MADRID - Led by an inspirational banker, Mirandes' run to the Copa del Rey semifinals has amazed football fans in a country dominated by big-money teams and invigorated a troubled Spanish town during tough financial times.

Mirandes is only the third third-tier club to have reached the last four of the domestic cup competition, after Figueres 10 years ago and Deportivo Logrono in 1931. It has eliminated topflight teams Villarreal, Racing Santander and Espanyol to go into Tuesday's first-leg match against 23-time cup champion Athletic Bilbao.

Miranda de Ebro, a northern industrial town of 40,000 mired in high unemployment like the rest of Spain during the current recession, has a team on the verge of an historic cup final that would secure it a place in European play next season.

"We've put Miranda de Ebro on the map," defender Cesar Caneda, who scored a winning stoppage time goal against Espanyol, told The Associated Press. "This is a city experiencing a tremendous unemployment crisis, so it's an honour to play on a team that can provide some kind of pleasure. The fans deserve it."

Propelled by influential midfielder Pablo Infante — banker by day and the competition's leading scorer by night — Mirandes is getting a taste of first division football despite never having played above the third-tier level in its 84 years of existence.

Mirandes is used to matches like Saturday's 1-0 league loss at Segoviana, played on a muddy municipal stadium field, where players slip while delivering long balls on ripped up turf amid poor spotlights.

"Everything we've accomplished is bloody unbelievable. What is happening, for a small team like ours, is incredible," coach Carlos Pouso said. "We are among the top four teams in Spain. How many teams would jump at the chance to have what we have right now? Look at how securely we are playing. We aren't going to stop."

Spain's Copa del Rey competition is not one that favours the underdog, the two-legged series designed to give topflight clubs the advantage. But Mirandes has not been daunted with Infantes' six goals helping the team and inspiring a town that has been hard hit by the financial crisis.

Nearly one in four Spaniards is unemployed, with the youth jobless rate reaching 45 per cent as Spain grapples with the fallout from the collapse of a property and construction bubble that fueled growth for nearly a decade.

"People don't know if they will have work day-to-day so everyone is happy about this, the attention and extra money these three or four days will bring in," said Rosa Izquierdo, a real estate agent. "We're spending more than normally with all of these extra matches."

Izquierdo was among a few hundred fans who made the three-hour trip down to Segovia for Saturday's game, with the added costs of match tickets, transport and hotels adding up for cash-strapped locals wanting to follow the club's cup run.

The club, which has an annual budget of €1 million ($1.3 million), is reacting to the extra demand, ripping out a wall at the Anduva Municipal stadium to build a new section that will accommodate an extra 1,700 fans to go with the 6,000 capacity.

"This is history in the making, so we have to face it as best we can," Infante told the AP in Segovia. "We're very humble people not used to all of this media attention but we're trying to do the best we can. There is a lot of desire and hope knowing we're so close to the final. Let's see what we can do."

Infante holds the unlikely status of popular banker. His play has impressed, with the 31-year-old Caja Circulo bank manager displaying the technical skills and poise of a first division player.

"Before he was more of an individual player but through the years and coaches he's developed into a team player," said fan Miguel Angel Martinez, wrapped in his red Mirandes scarf on a cold winter night. "I think if he was younger he might have thought about leaving to play for a topflight team, I think he treats football as a hobby, really."

Infante is the club's most senior player with seven years in the squad. He was there last season when Mirandes surrendered a penalty in the closing stages against Guadalajara, whose 1-0 victory denied Mirandes a chance at promotion when a draw would have sufficed. That has made this season's run even more special.

"It's meant a lot of joy, but it's also been possible due to much luck," Izquierdo said.

In a country dominated by Barcelona and Real Madrid, Mirandes players and fans alike are dreaming of playing Spanish, European and world champion Barcelona in May's final with Barcelona facing Valencia in the other two-legged tie.

Regardless of the result, Miranda de Ebro has enjoyed the experience.

"Mirandes represents the spirit of the weekend, about going to the stadium to enjoy football," Martinez reflected. "It's about living real football."


Paul Logothetis can be reached at:

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