It is an almost irrevocable fact that off-field issues at a football club will affect the performance of the team. Blackburn Rovers have been on a rapid decline since the Venky’s circus came to Lancashire, but the perfect example of this is Leeds United. In 2002/3, after a fifth-placed finish the season before, the club sold Rio Ferdinand and Robbie Keane during the summer as the full extent of the financial crisis became apparent. The club still retained players such as Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Ian Harte and Alan Smith amongst other internationals, but proficiency dropped alarmingly as the club slipped towards the economic abyss.
This is nothing more than common sense, in fact. If your employer was noted to be struggling financially, with a mix of facts, rumours and spurious nonsense spouted across multimedia channels regarding your continued employment, would you be able to operate at maximum? Or would, inevitably, morale, drive and motivation ebb away as you became more worried about the self than the collective? Football may be a team game, but that is a cliché less relevant in times of financial hardship. Players will be forced to think of their own well-being, and cannot be criticised for doing so.
All of which makes the achievements of Malaga CF all the more impressive, in an almost constant state of limbo since 2010. When Sheikh Abdullah Al-Thani strode into town, he made the sort of promises so typical within modern football. There was to be a new stadium, a new academy, a new manager, new players and, most importantly, a new mindset. Malaga were no longer to be just another football team, and would become trendsetters for a new breed of club able to take on Europe’s elite.
It must be said, for the sake of fairness, that signs were promising on the Costa del Sol. Al-Thani made good on his claims of meaningful investment, and the club signed Salmon Rondon, Eliseu and Martin Demichelis, amongst others. Most importantly, Manuel Pellegrini was recruited as Head Coach, experience vastly required during such upheaval. After a 17thplace finish in 2009/10, Pellegrini led the team to eleventh in La Liga. The owner, sensing the potential for quick improvement, invested further still in player recruitment, bringing in Ruud van Nistelrooy, Isco, Jeremy Toulalan and Santi Cazorla to the new ‘project’.
Half way through last season Malaga were tenth, but a late surge saw them finish in fourth place, the club’s highest ever league finish and hence their first ever qualification for the Champions League. It was only the second time La Rosaleda would host European football, and the owner’s principal goal had been achieved in just two seasons. These were truly Halcyon days.
As so often seems to occur, the wheels soon came off. Whether Al-Thani lost interest, passion or disposable income (the latter would seem hugely unlikely), Malaga has become a very modern tale: rags to riches to rags.
It started last summer, when individuals filed complaints that they were owed wages from the club. In the close season, a host of first team players departed, including Cazorla, Van Nistelrooy, Rondon, Joris Mathijsen and Enzo Maresca. The club recouped £30million in transfer fees but spent just £600,000 on a season-long loan for Roque Santa Cruz, and Javier Saviola was brought in on a free transfer.
These were not the dealings of a club on the up, and it became clear that the owner no longer wished to fund his illusions of footballing grandeur. Then, on December 21st, UEFA dropped its bombshell. Malaga were banned from European competition for one season and fined £244,000 due to the debts still owed by the club for transfers involving Cazorla, Rondon and Toulalan. The full extent of such debts are not known, but it is clear that Malaga have been operating on borrowed time for months rather than weeks. There have been recent reports of negotiations with Albanian company Taci Oil Group International, but this has so far been denied by all parties.
And yet, amongst such a sh*tstorm of football economics, Pellegrini remains stoically at the helm, steering his side admirably on the field. Despite all the summer departures, Malaga currently sit fifth in the La Liga table. No club in the league has a tighter defence, and they drew at the Camp Nou in the first leg of their Copa Del Rey quarter final.
In the club’s debut Champions League season, results have been even more impressive given the instability. In reaching the first knockout stage (where they will face FC Porto), Los Boquerones have played eight games, and remain undefeated. In taking four points off every team in the group stage (including Zenit St Petersburg and AC Milan) Malaga have established themselves as the surprise package of this season’s competition.
Given the downturn in resources and insecurity surrounding the club, Pellgerini’s performance cannot be overstated. He has utilised a fluid front four of Saviola, Joaquin, Francisco Portillo and Isco, who has been La Liga’s unheralded star this season. Left back Eliseu is invited to venture forward, but the defensive solidity provided by Demichelis at the back and Toulalan in midfield has been incredibly effective. Whether such success in adversity can continue remains to be seen.
In many ways, Al-Thani was destined to fail. He was attempting to initiate a foreign plan into Andalusian culture. He was presumably hoping to make money in Spanish football (impossible against the might of Barcelona and Real Madrid) and attempting to profit in Spain, one of Europe’s financial doldrums. And he is guilty of a severe case of biting off more than he could ever hope to chew.
Until now, Manuel Pellegrini has fought against a tide that has swept many aside, and performed admirably amidst the madness. One suspects, however, that the muscle of financial restraint will prove to much to bear. If Malaga’s appeal is rejected in March, league position becomes irrelevant, and motivation amongst players will wither away. If the club cannot prove that they are paying back creditors by the end of that same month, their European ban will extend for a further season. Pelligrini may again be forced to sell to battle debts that will surely become insurmountable.
If and when that happens, the coach can walk out of La Rosaleda with his head held high, the one person that deserves to do so, reputation enhanced rather than crumbled like the dreams of long-suffering supporters.