Until the turn of the millennium, Deportivo Alavés was little more than another club in the lower echelons of Spanish football, scrapping for their very survival season after season, holding off the repo men by any means possible. Between their advent in 1921 and the end of the 20th Century, Alavés spent just six seasons in the Primera Liga, and when the Albiazul returned to La Liga in 1999, they made a quite extraordinary impact which few could ever have predicted.
After clinging on to survival in their first season back in La Primera in 42 years, Alavés’ second season proved to be one for the ages. At the start of the season, Alavés were one of the favourites to be relegated, with a tumultuous opening season seeing remarkable results such as a win against Deportivo La Coruña and a draw with Real Madrid at the compact Mendizorroza, contrasted with a humiliating 7-1 defeat against Barcelona and a 5-0 reverse against local rivals Athletic Club.
Over the course of the season, Alavés conceded 63 goals, the second worst defensive record in the division, and avoided the relegation playoffs by a single point. In order for Alavés to avoid marking the turn of the century with a return to Segunda División, and in all probability a return to life on the financial breadline, changes had to be made, and were made in abundance.
Romanian international Cosmin Contra arrived for £1.6 million, providing guile, trickery and defensive solidity at right back, while centre-backs Dan Eggen and Óscar Téllez arrived from Celta Vigo and Valencia respectively to shore up Alavés’ shaky defence. Manager Mane also decided upon a change in goal, with Martín Herrera arriving from the Argentine lower leagues.
The results of this defensive revolution were truly remarkable. Aided by a decision to switch to a 5-3-2 formation to allow Contra to provide width in attack while remaining responsible at the back, Alavés conceded just 37 goals in the 1999-00 season, with Herrera receiving the Zamora trophy for the lowest goals conceded to games played ratio in the division. However, the most significant result of this transformation was the improvement in Alavés’ league position, finishing in sixth, just a point behind a Real Madrid side containing the likes of Raúl, Fernando Morientes and Roberto Carlos, and winning 1-0 home and away against the same Barcelona team which had trounced them 7-1 the previous season.
Their sixth place finish brought with it qualification for the UEFA Cup and would mean Alavés would embark on the first European campaign in their 79-year history, an extraordinary return for an expenditure of just £1.8 million the previous summer and the persisting threat of liquidation. As a result of their precarious financial state, Alavés could not spend a significant amount of money, forcing them to delve into the free transfer market for former Manchester United midfielder Jordi Cruyff, Uruguayan forward Iván Alonso, Roma defensive midfielder Ivan Tomić, and experienced former Spanish international wing-back Delfi Geli.
With a bigger squad settling in place and settling into Mane’s 5-3-2 system, Alavés sought to combine another season of being competitive on the domestic front, while competing in the increase in reputation and improved finances which even in 2000 ran hand in hand with European success. Inevitably, Alavés were unable to mix it with the big boys domestically for a second season, with Real Madrid embarking on their Galácticos era under new president Florentino Pérez and a Deportivo side including the likes of Diego Tristan, Sergio and Roy Makaay pushing Luís Figo and company all the way. Alavés finished 10th domestically, but it was their European exploits which were to astonish pundits and club officials alike.
Following narrow wins over Gaziantepspor, Rosenborg and Lillestrøm, Alavés were drawn against a prodigiously talented, yet oddly inconsistent Internazionale side which included Clarence Seedorf, Christian Vieri and Álvaro Recoba amongst its ranks. After taking an early lead through Javi Moreno, Inter took control with Recoba bagging a brace and Vieri punishing some bizarre goalkeeping from Herrera to put the Italians 3-1 up.
However, contrary to their reputation as a gritty defensive outfit, Alavés had played with attacking fervour up to that point in the tie, pressing high up the pitch to try and starve Inter’s attack of possession, and were rewarded with two goals in three minutes from Téllez and Alonso. Despite Alavés’ resurgence, it would remain 3-3 for the remainder of the match, with Inter’s away goals giving them the advantage heading into the second leg at the San Siro.
What followed was undoubtedly one of the biggest shocks in the recent history of European club competition. With the 80,000 capacity Giuseppe Meazza incomprehensibly empty (the official attendance standing at a measly 9,845), Alavés secured a 2-0 win through late goals from Cruyff and Tomić to secure a quarter-final clash with fellow Spanish minnows Rayo Vallecano.
The result in Milan seemed to fill Alavés with a renewed vigour, a faith in their ability that had perhaps not existed before. The Albiazules comfortably dispatched Rayo, before annihilating Youri Djorkaeff’s Kaiserslautern 9-2 on aggregate in the semi-final to reach their first ever European final. What had seemed inconceivable at the start of the season, let alone when languishing in the Segunda División just three years earlier, had materialised. Alavés’ opponents in the final would be a Liverpool team rebuilding under Gérard Houllier, blessed with experienced talents like Robbie Fowler and hugely promising youth academy products Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard.
Heading into undoubtedly the biggest match in their history, Alavés had a clean bill of health, and a belief that after decades of struggle the team from the Basque capital had finally arrived to be considered alongside Bilbao and Real Sociedad at the summit of Basque football. But it was not to be.
Despite displaying the same resilience that had seen them come back against Inter, and the same goalscoring ability that had resulted in their domination of Kaiserslautern, Alavés fell to a devastating extra time defeat after an own goal by Geli in the 116th minute. The fairytale had ended in tragic defeat. But the potential of the club were there for all to see. The 15,000 Alavés fans proved a match for Liverpool’s world famous support, creating a fantastic atmosphere and inspiring their team to an incredible performance.
Throughout their European campaign, the Mendizorroza had proved a fortress as intimidating to visit as any venue in Europe. The potential support for the club was huge, with the club’s home city of Vitoria home to over 200,000 people, and a fair distance from Athletic, to many the face of Basque football.
Initially, Alavés capitalised on their new found fame, finishing seventh in the 2001-2002 season, with their success again based upon solid defending, with just the 44 goals conceded. But as quickly as they had risen, Alavés soon crashed back to the ground. After defeat by Beşiktaş in the second round of the 2002-03 UEFA Cup, they suffered a sudden and shocking relegation back to the second tier of Spanish football, conceding 68 goals in the process, with Mane sacked after 31 games in a desperate, and ultimately futile, attempt to avoid relegation.
Inevitably, the club’s biggest players including Cruyff and Geli departed for pastures new. As a result of such a sudden fall from grace, Alavés’ financial woes returned, and while they returned to La Liga for the 2005-06 season, they were promptly relegated back to the Segunda, and after a takeover by controversial Ukrainian Dmitry Piterman, the club fell into financial ruin, filed for bankruptcy, and despite surviving on the final day in 2007-2008 after a final day 3-2 win over Real Sociedad, dropped into the Segunda B in 2009.
Piterman swiftly jumped ship, and the club’s management were able to stabilise things financially. Since 2009, Alavés have remained competitive in Segunda Division B, without being serious contenders for promotion.
While a repeat of the heady days of the early-2000s is unlikely, it appears that Alavés are back on track after a Promethean rise and fall with promotion back to La Liga for 2016-17. But while the players on the pitch will need to display the resilience the club has shown throughout its tumultuous history, it is perhaps the fans which hold the key to its resurgence.
In announcing ticket prices for the new season, the club’s PR department created the tagline “El ascenso es posible con esta afición”, which roughly translates to “an ascent is possible with your support”. They will be hoping that if this season is the start of another golden era, the club will soar on the back of support from a new generation of passionate Albiazules, without this time flying too close to the sun.
By Simon Cripps. Follow @AI_Football