Two years ago, Cardassar lost everything. Now they're chasing Copa del Rey glory vs. Atletico Madrid

"You ask yourself 'now what?' You feel so powerless. You can't even think about trying to fix it. It's too big."

Jaume Soler is 30 years old. He was 27 when he became president of his hometown club, CE Cardassar, now in Spain's non-professional, regionalised Tercera Division. His team have been given a dream tie in the Copa del Rey, hosting Atletico Madrid in the first round on Wednesday -- stream LIVE in the U.S., 12:50 p.m. ET, ESPN+ but Jaume isn't talking about the biggest game in the club's history yet.

He's talking about the night they lost everything.

"We took over in June," said Soler. "We'd been in charge for three months when the disaster happened."

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On the evening of Oct. 9 2018, torrential rain fell on Sant Llorenc des Cardassar, a quiet town of around 4,000 people, many of whom earn a living from tourism on the nearby Mallorca coast. The waters of the Begura de Salma -- more a stream than a river, running from the hills above, past the town, to the coast below -- began to rise and before government evacuation warnings could be issued, a flash flood with waters over three metres (almost 10 feet) high swept through the town. In all, 13 people died, with more than 200 were left homeless.

In the aftermath of the flooding, a university study found that in just 15 minutes, a flow of 442 cubic metres (15,609 cubic feet) of water per second had built up. That's the same as Spain's longest river, the Ebro, but in a space 1000 times smaller.

"There had been flooding before [in the area], my parents and grandparents had told me about it, but not on that scale," midfielder Ivan Antich, who joined the club at the age of five, told ESPN. "Not with that much power, causing that much damage."

"I'm 22 and I'd never seen anything like it," defender Sergi Febrer, another local resident, said. "I'd never even heard people talk about it. It's the kind of thing you'd write a book about."

Javi Lopez was born in Valencia, but has spent the last three years playing for clubs in the area around Sant Llorenc. "Walking through the streets, it was like a horror movie," he told ESPN. "There were no lights. Lots of police. Mud everywhere. I told my family it was like [Brad Pitt movie] Fury. So much mud. Everything was destroyed."

Cardassar's compact Es Moleter ground sits on the edge of town, alongside the Begura de Salma stream and just across from where the flood waters came in to town. Before the thoughts of players and staff turned to the state of the club's home, though, there were more immediate concerns: the wellbeing of family and friends.

"I was playing for [local Tercera club] Manacor then, which is 10 minutes away by car," Lopez said. "We had training that day. There was a lad who played with us who lived in Sant Llorenc. Five minutes earlier, he'd been calling asking me to go for a coffee. We started to get videos, phone calls about what was happening. And then he wasn't picking up the phone. It was really worrying."

The mobile phone network was down, making contacting anyone impossible. Getting into town was impossible, too.

"I remember it perfectly," Antich told ESPN. "I was coming back from work, it was getting dark. Driving into town I almost got stuck in the water, but I managed to get past and stopped in an area that wasn't affected by the flooding.

"At around 11 p.m., the emergency services let us in. I went to my parents' house to check if they were ok, and then I went to check on the neighbours. There were 20 or 30 cars all piled on top of each other. Everything was full of mud. People were crying. I get emotional just talking about it."

And then there was Cardassar's home, Es Moleter. Or rather, there wasn't. It was gone.

"The next day we went to see how the pitch was," Antich says. "And there wasn't a football pitch there."

Looking at the images, you get an idea of the scale of the damage. The sheer force of the flood waters had torn the artificial surface from the ground beneath. It lay in a twisted heap at one end of the field, like a rug that had been picked up and thrown down in a hurry. The grandstand was still upright, but it had a view of a sea of mud.

The club's losses extended beyond the pitch itself. "We had lockers in the dressing rooms where we kept our boots and things like that. All of it was taken by the water," Antich said. "We didn't have a single boot left."

"We lost everything. Everything," Soler said. "Even the washing machines, which were full of kit, disappeared. We didn't have any kits, just imagine. We had nothing. And then there was the damage to the pitch. We had to replace everything. The surface, the sprinklers, the walls, the dressing rooms, the bathrooms, the bar, the plumbing, electricity, the solar panels. Everything. Everything."

Over the days and weeks that followed, the slow process of rebuilding the town began. "Above all, I helped my family," Febrer said. "My cousins' house was affected. I spent most of my time there. I went to the football pitch too, when I could, but most of the time I was with my cousins. Family came first."

"The first night, and the next day, we were in shock," Antich added. "We didn't know how to react. But then people started helping their neighbours. That's the image that has stayed with me, people with their own problems, offering a hand wherever it was needed. First thing in the morning we'd hand out cleaning products, brooms, gloves, boots, and when we finished, we'd start cleaning."

It wasn't clear if the football club -- as much a community institution and hub for the town's children as a modest team near the bottom of the Spanish football pyramid -- could be saved.

"You ask yourself what to do, if you should keep going," Soler said. "We were under no obligation. The town hall told us not to worry, they'd look for solutions. The easiest thing would have been to leave it."

But help arrived. Mallorca native Rafa Nadal, who was born in nearby Manacor and was spotted helping out with the clean-up efforts, donated a million euros to rebuild sporting facilities in the area. A friendly match was arranged between a Balearic Islands XI and the island's biggest team, Real Mallorca, with proceeds from ticket sales going to Cardassar. Osasuna donated a set of their away kits, which were yellow like Cardassar's home strip, and footballs.

By Jan. 5 2019, just three months later, the stadium was ready to open again.

Their story of tragedy, unity and recovery is remarkable enough, but what's happened on that new pitch since might just match it. "It's not like after the flooding, we lost all our games. It was the complete opposite," Febrer said. "We all know each other, most of us are from the town. We became closer."

When the flood happened, morale was bad. Football was an escape valve, every Sunday, going to see the first team."

In 2018-19, Cardassar were in Primera Regional -- the fifth tier of Spanish football -- having been relegated the previous year. Despite the difficulties caused by the flooding, they ended the season in third place, and were promoted to Preferente. Their 2019-20 campaign was disrupted again, this time by the coronavirus pandemic, but when lower league football in Spain was abandoned, Cardassar were top of the table, 14 points clear of their nearest rivals, and were named champions. That gave them the chance to face the champions of neighbouring islands Menorca and Ibiza, where victory put them into the qualifying rounds of the Copa del Rey.

A tense penalty shootout win over CF Epila of Zaragoza on November 11 saw them book a place in the first round draw; under a new cup format aimed at increasing the drama and the chances of big upsets and David vs. Goliath matches, that meant Cardassar were guaranteed a top-flight opponent. In a one-off game. At home.

"I've spent a lot of years working in football on this island," coach Miquel Angel Tomas, who took over in 2019, told ESPN. "You have a lot of good times. Others not so much. There's a lot of sacrifice. So the day you manage to beat Epila, which allows you to play a First Division team, it's a feeling of such happiness. I'll always remember that day. You'd like everyone to experience something like it once in their life."

Then came the Copa del Rey draw.

"It was a Monday," Sergi Febrer said. "Those of us who didn't have to work got together in a bar in the town square. The draw started and the big names, the ones we all wanted like Atletico Madrid and Sevilla, weren't coming out. I think we were the second-to-last name in the draw. You knew we'd get someone good, but Atleti were the best. Everyone was on their feet shouting. I'm a Barça fan, but of the teams we could have got, the one that excited me the most was Atleti."

"It was an incredible feeling," Javi Lopez said. "There are no words. We were jumping around, yelling."

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So how do you prepare for a game against the best team in Spain right now?

"People say, 'It's Atletico Madrid, what are you going to do?'" Lopez laughed. "And I say 'Enjoy myself, what else am I going to do?' I'll probably never get to play them again."

Antich -- who, at 30, has been in Cardassar's first team for a decade -- will miss the match after recently undergoing surgery. "And I'm a Real Madrid fan!" he says. "It would have been an extra motivation. But I was just operated on for appendicitis. Football is like that -- sometimes injuries come when you least want them to."

It will be a tense evening in the Tomas household too, as the coach's father is a lifelong Atletico supporter. "You're a fan, and your son is a coach in lower league football, and one day you have the chance to see the team of your life against the team your son coaches," he told ESPN. "The best thing would have been for me to coach Atleti, but that's not going to happen!

"He has this at least... and I'll be able to tell my grandchildren that one day, their grandfather faced off against a great coach like Diego Simeone."

There were some initial doubts about Es Moleter's ability to host such a game, but with days to spare, inspectors from the Spanish football federation confirmed that it's up to the task. Coronavirus restrictions mean 305 people will be able to attend, and the club has decided that 150 of them will be the youngsters who play for its youth teams, while 100 of the club's 600 loyal socios will be selected at random. Tennis star Nadal has also been invited as a guest of honour given his vital donations.

"The one downside is that a lot of people won't be able to attend," club president Soler told ESPN. "It's a special day. We've got the same group of players we had two years ago. A lot of them experienced what happened.

"Two promotions in a row, getting into the Copa del Rey, promoted to the Third Division... in a sporting sense, things couldn't have gone better. We have 96 years of history and our best was the year after the flood."