In the summer of 2010, Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Abdullah Al Ahmed Al Thani (Sheikh Abdullah to you and me) was in the market for a football club. It was what Sheikh’s did. I’ve tried to do a bit of research on the Qatari ruling family and it’s safe to say it is an extensive one. The previous Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Haman bin Khalifa Al Thani has twenty-four children.
One of these bought PSG in 2011 and Sheikh Abdullah, the previous Emir’s cousin once removed, chose Spain instead. In Málaga he found a club who had just avoided relegation to the second tier by a single point. In theory it was indeed a club of much potential. Hailing from the sixth biggest city in Spain it is over two hundred kilometres to the next biggest clubs, Seville and Real Betis and has a useful 30,000 seater stadium in La Rosaleda.
But Málaga had had this potential more or less ever since its previous incarnation Club Deportivo Málaga had won promotion to the top flight in 1949. From there they had yo-yoed, found stability in the 1970s before financial implosion, folding as a second division club in 1992. Each time that they flirted with a breakthrough reality resumed, their joint best ever finishes 7th in 1972 and 1974 and a Copa Del Rey Semi-final in 1973, followed by a season in the second tier in 1975/1976.
History wasn’t the basis of buying Málaga, PSG is testament to that. Málaga’s then president Fernando Sanz was able to sell his vision to break up Real Madrid and Barca’s duopoly and it was an ambition which Abdullah bought into for €36 million.
Things could have hardly got off to a worse start. Portuguese Manager Jesualdo Ferreira was signed as a marquee appointment, turning down a contract extension at Porto where he had won three league titles in four years. Things could only go one way. Little did fans expect that way would be down. At the time of his sacking in November Málaga lay eighteenth, occupying the final relegation spot. It was a start that more or less destroyed the veteran manager’s reputation overnight.
The man they turned to was another licking the wounds of a recent sacking. Manuel Pellegrini was a 57 year old who had succeeded more or less everywhere he had been. Trophies in Chile, Ecuador and Argentina he had made the move to Europe in 2004 with Villareal and had guided the club to their best ever finish in 2008, coming second to only Real Madrid. It was with Madrid that he would eventually leave and in his one season at the Bernabeu he won three quarters of his games but crucially and terminally fell short of winning any trophies.
The Málaga appointment did pay off, we know that now, but it was not one with instant rewards. Five losses in his first seven matches by the turn of 2011 Málaga were still in deep trouble, no change to their position of 18th.
Now this is not a story of some plucky underdogs who defied the odds. It is one of oil-fuelled spending and an injection of world class talent. It is also one which came so close to failing before it even started
Sergio Asenjo was loaned from Atletico Madrid in December, Willy Caballero his emergency replacement when Asenjo got injured in January. Martin Demichelis was signed from Bayern Munich that same month, reuniting Pellegrini with the defender he had first coached at River Plate and Julio Baptista came from Roma.Embed from Getty Images
But after 31 games for Málaga relegation was a more than realistic prospect, it was likely. Relegation rivals Sporting Gijon had propelled themselves far out of trouble and Zaragoza were undergoing a mini-revival. Malaga were 19th and it was only Julio Baptista’s efforts that could help fire them out of trouble, ably assisted by Salomón Rondón who had been the club’s record signing in July of 2010 (€3.5 milllion).
Seven goals in five consecutive games, the highlight was a thumping of Atlético Madrid and the late flurry would see Málaga finish 11th. A sigh of relief and perhaps more importantly an indication that money could indeed work.
What followed was a complete overhaul, poaching some of Spain’s top talent as well as experienced pros from throughout Europe. Isco and Joaquin came from Valencia, Nacho Monreal from Osasuna and Santi Cazorla was reunited with Pellegrini from Villareal.
Dutch centre-back Joris Mathijsen was signed from Hamburg but it was his teammate Ruud Van Nistelrooy who drew the hysteria, the Dutchman signing on a free. With Jérémy Toulalan making the move from Lyon, Málaga had assembled quite the squad and one with a wage bill that would eventually be their downfall.
Such concerns were far from Málaga fans minds as they usurped the established order, knocking Atlético Madrid into fifth in a season where they neither scored an incredible amount of goals, nor stopped others from doing so. Ten teams conceded fewer, Levante would score as many but Pellegrini’s side got crucial results at key parts of the seasons. Beating third place Valencia after a run of three winless games they secured the final Champions League spot on the final day, grinding a 1-0 win thanks to a Salomón Rondón strike.Embed from Getty Images
Out went Van Nistelrooy and in came Roque Santa Cruz, the Paraguayan finding form on loan from Manchester City. Uruguayan Diego Lugano replaced a homeward bound Mathijsen and Javier Saviola arrived to much fanfare but there were already signs the wheels were starting to come off.
The club sanctioned the departure of Santi Cazorla for less than they bought him and Rondón was sold to Rubin Kazan. With Monreal’s departure in January 2013 for €10 million the message was clear, Málaga needed the money. Add a ban from European competitions by UEFA from the start of the 2013/2014 season and you had the perfect storm.
And yet for all these changes Pellegrini continued to excel, their performances in Europe papering over some ever-widening cracks. First they beat Panathinaikos to qualify outright and then topped a group featuring AC Milan, Zenit St Petersburg and Anderlecht.
The last-16 would draw them against Porto and they would lose the first leg in Portugal 1-0. In the home leg the hype surrounding Isco reached fever-pitch, a right footed strike from the edge of the box gliding past a helpless Helton. Fifteen minutes from time Málaga won a corner, a floating ball from Isco being attacked by Roque Santa Cruz. The ball hit the net and a packed Rosaleda witnessed the greatest night in the stadium’s history.
A month later Borussia Dortmund and Jurgen Klopp came to town, a combative first leg leading to no goals and a daunting trip to Germany. Their can’t be many more intimidating arenas than Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park, their yellow wall adorning an impressive tifo, the translation of which can be roughly translated as ‘On the trail of the lost trophy’.Embed from Getty Images
Málaga, however, would strike first, Joaquin’s left foot strike coming against the run of play. Lewandowski would equalise before half time but not before Joaquin had one more chance, his header falling into the grateful hands of Roman Weidenfeller.
In the second half once more Joaquin would have a headed chance, Weidenfeller just about doing enough but it was Dortmund who needed a second, the home team facing elimination on away goals. Both teams continued to have chances, Wiedenfeller stopping a fierce Toulalan hit and Caballero making stunning reflex saves against Reus and Goetze.
With eight minutes left on the clock Eliseu, the Portuguese Málaga left back puts the ball into an empty net, his tap in appearing to come from an offside position. No flag and Málaga had surely done it. A place in the Champions League semi-finals was beckoning.
The ninety minutes were up when Marco Reus equalised on the night and ninety-three had passed when Felipe Santana scrambled home a winner. One of the great European nights and at Málaga’s expense.
Out came the cries of injustice, Malaga filing an official complaint with UEFA. A mixture of disbelief that Santana’s goal was not given offside (A Malaga defender was just behind the line and hence out of play) and the fact Marcel Schmelzer had not been sent off for raising his arms at Jesus Gámez. Sheikh Abdullah’s comments:
“We were targeted from the beginning of the season by corrupt UEFA and based on racism”
Targeted or not, that night in Dortmund would represent the end for Málaga as a European force, less than three years from the initial takeover. Abdullah would cease injecting funds into the club, sealing the fate of a club he had crippled with debt.
They would finish the season sixth, lose Pellegrini to Manchester City and eventually be relegated in 2018. They are currently in their third season in the Segunda Division, firmly languishing in mid-table. It is a period in which Sheikh Abdullah has used the club’s website as more or less his own propaganda tool:
Spanish courts have rule Sheikh Abdullah owes the club €8.5m and have more recently suspended him as the Club’s president, Málaga going into administration just a few days later.
For the side from southern Spain, their clubs very existence under threat once more it begs the question. Was it all worth it? More often than not financial implosion does quite come with the highs that Málaga got to experience. It’s not a choice many clubs get to make.