All the best cowboys have sugar daddy issues

by Mark Houston

Isco MalagaOver the years, the metaphor of a roller-coaster season or up-and-down journey has become a cliché. However, in the case of Malaga Club de Futbol, the relatively small club on the Spanish south coast, there really is no other way to describe the last 24 months.

Last Wednesday night’s dramatic exit at the hands of Borussia Dortmund at the Signal Iduna Park, with the tie seemingly won heading into stoppage time, marked yet another low for Los Boquerones and denied manager Manuel Pellegrini the opportunity to lead his second Spanish side to the Champions League semi-finals in their maiden season in Europe’s elite competition.

It has been a bittersweet campaign for Malaga in the Champions League. While they have won plenty of fans with their performances, vastly exceeding expectations and going through the group stage unbeaten, there is the cloud of exemption from the competition next season hanging over them alongside their heartbreaking defeat last week. Perhaps the most frustrating part in one of this season’s success stories missing out on European football next season, should they qualify, is that it is no fault of the players, the management, the staff or the fans that they won’t be in Europe next season.

In June 2010, Sheikh Abdullah Ben Nasser Al-Thani, a Qatari and cousin of the Emir, bought Malaga with the dream of a grand project which involved challenging Barcelona and Madrid to break the stranglehold they have over Spanish football, venturing into European competition and forming a Spanish powerhouse on the south coast. The “yo-yo” club, which holds the record for most promotions to La Liga – thus having been relegated on quite a few occasions as well – then forked out close to €60m to secure the signings of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Santi Cazorla, Nacho Monreal, Joaquin, Diego Buonanotte, Isco and Jeremy Toulalan to name a few, while also adding Manuel Pellegrini – who oversaw Villarreal’s maiden Champions League campaign taking them to the semi-finals, and posted Real Madrid’s record points tally – as manager and Fernando Hierro, also previously of Real, as a sporting director.

The project had promise. Large sums of money were spent, but they were spread over a number of players at reasonable market values, coupled with investment in a new training ground. They were, for the most part, astute signings and investments that were complemented with sensible appointments at management level and a genuine long-term vision for the club; they seemed to be getting the balance right and mixed experienced internationals with promising youngsters.

Despite the positivity and promise around the club, for whatever reason, and there is certainly some mystery surrounding the circumstances, the wheels began to fall off towards the end of the season. The cash that was thrown around earlier in the year, and was apparently in abundance, had disappeared. Players were paid late, transfer fees weren’t received by other clubs and the owners faded into darkness, leaving the club in a state of limbo with no direction or communication from the top.

What made the sudden backflip so bizarre was that there was a conscious effort concentrated into a long-term project. Al-Thani spent in excess of €100m on purchasing the club, new players and infrastructure upgrades, so his withdrawal just does not make any sense as he was, to use a poker phrase, “pot committed”. A number of scenarios emerged as possibilities, such as a lack of financial power in the first place and spending above their means, or that they simply had expected differently to what they had encountered in the football market and no longer wanted to take part.

An interesting point, although somewhat far-fetched as to whether there is any relation, is that just before the apparent loss of interest a large redevelopment of the docks in Malaga had been blocked, which led to speculation that the football club was only a small part in a greater plan for the Qatari millionaries in gaining a foothold in the Spanish economy.

Regardless of what rumours and theories were thrown about, the reasons have still not been explained and probably never will be.

Amazingly, considering the uncertainty that had engulfed the club rather than any lack of playing ability, Malaga managed to leap from 9th place in La Liga and qualify for the Champions League. The project had been fast-tracked; one that had initially begun with humble goals was already bearing fruits and putting them at European football’s top table. Results and league position aside however, the club was still in crisis as Al-Thani remained hidden.

Villarreal, Osasuna and others claimed that they had still not been paid full transfer fees owed to them by Malaga and reported the club to UEFA. Some of the players even threatened action against the club if their wages weren’t paid. The club was in a precarious position, at risk of losing their Champions League place and possibly even being relegated if they did not meet deadlines set by Europe’s governing body.

While at first there was no response thanks to the owner’s absence, the threat became more apparent as time ticked down and those still at the club, along with Al-Thani’s representative Moayad Shatat – who Guardian journalist Sid Lowe likens to Pulp Fiction’s Mr Wolf – worked frantically to come up with the cash, albeit at the expense of losing star players Santi Cazorla and Salomon Rondon at cut-price deals and being unable to reinvest the money into the playing squad. The summer’s chain of events cast significant doubt over what was meant to be the beginning of a historic season for the Andalusians and their fans while Hierro and fellow director Antonio Fernandez joined van Nistelrooy and Joris Mathijsen in following Cazorla and Rondon out of the club.

They raised over €40m and spent less than €1m, but the immediate dangers were avoided as they went into their Champions League play-off against Panathinaikos having restructured the club, no longer relying on investment from the owner. And following months of silence, to the surprise of everyone, Al-Thani re-emerged to publicly congratulate the team after their 2-0 first-leg victory. They then traveled to Greece the following week and held onto their advantage, grinding out a 0-0 draw cementing their spot in the group stage for the first time ever; and thus receiving a healthy financial boost which seemed to be enough to convince Al-Thani to return wholeheartedly to the project.

“The club is stable now; completely different to the situation we lived through in July, when there was a sudden change in attitude and budget. Now, we’re living a moment of institutional stability and sporting success,” Pellegrini said following the victory over Panathinaikos.

Had the play-off gone the other way, who really knows what would have happened to Malaga. The achievement of reaching the group stage was certainly the kick-start that the team needed after the saga that dragged on all summer. They continued, or rather improved further on, their early season form and took some of Europe’s biggest scalps on the way to topping their group… Unbeaten. They defeated Zenit St Petersburg, Anderlecht and AC Milan before overturning a 1-0 first-leg defeat to Porto to triumph 2-1 on aggregate in the Champions League round of 16.

Amidst all this, Isco was named UEFA’s Golden Boy, the award for the continent’s most talented young player, and they defeated Real Madrid 3-2 in the league at the Rosaleda, thanks to a glittering display from their new Golden Boy; the first time in 29 years they had beaten Los Merengues.

But of course, when Malaga experience a high there must be low to follow. There seems to be a “too good to be true” reality that follows the club around and UEFA’s financial control body made Malaga the first, and highest profile, casualty of their Financial Fair Play policies by fining the club €300,000 and banning them from European competition the next time they qualify (in the next four years). A new deadline of March 31 to pay all their debts meant that Nacho Monreal followed Santi Cazorla to Arsenal in the winter transfer window to fund the repayments with all Champions League revenues temporarily withheld.

The most interesting, or as Malaga have put it, incomprehensible, fact of the ruling by UEFA is that it has come in a time when the club insist they are up to date with their repayments and have now received support from the likes of Osasuna and Villarreal, affirming that the club have gotten their act together.

The disbelief at UEFA’s ban is similar to what the players and fans must be feeling following their quarter final loss to Borussia Dortmund in Germany.

It had truly seemed like they had done the impossible. They held onto a 0-0 at the Rosaleda, with last year’s German champions missing a host of opportunities, and then took a late 2-1 lead in Dortmund a week later meaning that the Germans had to score twice in the final minutes to advance. Goalkeeper Willy Caballero had been superb and Pellegrini had his tactics spot on, nullifying the Dortmund attack for large periods of the game and then scoring a late – and what seemed to be winning – goal on the counter.

All too familiarly, although the first time that it had really happened on the pitch, the high turned to low and when build up play was cast aside for long balls into the penalty area Dortmund miraculously snatched two goals in stoppage time to send Malaga crashing out of the Champions League. Al-Thani made claims of conspiracy theories and racism while Pellegrini blamed the officials for allowing Felipe Santana’s winner to stand while he was clearly offside (although he fails to acknowledge that Eliseu was also offside for Malaga’s second). It just seemed that it wasn’t meant to be for Malaga, as their players laid forlorn on the pitch.

It would be wrong to say that this campaign was anything but successful, though. Considering the turmoil the club was in at the start of the season, the fact they made it this far is incredible in itself – quarter finals of the Champions League, victories over some of Europe’s biggest clubs and all the while still competing for fourth spot in La Liga. It is early days for this project and there is at least a sense of stability that was lacking in the summer. However, it may have come too late as the loss of European football next year, assuming they qualify and appeals are rejected, will mean Malaga face another challenge in keeping their best players – and their manager – at the club.

The up and down nature of the club under Al-Thani’s ownership is interestingly reminiscent of the club’s up and down ventures between Spain’s top two leagues, which has been the only real consistent throughout their history. The heartbreaking exit to Dortmund and UEFA competitions ban are just the latest down-swing to hit the club under the Qatari ownership. So is this a new dawn or is it false hope? It is important to note that on the field the last 12 months have been nothing short of brilliant; off the field is a different story, although following a restructure they seem to now be in a healthy and sustainable position.

Two years on from the first major investment and the signs do point to the former – just – but with Malaga you can never be too sure of what is waiting around the corner. If they can convince Pellegrini and the likes of Isco to remain at the club then there could be a very bright future for this year’s feel good (then feel bad) story. Needless to say, whatever happens is bound to create some talking points, and perhaps some more history.

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