How Málaga went from rags to riches to relegation

How Málaga went from rags to riches to relegation

Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain have set a precedent, whereby clubs bankrolled by wealthy individuals and corporations can enjoy instant success and eventually maintain their meteoric rise. The trio of heavyweights have won 35 trophies between them in a combined 32 seasons, while the latter broke the world transfer record last summer by purchasing Neymar for £200m.

Yet their success should come with a warning label to others that these are mere anomalies, with Spanish side Málaga finding out the hard way that a rich owner and a spending spree does not guarantee long-term success. If anything, it can destroy any prospect of it when approached poorly.

The Andalusian outfit have long flitted between the first and second tiers of the Spanish game, spending 37 seasons in the top flight and just two fewer in the latter in their history.

Former player Fernando Sanz became president of the club following the purchase of Los Boquerones (Anchovies) by his father, who bought 97 percent of the shares, but they spent the first two seasons in the second tier, returning to LaLiga in 2008, when financial problems arose.

Sanz was tasked with finding potential buyers for Málaga, notably scouring Qatar, with Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al-Thani coming forward and splashing €36m on the Andalusian side in June 2010. It appeared as though the club had turned a new leaf. They had survived relegation by a single point the season before and a new investor meant money available to rejuvenate a side that was known as a yo-yo team.

Al-Thani said upon purchasing Málaga: “Our goal is to help Málaga take the necessary steps to consolidate its presence in LaLiga and to reinforce the excitement and hopes of the supporters.”

The deal included paying off the club’s debts as a sense of optimism reverberated around La Rosaleda. They had only spent more than five consecutive seasons in the top flight on one occasion and had been in the Tercera División, the fourth tier, as recently as 1995.

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The first season under Al-Thani’s ownership didn’t come with all the riches the fans perhaps desired, but it did include an influx of new players, seeing old faces depart and a new manager arrive. Jesualdo Ferreira was tasked with kicking off a new Málaga CF era, arriving after winning three league titles in a row at Porto. He brought in strikers Salomón Rondón and Sebastián Fernández for just over £3m each, while left-back Eliseu joined from Lazio.

In total, nine players were signed, with almost £16m spent – hardly the outlay that was expected. It showed as, just nine league games into his LaLiga journey, Ferreira was sacked. Five consecutive defeats pointed towards a side that hadn’t progressed at all.

The new man in the dugout needed no introduction to Spanish football fans. Having spent five years overachieving at Villarreal, Manuel Pellegrini was given one of the biggest jobs in world football, leading Real Madrid. In his first few months, the Chilean signed Kaká, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso, however, early defeats to Alcorcón in the Copa del Rey and Lyon in the Champions League saw Pellegrini tread a fine line in his debut season at the Bernabéu.

Despite claiming 99 LaLiga points – the most in the club’s history – Real Madrid still failed to win the title, Barcelona’s brilliant Pep Guardiola era putting paid to any hopes. It was the final nail in the coffin for Pellegrini, and he was sacked after only 11 months in charge.

What was Real’s loss became Málaga’s gain as the Chilean was installed as their new manager in November, and, despite having a tight budget, he secured some bargains in the January 2011 transfer window, plucking veteran defender Martín Demichelis from Bayern Munich before attracting Júlio Baptista, Ignacio Camacho and goalkeeper Willy Caballero.

Malaga finished the season 11th, but there was a sense that this was just the beginning, a campaign in which Al-Thani was testing for waters before he opened the treasure chest; a year of bedding in its first wave of signings, ready for Los Boquerones to light up LaLiga and the owner to flex his financial muscle.

The Qatari was serious about consolidating Málaga’s presence, with the club’s four most expensive signings in their history all arriving in the summer of 2011. Top of pile was Santi Cazorla, joining for just over £20m and fresh from 10 assists in the league at Villarreal, while Jérémy Toulalan was another established midfielder who brought experience.

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Two further signings followed, with left-back Nacho Monreal moving from hometown side Osasuna, and Isco leaving Valencia’s B team to join. Another notable arrival that summer was former Manchester United and Real Madrid striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, who was looking to prove he still had goals in him at the grand age of 35.

In total, Málaga’ signed nine players, including one on a free transfer, but this time the spending was over £53m. It was a prolific statement, which made the football world stand up and take notice of what was going on elsewhere in Spain aside from Barcelona and Real Madrid. Málaga now they had to prove the outlay was worth it.

They did not enjoy the best of starts, beginning the new campaign with a 2-1 defeat at fellow Andalusians Sevilla, as Cazorla’s first goal for the club in the latter stages of the match proved only to be a consolation. However their form quickly improved, Los Boquerones going on a five-game unbeaten run, inclusive of four wins, with Van Nistelrooy netting his own debut strike in an eventful 3-2 victory over Getafe.

During that run, Málaga were third at one stage, but it was short-lived as three defeats in a row to Levante, Rayo Vallecano and Real Madrid saw them drop to mid-table. Their inconsistency continued as a good run was followed by a spell of six losses in 10. With March fast approaching, the Andalusians were in ninth, and the season was turning into fast failing to live up to expectation, with European football mooted as the aim in August.

In typical unpredictable Málaga fashion, March would see them win four in a row and leap into the Champions League places. While defeats to Barcelona and Atlético Madrid looked to have denied them a place in Europe’s premier competition, a Rondón winner against Gijón eventually secured a top-four finish, and with it, plaudits from around the continent.

Almost 10 years after their last participation in Europe, a Málaga seemingly going places were playing in the Champions League for the first time. On  22 August 2012, at La Rosaleda, they began their latest European odyssey. It was where Al-Thani envisioned the club would be when he began investing in them just over 26 months earlier.

They were to start in the playoff round, as decided by their fourth-place finish in LaLiga, taking on Greek giants Panathinaikos, perennial participants in the tournament during the previous decade and a club that once came close to knocking out Barcelona in 2002.

In contrast to the Spaniards, the Athens outfit had suffered financial problems and were not the team that was once a nuisance for so many. Málaga proved this, with Demichelis and Eliseu scoring in a 2-0 victory in the first leg before a goalless draw in Greece sealed their progression to group stages.

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Los Boquerones were seeded in Pot 4, meaning they could have been drawn against English trio Manchester United, Arsenal and reigning champions Chelsea. Eventual winners Bayern Munich were also a potential opponent, but Málaga managed to avoid the toughest opposition, being drawn in Group C with AC Milan, Zenit Saint Petersburg and Anderlecht.

To many people’s surprise, and exceeding their rank, Málaga finished top with three wins and three draws, setting up a last 16 tie with Porto. Despite João Moutinho’s winner in the first leg, giving the Portuguese outfit an advantage, Isco and Roque Santa Cruz netted for Málaga in the return fixture to send them to the quarter-finals of the Champions League. It was an achievement that was already more than the fans ever expected – a fairy tale for a club that was now being talked up as capable of challenging Spain’s big two in the future. Suddenly, Málaga became the choice club for millions of Football Manager players the world over.

Their reward for beating Porto was a tricky tie against Borussia Dortmund, who had won their second consecutive Bundesliga title the previous season. They were a team to be feared, dominating with the likes of Marco Reus and Robert Lewandowski in their ranks.

While Málaga prevented the Germans from scoring any away goals, with the first leg at La Rosaleda finishing 0-0, it was a different story at the Westfalenstadion. Joaquín opened the scoring for the Spanish side, but Polish striker Lewandowski equalised just before half-time. Málaga went ahead again, this time through Eliseu, but Reus levelled in the first minute of injury time. In a cruel twist of fate, centre-back Felipe Santana controversially scored in the dying moments to give Dortmund the win, with the winner coming after the Brazilian netted from an offside position. The visitors were sent home with nothing.

Despite their exit, the Andalusians were proud of their achievements in Europe, knocking out prestigious opponents along the way with a squad that proved it was capable of mixing it with the best.

In contrast to their journey on the continent, however – or perhaps because of it – Málaga’s league form suffered. Los Boquerones finished the 2012/13 season in sixth place, nine points behind Real Sociedad in the final Champions League spot. Although a Europa League place was beckoning, there was further heartache for Málaga. The financial injection from Al-Thani, which had guided them to fourth and the quarter-finals of the Champions League, was now being used against them.

Málaga’s hefty transfer fees and high wages were seeing them make a loss – with a small stadium and limited commercial opportunities providing no relief – at one point failing to pay their players on time. As a result of the new Financial Fair Play regulations, they became the first club to be banned from a UEFA competition and were handed a €300,000 fine.

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This was coupled with their Qatari owner’s continued displeasure at the uneven television revenue distribution, which favours Real Madrid and Barcelona. He subsequently announced that he’d limit how much he was going to invest in the club.

As a result, Málaga needed to offload some of their star players to make ends meet. During the season of their Champions League run, Cazorla and Monreal were sold to Arsenal, along with Rondón to Rubin Kazan for a combined £34m. Their replacements were free transfers and loan deals, with the squad taking a battering.

In the summer of 2013, Isco headed to Real Madrid, while Toulalan was sold to Ligue 1 side Monaco, with the pair raking in £31.5m between them. Sadly for the fans, only a tenth of that was used to sign new players. Ageing midfielder Joaquín was also on the departure list, Fiorentina securing a bargain deal for a player with much still to offer.

While changes were frequent on the pitch, it was similar off it too, with BlueBay Hotels and Al-Thani creating a new company that took on 49 percent of the Qatari’s shares for one euro, but also their spiralling debts. Al-Thani would continue as president but BlueBay would manage the club.

Just two years into the deal, in April 2014, the Qatari royal announced that it had never materialised and removed all of the hotel chain’s personnel from the Málaga’s premises, at a time when Los Boquerones were far more financially sound. The president subsequently set up another company to run the club – but the troubles weren’t to end there.

BlueBay, unsurprisingly, launched a civil case in 2015, which stopped Al-Thani from selling the club while the investigations were ongoing. The Qatari even accused the hotel chain and two of his former advisors of trying to defraud him, but this was dismissed in December 2017 as merely a stalling tactic.

Away from the club, there were other failed projects, notably the redevelopment of Marbella’s marina, while Al-Thani was given a three-year suspended prison sentence for writing bounced cheques worth around £170,000.

Surprisingly, and in great credit to the players and staff, the myriad of off-field problems weren’t hurting the club on it. While returning to Europe was out of the question, they hovered around the mid-table mark, finishing 11th in the 2013/14 season and then ninth and eighth over the following two years.

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They were still offloading their best players, including Caballero, Jesús Gámez and Eliseu in 2014, and finding bargains like the free transfer of goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa and promoting youngsters including Samu Castillejo and Pablo Fornals. Loan moves were also becoming a key part of their transfer business, with Nordin Amrabat twice joining temporarily as well as Real Madrid’s Diego Llorente and AC Milan midfield sensation Hachim Mastour both arriving for a season in recent years.

Despite finishing 11th in LaLiga during the 2016/17 campaign, the sales of Camacho, Sandro Ramírez and Fornals for a combined £25m, the majority of which was not reinvested in new talent, the final nail in the coffin of the slowly degrading Málaga was eventually bludgeoned in.

In 2018, after 10 consecutive seasons in the Spanish top-flight, Los Boquerones were relegated to the Segunda División. Seven years following their incredible fourth-placed finish, and six after their amazing journey in the Champions League, the club has hit rock-bottom in the Al-Thani era.

The second tier of Spanish football is not unusual to the Andalusians, however it will feel like new territory considering what they were promised when the Qatari bought the club and took them to Europe with some of the foremost talent around.

Optimists may argue their world would’ve been a lot different had they had not conceded the controversial late goal against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League quarter-finals, but it was the excessive spending and the questionable motivates of their owner that doomed them in LaLiga. They simply spent too much on players that may have taken them to the Champions League but were ultimately incapable of driving them to silverware.

With the financial problems likely to continue apace, and high-profile players expected to leave in the summer, including the 10 that are currently on loan at Málaga, there is no guarantee that they will bounce back next season. Some are even suggesting that the drop next season is a possibility too. It’s a gloomy outlook – and perhaps a little too far – but it sums up the insecurity surrounding Málaga at the moment.

The future of this fantastic club, one that once held so much hope for the smaller sides in Spain and was looking to break the Barcelona-Real Madrid duopoly, is now more uncertain than ever. For their loyal fans, they can only hope that their off-field problems come to a head before their situation gets any worse – before they fall even further.

By Adam Storer @AdamStorer93

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