Málaga CF’s relegation again shows perils of poor ownership

Having once been promised the world, Málaga CF will start the 2018/19 season in the Segunda División. Robbie Chalmers takes a look at Abdullah El Thani’s rollercoaster reign as owner.

By Robbie Chalmers

Abdullah El Thani bought the south Spanish side in 2010 with the promise of a challenge for the title. Eight years later however, the club are relegated with the blame laid solely at the foot of the Sheikh’s door.

Malaga is one of Spain’s top tourist attractions with its beautiful vistas, vibrant night life and stylish seaside lifestyle. Standing aloft in the centre is La Rosaleda, an almost magisterial old Spanish ground next to the Guadelmedina River which runs to the city’s thriving harbour. It’s an idyllic location for those who enjoy the high life. One who certainly enjoys the high life is Abdullah El Thani. He’s a Qatari royal and chairman of the privately owned Nasir Bin Abdullah & Sons (NAS Group), one of Qatar’s largest companies. CNN once called him one of the Gulf’s richest men and the long held impression is that Al-Thani possesses incredible wealth. His time at Malaga, however, paints a different picture.

The club’s economic problems were huge in 2010 and the president at the time, Fernando Sanz, saught new financial support via Doha, Qatar which led to meetings with Sheikh Abdullah ben Nasser Al Thani. After some weeks of negotiations, Al Thani became the entity’s new owner in June 2010, being named president on 28th July at the members’ meeting.

At the time of Al-Thani’s takeover the Spanish top flight was dominated by two players and two teams. Ronaldo and Messi were just beginning their decade long rivalry and the two El Clasico sides were more dominant than ever. Pep Guardiola was in charge of one of football’s greatest ever club sides and Real Madrid launched a new Galactico project to counter the Catalans universal success. Despite all this, Al-Thani sounded the alarm and promised quite the vision.

“It will take time, but our objective is for Malaga to be one of the greatest teams in Spain,” Al-Thani also said he decided to buy Malaga rather than Liverpool (which was sold the same year to the Fenway Sports Group for about £300 million).

Al Thani at the La Rosaleda stadium

At first, steps were taken to establish Malaga as a stable La Liga team and players of a more international standard were brought in. Salomón Rondon was sought after by Valencia and Villarreal at a time when both were playing regular Champions League football. The Venezuelan saw a long term project and the chance to be a part of potential revolution and so joined Malaga for a then record £3.5 million pound. Portuguese winger Eliseu also joined the side. Jesualdo Ferreira was appointed as coach but after a poor run that saw them faltering in the relegation zone, they turned to a future Man City favourite; Manuel Pellegrini.

Although the Chilean was posted in the caretaker role this would be the job that gave him a new path back to elite football. Between 2004 and 2009 he guided Villarreal to Champions League football and led them to a semi-final place in 2006. A quarter final place and second place La Liga finish in 2009 got him the Real Madrid job where he was harshly dismissed for Jose Mourinho after one year in charge. Los Blancos always have a reputation for cruel dismissals so a new challenge at Malaga felt deserving of Manuel’s talents. In the January transfer window more players were moved on to make way for bigger names such as centre back Martín Demichelis and former Arsenal attacker Júlio Baptista. They finished the 2010–11 season in 11th place.

The wheels were in motion and the club were being taken more seriously. Their growing exposure helped them strike a deal with Nike as the supplier of the club’s kits and with UNESCO, which, in addition, became the principal sponsor of the club’s kit. Ruud van Nistelrooy, Jérémy Toulalan, Santi Cazorla, Isco, Joaquín and left back Nacho Monreal were all drafted in to help the club qualify for the Champions League in 2012 for the first time in their history after finishing fourth.

With over £80 million spent on players already and the boosted financial resources from European football, Málaga made it to the 2013 Champions League quarter finals. The project reached its peak against German champions Borussia Dortmund. With the first leg ending 0–0 Malaga had a real chance to progress although they were still huge underdogs. Joaquin and Baptista put Malaga 2-1 up with only stoppage time remaining. But football can be a cruel mistress. Two late offside goals by Marco Reus (90+1st minute) and Felipe Santana (90+3rd minute) turned the tables in favour of Jurgen Klopp’s men. Malaga were so disgusted with the officials they made an official complaint to UEFA, but it was eventually dismissed.

This became the pinnacle of Al Thani’s reign and things gradually began to turn for the worse.

Unbeknownst to the fans at the time Malaga were living in an artificial bubble that couldn’t be contained, it turned out they were paying players wages that they could not afford.

Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani stopped ploughing money into the club around this time. This is because his original plan was to buy Malaga as a strategy to purchase more land in the area. The idea was that he could build a sporting city around the football club and turn his investment into a property business as well as a sporting one. Malaga were just a pawn in a bigger scheme. His plan hit a snag as the authorities denied him any planning permission for this project and, after months of appeals, he decided to pull the plug.

Al Thani cut his vast investment into the clubs infrastructure and not only were they unable to bring in any more players but they were unable to keep the stars they had. Málaga have had to sell every year, and it just gets to a point where they couldn’t squeeze more money out of the team, soon there was no talent left. In the summer of 2013, Isco was sold to Real Madrid, Joaquín to Fiorentina and midfielder Jérémy Toulalan to Monaco. The managerial position also changed, with Bernd Schuster taking over from Manuel Pellegrini who left for Manchester City.

In August 2013, Málaga were banned by UEFA, along with other clubs for its debts, so the agency in a statement declared that the club will be excluded from the subsequent competition, for which it would otherwise qualify, in the next four seasons. The ban was, however, eventually downgraded to one season. But still the scars of that night in Dortmund were deeply felt and the mishandling of the clubs finances were coming back to haunt them.

Málaga’s decline continued and they finished lower down the league each season over the past five years. And on 19 April 2018, the Malaga supporter’s worst nightmare was realised. Away to Levante, they hoped to revive their slim survival bid. They were stranded in 20th, 14 points from safety. Málaga conceded a late goal. Emmanuel Boateng sealed their fate and the clubs 10-year stay in La Liga was over. Their dream was over.

In the last decade Málaga were fed an idea that they could become a major force in Spanish football. What’s worse is that Al Thani has pledged to stay on and help Málaga return to the top flight where he says they will “return to their core position”. Perhaps he still harbours plans for a Málaga sporting city project and staying at Málaga Football Club for a few more years may endear him to the powers that be. It may be enough to get his project the go ahead.

Either way, Málaga CF have become an example of how ownership can ruin a club when the football becomes secondary to personal gain. Now they may struggle to make it back to the league they once dreamt of winning.

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