“This was life or death,” Jorge Molina said and he had chosen life again, clinging on to primera, his place. It had taken him until he was 29 to reach the first division, finally making it around about the time a career in the lower leagues should have started winding down, eight seasons, five teams, three tiers, more than 250 games and a hundred goals after he had begun in Benidorm. Twice it had been taken away from him, twice he returned, fighting back when he was supposed to be finished, and there was no way he was going to let it be three. Which is why come Saturday afternoon he was standing there in the sunshine smiling a little shyly and up in one corner of the stands they were celebrating.
Granada are not safe yet, but the tension was released for a few hours at least, something very significant secured beyond the three points they had so badly needed after five months in which they won only once in the league. “We like seeing them happy,” the coach Aitor Karanka said at the end of Saturday’s vital victory over Real Mallorca lifted his team out of the relegation zone for the first time since he took over three unbeaten weeks ago. “When I came in, all I saw were anxious, nervous faces,” he said. “The weight taken from our shoulders is brutal. If today was a final, we would be champions.”
They felt like it, joy let in at last. Mallorca and Granada were on edge, two of the five teams for whom the threat of relegation was a reality. Outside Granada’s training ground, fans had waited with fireworks as they set off to the airport on Friday; outside Son Moix the following afternoon, Mallorca’s fans did the same.
The day had started with Alavés on 28 points, Levante on 29, Granada 31, Cadiz 32 and Mallorca 32. Cadiz were playing Elche and Alaves were going to Celta, two teams with nothing to play for. First, though, Mallorca and Granada met. Lose and Granada could be four points adrift plus head-to-head goal difference with three games left against Athletic, Betis and Espanyol, as good as gone.
Instead, they won 6-2, their biggest away win ever.
Granada had scored early but that brought a false sense of security that was soon shattered when Salva Sevilla smashed in a superb equaliser. Afterwards Karanka refused to reveal what he had said at half-time but might as well have done so when he said: “I used words I can’t say here: it wasn’t so much a case of motivating them as making demands of them.”
Whatever it was, it worked: 40 seconds after the restart, a gorgeous move finished off by Sergio Escudero put them in the lead again. But this still wasn’t done against a Mallorca side showing signs of reaction under Javier Aguirre and when Luis Suárez, their Colombian forward, limped off, it didn’t look good. As it turned out, it was better.
Molina had been on the pitch exactly two minutes when he got his first touch, a mountain of man gently rolling an opponent and starting the move that almost lead to a goal. He had been there three minutes three seconds when he got his second, or he would have done had he actually touched it. Instead he cleverly let the ball go, turned and moved into the space, pointing to precisely where he wanted it. From there, he played it into the path of Antonio Puertas to score the third. Next he smashed in the forth from twenty-five yards. And still he wasn’t finished. The clock had shown 50.59 when he stepped into the sunshine; by the time he had walked off again three quarters of an hour later, Granada had scored six.
As for Molina, here’s his game by numbers:
Age: 40 years, 15 days.
No one older had ever ever scored twice in La Liga. Only Donato had ever scored a goal later. Only three players had ever played older, and one of them sort of doesn’t count: the magnificently named Horace “Harry” Lowe was really a manager whose 11th man got ill before a trip to Valencia in 1935 so he put himself into the team instead. Nor was this a one-off, especially not for poor Mallorca. The last time they had faced each other, Molina scored a hat-trick – 39 at the time and the oldest footballer ever to do so in La Liga – and he looked a little embarrassed as he quietly insisted: “No, it’s nothing personal.”n Instead, these two goals made him Granada’s top scorer, on 10 league goals, 12 in all competitions. He also has six assists. From 16 starts and 19 shots.
On Saturday Granada responded to his exhibition by sending a tweet to Spain coach Luis Enrique. Yoo-hoo!
“It’s wonderful to have him in the team. Every time he plays he makes things happen: a goal, an assist, a free-kick. Today it’s two goals, two assists and hopefully he can play for many years,” Puertas said, which might be pushing it but he has renewed so there will be one more.
That extension is is no act of charity. Molina has two degrees, in sports sciences and teaching, his coaching badge and a qualification as a sporting director, but his former manager Diego Martínez encouraged him to keep playing as long as he can because that’s still better than anything else. Besides, Molina admits that the idea of retiring scares him, the change drastic, the void it will leave vast. He fasts for 16 hours a day and for 24 hours at least once a week, looks after himself better than anyone else.
Quiet, softly spoken, a hint of timidity, no attempt to stand out, still less speak out, there is though a presence about him, a seriousness too, also a solidarity. And then there’s the talent. Watch him and he’s still better than others, an intelligence, a smooth efficiency, about everything he does, the use of his body unmatched, the decision making flawless, without the slightest fuss.
“Until you work with him you don’t realise just how good he is at everything,” Karanka said on Saturday. “What he generates, how he finishes. When you coach him you realise what a spectacular lad he is: he is great in the dressing room and on the pitch. When you actual know him, you start to understand.”
“The only pity is I didn’t know him 20 years ago,” Karanka added, but then no one really knew him 20 years ago. In May 2002, while Karanka was preparing for Real Madrid’s third Champions League final in five years, Molina was 382km and a million miles away, a student hoping to make the first team at Benidorm in Spain’s amateur, regionalised tercera with its 17 groups and 350 teams. Back then, driving back and forwards from Valencia in his little Seat every day, reaching the elite rarely crossed his mind. Which may be why departing again doesn’t bear thinking about now: he better than anyone knows how hard it has been to get this far, appreciates it for the monumental achievement it is.
Never in the youth system at a big club, Molina went to Gandia and back, immediately suffering relegation back to Segunda B when he reached the second division with Poli Ejido aged 25. He joined Betis in the second division in 2010, top scorer as they went up, finally taking him to the first division in 2011 but got relegated in 2014. Top scorer again when they went back up in 2015, he departed in 2016. Dropping down a division, aged 34, Betis were not alone in assuming that was it but he was top scorer for Getafe as they, and he, returned to primera. He has played at least 33 games a season ever since. That was six seasons ago and he’s still here. It’s not just that he carries on; it’s that he carries on getting better. Scorer of five league goals in primera before the age of 30, he has 67 since.
And he’s not planning on going anywhere else any time soon. Cadiz beating Elche means that they are only one place and two points from the relegation zone with three games left, more points needed, but there is hope now, something to hold on to, another season in the sun. “This means we’re still alive,” Molina said. “This was vital, a game we had to win come what may. We had improved but hadn’t been able to pick up three points and if we had lost it would have been, very, very complicated. The response from the team was wonderful. This was what we wanted: a team that battles, that fights, that leaves everything on the pitch. No one expected to win like this.”
And what about you, he was asked, where’s your ceiling, what can you do now? Jorge Molina smiled. “Keep enjoying playing football, which is what I like most,” he said.