How the unforgettable 1999/2000 LaLiga season helped define Spanish football’s era of the underdog

How the unforgettable 1999/2000 LaLiga season helped define Spanish football’s era of the underdog

As featured on Guardian Sport

Spanish football at the turn of the millennium is nostalgically looked upon in some quarters as the real heydey of the domestic scene in the country. It was a time when LaLiga was genuinely competitive, thrashings were rare, shock results were a weekly occurrence, and trophies were deserting the traditional powerhouses in favour of the distant provinces.

The 1999/2000 season was the pinnacle of all this as the league trophy went to Galicia for the first time, the Pichichi to Cantabria, and the Zamora Trophy wound up in the unheralded Basque city of Vitoria-Gasteiz. It was the last time that domestic silverware completely eluded Spanish football’s big two and it was a season in which the underdogs ruled supreme, while three previous league champions would be sent tumbling out of the top flight and into the Segunda División.

However, this unsettling of the usual pecking order, as you might imagine, wasn’t quite to everyone’s taste. The campaign was a cocktail of shocks and scandal where the on-field action ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Never has a season divided so much opinion and, to this day, nobody is quite sure whether it was one of Spanish football’s finest hours or most comical episodes.

To muddle minds further, almost inexplicably a season when the big clubs seemed to veer from one disaster to another also served up an all-Spanish Champions League final, the first time that two sides from the same country had ever met in European football’s showpiece occasion. A sure sign that Spanish football was flourishing you might have thought, but surprisingly few remember it that way and it only adds to the mystery of quite how the Primera División title ended up in the country’s 19th largest city.

The fact is nobody really saw either the continental success or domestic surprises coming. The previous year had finished with an orthodox Barcelona-Real Madrid duopoly in LaLiga but neither had made any impression on the Champions League, with Barcelona going out in the group stage and Real Madrid humbled by an Andriy Shevchenko-inspired Dynamo Kyiv in the quarters.

The traditional curtain-raiser for the 1999/2000 season saw defending league champions Barcelona take on Copa del Rey holders Valencia for the Supercopa. Valencia were clearly on the up with Gaizka Mendieta pulling the strings from midfield but had undergone a managerial change in the summer with Mallorca boss Héctor Cúper coming in to replace Atlético-bound Claudio Ranieri, so they were still to some degree an unknown quantity.

If Los Che could juggle the demands of European and domestic football, they were viewed as perhaps the only team with any chance of breaking up the domination of Barcelona and Real Madrid, who had between them claimed the league title in 14 of the previous 15 seasons.

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However, up against Louis van Gaal’s star-studded Barcelona side that included the likes of Luís Figo, Patrick Kluivert, the De Boer brothers as well as future managers Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique, Valencia were still clear underdogs for the tie. A late Claudio López goal at the Mestalla decided the first leg in favour of the hosts, but it was the second leg when they really set the tone for a season of surprises.

Three times Barcelona took the lead at the Camp Nou only for their defensive deficiencies to be exposed by a Valencia side that had scored seven goals on two winning visits to the stadium in the previous campaign. A 3-3 draw gave Valencia the first silverware of the season and offered the first inklings that the tide of power might just be beginning to alter course.

Over in the capital, Real Madrid had been busy investing heavily following an unsuccessful year but, this being the pre-Galáctico era, it was done in a more balanced and less headline-grabbing way. Michel Salgado and Iván Helguera arrived to supposedly bolster an embarrassingly leaky defence and their side was largely made up by members of a relatively uninspiring Spanish national side.

The additions of the likes of Steve McManaman and Geremi didn’t exactly capture the imagination around the Santiago Bernabéu but the signing of Nicolas Anelka, at the time regarded as the hottest young striker in Europe, looked set to provide genuine competition for Raúl and Fernando Morientes up front.

The league campaign got underway routinely enough with Real Madrid winning away at Mallorca, who had been the surprise package of the previous season, while Barcelona won 2-0 at home to Zaragoza. A Deportivo La Coruña side that had also been fairly active in the transfer market topped the table after the opening round of fixtures with an impressive 4-1 win over Alavés but Barça would be on top before too long winning their opening three games of the season to cement their billing as title favourites. Meanwhile, any hopes of a Valencia title challenge quickly appeared to be up in smoke after Los Che contrived to lose all of their opening four league games.

It was the fourth round of fixtures when the peculiarity of the 1999/2000 season really started to take shape. Barcelona sunk to a surprising 2-1 defeat in the Basque Country at Alavés, who had only stayed up on the final day of the previous campaign, while newly promoted Rayo Vallecano won at Celta Vigo to assume an unlikely top spot; they would retain their strong form over the opening few months of the season. From that point on the shocks would come thick and fast, and, with each passing week, it seemed the belief of the minnows grew and grew while the giants of Spanish football found new ways to self-implode.

In week six, two of the big clubs met as Valencia headed to the Bernabéu with just a point to their name. However, they defied the odds to put in a stunning first-half display and race into a 3-0 lead against an out-of-sorts Real Madrid. Fernando Morientes claimed two back for Los Blancos but Valencia held on for all three points and although further slip-ups meant they were too far back to seriously get themselves back into the title picture, they remained a thorn in the side of the top clubs all season – and dangerous opponents for anyone on their day as many elite European clubs would soon find out.

The following week was El Clásico and John Toshack’s side headed to Barcelona desperate for a result to really kick-start their season. A lively game displayed both sides’ attacking prowess but defensive frailties in almost equal measure as goals from Rivaldo and Figo – in his final season at Barcelona before his infamous switch – were cancelled out by a brace from Raúl for the visitors, who secured a 2-2 draw.

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It wasn’t a disastrous result for Real by any means but it didn’t prove to be any kind of springboard either and, by the end of October, the white handkerchiefs were out in force at the Bernabéu as Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink netted twice as a struggling Atlético Madrid side claimed the derby spoils with a 3-1 win in their neighbour’s backyard. It extended Real’s winless run to eight league matches and the only mild surprise was that it took another few weeks for Toshack to be given his marching orders.

His replacement was Vicente del Bosque, a man who personified Real Madrid having played over 400 times for the club and someone who had been associated with it in various capacities for over three decades. Del Bosque at the time was an inexperienced, perhaps reluctant, manager, and his only real long-term experience of the position had come in the late 1980s when he had led Real Madrid’s reserve team for three years.

If fans were hoping he would be the immediate solution then they would be mistaken. With just a month to go until the end of a century in which Real Madrid had been the dominant force in both Spanish and European football, they were in a state of crisis, and on 3 December 1999 suffered one of their most humiliating defeats.

Two goals from Aston Villa reject Savo Milošević and a brace from the anything but prolific forward Juanele led to an almost unbelievable final score at the Bernabéu of Real Madrid 1–5 Real Zaragoza. It was the biggest away win all season in LaLiga and one that left Los Blancos in 17th place after 14 games. As was the case in Valencia, any title dreams already looked as good as over.

With their rivals in a state of utter disarray, you would have thought it offered a Barcelona side that had started quite strongly an open passage to a third successive title. Indeed, when they demolished Athletic Club 4-0 in week nine to go top of the table, the Catalan press was busy building up Van Gaal’s team as the champions-elect.

However, while Real Madrid were going through their autumn horror show, things wouldn’t prove much brighter for Barcelona. Next up was a trip to the Riazor but they were caught cold by two clinical finishes from Depor’s summer signing Roy Makaay inside the opening 20 minutes and, despite a Rivaldo goal in the second half, couldn’t prevent a 2-1 defeat. It proved the start of a miserable four-match losing streak in the league as Barça lost every game in November and shipped eight goals in defeats to Málaga, Mallorca and Valencia.

Faced with the prospect of the ill-fated second group phase in the Champions League, Van Gaal had little choice but to rotate his squad and had been blooding talented academy graduates Xavi and Carles Puyol with increasing regularity. Serious question marks were lingering over several of their more experienced defenders. That series of poor defensive showings and another 3-2 defeat at bottom club Sevilla in December meant that the Dutch boss was struggling to decide upon a regular back four, a problem that would haunt him for the rest of the season.

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Fifteen matches in, Spain’s Primera División looked as though it had been vigorously turned on its head. It was an all-Galician top two with Deportivo leading the way from Celta, while Zaragoza, Rayo and Alavés completed a top five that nobody could possibly have foreseen.

Of the surprise quintet, it was unquestionably Depor who had been the most impressive. Makaay had provided them with a real cutting edge in the final third and would go on to score 26 goals in all competitions that season. The arrivals of Victor Sánchez and Slaviša Jokanović in midfield were proving the ideal complement to the flare of Depor’s sizable Brazilian contingent, which included Mauro Silva, Djalminha, Flávio Conceição and Rio-born Spain international Donato.

Their win over Barcelona had instigated a seven-match winning run in the league that saw Depor assume a commanding position at the top of the table. By New Year’s Day they had a six-point lead over Zaragoza, who had moved up to second after a 2-1 win over Depor in the final game of 1999. More significantly, the Galicians still held a nine-point advantage over Barcelona and 13 points on Real Madrid, who had ended the year with a couple of morale-boosting wins to move away from the doomsday scenario of a relegation battle.

LaLiga was set for an intriguing second half of the campaign. All of a sudden it was Deportivo, a side that had never won the title despite coming tantalisingly close in the mid-1990s, who were being talked about as the side to beat. They were by no means the finished article, though, and were also prone to the odd defensive horror show of their own. In keeping with the pattern of the season, the leaders would put in a series of abject displays in early 2000, and it seemed as though the status quo could yet be restored.

They started the New Year with a 3-0 home defeat against lowly Racing and began to lose the plot completely on the road, losing five successive away matches at Alavés, Valladolid, Numancia, Málaga and Barcelona. In any ordinary season, such form would have seen them lose serious ground on all their rivals, but it was already abundantly clear that this was no ordinary campaign.

At the Riazor, they had quickly got back to winning ways and a dazzling display from the eccentric Djalminha helped burst a resurgent Real Madrid’s bubble with a crushing 5-2 win in early February. It was another woefully inept showing from Del Bosque’s men as Depor spurned several glaring opportunities that should have made the scoreline even more emphatic.

While Rayo and Celta had faded out of contention, Zaragoza and Alavés had very much stayed the course, and with 10 games to go, there were still five sides in with a realistic chance of winning the title. Deportivo remained in pole position with a four-point advantage over an Alavés side that had quietly sneaked into second place.

They lacked the exciting attacking players of the other top teams but unlike just about the entire division, could rely on a sturdy defence. They finished the campaign with the best defensive record in LaLiga, in no small part down to the heroics of Argentine goalkeeper Martín Herrera, who played all 38 games.

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Such was the unpredictability of the season that it was impossible to rule out the Basque club, who only a decade earlier had been playing in the wilderness of Spanish football’s regional fourth tier. They’d already completed the double over champions Barcelona and were a point better off than the Catalans as a result, but with Zaragoza and an improving Real Madrid also now only five points off top spot, it was still very much all to play for.

Depor’s defeat at Barcelona, who had bounced back well from a heavy 3-0 loss in El Clásico in February, appeared a critical moment in the season, especially when Barça won their next two matches against Málaga and Valencia. However, ‘Super Depor’, a nickname they were beginning to live up to, responded well with 10 goals in three successive victories of their own including their first away win in eight attempts against a Sevilla side that looked doomed to relegation.

A five-match winless run all but killed off any hopes of an unlikely Alavés title success, while Real Madrid were held to three successive draws to stem their revival under Del Bosque. Zaragoza were still looking strong and were arguably the most impressive all-round unit, with a better defensive record than Barcelona, Real Madrid and Deportivo, while long-serving midfielder Santiago Aragón and Paraguay international Roberto Acuña were helping to feed Milošević, who netted 21 league goals in the most prolific season of his career.

Just when Zaragoza appeared to be gathering a head of steam, Real Madrid gained revenge for their thrashing earlier in the season by winning 1-0 at La Romareda in week 33. Meanwhile, serious cracks were once again appearing over in Barcelona. They suffered two 3-0 league defeats in the space of a week, the first coming at home against a Samuel Eto’o-inspired Mallorca, prior to another abysmal performance at Real Oviedo. That made it 11 league defeats for the Catalans, ordinarily far too many to be anywhere near title contention, yet they remained the closest challengers to Deportivo.

As a result of Barça’s loss in Asturias, the Galicians had the chance to move eight points clear with victory in the capital against Rayo. Their travel sickness, however, once again returned with a bang as they went down 2-1 in Vallecas. Although they retained their advantage at the top, Depor were doing little more than limping towards the finish line in a title race that nobody seemed to want to win.

The pressure wasn’t just being felt in A Coruña. Real Madrid appeared to have sorted their defensive problems out at last and had been on an 11-match unbeaten run in the league, while progressing to the Champions League semi-finals with victory over holders Manchester United. In a topsy-turvy season, they ran into trouble against relegation-threatened Racing. Two strikes from Salva Ballesta, who would end the season as top scorer in LaLiga with 27 goals, helped Racing to a shock 4-2 win at the Bernabéu, surely extinguishing any hopes of a Real league title for good.

For once, the other three sides in the hunt all won but another Deportivo away defeat in the Galician derby at Celta next time out handed yet another lifeline to the chasing pack. Barcelona took full advantage with a 3-0 win at the Vicente Calderón to all but relegate fallen giants Atlético Madrid, title winners only four years earlier but gripped by criminal investigations and severe financial problems.

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It meant Depor’s lead had been cut to just two points over Barcelona with three games to go and everything to play for. For Barcelona, the league title was all they had left.

They had exited the Copa del Rey in farcical circumstances when the club refused to play their semi-final second leg against Atlético, citing that a clash with international fixtures had left them with only 10 eligible players. It was another embarrassing episode for both the club and football authorities and it didn’t reflect well on the organisation of Spanish football as a whole.

Paradoxically the following week, three Spanish teams lined up in the Champions League semi-finals with Barcelona travelling to Valencia and Real Madrid taking on Bayern Munich. Anelka, who endured an otherwise dismal solitary season in the Spanish capital, scored in both legs to lead Del Bosque’s men to a 3-2 aggregate win and an unlikely European final given their woeful opening to the campaign.

Meanwhile, Valencia’s penchant for humbling the Catalans continued as they thumped Barcelona 4-1 at the Mestalla in the first leg of their semi-final, Miguel Angulo scoring twice to all but book their place in the final.

Those events meant Barcelona’s home game with mid-table Rayo in week 36 became crucial as it offered Louis van Gaal’s side the chance to go top of the table for the first time since October. Three points would have piled the pressure on an inexperienced Deportivo, especially given what had happened six years earlier.

The 1993/94 season had finished in unbelievable drama on the final day with Deportivo’s Miroslav Đukić missing a last-minute penalty that would have clinched the title for the Galician club. His failure to convert handed Barcelona the crown, and that demon hung large over the Riazor going into the final three games of the campaign.

Fortunately for Depor, this time around they were being handed favours from the unlikeliest of sources. Barça’s must-win home game with Rayo turned into yet another calamity when a brace from the brilliantly named Bolo led Rayo Vallecano to a shock 2-0 victory, infuriating fans at the Camp Nou but dealing a huge boost to Deportivo and Real Zaragoza, who met the next day in the unlikeliest of potential title deciders.

An understandably tense Riazor looked on as the teams played out an entertaining 2-2 draw, a result that wasn’t really good enough for Zaragoza but still moved them above Real Madrid, who dropped to sixth having been beaten at home by Alavés the previous day. Incredibly, with two games to play, there were still six sides in with a mathematical chance of winning the league – and that included a resurgent Valencia who, as well as reaching the Champions League final, had put together five consecutive league wins to move into the top four.

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It was still very much in the hands of Deportivo who, despite winning only once on the road since the turn of the year, had now spent almost six unbroken months in top spot and were determined to hang on. A jittery 0-0 draw in Santander in their penultimate game was mirrored by Barcelona, who missed another chance to close the gap with a goalless draw at Real Sociedad to ensure the title race would go to the final weekend. Zaragoza’s 3-2 victory over Málaga ensured they would also be in with a sniff come the final day, but the other three teams were now too far back and left to battle it out for a top-four finish.

On the final weekend, Deportivo couldn’t really have picked a kinder fixture in their bid to become the first Galician side to win the Primera División title. They hosted Espanyol, who were in mid-table with nothing to play for, but crucially did have a Copa del Rey final the following weekend to focus on. Cynics could also throw in that they weren’t likely to lose any sleep over the fact that a Depor win would ensure their city rivals Barcelona would finish the season trophyless.

With temperatures soaring, the Riazor was expectant and hungry to banish the ghost of Đukić once and for all. Depor got off to a dream start too when 37-year-old veteran Donato headed in from a corner to give them the lead in just the third minute. Donato had been Depor’s trusted penalty taker in the 1993/94 season but was substituted off just 15 minutes before the end of the final game, leaving the Yugoslavian to take and miss the decisive spot-kick. There was more than a touch of irony that he should find himself on the scoresheet on the final day six years on.

It wasn’t long before Deportivo were 2-0 up as Makaay made his way through a sea of confetti to fire home a killer second goal and really get the party started on the Galician coast. Only a draw was needed to clinch the trophy and, despite the odd nervy moment after the break, there was no stopping Super Depor this time around. Six years on from their day of despair, fans spilt onto the Riazor pitch at full-time once more, this time in celebration of an incredible title triumph.

Elsewhere, and by now somewhat predictably, Barcelona slipped up, drawing 2-2 at home to Celta. The same went for Zaragoza, who lost 2-1 at Valencia, but both sides secured a top-four finish as a result of final day defeats for both Alavés and Real Madrid.

The bottom three had already been decided prior to the final day with Sevilla, Atlético Madrid and Real Betis the unlikely trio filling those places. That meant three of Spain’s best-supported clubs, all of whom were former champions, were relegated, and Espanyol’s victory over Atleti in the Copa del Rey final the following week rounded off an unprecedentedly bad domestic season for the country’s traditional powers.

However, there would still be a happy ending for Real Madrid, who put aside the misery of a fifth-place finish in LaLiga to beat a Valencia side that barely turned up in the final of the Champions League in Paris. Indeed, of all the dramatic occurrences of the 1999/2000 season, perhaps the most significant event in terms of Spanish football was the birth of the managerial career of Vicente del Bosque, a man who a decade later would lead Spain to World Cup glory but might never have properly cut his teeth in management had Real Madrid not made such an abysmal start to the campaign.

Read  |  The rise and fall of Deportivo La Coruña

The season will always be casually remembered as the year Super Depor ruled supreme, but oddly few connected with the club look back upon the class of 2000 as their greatest team. The side that finished second in 1994 was much better defensively and lost only four games compared to the 11 defeats inflicted on Irureta’s championship winners.

Meanwhile, the arrival of the iconic figure of Juan Carlos Valerón in the summer of 2000 arguably took Depor to another level and they would better their title-winning points tally in three of the following four seasons, whilst also becoming a genuine force in Europe, but were unable to secure another Primera División crown.

Few can argue that Deportivo didn’t deserve to win the league that year, especially given they topped the table for almost the entire campaign. However, it is also abundantly clear that they benefited from what was a freak season: since three points for a win was introduced in 1995, no other side has ever won LaLiga with a points tally as low as the 69 that Depor mustered.

The fact that Barcelona still managed to finish second was fairly miraculous given the fact that they suffered 12 league defeats. Only twice in the club’s history have the Catalans lost more league matches in one season and it sparked big changes at the club with Louis van Gaal departing and president José Luís Núñez succumbing to fan pressure and resigning after a mammoth 22-year spell in the role.

The new faces at board level and in the dugout failed to lift the gloom and the 1999/2000 season marked the commencement of real decline for Barcelona. Indeed, they would have to wait until 2005 to get their hands on silverware again, their longest barren run since the end of the Spanish Civil War.

Over in the capital, Real Madrid’s European glory had helped mask their woeful campaign in LaLiga, which remains their worst showing in Spain’s top flight since 1985. That fact wasn’t lost on opportunistic businessman Florentino Pérez who also highlighted financial mismanagement at board level and replaced Lorenzo Sanz as president in an election just weeks after Real Madrid’s eighth European Cup win in Paris. Soon after his election, he would rock the football world by coming good on his promise to secure the controversial signing of Luís Figo from Barcelona, adding yet another sour dimension to their eternal rivalry.

It concluded a tumultuous 12 months in Spanish football. The season was a complete one-off and, for all the contrasting viewpoints, few can argue that it was one of the most fascinating and ultimately significant periods in the country’s football history. It was an era long before the brilliance of Messi and Ronaldo, before tiki-taka and even the Galácticos, and a time when no single player or style of football ruled supreme.

It was a campaign that re-ignited LaLiga, made smaller clubs believe and forced Barcelona and Real Madrid into some serious soul-searching, which sparked new policies at both clubs that have shaped so much of what we’ve witnessed since.

By Mark Sochon @tikitakagol

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