From holiday resort to footballing force
Could Malaga FC, flush with overseas investment, finally break the Real-Barca stranglehold on La Liga?
It’s become a tradition in England to sneer at clubs that have taken on foreign investment, such as Manchester City and Chelsea. City have won the FA Cup since being taken over by Abu Dhabi in 2008, while Chelsea have picked up three titles and several other domestic cups since the Russian Roman Abramovich assumed control in 2003. With both owners pumping close to a billion pounds each into their respective sides, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger has dismissed such investment as ‘financial doping’.
It is perfectly reasonable to suggest that pumping cash into such clubs has a greater effect in the English Premier League, where the wealth distribution from television deals is more evenly spread than elsewhere in Europe. With the UEFA Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules starting to kick in, however, perhaps this financial doping won’t be as effective in the future. Although this does look unlikely given Manchester City’s attempts to circumvent the financial restrictions.
While major monetary investment is more likely to reap rewards in the Premier League (when attempted sensibly, that is – see Portsmouth, West Ham and others are examples of how it can go badly wrong), it seems that in Spain’s La Liga, it could be the only way to break the eternal duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona. The exception was Rafael Benitez’s fantastic Valencia side, which won the title in 2002 and 2004.
Now, however, it seems almost unthinkable for a side other than the aforementioned duo to win the Spanish title. A large part of the Real-Barca dominance is due to the fact that 49 per cent of the television money is split between the two. The other 18 sides have to divvy up the remaining 51 per cent among them. In the modern game, it would be foolish to think sporting dominance isn’t supported by financial strength.
That is why the goings on at Malaga are intriguing. Bought last summer by Qatari sheikh Abdullah Bin Nassar Al-Thani for €36million (a price including the club’s debt), Malaga are laying the early foundations for a sustained challenge to the dominant duo.
A note of caution does need be sounded however, given the experience of Racing Santander at the hands of Indian businessman and alleged fraudster Ahsan Ali Syed, who bought an 80 per cent stake in the little club on the Cantabria coast. The founder of investment vehicle Western Gulf Advisory also came with similar aspirations of competing with Madrid and Barcelona. Yet the dream owner that fans were desperate for turned into a nightmare. Players frequently received their wages late, while the previous owners still haven’t been paid what is owed to them by Syed. One ought to remember that this was the same man who failed to buy Blackburn Rovers when it was discovered he still owes rent and council tax from his stay in London.
Then there’s the case of Madrid-based Getafe, which became the third Spanish side to be bought by a foreign company, as the Dubai-based Royal Emirates Group concluded a deal worth between €70million and €90million. This summer, talents worth up to €18.3million have left, including star man Dani Parejo. In return, four players signed on free transfers and two loan signings have come in. Real Madrid youngster Pablo Sarabia is the only player to have arrived for a fee – and just €3million at that. Such parsimony might be sensible but it is hardly going to put fear into the hearts of Getafe’s rivals.
Not that last season was a fairy tale for Malaga. The team started promisingly but were bottom by the tenth game of the season. Then coach Jesualdo Ferreira was sacked and ex-Real Madrid and Villarreal coach Manuel Pellegrini was installed along with sporting director Antonio Fernández, who had previously worked at Sevilla (where the scouting department had found bargains such as current Barcelona star Dani Alves for under €1million).
During the January transfer window, Malaga signed a plethora of names to kick-start their season. Among those who arrived was Bayern Munich’s 31-year-old Martín Demichelis, an experienced head, but one considered by many to be in decline. Italian midfielder Enzo Maresca arrived on a free, while eventual hero Júlio Baptista cost just €2.5million. They also signed the slight but talented playmaker Diego Buonanotte from the now-relegated Argentine side River Plate for €4.5m, for the start of the 2011/12 season.
But the new signings initially failed to settle, while Baptista picked up an injury. The owners seemed to vanish for a while, too, as the side went unpaid for February. River Plate also threatened to sue, having not received the transfer fee for Buonanotte. At one point, they sent a team of reserves to Madrid, to save the bigger players for a relegation scrap, only to get hammered 7-0 at the Bernabeu.
Baptista returned and found his best form since his stint at Sevilla, with a total of nine goals in just 11 games. Along with the impressive tally of 14 goals in 30 games from the young Venuzuelan striker José Salomón Rondón, he led Malaga to safety in eleventh place, albeit only three points above the drop zone. The chief executive Abdullah Ghubn had declared that relegation was not an option. It nearly was, but the side escaped by the skin of their teeth.
This summer has been far more promising, with over €50million being spent on players. Chilean manager Pellegrini’s contract has even been renewed until 2015, while Buonanotte has arrived and impressed in the opening pre-season game, a 0-1 win against Xerez.
The defence, which conceded 68 goals last season, has been reinforced as Martín Demichelis has been joined by Spanish international Nacho Monreal and Dutchman Joris Mathijsen. They will be covered by the talented French defensive midfielder Jérémy Toulalan, who has arrived from Lyon. This influx of experience has been complemented by youthful signings such as Isco, the exciting playmaker from Valencia. The attack has been further bolstered by Valencia winger Joaquin and ex-Manchester United and Real Madrid striker Ruud van Nistlerooy. The experience of the Dutchman will be important as Malaga look to challenge for a European spot. On top of the other signings, the owners have also splashed out €20million for Villarreal star Santi Cazorla as a gift to the fans.
Despite the teething problems of Al-Thani’s first season in control and the flirtation with relegation, fans are naturally optimistic, given the huge transfer outlay on new players. Over 26,000 season tickets have been sold for the upcoming season, but there must be concerns as to how quickly so many new faces can gel on the pitch.
Many in Spain will sneer at the big aspirations of this newly-rich club, but for many, it seems that ‘financial doping’, as Wenger puts it, is the only way to break the Real-Barca duopoly. UEFA’s FFP rules will eventually be a concern but, for now, Malaga will want slow, steady growth.
There will be those in Spain hoping for the Malaga project to crash and burn, but if the dominance of the aristocracy is to be eventually broken, it will only be by a force backed by serious cash.
Viral Shah is a spiked intern and a graduate of the Young Journalists’ Academy. He blogs at LiberoFootball.
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