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The Story of The Sheikh and The Engineer - Malaga's Road to Greatness

Scan through my list of favourite tourist destinations and you’ll notice Andalusia lurking in the top five. Andalusia is the southernmost territory of Spain, an autonomous community that has given the country many of its cultural icons – bullfighting and flamenco being the most prominent of them. This is the place where Europe met Arabia more than a millennium ago to establish a Moorish culture on the shores of the Mediterranean, a culture that still resonates in and around the streets of cities like Seville, Granada and Cordoba. Today, Andalusia, which is still primarily known for cultural and tourist attractions, is also the home of four top division football clubs. Despite that, the millions of tourists who come to the Costa del Sol (Sunny Coast or Coast of the Sun) come for the beaches, the culture and the food and not necessarily the football.

Costa del Sol

Costa del Sol

All that may be about to change now.

Malaga is the most important city in the Costa del Sol region. It is where Pablo Picasso and Antonio Banderas were born. It is also the hometown of Málaga Club de Fútbol – a club which was until recently unknown to most football aficionados. As recently as 2008, they were in the Segunda División, the second tier of Spanish football. Today, they have reached the Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League, becoming the first Spanish team to do so this year. Incredible. And that’s without mentioning the fact that they are debutants who started in the qualifying round and they did it undefeated, from a group that contained European heavyweights AC Milan and high-spending Zenit St.Petersburg. How did they do it? What you are about to read is an attempt to explain Malaga’s intriguing story.

Spain’s La Liga is by far known as the playground where two big boys battle it out for ultimate superiority while 18 little onlookers watch. Barcelona and Real Madrid have dominated Spanish football in such a way that even the most optimistic of neutrals can’t dream of an alternative third force. For the last 8 years, the month of May has seen only these two on top of the final standings. The third and fourth-placed clubs are light years away from the top duo when it comes to points, star power, television rights and financial clout. It was in such a scenario that Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al-Thani arrived in sunny Malaga one fine day in June of 2010. The Qatari businessman was not there for pleasure; he had come for business – serious business.

Malaga CF’s financial problems forced them to look for solutions and took them to Qatar, where Sheikh Abdullah resolved to buy the club. And so began the ‘Sheikh al-Thani’ era in the history of the club. The Sheikh had a dream project in mind, not just for the club but also for the city. I, like many others, looked up from my summer slumber and took notice. He wished to build a youth academy, develop the Marbella port and a tourist resort in the city.

As for the club, he started rather slowly for a billionaire owner. We have come to a point in football where we expect every new mega-rich owner to throw around his cash and forge a team of galacticos the moment he steps in to the club offices. However, compared to Roman Abramovich and the Abu Dhabi group, who made an instant impact in the transfer market when they arrived, the Sheikh was different. The summer transfer window deadline came and went but he had not made the big splash yet; their transfer activity was quiet for a newly rich club.

The new arrivals that summer were hardly the kind of superstars that were expected. Uruguay’s Sebastian Fernandez and Colombia’s Salomon Rondon walked into Estadio La Rosaleda not knowing what was to come that season. This was a new project – a kind of project that some were apprehensive of. And we can’t blame anyone for that. Here was a club with an owner who dreamed of breaking the duopoly that juggles the La Liga title in between Catalunya and Castile, but his team did not seem like the type.

The season slowly stirred into action and Malaga fans went on a roller-coaster ride with their team. By the end of October, their record read: Played 9, Won 2, Drew 1, Lost 6, Goal Difference -9. Nah, not an enviable record at all. It cost Portuguese coach Jesualdo Ferreira his place in the dugout. Now, as always, whispers and stories started to appear. “This management lacks vision”, “This dream is in shatters even before it has taken off” – these were the kind of thoughts that were sure to hit people. I know I thought so. I almost lost hope in this team.

I don’t know what went on inside the club headquarters during those troubled times. All that I know is that the Sheikh and his people brought in Manuel Pellegrini to steady the ship. The Chilean is well-known in football as ‘The Engineer’.

I'm here and I mean business

I’m here and I mean business

A civil engineer by education, Pellegrini was given the task of engineering a turnaround in fortunes and setting the plan back on track. He was still smarting from his departure from Real Madrid and this was a mighty fall in his career. No sane top manager would be expected to drop down to Malaga after calling the shots in the Bernabeu, even after being offered a lot of cash. But there are certain things in sport that can only be explained by experience. One of them is the thrill of leading an underdog to victory; it is unparalleled, exactly how the joy when David comes on top of Goliath is unexpainable (if you are David, that is). This magical sporting feeling may have been a factor in Pellegrini’s decision.

The Engineer did not have it easy in his first few games in charge. Los Boquerones‘ erratic form continued up until January. But Pellegrini was patient; he could smell the coming of the new transfer window – it was something that gave him a lot to look forward to. This time, the Sheikh’s money was used very efficiently by the Engineer. In came seasoned performers Julio Baptista and Martin Demichelis along with Ignacio Camacho and Enzo Maresca. Again, hardly the superstars one would expect, but Pellegrini used this lot of players to grind out the results he wanted. The club went on a run which saw only two defeats in 16 games. When May came, the Engineer had engineered the turnaround. From relegation contenders to 11th spot. Not bad.

But was it enough? Malaguistas everywhere would have shouted out “No!” to that question. They had dared to dream, and they wanted to push the dream on, they wanted to see it go on to where they envisioned it.

The summer of 2011 was an exciting time for all those involved with the club. The lessons of the previous year led to reinforcement. The club announced the arrival of a number of talented players – a great mixture of youth and experience: Santi Cazorla, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Joris Mathijsen, Jeremy Toulalan, Sergio Sanchez and Francisco ‘Isco’ Suarez. Talk about excitement – Malaga fans couldn’t wait for 2011-2012 to start.

And what a season it was. It had all the ingredients of a fantastic one – the thrills, the spills, the goals, the upsets and the unbelievable comebacks. Fans will still remember the thrashing of Granada and Real Zaragoza, the second-half comeback away against Getafe and also the not-so-pleasant defeats to Real Madrid and Barcelona. Those two showed Malaga that they still had a long way to cover. But that couldn’t take the gloss off the result – fourth place. Fourth place and a qualifying spot in the Champions League! After the final match at home to Sporting Gijon, the players wore T-shirts on which were emblazoned “Gracias aficion, Ya estamos en Europa” (Thanks fans, We are in Europe!). The story had reached its zenith – or had it?

In the Promised Land

In the Promised Land

It so happens that not all dreams go on to be realized. Some break and shatter before you know it. Some take you along to the penultimate step and then leave you disappointed. We may have all experienced the sinking feeling when that happens. That was the feeling in Malaguista hearts when news came out that there were financial problems in and around the club and that Cazorla, Mathijsen and Rondon were all sold. Van Nistelrooy called time on his career. To further complicate matters, sporting director and Spanish legend Fernando Hierro left his job. Then came the issue of unpaid salaries – not the news that you would want to hear before your team stands to hear the Champions League anthem. For all the hope the last two years had brought, the present gloom was unbearable.

The gloom was still there when Malaga locked horns with Panathinaikos in the play-off round of the Champions League. But the players refused to let down their fans. The Engineer refused to leave his job even though rumours said he wasn’t paid for months. That spirit was evident in the team when they fought past the Greeks, with a 2-0 aggregate win. They were in the big league now. Proper. The headlines were still screaming “Malaga’s Malady” and the newspaper ink kept running on the money problems, but the team kept their focus.

Despite the team’s success, one question still remained unanswered : What was the Sheikh doing?

One theory was that he was unhappy – unhappy because his other dream projects were still stuck in the starting blocks. He saw this as a reason to regulate the cash flow. Another explanation, the official one, was that the club were forced to cut costs in order to comply with UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Regulations. “Malaga Club de Futbol has begun an internal restructuring process to adapt to financial fair play standards, with the intention of guaranteeing self-sufficiency and sustainability,” said an online statement. The fans grew worried. Their main firepower was sold. Would they survive? The Engineer stayed upbeat. So did the players. What about me? Moving along with Malaga through this tale, I realized I had a soft corner for this team now, for reasons that only football can explain. I now looked in despair at Malaga, hoping with all my heart for another twist in the tale.

Cazorla was sold to Arsenal when Malaga's crisis unfolded

Cazorla was sold to Arsenal when Malaga’s crisis unfolded

A twist did come, late into the summer. The Sheikh was back with reinforcements – Roque Santa Cruz, Javier Saviola and Oguchi Onyewu. The story couldn’t get crazier – or so thought everyone until Malaga met Zenit in the first CL game. It was delirium at La Rosaleda as Los Boquerones thrashed their opponents 3-0 in an amazing display of attacking football. Isco and Saviola got the goals that will never be forgotten. Here were all of us thinking Malaga were down and out, but there they were on the top of the world with that performance. They didn’t stop there. On and on they went.

Another 3-0, this time away to Anderlecht sent Malaga home with smiles all over, as midfielder Eliseu stunned Europe with his two beautiful goals. And if that wasn’t enough, the big game came up next. The Sheikh was there to witness it when nine-time champions AC Milan came to Spain and left in disbelief  as a Joaquin Sanchez goal broke their hearts. Never had 1-0 been sweeter to the Malaga fans; this one was to be told to their grandchildren – how Malaga brought the Italian giant to its knees! One more game later, a 1-1 draw at the magnificent San Siro, Malaga had done what was unthinkable – reach the knockout stages. All the bad talk, the rumours, the gloom and the uncertainty that summer brought, were long gone now. Anything and everything seemed possible.

"Europe is blue-and-white!"

“Europe is blue-and-white!”

That’s the story for you. Even if the title suggests so, all credit cannot go to the Sheikh and the Engineer alone. The players were phenomenal. That reminds me, when compared to teams like Paris Saint Germain, Manchester City and Chelsea, this club was different. Unlike those clubs, Malaga never forgot what they are; they stayed loyal to their roots. Isco, Jesus Gamez, Juanmi, Joaquin, Recio, and Portillo are all from Malaga or its neighbouring Andalusian areas. Ignacio Camacho and Nacho Monreal complete the Spanish contingent. Many clubs today fill their lineups with foreign players and leave no place for the local boys who grow up adoring their teams.  Malaga has bucked that trend. They have boldly presented a new model, a model which works.

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