A delivery arrived at Real Murcia's training ground last week, a box with 40 footballs inside. It was as unexpected as it was necessary; most of the balls the club's players had been training with for the past four months have splits or tears, while others had already been binned, leather burst beyond repair. And nor is it just at training: One recent game was halted halfway through when the referee saw the state of the ball.
Murcia, a Spanish club with a 32,000-seater stadium and a proud, 100-year history that includes 18 seasons in the first division and eight second division titles, had no money for replacements. So supporters clubbed together to buy them and arrange delivery, brand new balls booted about an old pitch, bare and uncared for. Dangerous, some say. There is no money to fix that, either. Ground staff have not been paid for six months, and they are not alone: The same goes for office staff, players and coaches.
One day last season, a striker was evicted from his apartment by police after the owner said he had not paid the rent. At first, the player had no idea what was going on; it wasn't him who was supposed to pay, it was the club. But, as he soon found out, months had passed and Real Murcia had not paid. Keep that phrase in mind, it will come up again.
In the summer, one player was about to sign a contract. An announcement was made -- even though he had not agreed, which should have been a warning sign -- and one of his friends got a message from a journalist in the city asking if he was mad. "Tell him not to! They won't pay him," it read. The warning went unheeded, but turned out to be well-placed: Months have passed and Real Murcia have not paid.
That player was among those who travelled to two away games in three days recently, spending around 16 hours on a bus. Having been on the road all night, the squad arrived back in the city at 7 a.m., had breakfast and went straight to training because they had another game three days later. When they arrived, the electricity had been cut off. There was no light in the locker room and no treatment for those who needed it; in the medical room without power, the machines stood idle.
Other days, they have found no hot water, or no water at all. They would turn on the locker room taps and nothing would come out. Another bill unpaid. At first, people at the club would feign surprise, but it did not take long for them to drop the act: Everyone knew what was happening, not least because they too had gone unpaid.
No one has received anything this season either, and these are no millionaires who can ride out the storm: At a club like Murcia, the average salary is probably around €30,000 ($34,000), one player tells ESPN. On the pitch, they are playing well and have lost only twice in 13 games in Segunda Division B, Spain's third tier, although there are fears things will slip away if solutions to the off-pitch issues are not found soon.
The players have hardly talked about football. "They'd keep saying 'we'll pay on this day,' and they never did," one player tells ESPN. Their salaries are protected by their union (the AFE) and some are still considering a denuncia (complaint), but most hope to avoid that scenario. They know that the consequences -- the club could face an administrative relegation -- could be catastrophic.
The players have taken some action, though. In October, backed by supporters and the opposition, with whom they spoke first, Murcia's players stood still for the first 30 seconds of a 1-0 win against Talavera, refusing to play. Instead, they turned toward the directors' box, where president Victor Galvez was supposed to be sitting. But he wasn't there. Outside, fans carried a banner aimed at their board which read: "Thanks for making us feel ashamed."
A few days later, the players gave a statement to the media, outlining everything. They have demonstrated admirable solidarity, sensibility and leadership, but they have had enough. And so have the fans, with whom they have consulted and to whom they have grown closer. "At every turn there were lies," one player tells ESPN. One week they were told the money was coming on Thursday, then Friday, then Saturday, but it never did. Last weekend, there was a confrontation in the dressing room before kickoff.
"This is impossible now," centre-back Charlie said earlier this month. "The pitches are destroyed, we've got people here whose health is suffering, it is an absolute disgrace. We've been trying to train and play with a clear head, [but] it's impossible. Because these people are always lying ... all of them, they're all liars and the sooner they go, the better."
There is a problem, though: It is not clear who the club's owners are.
In 2015, debts accrued led to Murcia suffering an administrative relegation and recently deceased owner Jesus Samper's shares were sold to a businessman from Extremadura called Raul Moro. He soon sold the right to run the club to a Mexican called Mauricio de la Vega but, when de la Vega exercised his right to purchase, Moro insisted he was still owner and subsequently sold the club to Galvez.
A battle for ownership began: The Administrative Sports Court and Spanish Superior Sports Council ratified that De la Vega was the legal owner, though Galvez was still in possession. This summer, De la Vega said that he would take responsibility for all payments needed if Galvez resigned the following morning. "I am scared that his dark intention is to liquidate the club," De la Vega said of Galvez. But Galvez did not go
Last month Murcia's future took another turn when, claiming "I am not the owner of the club," Galvez revealed he would leave in late November. De la Vega again voiced his claim on ownership, but administration of the club fell into the hands of a group of local figures, described by one local journalist as "technocrats," significant Murcianos seeking a solution, working hand-in-hand with supporters.
They do not intend to stay, only to find a way through the crisis. Meetings have been arranged with local businesses, attended by players and board members, with the aim of creating support from local capital, and there is hope that the share issue, which has already seen more than 3.5m sold and seeks a wider spread of ownership that prevents power from becoming concentrated, can provide part of the solution.
Murcia boasts 11,000 members and those supporters have come to the club's aid; it was they who came up with the "make it yours" slogan and they are determined to do just that: Make a club driven by those who genuinely care.
They have sold wristbands and gathered support, pushed the share issue, which is now projected as their salvation. They have turned up in noisy numbers. UCAM Murcia, the other team in the city, have backed them; footballers from all over the country have supported the cause. Supporters from the rest of Spain, and beyond, have mobilised, buying shares to support the club.
Those in charge have the players' cautious backing, although they recognise an inescapable reality: The debt is huge and the money is gone. The club owes almost €53m, including over €16m to the State.
But while, burnt before, doubts inevitably linger, confidence is slowly growing and this week brought the first signs of tangible progress in making payments to players and staff. There was optimism too that further solutions could be found through gate receipts from last Sunday's provincial derby against Cartagena. Murcia dominated only to be defeated by two late goals, but beyond results there is some hope now, belief.
Above all, the players believe in themselves and in the fans who have supported them all the way, forging a relationship closer than ever. Together, they are stronger.
"I told the players that, if what has happened to Murcia had happened to some other team in some other city, they'd die," coach Manuel Herrero said. "Not here. Here there are loads of people behind the club. That gives us peace of mind: We can see that this year we'll come through this."