Alaves' playoff promotion is a barely believable true story

A trumpeter came to play. Only sport really does this: amplifier and accelerator of emotions, teller of stories. Life in 90 minutes. Or, as it turns out: 129. And the rest. You couldn't make it up, the line goes, but you really could; it's just that they wouldn't believe you. Oh, come on, all that for this? The whole thing building to a single second which is everything, a script setting up a final scene, reduced to one man and destiny, an entire people depending on a hero's redemption. Too cliched, too obvious, too melodramatic, too contrived. Too bloody silly.

Too true.

A complete season -- 10 months, 46 games plus extra time, and extra time on extra time -- and it all comes down to a single kick. A solitary, final touch from the, what, 35,000 they have had since August, fate at the feet of one man, the last he will ever have with his club before departing. The man that, somehow, it had to be; a fallen idol. Look. One shot, one opportunity to seize everything. One moment.

"Madness," he called it later. There are 30 seconds left in the second-division playoff final and Levante are on their way to the first division when Alaves win a corner, one last chance to escape, to score the goal that neither of these teams have done in 213 minutes across two legs. The tension has been unbearable for too long, hearts climbing out of mouths, but it's almost over. At 0-0 Levante are going up, because they have finished higher in the table, thanks to a 94th-minute winner on the final day of the regular season. That's enough: the rules say there will be no penalties: no shootout, no sudden death, no drama.

- Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

But there is.

Alaves send up their goalkeeper, Antonio Sivera, and send in the ball. Levante clear, just about, and suddenly Sivera is sprinting like mad in the other direction. It's done, as good as over, and there is a roar from the Levante fans, relief. There were three minutes added, and those have gone now: we're past 130. Only, Sivera isn't heading back towards his own goal; he's going straight for the referee, Francisco Jose Hernandez Maeso. He has seen something, a lifeline, and he is screaming at the official to see it, too. The goalkeeper gets a yellow card, but he also gets heard. So does someone in the VAR room, 350 kilometers away.

As the ball was cleared, it hit Rober Pier on the arm. It could be a penalty. It can't be ... can it? The giant screens at each end of the ground, unusually, show it. Everyone there at the Ciutat de Valencia can see the arm, the ball, can feel the whole thing falling down. Levante's fans fear the worst. So do the 450 travelling Alaves supporters and the thousands back home: this could be it but it also couldn't be and no one is celebrating, although plenty are crying. Imagine missing it. Oh, they can imagine it.

Eventually the referee goes to the screen. He doesn't look yet: he won't until they have all backed off. Standing there, everything stopped, they watch him decide what happens to them. Two minutes have passed, three, four. Hernandez Maeso comes back, draws a screen and points to the spot.

All around the stadium people are sobbing, in both sets of shirts. Some can't look. Those who do see Luis Rioja standing there by the spot with the ball. He is Alaves' top scorer, their best player. No one has played more than him; 3,427 minutes stripped down to one second. All around him, Levante's players are in his ear, trying to get into his head. Promotion has been in their hands; now it depends on him missing.

And then Rioja walks away.

When the referee went to the screen, Rioja had approached teammates Asier Villalibre and Toni Moya and said that one of them had to take the penalty. Villalibre says he'll do it, but it's best not to let Levante know that, not yet.

"Luis put the ball down knowing that I was going to take it," Villalibre tells Cadena Ser radio later, "that's done to put them off a bit too. You go there with the ball, you know they're going to come and say things. They said them to Luis, but Luis wasn't going to take it. Luis opened a path for me. It seems stupid, but it's important. That way, I went there with a clear head."

Maybe not clear exactly, a million thoughts in his mind. They call Villalibre "the buffalo." The outstanding player in the Athletic Club youth system, he was given his first-team debut in 2015, aged 17, the first time Ernesto Valverde was there. As he was coming through he went out on loan a lot -- Numancia, Valladolid, Lorca -- but the last of those was in 2018, those days seemingly behind him, a place for him at San Mames. Small and dynamic, barrelling into everyone, with a beard you could hide a badger in, he was emerging as a handy striker and a cult figure, the man Lionel Messi slapped in the 2021 Spanish Supercopa final.

That day, Villalibre's goal took the game into extra time, Athletic eventually winning 3-2. At full-time, he pulled out his trumpet and played it to celebrate on the pitch, teammates gathered around him. Sure, Athletic had faced Real Madrid and Barcelona, but he had carried it with him, just in case, a symbol of confidence, and it became the image of the final. That night, his band gave a first public outing to the track they had been working on called One Club Men. Athletic players all, their name was Orsai -- offside -- they had started from scratch, learning to play with YouTube tutorials, and they had Dani Garcia on the drums, Inigo Lekue on bass, Oscar De Marcos, Mikel Vesga, Mikel Balenziaga on the guitar, and Villalibre on trumpet and vocals.

Villalibre is quiet -- "I think I have heard him play more than I have heard him talk," coach Marcelino once said -- and doesn't drive a flash car, but everyone took to him. In part because of how unlike a footballer he seemed, how normal. Footage of him at local fiestas helped, as did the video of him having a kickabout with a load of kids on a playground he just happened to be passing. He had asked for and been given Aritz Aduriz's old No. 20 shirt too. And the trumpet also helped, although he did later admit that he wouldn't mind being known more for his football.

And that wasn't going so well any more. Top scorer in preseason, in the lineup on the opening day, he soon slipped from the Athletic side: that was his only start and there were no goals in the five matches he played. When the winter came, another loan move was suggested, five years on. It involved dropping down to the second division, too. He didn't mind that, and because it was at Alaves, based in Vitoria, just 65 km from Bilbao, he could still practice with the band some days and not feel so far from home. His only concern was what if he missed out on Athletic winning the cup. Besides, he had to play.

In Vitoria, where he was about to live the most intense months of his footballing life, the welcome was special, that cult status carrying across. He had come on a mission, too, one that might be short but was special: to score the goals that took them back to primera. He immediately scored twice on his debut, in the derby against Eibar.

It might have been even greater, too, and that was on his mind on Saturday night. Villalibre scored four times in his eight starts, sixteen appearances in all. But on the final day of the season against Las Palmas, the kind of a winner-takes-all clash that could have been a story of its own, he had been sent clean through with the chance to win it and missed. At the end of the match, he was in tears, broken.

That wasn't surprising. This has been the most absurdly tight battle for promotion anyone could remember. Score that and Alaves would have finished second, promoted automatically; instead, they finished fourth, and had to go into the playoffs. Worse, before the game he had said: "We're a great team and we're going up." And having to go into the playoffs meant missing Dani Garcia's wedding back in Bilbao, where he was supposed to be playing. As one local paper put it, that "could have changed everything" but it ended in tears: "Villalibre could have been an idol, the hero for an entire city."

Could have been? Is.

Villalibre, who took to kissing Jon Guridi's bald head before every game, a ritual carried out with the on-loan Real Sociedad midfielder, wasn't finished yet. He scored the last-minute semifinal goal that finally ended it against Eibar and sent Alaves into the final. And now for the twist, the miracle. Salvation. With the clock on 129 minutes, the season over, his loan deal up, an entire city holding out for a hero, he had more one shot, his last ever touch, legacy on the line. Just him and that final scene.

This time he hadn't brought his trumpet with him -- "I thought that would be a lack of respect to the Levante fans," he admitted -- but it was, he said, in the boot of his car ready and soon he would be going back for it. He trusted in himself, in the redemption suddenly placed within his reach, an absurd ending to make this another barely believable true story. The trumpeter had come to play.

"I was convinced," he said. "I really like taking penalties and I also wanted to remove that thorn in my side from Las Palmas."

Calmer than anyone else, Asier Villalibre coolly guided the ball into the corner and Alaves into primera, not a dry eye in the house. Roll the closing credits.