Elche to consolidate their place in the Segunda league.

After hanging up his boots, he returned to Elche once again in 2004 as a member of the Coaching staff and remained there until 2009 when he eventually left after a brief spell as Head Coach. He arrived at SD Ponferradina as Coach in January 2011 but was too late to avoid relegation to Segunda “B”. The following year – in typical Claudio style – they bounced right back and secured promotion via the play-offs.

Now, the impossible dream of reaching La Liga seems like a tangible reality. Claudio makes people believe. The fans are his idols and he is theirs. Another day, another legacy.