It was a deal that exposed the gap between the super clubs and those below them: Barcelona, a Spanish giant, and Leganes, a Madrid team now playing in Spain’s second division.

Back in February 2020, both clubs were in La Liga. Barcelona were, unsurprisingly, towards the top of the table, while lowly Leganes were battling to stay afloat with the big boys.

Then the Catalans had a problem. A long-term injury to attacker Ousmane Dembele left them short of options, but they couldn’t buy anyone, as the January transfer window had already shut.

But then it opened, just a squeak. Dembele’s unavailability meant Barcelona were permitted to recruit an emergency replacement by La Liga and the Spanish soccer federation. So, they met Leganes’ €18 million ($19.5 million) release clause to sign striker Martin Braithwaite.

Leganes were outraged, about to lose a key player and with no time to sign a replacement of their own. Many believed Braithwaite was a misfit for Barcelona, but he was perfect for Leganes, who had sold Youssef En-Nesyri—in outstanding form this season—to Sevilla a month earlier. Leganes were eventually relegated and felt a stinging injustice.

“To provide top players who are now wearing Barcelona and Sevilla shirts is not easy for us to take,” Txema Indias, Leganes’ sporting director, tells me, lamenting both forwards’ departures.

“We wanted to find solutions, but the regulations (regarding the Braithwaite transfer) didn’t allow us to do it.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t replaced those two top-tier quality players this season, but we have found solutions to compete in the second league.”

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Braithwaite’s exit was unique, but the trend remains. Leganes reached the premier division for the first time in 2016, enjoying four years with the elite, but have become used to seeing their stars move on.

Many talents haven’t stayed long either. The loan market brings short-term satisfaction, but then the bubble bursts. Names such as Oscar Rodriguez, Bryan Gil and Aitor Ruibal fled to find new homes in La Liga.

“It’s like a storefront, where a shop displays its dresses so that everyone can see them,” adds Jose Gonzalez, the club’s head of international development.

“Everyone wants to come to Leganes because they know they can play here and then sign for other teams.”

Considering the drop back down, Leganes have fared admirably in the Segunda this season and hope to return to the top level. At the time of writing, Asier Garitano’s team is 11 points adrift of the two automatic promotion spots but remains well-placed to make the end-of-season playoffs.

A standout player is 29-year-old midfielder Ruben Pardo, heralded as one for the future at the start of his career with Real Sociedad. With Espanyol and Mallorca likely finish first and second, Leganes will need him to hold off their rivals and make their comeback.

It’s not a simple task, but the club is used to fielding capable squads and searching for solutions. Being based in the Spanish capital has its benefits, despite the stature of clubs around them.

“Finding young talent here is not easy because there are two soccer monsters in Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid who attract the best young talent in the world,” Indias adds.

“But this filter they have for players benefits us too, as we are nearby and not all of them progress to their first teams. They are very useful to a club like ours.”

As Madrid teams go, Leganes is not one of the most renowned, but they are keen to expand.

Known as los pepineros, or cucumbers, because of their agricultural roots, Leganes are thinking globally, even though the La Liga buzz has temporarily faded.

“Internationalization in Spain started with Real Madrid and Barcelona, and now clubs like us,” adds Gonzalez. He believes Leganes’ communication and marketing department are among the very best.

“I worked at Real Madrid for four years, and I was previously in the Segunda B (third tier). When I arrived at Real, I realized the importance of branching out and doing things.

“Now, it’s a club in the second division, but in reality, everyone knows that, even if not this year, Leganes will soon rise to the first division because it has become a strong club.

“Before it was a small club whose history was almost always a route between the second and third divisions. But arriving in La Liga, you can see it has made the club very well-run.”