Málaga: One year later

A year ago today, Málaga CF drew 0-0 in Greece to Panathinaikos, advancing from the playoff to the Champions League group stage 2-0 on aggregate. What followed has often been described as a “roller coaster”, as Los Boquerones went on a wild ride that peaked with a dramatic quarter-final tie against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, which the German squad won in the dying minutes.

The ride slumped to an end from there, as the Andalusians won only 3 of their final 8 La Liga games. What followed was a summer clear out, with tactician Manuel Pellegrini off to Manchester, golden boy Isco jetting for Madrid, and a host of others moving on from La Rosaleda. Many important squad players from Málaga’s Champions League run, such as Joaquín, Júlio Baptista, Jérémy Toulalan, Javier Saviola, Martín Demichelis, Diego Lugano, Manuel Iturra and Lucas Piazón, have departed for pastures anew. Wading through the mess of loan deals – both in and out – the club has arranged over the past few years, 12 players from last year’s squad left Málaga this summer, per Transfermarkt. Former Real Madrid boss Bernd Schuster arrived to replace Pellegrini, having last coached in 2011 at Turkish club Beşiktaş.

What seemed such a promising project just 3 years ago, when Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani bought the Mediterranean coastal club, has slowly fizzled out. When he arrived in the summer of 2010, Al Thani promised investment in players, club infrastructure, and projects to strengthen the tourism industry of Málaga and surrounding areas. The Sheikh did spend money on players like Toulalan, Ruud van Nistelrooy, and Santi Cazorla at the outset, but his reign has been plagued by financial irregularities recently, with the club failing to pay player wages and tax bills on time. The situation led to Málaga receiving a four year ban from European competition, which was later reduced to just one season.

The explanation for the abrupt halt in investment from Al Thani is not exactly clear. As a member of Qatari’s ruling family, it’s not as if he doesn’t have the funds to pay the bills, so it seems he chose to stop the flow of money for some reason. Al Thani reportedly has been unhappy with the way Spanish authorities have handled the process on some of his ongoing projects, such as plans to build a new stadium and training complex for Málaga CF and a marina expansion in nearby Marbella.

When questioned recently, the Sheikh insisted he is in it for the long haul and is looking to build a more stable organization that complies with Financial Fair Play. Whatever the reasons for austerity, a squad of many new faces has begun the La Liga campaign, with Schuster himself saying he expected zero points from the first three games. After two, his prediction looks pretty accurate. Málaga have fallen 1-0 to both Valencia and Barcelona and face a tough Sevilla side on Sunday. The new boss has been quite outspoken since arriving at La Roselada, claiming earlier this month that he had no problem with performance enhancing drug use in football “as long as it’s for recovery purposes”. Schuster should provide the Spanish media with some entertainment lost by José Mourinho’s departure from the league this year.

Meanwhile, the team that replaced Málaga as the Spanish entrant in the Champions League playoff, Real Sociedad, head into their game with Lyon today holding a 2-0 advantage, the same advantage that was enough to secure Los Boquerones passage to the group stage one year ago. Real Sociedad’s path to this position, however, sharply contrasts with Málaga’s quick spending ways. Instead of splashing the cash, the txuri-urdin built their success on the back of a tremendous youth academy, with players like Xabi Prieto, Iñigo Martínez, and Antoine Griezmann integral parts of the Basque club’s success. Funnily enough, both Málaga and La Real sold star midfielders, Isco and Asier Illarramendi, to Real Madrid this summer. Real Sociedad will hope another youth product, Rubén Pardo, can replace Illarra in the long term. The team looked impressive against Lyon last week, but still have a long way to go to match Málaga’s run of last year.

Málaga are certainly looking worse off one year removed from their historic victory over Panathinaikos, now banned from Europe and bottom of the La Liga table. The situation might yet improve though. Recent reports in Spain indicate some of the Sheikh’s plans might be coming together. Hopefully this entices him to fulfill his financial obligations to creditors this time around. Los Boquerones may also benefit from not having European competition to worry about this season. They can focus on slower growth to avoid UEFA’s ire and adhere to Financial Fair Play.

Málaga could well be on 0 points after three games, but after Valencia, Barcelona, and Sevilla, it will get easier. A stabilization of the club’s finances and a modest mid-table finish would be a successful year. It’s not exactly competing with Real Madrid and Barcelona, as Sheikh Al Thani claimed he wanted to do when he bought the team, but it would be an important step forward for the club’s future.

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