Real Mallorca and the tumultuous rise back to LaLiga from the third tier

Real Mallorca and the tumultuous rise back to LaLiga from the third tier

For decades, Mallorca has been recognised for its vast beauty, proving to be a popular holiday destination for tourists, sharing its epic landscape with the world. Combining stunning architecture with natural awe, Mallorca is an engrossing place.

The island’s primary football club, Real Mallorca, have just made their return to LaLiga. After years of struggle, financial instability and a lack of sustainability, they’re back in the top tier. Mallorca last played in LaLiga in 2013 and have since stuttered in the Segunda, suffering relegation from there in 2017 after an embarrassing draw against already-relegated Mirandés. Fortunately for the fans, they bounced back immediately and then took it one step further, achieving successive promotions to make it to where they belong.

The club look to be in a good position, but that wasn’t the case when they left LaLiga six years ago. Under the previous ownership, they were often chopping and changing the man at the helm in the aim of securing a return to the top flight – experimenting with four different managers in their first season back in the Segunda. That trend carried on until 2015, when German investor Utz Claasen, who has worked in senior management positions with blue-chip companies such as Volkswagen, became the majority shareholder of the club and implemented a different strategy. 

He brought in Miguel Ángel Nadal, the Mallorca native and former defender as the club’s general manager. They changed processes at the club, attempting to blood younger players in the first-team and making low-cost or free transfers to aid their ailing finances. There wasn’t much change in the results, however, as the dream of returning to LaLiga only drifter further away as time went on. The overhaul of the coaching staff was still frequent and results were much of the same. 

Soon after, they were battling to stay in the Segunda. Mallorca managed to beat the drop in 2015/16, earning some extra funds and making a few decent signings. In the middle of the campaign, though, there were further changes in the boardroom, as a group containing the NBA’s Steve Nash, Pheonix Suns’ owner Robert Sarver, vice-chairman Andy Kohlberg and the US men’s national team’s Stuart Holden and Kyle Martino became the majority shareholders of the club. Their first operation was installing Maheta Molango, the former Atlético Madrid and Brighton forward as the club’s CEO.

Mallorca’s luck would run out during the following campaign, dropping down to the third tier for the first time since 1981. From there, they overhauled their entire operation. The board, staff and fans were intent on an immediate return to the Segunda, then rebuilding for an eventual comeback to LaLiga. 

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In the Segunda B, as expected, there was a dwindling level of interest as fewer fans came to the club’s famous Estadi de San Moix. They were divided: some supported unconditionally, others stayed away, while almost all sought answers to their plight. They had an average attendance of just over 6,500 fans per match, a massive 30 percent drop on the previous season but still impressive for their level. Mallorca did, however, have some reasons to be cheerful.

Unsurprisingly, their squad was much better than the ones they were competing against. In a league containing several of LaLiga’s B teams, their experience set them apart. The Segunda B consists of four groups of 20 teams each, with the leaders of each group going to the champions’ playoff. There, Mallorca were pitted alongside Cartagena, Rayo Majadahonda and Mirandés, who they had to face in a two-legged semi-final. They overcame the first challenge, winning 3-1 on aggregate, before beating the Madrid-based Rayo Majadahonda by the same scoreline in the final to secure a return to the Segunda. 

One of the finer stories of being in the third division was that there was finally a Derbi de Palma that took place. This is the match between Real Mallorca and Atlético Baleares. When the teams met in September 2017, it was their first clash in 37 years and there was plenty of interest around the island. Given that Baleares have spent much of their history in the lower divisions, a match between the two is rare, so it was an occasion to be celebrated. 

The game itself was dull, finishing 0-0. In the return fixture, Mallorca, now the home team, won a thrilling encounter 3-2 in a match that lived up to the hype. It could be another few decades before these two teams meet in a league game again – it was only right that the last fixture filled the stomachs of the island’s natives.

The leader of the coaching staff throughout this period has been Vicente Moreno. The former midfielder had a relatively unspectacular playing career, spending much of it in the colours of Spanish lower-league side Xerez. In a twist of fate, he made his LaLiga debut in the 2009/10 season against Mallorca at the age of 34. Following his playing days, he joined the Xerez coaching team, first as an assistant and then in the top role in 2011. After an unsuccessful spell, he moved to Gimnàstic, where he stayed for three years before jumping ship to take the reins at Mallorca. 

One of the key facets that Moreno has instilled in this Mallorca team since taking charge has been their grittiness. The team are unwilling to accept defeat under him and have made their home a fortress despite waning attendances. 

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Mallorca have been fast-starters, often hitting the ground running and getting on the scoresheet early on in their games. It has been a trait that has worked well for them and it will certainly be crucial in LaLiga. When not scoring, their defensive structure and compactness has enabled them to bag big results, a key factor in their rise. 

Back in the Segunda, there wasn’t much expectation that Mallorca would put in a serious bid for promotion given that they had flattered to deceive in recent seasons. Unlike previous years, however, Mallorca were smart in their management, especially in the transfer window. Avoiding the fate of other teams that spent recklessly, the islanders were prudent with their outlay.

They retained much of the squad that was so impressive in returning to the Segunda, keeping the experienced names such as goalkeeper Manolo Reina and midfielder Salva, while Lago Junior, the forward who worked with Moreno at Gimnàstic, continued to be a key cog. Other than that, the youthfulness of Joan Sastre has seen him become a permanent fixture on Moreno’s teamsheets. He was given his debut in 2015 but it wasn’t until their relegation to the third tier that there was significant trust placed in him. Still only 22, a bright future awaits. 

Keeping the core was imperative, and this team, having been gelled together by Moreno, intimately knew what the objective was and how they’d go about it. There were several highs over the course of the campaign, including wins against their nearest rivals. In their renowned defensive style, Mallorca plucked 1-0 wins against the likes of Deportivo, Osasuna and Cadiz, while others such as Albacete and Real Oviedo were also overcome. 

Perhaps the most satisfying win of all, though, was against Málaga. In an away game played at a crucial time of the season – just before the playoffs – they defeated the Malaguistas in quintessential Moreno fashion. In most away games under the manager, they have been known to hold their defensive shape before striking very late on. They did the same here, scoring an 86th-minute winner to boost their hopes of making the playoffs. 

Mallorca were well-organised in their return to the second tier, a sign of their maturity and of their ever-improving manager. In a team that has few stand-out names, it was Lago Junior, the 28-year-old forward, who stepped up and took responsibility. The Ivorian has spent much of his career in the lower leagues and scored 11 goals last season, making him their top scorer. Deployed mostly on the left side of a 4-4-2, Junior also has a creative instinct, facilitating his rise to second in the Segunda assists charts.

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Sastre, the right-back, has been just as important. He was regarded as one of the brightest prospects in the lower divisions and even has a few caps for Spain’s youth teams. Born and bred on the island, he’s overcome the pain of seeing his beloved Mallorca flounders before taking charge himself in their ascent. Many predict he’ll be staying in LaLiga regardless of whether the club does.

Mallorca finished the season in fifth and secured a promotion playoff spot with relative ease. Along with them were Málaga, Albacete and Deportivo – teams they had already beaten. In the two-legged semi-final they were to play Albacete, who they beat 2-0 in the home leg, scraping through after a 1-0 defeat in the second. Their dependable defence got them through, and they were to meet a spirited Deportivo in the final, who had just overcome Málaga with ease.

The Galicians were the favourites going into the two-legged final and, right from the off, they showed all the confidence that had got them to this point. A goal in either half for Depor in their home leg placed one foot in LaLiga, as Mallorca were left with a mountain to climb.

In the second-leg, a sold-out Son Moix, which included local hero Rafa Nadal, arrived to give their full support to a team that had overcome more than its fair share of woes. Having endured a long season that started in mid-August, there was never a better time to give it their all. 

Mallorca made a strong start, scoring after 20 minutes as Croatian forward Ante Budimir gave the fans hope. Then, in the second half, the intensity rose. Salva, Mallorca’s creator-in-chief, turned finisher as his goal 28 minutes from time levelled scores on aggregate and broke Depor hearts. 

As the final whistle drew closer, pandemonium ensued. Substitute Abdón Prats, who came on minutes into the second half to add to the attacking outlets, hammered home from the edge of the box to complete the most extraordinary of comebacks. There have rarely been more dramatic promotion playoff finals than this. Mallorca could take great pride in their achievements – not just this win, but from the previous two years. A double promotion is no mean feat and Vicente Moreno had just earned his greatest honour in the game.

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After the drama of the playoff final, attentions turned to making their return to LaLiga a successful one. They have had a much shorter pre-season than the other clubs, with their campaign ending on 23 June and starting on 17 August, meaning the time to make new signings and allow them to gel has been tricky. 

Their objective in the top flight is simple: survive. They can take some motivation from history as only four of the 15 promoted teams over the last five years have dropped down immediately. But like all well-run clubs, they know history counts for nothing. 

They’ve made some solid additions, recruiting free agents such as Pablo Chavarría, Aleix Febas and Alex Alegría. In what is sure to be a long, difficult season, improving the depth of the squad is important, and given that much of this team is used to playing lower-league football, bringing in players who are used to LaLiga is important. Much of the squad that propelled them to the top remains the same, though, with names like Junior, Sastre and Sevilla getting the chances they deserve.

Other than that, names like Dani, who impressed down the right, as well as Antonio Raíllo and Martin Valjent, the two esteemed centre-backs who were at the heart of Mallorca’s promotion bid, will be names to keep an eye out for. They’ve already kicked off their LaLiga campaign and it’s going to be the likes of Lionel Messi, Eden Hazard and João Félix that they’re going to have to come up against. The challenge is monumental. But if they keep their nerve and unity like they have so far under Moreno, surviving to fight another season in LaLiga can be achieved.

Off the pitch, an objective remains the growth of the brand. Given that they hail from a popular tourist destination and that their owners are prominent names in the world of sport, expanding themselves beyond their island horizons could see a much-needed boost to their cashflow. Between that and the television money they’ll make in LaLiga, Mallorca have a great chance to stabilise.

Two years ago, few thought top-flight football would return anytime soon to Mallorca. Now, with a shrewd ownership structure, a manager looking to prove himself against the brightest minds, and a squad keen to prove their worth, Real Mallorca are set to add another chapter in their incredible story.

By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26

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