Last Wednesday night
promises to be remembered as the spectacular burn-out of the Malaga dream Admittedly, it was a dream build on very shaky foundations, but it was exciting while it lasted. However, it’s sadly appropriate that it ended with the club broken and its reputation damaged. But then that really was where Abdullah Al-Thani was taking it all along.
I like Malaga a lot, and I can vouch for the genuine passion of their fans having attended a game at La Rosaleda in the earlydays of Al-Thani’s reign, when his initial spending didn’t look like enough to prevent relegation. Throughout the match their magnificent fans kept a crackling atmosphere going even as Atletico stuck three goals past them without reply. But please don’t give me the fairy tale spin on their Champions League run; it just doesn’t wash.
It’s an angle the non-Spanish media have warmed to. In the UK Sky used the remarkable outpouring of commentator Rob Palmer at the final whistle of the Porto match extensively as which he encapsulated the theme he’d riffed on throughout the match, and indeed the season, of a collection of lower division journeymen suddenly taking Europe by storm for little old Malaga. It would be a great story if it was true (pity he didn’t notice that what Levante have been doing is much closer to that fairy tale!)
Closer to the truth to say that the side was an impressively well-assembled one despite the fact that in the close season the money had run out: a final gift from the admirable Manuel Pellegrini to a club he has done proud.
Look at the side which started in that Porto match. Hardly a ragtag combination of lower league journeymen: Weligton came from Grasshoppers, regulars in Europe and record winners of both the Swiss league and the Swiss cup, Martin Demichelis was fresh from playing in the Champions League final for Bayern Munich, Vitorino Antunes had been starring for Portuguese over-achievers Paços de Ferreira having previously been touted around Europe as a bright young thing. Gamez has paid his dues at Malaga, Iturra had been a Chilean international for seven years, Toulalan came from Lyon, Isco has been voted best young player in Europe this season and Joaquin, Julio Baptista and Saviola have 138 caps spread pretty evenly between them. To be fair, that experienced trio were off the pitch at the final whistle, but their replacements were Lucas Piazon (one of Brazil’s hottest prospects) Roque Santa Cruz (nearly 100 caps, experienced in Spain, Italy and England) and Ignacio Camacho (captain of the Spanish side which won the Under-17 European Championship, and an international at every level but the senior side.) Hardly the fairy tale squad, more the sort of players you’d expect to aspire to the latter stages of the Champions League.
Okay, Willy Caballero signed from Elche, but he’s got an World Club Cup winners medal and an Olympic gold medal in his locker, and played for Boca Juniors: he’s hardly a journeyman, and certainly hasn’t played like one since overcoming expensive opposition to clinch the goalkeeper’s jersey.
Far from being a fairy tale, Malaga’s is a rather sordid but sadly familiar story of a club spending money it didn’t have. It’s a situation the Spanish game has been slow to address. A failure to provide evidence of financial stability would be a problem in Germany or France, where the team’s license could be withheld, while in the UK such dubious fiscal behaviour would have carried penalties in the form of points deductions at the very least. However, in Spain clubs sail close to the wind, safe in the knowledge that no sporting sanction will be visited upon them. That leads to situations like the horrific debts run up by Valencia and Deportivo, the scandalised reaction to Zaragoza bringing in players despite being financially crippled, and what has happened at Malaga.
These scenarios usually start with excitement.The promise that their team would become the third force in modern Spanish football, the first Andalucian super club, was a dream come true for those loyal Malaga supporters. But it was too good to be true: for every Manchester City or Chelsea there are plenty of stories of clubs who overspent and paid the terrible consequences for years. Fans of Leeds, Portsmouth, Blackburn and so many other clubs will tell you about it (and who’s to say City and Chelsea won’t suffer the same fate when their longer term sugar daddies leave the scene?)
The alarm bells were already ringing by the time Fernando Hierro walked out
. When you start hemorrhaging men of his calibre, you know something’s wrong. And when the good people start leaving, more prominence is given to people who are going to drag your name through the mud.
Not that Al-Thani was exactly prominent at La Rosaleda when the going got tough and players starting noting that it would be rather nice if they actually got paid once in a while. But when he did surface, it tended to be to come up with comments which didn’t do justice to a fine club, a noble coach or a magnificent support.
His tawdry comments on Twitter
following their exit to Dortmund last weekend plumbed new depths. At the final whistle he bewilderingly blamed racism for Malaga’s dramatic exit twice in six minutes. A hot-headed immediate response? Two hours later he came out with:
“We were targeted from the beginning of the season by corrupt UEFA and based on racism.”
Having posted screen grabs of the decisive goal in the meantime to show how unfair it was. It certainly was offside, a pretty remarkable oversight by the officials, but if it was part of a conspiracy, why was Eliseu’s patently offside goal -which looked to be decisive until injury time -also allowed?
Ten hours later and he expanded further on his theory and Malaga fans surely cringed again:
“Just because the team owner is Arab and Muslim it doesn’t mean that I must be treated differently , everyone should be treated equally!”
It was final word on the matter which inadvertantly encapsulated though:
“I had enough of this nonsense rumors and people destroying Malaga’s reputation.”
It’s surely asking too much to hope that he’d had a sudden moment of clarity and was referring to his own outbursts.
It’s the staff, players and most of all fans that I feel sorry for. The employees on the playing side will have scope to bail out, and nobody could resent them for doing so. The fans are there for life, though, and are about to endure some tough times. They don’t deserve it, but it’s going to be a long, bitter struggle on the Costa del Sol, I suspect.
At least there’s a rich history of fan struggle against injustice across Europe which they can tap into. I know from supporting my own team, Wrexham in the fifth division of the English game, that remarkable things can be achieved by motivated supporters and that a support network of enthusiastic football fans, bound together by a common love of the game rather than partisan loyalties, is out there and keen to help. The experience of Real Oviedo last year, and how the likes of Sid Lowe spread the story across physical and linguistic barriers to allow fans of the game to unite, shows that.
However, there often has to be suffering and decline before the corner is turned and the battle won. Wrexham now stand as a club to be proud of once more, tilting at promotion for a third consecutive season, fresh from an historic first appearance at Wembley and rid of a series of unwanted owners and speculative prospective owners . Wholly fan-owned, the future of the club is in the hands of the people who care for it, and while the wild dream of a sugar daddy is dead, it’s a false hope anway, destined to end in tears. But we’ve had to drop to the lowest league level in our history to achieve this turnabout, and it’s still going to be difficult to get back to where we feel we ought to be. Malaga’s supporters will no doubt battle to protect their side with zeal, but it will be a long struggle. Hopefully it will ultimately be fruitful.
There’s something appropriate about the profile picture on Al-Thani’s Twitter account. Face half-covered in shadow, it almost seems to have been chosen to warn us about a somewhat shadowy figure. His takeover offered the most horrible of all gifts to Malaga’s fans: unsustainable hope. Just for a while it looked like they were on the verge of something remarkable, but reality has a horrible habit of kicking in.