Andy Mitten

Malaga lurching from boom to bust

Andy Mitten

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This should be the greatest time in CF Malaga's chequered history. Fans who bought every season ticket to guarantee a full house for every game of the forthcoming season should be anticipating a first foray into the Champions League and the continuing improvement of their squad.

Instead, the baffling situation at Malaga is causing considerable concern. They may have a side full of renowned players coached by former Villarreal and Real Madrid coach Manuel Pellegrini, but they don't know for how long.

For Malaga fans, they've never had it so good. The team who are 19th in the all-time Spanish league table had never finished above 7th before last season. They'd seen their team go up and down, go under and merge.

In 2010, just after once more avoiding relegation, they were taken over the Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nassar Al-Thani, a member of the Qatar royal family in a £28 million deal. He had grand plans and began to put his money where his mouth is as Malaga spent heavily on quality footballers. It didn't initially work. They were bottom of the league two thirds of the way through Al Thani's first season, before finishing 11th with an end-of-season flourish. Pellegrini and sporting director Antonio Fernandez received much of the praise for the turnaround.

That continued last season, and while there were patches where they looked unconvincing, their quality players like Julio Baptista, Santi Cazorla, Martin Demichelis, Jeremy Toulalan and Isco helped them finish behind the big two and Valencia. Other signings like Ruud van Nistelrooy didn't quite work out, but that's football.

"They had a five-year plan (to reach the Champions League) and it was like they'd reached their goal three years early," says Malaga fan Christian Machowski.

Malaga fans, who had filled the 28,000-capacity Rosaleda all season, celebrated like they'd won the European Cup — another one of many celebrations which had started a year earlier when fans were attending regular transfer unveilings to see top players arriving. Malaga spent almost £50m last summer and Al Thani has invested an estimated £120m into the club, yet they are now banned from buying players.

Fans are now worried if their stars will still be at the club when the league season starts in three weeks, and about the future of the club altogether.

Many of Malaga's players have not received sizeable chunks of their wages from last season, estimated at £16m. The players did a deal with the club for the payments to be paid by today (Tues July 31).

"If that doesn't happen I believe there will be a mass exodus," says Machowski.

It's believed that several have already instructed their agents — or vice versa — to sound out other clubs. Thus winger Cazorla, rated by many as the best player in Spain outside the big two, is being linked with a move to Arsenal.

There were warning signs. Malaga were suspended from buying players in January after a debt to Osasuna for full-back Nacho Monreal wasn't paid. Villarreal are still owed from the Cazorla deal and former owner Fernando Sanz is still waiting for over £2m - as is the Spanish public purse. Was Al Thani a fit and proper person to own a football club? Make your own judgement.

And while things were running relatively smoothly on the pitch, off it they were anything but. A long-time director who was perceived to be running the show behind the scenes died in February. In May, director of football and former Real Madrid legend Fernando Hierro resigned from the post. Few reasons were given, but it was clear that all wasn't well. Baffling too. These things are not supposed to happen if your owners are so rich. Or are they?

Malaga were doing well on the pitch too and while plans for a 65,000-seater stadium were wildly ambitious, they weren't absolutely ridiculous. Malaga is Spain's fifth-largest city with a population of over 500,000. It is close to seriously monied areas on the Costa del Sol. The location appealed to footballers who would rather be based in a Marbella villa than a Manchester mansion. So what's going wrong? Few know as fans have been starved of information.

The Qatari owner barely communicates his intentions — though he remained on Twitter until recently, often making outspoken comments concerning corruption in Spanish football, racism in the Spanish media and complaining (with justifiable reason) about the unfairness of the financial disparity in television contracts in Spain. His abuse was often personal and he received unwarranted abuse back. Equally unedifying was one journalist from Marca, Spain's best-selling sports paper, calling him 'Ignorant Taliban'.

Al Thani had grand plans, not just for Malaga stadium and a training ground, but for a hotel and marina project.

"Some have wondered if the Qataris wanted to soften up local politicians by investing money into the local football club first," says Machowski.

If they did, it hasn't worked so far. Plans have been subject to rejections by planners, splitting opinions. Some couldn't understand why they were rejecting someone who wanted to invest in a Spanish region reeling from the economic crisis. And Andalusia hardly had the most stringent or saintly building laws — the area was rife with corruption from when former Atletico de Madrid president Jesus Gil was mayor of Marbella.

Maybe Al Thani has taken the rejections personally and has decided to pull the plug on Malaga. Maybe not. The club were linked to takeover by a colourful (a polite term for someone who would make Del Boy look dodgy) Albanian magnate Rezart Taci at the weekend. He'd been involved with failed takeovers at Milan and Bologna. He would have had to take on all the debts, though nobody bar the owners know how much they are. Or he would have been if the links were true; he denied them yesterday.

It's all very unsettling for a team about to prepare for their biggest ever season. Pellegrini and his team returned to Malaga yesterday from a poorly organised pre-season tour of Venezuela and admitted that the speculation is not helping.

Malaga fans, who include a large number of British ex-pats, are used to one disaster after another and can be excused for thinking that Al Thani was too good to be true.

Fans will still go to La Rosaleda — named after the rose bushes upon which the ground was built - when the season starts in three weeks, but they've no idea if they will see a bed of roses from the Al Thani revolution or the withering of another grandiose football fantasy.

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