The decline of Real Zaragoza, a club that once lifted trophies amongst LaLiga’s elite

The decline of Real Zaragoza, a club that once lifted trophies amongst LaLiga’s elite

The year 1975 was a very different time for Real Zaragoza. Los Maños finished second that year, the joint-highest finish in their history, and nobody had ever heard of a club called Rayo Majadahonda. They wouldn’t be founded until the following year, at which point they entered the Spanish footballing pyramid at the eighth tier.

But times have changed and, during the opening weekend of the 2018/19 season, Real Zaragoza played Rayo Majadahonda as an equal in the Segunda División. That says a lot about Rayo Majadahonda’s own spectacular journey and rise, but it says far more about how far Real Zaragoza have fallen. It also says a lot about how tough they’ve found it to pick themselves back up.

Real Zaragoza had been a staple of LaLiga throughout most of the club’s existence. Founded in 1932, they were promoted to the first division just before the Spanish Civil War, eventually taking their place in LaLiga when the championship returned in the 1939/40 season. The 1940s and early 1950s were the yo-yo years for the club, as they were relegated and promoted with great frequency, before consolidating their place as a LaLiga mainstay, spending all but two seasons in the top flight between 1956 and the turn of the century.

Looking at the history of the Spanish league, only eight teams – Athletic Club, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Valencia, Espanyol, Atlético Madrid, Sevilla and Real Sociedad – have spent more seasons in the top division than Real Zaragoza’s 58, and that total of 58 could have been even higher had the Aragon-based club been founded earlier than 1932, three years after the launch of LaLiga.

While they have never won the league championship, Real Zaragoza have enjoyed plenty of success, which makes sense given that they’re the biggest club of the fifth-largest city in Spain. They’re well used to flicking confetti off their shoulders at the Estadio La Romareda. With six Copa del Rey victories to their name, they are the sixth-most successful club in the history of the competition, with only Barcelona, Athletic, Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid and Valencia having lifted the trophy more often.

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The most recent Zaragozian Copa del Rey success came in 2004, when the Galácticos of Real Madrid were defeated in the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona, with Los Maños’ Luciano Galletti scoring the extra time winner for a 3-2 win, after goals from Zaragoza’s Dani García and David Villa and from Real Madrid’s Roberto Carlos and David Beckham. That triumph was no fluke, coming just three years after another Copa del Rey victory and being followed up by a 3-2 toppling of Valencia in the 2004 Spanish Super Cup.

The Copa del Rey success granted them UEFA Cup qualification and Real Zaragoza went all the way to the last 16 in 2004/05, before finishing sixth in the league two seasons later and returning to European competition, even if they didn’t go quite as far.

However, that’s when things started to go wrong. In the same 2007/08 season in which they competed in Europe, they finished 18th in the league and went down. Although a second-place finish in the next year’s second tier granted them an immediate bounce-back promotion, they struggled upon their return to the top-flight, coming 14th, 13th, 16th and then 20th out of 20 to be once again kicked down from the Spanish footballing elite in 2012/13. This time there was no instant return. This time the relegation devil had handed them a one-way ticket to hell.

It had been a long time coming. In hindsight, it actually made a lot of sense. When they went down in 2012/13 it was their third relegation of the century and the club was trapped in a backwards cycle. They should probably have been relegated the year before, only for coach Manolo Jiménez to oversee a classic and clichéd great escape, packed with last-minute goals, narrow 1-0 wins and last-day salvation.

“Only a rat abandons a sinking ship,” he’d said that season. “I’m the captain of this ship and I’m not leaving. We need to let the women and the children off the boat first, then the men, then the crew and then last of all the captain.” That was before he stayed on for the doomed 2012/13 campaign, aware of two things – that he was not a rat, and that Real Zaragoza were about to hit the ocean floor.

The decline can be traced back to the arrival of Agapito Iglesias, who took over the club in 2006 in a record-scratch moment and who promised to take Real Zaragoza into the promised land of the Champions League. Eduardo Bandrés, whose background was in finance and in politics, not in football, was named as president and predictably this didn’t work out, with Bandrés stepping down in 2009.

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Taking over his role was Iglesias himself. Salvador Arenere then came on board as president in December 2011, but his stint in charge lasted just 10 days before he stepped down, frustrated by “the fact that total control of the institution has not been given up by Agapito Iglesias”.

So Iglesias was officially back in the presidential seat, except he was very rarely in that seat. He stopped turning up to matches, debts mounted and hit €145m in 2012/13, players went unpaid, stars had to be sold, replacements were brought in using the now-illegal practice of third-party ownership and the ship eventually did sink.

Following that relegation, and with the idea of once again coming straight back up, Jesús García Pitarch was hired to be Real Zaragoza’s new general director, making him the main decision-maker ahead of placeholder president Fernando Molinos. Pitarch was a big name, but his reputation was similarly in decline. With a background in professional football and law, he’d been a hot young sporting director when he took over at Valencia at the beginning of the century, when Los Che experienced several glory years. Even then, though, there were some doubts about his methods. “I asked for a sofa and he’s brought me a lamp,” Rafa Benítez famously said of Pitarch’s transfer dealings.

Next, he was hired by Atlético Madrid, where he made some very impressive signings like Filipe Luís, Miranda, Diego Godín and Diego Forlán, as well as making some big mistakes. Too many flops in the view of many at the capital city club. There was then a brief stint at Hércules before the opportunity in Zaragoza came up, yet this was not the happy ending he or the Zaragoza fans were hoping for, as Pitarch proved he wasn’t a just-add-water solution.

Following a summer of significant playing personnel turnover in 2013, Real Zaragoza really struggled during their first season in the second tier. Making a profit of around €11m in the transfer market, their squad was weakened more than most expected, while Manolo Jiménez was no longer in the dugout either, and they could only muster up a 14th-place finish in the league.

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Behind the scenes there was constant turmoil, while much of the drama was played out in public too. There was a quarrel at Barajas airport in Madrid, there was the messy sacking of Paco Herrera and then there was Movilla-gate. In the summer following relegation from LaLiga, midfielder José Movilla was released after disagreements with Pitarch, before the player suggested in the media that the director didn’t actually care about winning promotion. In response, the club released an official statement condemning Movilla’s words, only for Iglesias to later say that he was against the publication of this statement. In the feud between Pitarch and Movilla, the owner sided with the latter.

It was no surprise, then, when Pitarch left the club in the summer of 2014. What was a surprise was that Iglesias departed too. After eight years long and difficult years, he sold his majority stake in the club to Fundación Zaragoza 2032, a group of Real Zaragoza-loving businesspeople. Suddenly the future looked brighter.

However, with the takeover not completed until late July, there wasn’t much time for the new ownership structure to make an impact on the sporting side of the club. Víctor Muñoz, who had been the coach in charge at the end of the previous season, was kept on and there was another poor start to the campaign, with no victories achieved until the fifth round. But things started to improve little by little, especially when Ranko Popović took over as coach in November.

Under the Serb, Real Zaragoza reached the promotion playoffs by finishing sixth, meeting third-placed Girona in the first round. A 3-0 loss at home to the Catalan club in the first leg was one of the true low points of the Aragon side’s time in the Segunda, but amazingly they turned the tie around by winning 4-1 away from home a few days later. In the final, a 3-1 triumph over Las Palmas at home in the first leg had fans dreaming of a return to the promised land.

With 10 minutes to go of the second leg in the Canary Islands, they were still up 3-2 on aggregate. But then their bad luck continued. A Las Palmas free-kick was lofted into the area and somehow the ball found a way over the line after some penalty box pinball, even though there were three defenders on the goalline. The Estadio de Gran Canaria went wild. Real Zaragoza went back home humbled.

With the off-field issues being sorted out little by little, Real Zaragoza faced up to the 2015/16 season full of hope and optimism. They were in the hunt for the playoff places right to the end and entered the final day of the season in fourth, only to find a new way to torture their fanbase.

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Los Maños visited tiny and already-relegated Llagostera on the final day of the season with their playoff fate in their hands and proceeded to lose 6-2, falling all the way down to eighth and out of the promotion picture. “If a match can provoke a hangover then this must be the closest thing to it,” wrote Aítor Lagunas, a Zaragoza fan and editor of Panenka Magazine, afterwards.

“On how many occasions could a team fighting to finish fourth on the final day of the league season collapse in such a manner against a team that’s already down? I think I know the answer: only once. We’ve been left without a playoff berth by Llagostera, a club from a town of 8,200 people and a club playing at a stadium which isn’t their own, which only has portable toilets and which only has one scoreboard, one I’d describe as more electrifying than electric. This hangover never ends.”

Lagunas was right. The pain and suffering wasn’t close to being over. This hangover couldn’t be cured by a fry-up and some juice. The team slipped down to 16th the next year, their lowest league position since 1949, before they came in third, their best performance since falling back into the second division in 2013. Yet even then they couldn’t win promotion, losing their playoff semi-final to Numancia to a last-minute goal from the head of Pape Maly Diamanka.

Under a new coach, Imanol Idiakez, they go at it again in 2018/19, but it feels like something is missing for Real Zaragoza. Levante, Real Betis, Villarreal, Getafe, Celta Vigo and Alavés are all medium-sized clubs in Spanish football and have all been in the second division at some point in the past six years, but they’ve all found a way to scrap and fight their way out of the footballing cesspit and back into the top flight. Even tiny Huesca, their neighbours from the Aragon region, have been able to make it to LaLiga for the first time in their history.

Real Zaragoza simply haven’t been able to; not with boardroom drama and not with boardroom stability; not with good coaches and not with bad coaches; not with strong squads and not with weak squads. There is no ever-present or underlying factor explaining Real Zaragoza’s inability to return to the top flight. The only constant in all of this are the unhappy endings. There’s no guarantee that a happy one is on the horizon.

By Euan McTear @emctear

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