From optimism to obscurity – what went wrong at Malaga?

It was meant to be the dawn of a new era for Malaga. On 3 April 2013, Malaga welcomed Borussia Dortmund to the Estadio la Rosaleda. The Champions League quarter finals. The team boasted a blend of youthful stars such as Isco with the experience of Joaquin and Roque Santa Cruz in attack. The new Qatari owners had grand ambitions and fans hoped the club could break the Barcelona/Real Madrid domination at the top of La Liga.

Just seven years later, the club are 15th in the second division. Where did it all go wrong?

For much of their history, Malaga have bounced between La Liga and Segunda (second) division. In June 2010, Malaga were sold to Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani – a member of the Qatar royal family, after the previous owners had incurred large debts. A month earlier, the club had survived relegation to the Segunda by a single point. However, there was clear reason for optimism, with a new owner worth an enormous 650 million pounds, it appeared their yo-yo days between divisions were behind them and silverware in their future.

Foreign ownership has become the norm in many leagues across the world with Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain all enjoying great success in their domestic leagues. But this has not been the norm in Spain as a business associate of the Sheikh, Abdullah Ghubn alludes to:

We are aware that this is the first time an investor from this region has come to Spain and he wants to set a good example. We want to consolidate the club in La Liga and afterwards aspire to higher things.

The first season under Al Thani saw vast changes of personnel with Jesualdo Ferreira installed as manager, following a four year spell in charge at Porto – winning three league titles. New players arrived too, but only a modest sum of £15 million was spent. The club looked to bring in experienced players with Martin Demichellis, Julio Baptista and Willy Caballero, all heading to Spain’s south coast.

It quickly became apparent that Ferreira was not going to replicate his success in Portugal and Malaga’s poor performances of the previous 2009-10 season continued into the new one. After nine match days, Malaga were 18th in the table and Ferreira was sacked. It was a worrying start and the dream of competing with Real Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia seemed to be just that.

On 5th November 2010, Manuel Pellegrini was announced as the new manager of Malaga. He left Real Madrid after one trophyless season at the helm.

This first season under new ownership saw Malaga finish 11th in La Liga. However this mid table position was only three points more than Deportivo la Coruña who dropped into the Segunda division.

In the summer of 2011, Malaga started to flex their financial muscle. They signed nine players and spent around £50 million on experienced players such as Santi Cazorla (£20 million) and Jérémy Toulalan (£10 million). Malaga were beginning to be noticed across Europe. Would this outlay pay off?

It was a tough start with Malaga losing their opening game 2-1 at fellow Andalusian club Sevilla. Malaga went on to win three successive games and their fine form continued as they went into the Christmas break, in a respectable seventh place.

Malaga managed to turn La Rosaleda into a fortress, losing just three times at home all season. This new found consistency had led Malaga to the brink of Champions League qualification. They were fourth with just three games left to play but when Malaga suffered consecutive away defeats to Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, it looked like their hard work might not pay off. However, a Salomón Rondón goal against Sporting Gijon on the final day gave Malaga a narrow 1-0 victory and they qualified for the Champions League. But trouble was brewing.

The issues began with a reform of Spanish viewing and TV rights. Unlike previous seasons, Real Madrid and Barcelona, who received the vast majority of viewing rights and money, had to share it with other clubs. However, they held most of the TV rights in Spain. This did not sit well with the Sheikh.

Sheikh Al Thani came to Spain not just for football. He had grand plans for the Costa del Sol including a Sports City, with a new stadium and training complex, a €400 million renovation of the marina and a hotel complex. After planning difficulties and being fined by the regional government, his plans never came to fruition. This difficulty in launching projects, coupled with the loss of TV rights meant that the Sheik wasn’t willing to invest anymore. Only a minuscule loan fee for Roque Santa Cruz made the Andalusians open their check book that summer.

Malaga made it to the group stages of Champions League, by getting past Greek side Panathinaikos. They then faced AC Milan, Zenit St Petersburg and Anderlecht. To the surprise of many, Malaga managed three wins and three draws, finishing top of their group.  They then faced Portuguese giants Porto in the last sixteen. Malaga narrowly made it through the tie with a 2-1 aggregate victory before being knocked out by Borussia Dortmund in the quarter finals.

Perhaps due to the additional matches, their league form suffered and Malaga finished in sixth place, which still landed them a Europa League spot.

After previous heavy spending and large wages, Malaga’s balance sheet was in the red and they were not paying players on time (or at all). This was compounded by the new Financial Fair Play rules, with Malaga being banned from European competitions for four seasons (later reduced to one).

Consequently, without European football, most star players wanted out. Young prodigies like Isco left for Real Madrid while others went to the Premier League. It looked like the beginning of the end.

Malaga finished 11th in 2013-14 season with just one player scoring more than three goals in all competitions (Roque Santa Cruz – six). Malaga continued to rely on loan signings and their spending was kept to a minimum. They were relegated at the end of the 2017-18 season, finishing bottom.

The club are currently 15th in the second division, a mere three points from the relegation places. The future seems bleak with the Sheikh going from hero to villain.

With Andalusian rivals Sevilla, Real Betis and Granada enjoying success in La Liga, Malaga fans could be excused for being a touch disgruntled as they can now see that money doesn’t always buy happiness.

Author Details

Jordan James

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