“Fans jeer me because I’m rich, good-looking and a great footballer,” claimed Cristiano Ronaldo after he was abused from the stands during Real Madrid’s Champions league victory at Dynamo Zagreb in the Croatian capital last month.

Four days later and still feeling the effects of an ankle injury, Ronaldo was greeted at Levante with a banner which read: ‘poor, ugly and rubbish… we’re Levante’.

Fans of the Valencia-based side were showing their sense of humour and they would surely need it in 2011-12. The club had seen the coach who masterminded their rise to the Primera Division and a successful season last term, Luis Garcia, depart for Getafe, while their star player, Felipe Caicedo, had been snapped up for close to a million euros and then sold straight away to Lokomotiv Moscow. Furthermore, the team were approaching the new campaign with the league’s second-lowest budget and an ageing playing squad made up of rejects from all over the country. Hardly reasons for optimism.

But Levante beat Madrid by a single goal. Then they beat Rayo Vallecano, then Espanyol and Betis, before thrashing Champions League hopefuls Malaga and Villarreal 3-0. Six wins from sixs, added to early-season draws against Getafe and Racing Santander, saw the club climb to the top of the table on their own, above both Madrid and Barcelona.

Coach Juan Ignacio Martinez, originally an unpopular choice among fans to take over from the much-admired Luis Garcia, could barely believe it. “This is beyond our wildest dreams,” he said. Meanwhile, midfielder Juanlu, who scored two goals in the win over Villarreal and already has five this season, called it ‘a miracle’.

That is perhaps far-fetched, but Levante are certainly punching above their weight. Against Madrid, none of the players in the starting XI had cost a fee, with the side made up of free transfers, loans and homegrown players. It is a system used by countless clubs across Spain and in other leagues, but rarely this effectively.

In fact, only one of the 14 fielded against Jose Mourinho’s side had cost anything at all – substitute Miguel Pallardo. The Valencia-born midfielder was snapped in the summer from Getafe for €200,000 or, to put things into perspective, less than what Ronaldo and Lionel Messi earn in a week.

So when Juanlu claimed on Monday that with the wages of a Madrid or Barcelona player, you could pay all 25 members of Levante’s squad, he wasn’t joking. The top earners at the Valencia-based side earn around €350,000 per year, with many taking home considerably less.

Club captain Sergio Ballesteros is one of the top-paid professionals at the club and his story is like that of so many others. Ballesteros began his career at Levante before he was spotted by Jupp Heynckes and moved to Tenerife. The burly centre-back also played for Rayo, Villarreal and Mallorca, but was unwanted on the island by Gregorio Manzano and dropped down a division in 2008. For from suffering a decline, however, the defender has enoyed a new lease of life, is now a cult hero with fans – who are demading a Spain call-up for their captain – and the unquestionable leader of this Levante side. Ballesteros, though, is 36, and older than club president Quico Catalan.

The defender isn’t the only veteran. Most of Levante’s players have been around the block; Javi Venta is also 36, Juanfran is 35 and the introduction of former Valencia and Inter midfielder Javier Farinos in the starting line-up against Malaga saw the club field the oldest team on record in the Primera Division, with a combined age of 346 and an average of 31.45 per player. And that would be even higher, too, if it were not for homegrown youngster Vicente Iborra, a powerful midfielder who is just 23 and has been compared to Barca’s Sergio Busquets.

Others, such as Arouna Kone and Xavi Torres, have arrived on loan. But none want to leave. “I spent a year at Betis eating seeds in the stands,” Juanlu revealed recently. Now he’s sitting much higher up, right at the top of Spain’s Primera Division. And while survival remains the goal for a team tipped by so many to make the drop, a win at home to Real Sociedad on Wednesday night will see the dream continue for a little longer. And in a so-called two-team league, what’s not to like about that?

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