It started as a joke although like most jokes there was something in it; beneath the smile, and the silliness, Cadiz striker Lucas Perez was deadly serious. A barbecue, maybe a beer or two, and an idea formed. It was early summer and the striker was chatting to his club president, Manuel Vizcaino. In a perfect world, Perez told him, I'd help Cadiz clinch survival in LaLiga, maybe score the goals that will save us, and then, when the season is over, join Deportivo la Coruna 1,000 kilometres away for the play-offs and help them get promotion to the second division.
Survival and promotion: what could be better?
So far, he only managed one of the two. Perez could still do both. Because this week that daft idea, that dream, became a little more real: not quite the way he imagined it perhaps, not quite the way he wanted it either, and certainly not as fast as he fantasised about, but it can happen. The man who helped secure survival for Cadiz last spring has now joined third-tier Deportivo on a €1 million transfer fee.
Which is the only thing he wanted, he said. And he didn't just say it: he demonstrated it.
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Perez is from Coruna. Born and raised in Monelos out to the west of the city, the man who has the most koruño accent imaginable, he is a lifelong Deportivo fan soon to be a father who has already obliged his unborn son to be a fan too. He is also a former player at the club, albeit one forced to build a career elsewhere first, unable make his first Deportivo debut until he was 27. He has played there in two different spells: in 2014-2016 and on loan 2017-18. Both times he had to leave, against his will. His aim was always to return. Now he has.
At that barbecue in Cadiz, Vizcaino said he would grant him his wish if the conditions were right. The play-off plan wasn't going to happen but if Cadiz survived and Deportivo went up, he promised he would allow Perez to go home and play there for the current season. Perez did his part. He scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over Barcelona in April, the first of a run of four games in which he scored or assisted. And on the last day of the 2021-22 season in May, Cadiz survived with a win at Alaves, a former club of Perez (and the place where he had started his career).
Two weeks later, Perez was at Estadio Riazor for Deportivo's play-off final against Albacete. Not as a player but as a fan, one of almost 30,000, the place packed. It was all set up for Deportivo to win promotion and for him to find the doors open for a return: all the hosts needed was a draw and it would be done. But, whether it was the weight of expectation, the pressure, or something else, they lost 2-1, a goal in the 113th minute ending it. The dream was gone, for the team and their former player. Perez left in tears.
When he returned to Cadiz, he told them that although Deportivo hadn't gone up, he still wanted to return home. Vizcaino said no as he wanted Perez to stay with Cadiz. It is easy enough to see why: Perez had scored more goals than anyone else in the team this season.
When the story got out that Perez wanted to leave the club, Cadiz's fans whistled him, upset at what they saw as a player trying to force an exit.
"I didn't force anything," he said this week, "I was just honest about what I wanted." He added that Vizcaino is "stubborn" but then so is he. And so in the end, Perez got what he wanted, but he had to give too.
"At Christmas there was the small possibility and in the end we all pushed and Vizcaino opened the door for me," he said.
It took some going to get him to do so: this was not an easy deal to do. Pulling on heart strings was not enough. Yet that emotional part meant that eventually Perez went with the best wishes of his former fans, who in the end understood. They came to see that they're not so different, after all. They may have been the one he turned his back on, but he had done what they wished players would do. He had done what they professed to believe in.
Because here's the thing: this wasn't just Perez leaving Cadiz for Coruna this week. It wasn't even Perez leaving Cadiz for home, the city where he was raised.
It was that Lucas Perez left Cadiz, who play in LaLiga, where he was a starter. To play for Deportivo, who play in Spain's 40-team, two grouped, supposedly non-professional Primera RFEF. he also took a six-fold pay-cut and paid half of the transfer fee himself, handing over €493,000 from his own pocket.
This weekend, he could have been playing Valencia. Instead, he will be facing the small, fan-owned Unionistas.
On the day that Cristiano Ronaldo signed with Al Nassr in Saudi Arabia, Perez joined Deportivo. The day before he had played his last match for Cadiz, despite his new club asking him not to risk it, and scored. Up to the last minute, Vizcaino was trying to make him see sense: there were new contract offers, promises of a project that would be good. A future down there. He said no, stood firm, stubborn. He shelled out too. Put bluntly: he paid for this.
On social media he bade farewell saying sorry, but he was off to chase a dream. To bring Deportivo from the lower tiers, where they have been stuck for three long years, back to .... not even the top flight, but the second division.
There is a Spanish phrase: there are reasons that only the heart understands. In Galicia, land's end looking west to the Atlantic, across which many have sailed and upon which many work -- there is a reason that Argentinians refer to all immigrant Spaniards as gallegos -- they talk about a kind of nostalgia. The pull of the sea and the pull of the land. There were 7,000 fans at Riazor to greet him, their boy coming back.
#OSNOSOS | Uns 7.000 deportivistas arroupan a Lucas Pérez na súa presentación oficial en #ABANCARIAZOR https://t.co/tMpzWGgkPA pic.twitter.com/15V0Flq8E7— RC Deportivo (@RCDeportivo) January 3, 2023
In Perez's presentation news conference, almost every question and every answer was proceeded by a "hey, great to see you!" And he (and the reporters) meant it too: he was breezy, cheeky, a glint in in his eye. Just happy to be there. He said he was that same kid from here and he pretty much was. He admitted that in the video he did with the club, visiting local landmarks, laying a hand on the statue of Arsenio Iglesias, the coach who began the Super Depor side he grew up watching in the '90s, was emotional. Mind you, he added, Monelos has changed and coming up from Cadiz in the south, he needed the thermals for training that morning.
Like many kids in Galicia, Perez's father was at sea, somewhere off the Irish coast, and he was raised mostly by his grandparents. The kind of kid who took a ball everywhere, he says he has kicked about on every playground in the city but he had not played for the club he supported until he was 27. He had left home for Alaves at 16, went to Atletico Madrid in 2007, and then to Rayo Vallecano. From there he headed to Ukraine, for two-and-a-half years, and continued on to Greece. He didn't much like either: being in Ukraine he positively disliked.
When he finally got the chance to play for Deportivo -- taking a salary a quarter of the size of what he was offered in Greece -- he made much of how it fulfilled him, how his family were happy just to have him around. They were no longer the Super Depor they had been, but they were a first-division team, the place he had always wanted to be. And in 2015-16, he was outstanding, scoring 17 goals in the league. In total he played 93 top-flight games, scoring 32 and assisting 20.
Which was both good and bad. Deportivo were in financial crisis. Arsenal paid his buyout clause and although he didn't want to go, Lucas departed for London. The club had needed the money, so this was a service too. When he came back in 2017, it was on loan -- prior to joining West Ham United. That year, Deportivo were relegated from the top flight, with him on the pitch, which hurt.
"Everyone keeps telling me I have a thorn in my side," he said this week. "Every night I go to bed thinking about it."
There is a sense of mission about this return, of putting things right. There is a euphoria, a gratitude, the sense that at last Depor can begin to return to where they should be. There has not been attention like this for years: the conference room looked like those Champions League nights they miss, many reporters said.
Yet if those days aren't there any more, the fans remain. They have 24,000 season ticket holders in the third tier - "we're a big club," Perez insisted, quite rightly -- a mass base bigger than anyone in Galicia, bigger than anyone even in the second division. One with a history, a loyalty that sets it apart, a feeling that can't be extinguished. They can cling to him as the proof of that.
"This is not Lucas Perez's club," he insisted. "It is the city's club, the fans' club, the club of many kids, many mums and dads.
"People talk about this being me going to play in [the third division], but I don't see it like that: I see it as going to play at Deportivo."
In Perez there is the hope of a return too. "Calm down, please," he protested: he kept insisting he was not the saviour, not the star. At one point he claimed that that even if Lionel Messi comes tomorrow -- now that's an idea -- there was no guarantee they would go up. Yet that is the aim, everyone agreed.
And let's return to something basic here, the fact that makes this so remarkable: He may not be Messi but Lucas Perez is a first-division footballer. And here he is, dropping to the third tier, to help his team in need. No, there are no guarantees, but he should be the best player in the division.
Deportivo are currently well placed to reach the playoffs. Direct promotion would be even better -- after all, last year the play-off final ended up being painful, Perez in tears as he watched from the stands, seeing his team lose and his hopes of returning slipping away, the club left in a division where there was no way they could justify his signing. That dream, though remains alive a year on -- and with him on the pitch.
Promotion is the objective, maybe even an obligation. The aim is to bring Deportivo back to "professional football," in Perez's words, when he had just taken a decision that was about as far from professionalism as could be. At the start of his presentation, the club's president was talking. Hopefully we can go up to the second division. Alongside him, his first official words on his return as a Deportivo player, Perez jumped in: "Ojala!" he said. God willing.
That's the goal he chases, the dream Lucas Perez has chosen: to return once more but with his team this time, to fight for promotion and the chance to play in a division that would still be lower than the one he scored in just last week.