UD Ibiza: The Rise of The Party Island’s First Pro Football Club

Led by former Valencia CF president Amadeo Salvo, UD Ibiza have made history in one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations by rising to LaLiga SmartBank level in just six years of existence.

There is something unique about the island of Ibiza. That’s a line repeated time and time again by the directors and footballers who have helped lead Unión Deportiva Ibiza from the fifth tier of the Spanish football pyramid to LaLiga SmartBank, the second division, in just six years of existence.

May 23rd 2021 will forever be a historic date in the history of the island, with UD Ibiza’s victory over UCAM Murcia in the Segunda B playoffs ensuring that LaLiga SmartBank football would land at the Estadi Can Misses for the first time ever. Never before had the third-largest of the Balearic Islands had a football team in Spain’s professional divisions, the top two tiers, but finally this dream had been realised.

The driving force behind UD Ibiza’s rise is Amadeo Salvo. Born in Valencia, he has always been passionate about football and about Ibiza, his favourite holiday destination. As a youngster, Salvo played for Valencia CF’s youth teams before embarking on a successful career in business with the company Power Electronics. His family have long invested in sport through the company, not just in football but also in local basketball or MotoGP. Later, between 2013 and 2015, he was the president of Valencia CF.

“You learn every day and you learn a lot,” Salvo has said of his time at Valencia CF and his journey through football. “You learn what top-level football is and the feelings that a club can stir up. You learn about management. You learn about the problems a big football club can go through. You learn a lot, but you also learn when at the lower levels.”

Liga Smartbank. UD Ibiza – Málaga CF. Estadio Municipal de Can Misses, Ibiza.

The beginning of the UD Ibiza fairy tale

After departing the offices at Mestalla in the summer of 2015, Salvo and his family purchased and refounded UD Ibiza, which is where the fairy tale begins. Even though the club’s rise has been rapid, it hasn’t always been plain sailing.

The first season, of 2015/16, saw UD Ibiza compete in the regional leagues of Ibiza and Formentera, the fifth level of Spanish football, with hundreds of clubs separating the newly founded team from the dream of professional football. Initial results weren’t good and Salvo even wondered if all the effort being put into the club was going to be worth it. Yet, he and his fellow directors always knew that patience would be required, especially since the regulations didn’t even allow for a newly formed club like UD Ibiza to win promotion in their very first season.

“We had to have patience, while understanding where we wanted to reach,” Salvo has recalled. “We’ve now reached LaLiga SmartBank, but many things have happened along the way. The plan was to build a professional project in a location with a unique and exclusive brand and image.”

Little by little, this is exactly what UD Ibiza managed to achieve. On the pitch, the Sky Blues finished first in their group in 2016/17, the first season in which the club was eligible for promotion, and then secured that rise to the fourth tier through the playoffs. There, in 2017/18, they were one kick away from securing a second consecutive promotion, but ultimately lost a penalty shootout to Levante’s B team. Nevertheless, UD Ibiza were able to climb to the Segunda B level anyway, as the RFEF, Spain’s football federation, considered the islanders to be “the club with the greatest right” to occupy the place vacated by Lorca FC when the club from Murcia had to forfeit their spot in the third tier due to financial issues.

Liga Smartbank. UD Ibiza – Fuenlabrada. Estadio Municipal de Can Misses, Ibiza.

A famous night against FC Barcelona and promotion to LaLiga SmartBank

Between 2018 and 2021, UD Ibiza competed at Segunda B level and they improved year on year, finishing sixth then second then first in their group. The sixth-placed 2018/19 campaign earned the islanders a place in the following season’s Copa del Rey qualification rounds and, after defeating Pontevedra and Albacete, a one-legged home tie against FC Barcelona was next on the schedule.

On January 22nd 2020, UD Ibiza’s modest squad faced the superstars of FC Barcelona in front of 6,500 spectators at the Estadi Can Misses, with extra seats added for the big occasion. It was always going to be an incredible occasion no matter what, but Javi Pérez’s early goal then meant that the third-tier team led Barça for over an hour, before a late brace from Antoine Griezmann saw the at-the-time champions of Spain survive and win 2-1.

This was clearly a strong UD Ibiza side and they proved it in the league too, finishing second in their Segunda B group in the season that was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, before losing out in the playoffs.

In 2020/21, though, the Sky Blues topped their group and then marched into LaLiga SmartBank through the playoffs, defeating UCAM Murcia in the decisive game. Incredibly, this was achieved with two novices in the club’s key positions, with Salvo having demonstrated his eye for talent and giving Fernando Soriano his first ever job as a sporting director and Juan Carlos Carcedo his first head coaching gig, after 14 years working as Unai Emery’s assistant at clubs such as Valencia CF, Sevilla FC, PSG and Arsenal. The pair had coincided at UD Almería in the past, when Soriano was a player and Carcedo an assistant coach, so they already had a connection and worked harmoniously to build and develop a squad in which every player is considered a potential starter.

Attracting top talent to the island

Smart recruitment has been a key component of UD Ibiza’s rise over these past few years. The club always prioritised the signing of gilt-edged players with experience at the lower levels, while also adding some high-profile names.

One of those was Marco Borriello, the former AC Milan player who finished his career at the Spanish club. Then, in the current squad, UD Ibiza have several players with LaLiga Santander experience. This includes Cristian Herrera, Miguel Ángel Guerrero, Pape Diop, Javi Lara and Álex Gálvez, with the latter three having also been part of one of Spanish football’s other Cinderella stories at SD Eibar.

“It is a different case here,” Diop has pointed out, when comparing the two situations. The midfielder is the most-capped African in the history of LaLiga (362 games before the 2021/22 season), and knows perfectly Spanish football. “I have arrived at UD Ibiza at a time when the team is currently competing in its first season in LaLiga SmartBank. The process is one you form a part of and live, although it is just as ambitious here. Many people are keen to see a team like UD Ibiza in LaLiga Santander.”

As for Borriello, the Italian also wanted to keep contributing to the project even after fitness concerns forced him to hang up his boots. As he has explained: “I reached a point where I couldn’t play anymore, so I told the president ‘I’ll help you in some other way, but physically it would make sense to sign someone younger’. And I’m still here. I have stayed to live here and have stayed close to Amadeo Salvo, working as a club ambassador and forming part of the board. I’ve been here for three years now. This is a city I can’t leave. I’d stay here all my life if I could, as this is such a gift!”

Borriello is a true football globetrotter, having played for more than ten different clubs in Italy and also in England. And he never found a fairy tale like UD Ibiza: “Cagliari could be, because it’s on an island, but Sardinia is not like Ibiza. Ibiza has a unique history. Palma de Mallorca maybe? No. It doesn’t have this magic. Monza in Italy? It already had a history in the past. It’s a tiny, provincial town, no offence. It doesn’t have the international weight of Ibiza. Berlusconi was born in Monza, something that has given it a bit of visibility… There is no history comparable to that of UD Ibiza”.

Enjoying football on the party island

Borriello isn’t the first or last person in the world to fall in love with Ibiza. As a beautiful island with Mediterranean climate and some of the best nightlife in the world, tourists have flocked to Ibiza for years and years. But could this also be a focus of interest for footballers? What is the life of a professional footballer in Ibiza like?

Fernando Soriano is the Sporting Director of UD Ibiza and one of the key actors when it comes to putting together the squad. He says that the immense range of leisure activities on the island does not condition the profile of players the club looks to sign. “The footballer is a professional, he knows perfectly well what he can and cannot do. Leisure, partying and nightclubs are not taken into account when it comes to making a signing,” admits the Aragon native, contrary to the urban legend that various elite coaches would only want players for their teams who are already mature, with a structured family and who are able to better deal with the temptations around them. Ironically, one of the latest arrivals at UD Ibiza fits that very profile: Pape Diop. The Senegalese claims not to have found a different atmosphere in the dressing room compared to those at his former sides simply because it’s in Ibiza: “I’m with my family and it’s not something I give importance to, for example. And the players are professionals, and they know what they have to do”. Football on the party island turns out to be like anywhere else, after all.

But on the other side, many of the tourists are football fans and now they have a professional club they can visit during their stay. Already, UD Ibiza sell more football shirts than many other clubs who are higher in the footballing pyramid. The club has also worked hard to accommodate visitors, setting up an English section of their website and English language social media profiles long before even reaching LaLiga SmartBank. On matchdays, UD Ibiza also ensure that the Estadi Can Misses is a true party, collaborating with local DJs such as Anna Tur or Manu González to bring the Balearic beats to the ground.

Salvo and his board have also been working closely with the local government to help promote the island through UD Ibiza, especially considering how the island’s vitally important tourism trade has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Here, football can be relegated to the second or third level of interests, as there are incomparable nightlife offerings here,” Salvo concluded when discussing the sport’s place in the island’s unique ecosystem. “But, everybody who has visited Ibiza has positive memories of it. People come here to have fun and for a holiday. We are now building a football club with a great brand and one that develops positive feelings and affinity from fans across every continent.”

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