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In the Rose Garden Malaga's dream is in full bloom

Thursday 21st July 2011
In a climate that celebrates and criticises football's billionaire owners in equal measure, it is surprising that one piece of Middle Eastern millionaire treatment has so far slipped under the radar of an English footballing public focused instead on the daily workings of their own Arab Sheik at Manchester City football club. Yet another businessman from the oil rich lands of the Arabian Peninsula has been steadily going about his business on the Costa Del Sol, at Malaga CF in Spain's Premier Division, and it is the kind of business creating significant rumblings of concern amongst Spain's most successful clubs.

With a rich history dating as far back as 1904, and one that includes the royal patronage of a Spanish king, a series of name changes and club mergers, and a memorable memorable 6-0 thrashing of Muñoz's great Real Madrid side in 1946, still very little is known about Malaga C.F, a club now boasting the financial muscle to make a credible challenge on the elite sides in Spanish football.

It is perhaps their immediate history that garners more attention from those looking inwards at the club from Europe's southernmost City.

Rising from the financial difficulties that had crippled the club in 1992, Club Atlético Malagueño, initially regarded as the reserve team of the more successful CD Málaga until that point, split from the administrative upheaval begin life in the obscure fourth division of Spanish football.

But the rather short and relatively unspectacular history of the Malaga we know today did not begin in the Spanish equivalent of England's League Two, instead the club reformed in the busy environment of group nine of the Tercera Division, Spain's domestic league structure.

Groups 1 to 9 of the Tercera feature a remarkable 361 different teams, playing in 18 regional groups. This wide ranging system has an alumni that ranges from established names such as Espanyol B, the reserve team of the La Liga outfit, to CF Trivial Valderas, a club established as recently as 2004 and playing at their below 1000 capacity arena in the heart of the Madrid suburbs.

After a successful campaign lead to promotion to Segunda Division B it appeared that Malaga were returning towards the heights that they had previously achieved in the 1940s and 1950s, with multiple spells in the top flight. But the following season, just like in the decades past, security was not achieved and relegation soon followed. Legend at the club has it, that had two local businessmen Federico Beltron and Fernando Puche not come to the rescue of their hometown club, Malaga would have ceased to exist, so close were they to financial collapse during their time in the lower leagues.

On December 19, 1993, a day that still resonates in the minds of the local support, a referendum was held in the corridors of La Rosaleda, in which the club's members voted in favour of changing names once more, and so, on June 29, 1994 CA Malagueño officially changed their name to Málaga Club deFútbol S.A.D.

With Puche as the self appointed new president, Málaga CF's next five seasons were set apart from their previous battle with obscurity. So much so that by the year 2000 Malaga boasted a squad rich in youthful talent and quality players that featured the Uruguayan pair of Dario Silva and Gonzalo delos Santos and former Spanish international Francisco Rufete.

A season in Tercera, three years in Segunda B and only a passing contribution to Segunda A meant that by the turn of the millenium, Malaga had completed the remarkable turn around to once again compete at the highest level of  La Liga.

Playing at their newly refurbished home, Estadio La Rosaleda, which translates to English as ‘The Garden of Roses', the club had quite literally blossomed into a fully functioning top flight outfit. It boasted strong local support, and also the backing of foreign expats, those seeking the financial security and sunny climbs of the Costa Del Sol in the late 1990s. With gate receipts boosted by a pulsating local tourist based economy, confidence was high and it was by no coincidence that the first International Supporters Club in Spain was founded within two miles of the stadium, at the Tavern Pub in Old Town Marbella in 1999.

Then manager and club favourite Joaquín Peiró lead his side to secure mind table finishes in campaigns that included highlights such as participation and glory in the 2002 Intertoto Cup, Malaga's only European trophy to date. Victory meant qualification to the UEFA Cup a year later where Portuguese side Boavista knocked Peiro's men out on penalties.

This was Málaga's first and only title to date and led to them qualifying for the UEFA Cup in 2002, where they reached the quarter finals before finally being knocked out by Boavista on penalties.

Peiró's retirement, player exodus, and economic concerns were tempered only temporarily by a resounding 5-1 home defeat of Barcelona under soon to be Spurs manager Juande Roamas, and his meant that gradual decline was the order of the day for Malaga, a passage that ultimately led to relegation back to the second division in 2006. Two years in Segunda finally came to a close with promotion back to LaLiga in 2008, after a final day victory at the expense of Real Sociedad.

All of which leads us to the more recent history of Malaga CF, and the arrival of their Qatari billionaire owner Sheik Abdullah Al Thani in the summer of 2010.

As a club whose past has been so badly blighted by a crisis of identity, their immediate arrival as a financial powerhouse of the footballing game could not be in greater contrast to their roots. Malaga, so often a club with one eye on the fragility of its finances, immediately showed their hand by dismissing then manager Ferreira, with the club lying 18th in the league, and appointing former Real Madrid manager Manuel Pellegrini, who had himself built up a reputation for as an austere coach by turning Villarreal into European pretenders.

The Qatari chiefs at the club immediately substantiated claims of strong investment in the first team through the winter acquisitions of Brazilian Julio Baptista and Argentine international Martin DeMichelis, ensuring that Malaga not only broke free of relegation but finished last season in 11th position.

The real resurgence in the history of Malaga CF, which began in the second half of last season, has spilled over into the summer transfer window through a series of high profile signings. Ruud Van Nistelrooy has come to the Marbella on a free transfer, commanding the sort of wages that had put off many Premier League teams from gaining his signature. This initial arrival was followed by those of highly rated Spanish full back Nacho Monreal from Osasuna, attacking midfielder Diego Buonanotte from the recently relegated River Plate in Argentina and Spanish international winger Joaquin from the financially troubled Valencia.

The chairman has also put his hand in his pocket to achieve the singings of center back Joris Mathijsen from HSV in Germany, and defensive midfielder Jeremy Toulalan from Olympique Lyonnais for a reported free of nearly ten million pounds.

In the last week former Juventus midfielder Enzi Maresca has signed a two year deal at the club and another one time Valencia hopeful, nineteen year old Spanish striking prospect Francisco Roman Suarez has also agreed to join the club.

There is not much written or publicly known about Malaga's new owners. The club's vice-chairman and member of the board of directors at Doha Bank in Qatar, Al Thani, has declared his piece of footballing real estate on the southern coast of Spain to be a shrewd investment, both in the short term and the long run.

Acquiring the club in the summer of last year for a minimal free, the Qatari banker took on over thirty six million euros of debt that was crippling the club still affectionately known as Los Boquerones, after the local anchovies grown in the area.

But whereas other billionaire foreign owners have been quick to show their hand and attempt marquee signings, Kaka to Manchester City being a case in point, Malaga's owners have instead shown their willingness to match financial firepower with a shrewd business operation. For example, the release of Joaquin from his contract with Valencia was reported to be available for six million Euros, not the most outrageous of transfer fees for a player of significant experience. But Malaga opened the bidding with a bid of two million Euros, significantly undervaluing the player. Joaquin was finally unveiled as a Malaga player for 3.5 million Euros, a clever piece of business for a man of undoubted quality.

But if a hesitation to pay over the odds for the talent suggests caution at La Rosaleda, the ambitions of the clubs hierarchy appear to be quite different. In an interview given back in June, Al Thani was quick to establish the long term aims of his investment. ‘Tomorrow the audience will come down and some other league will be trying to rise up' says Al Thani, as he laments the long established two club dominance of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid at the top of the Spanish game. ‘We have an agenda, we have a philosophy, and we have time to do something very special for this club'.

Al Thani is aiming high, with the implied intention of breaking the duopoly at the heart of the Spanish game. Just how much time and investment is necessary to achieve this goal remains the great unknown, as does the level of input that the Qatari banker is willing to supply himself in the future. For now the club's fans will have to be content with watching their club take on Feyenoord and Manchester City as part of their pre-season plans, the latter of which brings together two opponents with similar ambitions in their respective countries, using significant and newly accessed wealth to topple the football hierarchy at home.

A season similar to the one enjoyed by Manchester City last time out would be the ideal path that Malaga would wish to take. Europa League or even the dream of Champions League qualification may be realised alongside victory in a domestic trophy, but for now the gap between Barca and Madrid, and the rest of the chasing pack, remains as substantial as ever.

But evidence for the patience of those running Malaga CF has been seen in the purchase of land measuring 120,000 square meters just outside the town, where Al Thani plans to build the Malaga Football Academy. Antonio Fernandez, a well-known and much respected coaching talent in Spanish Football has been charged with overseeing the development of this academy in his role as director of football.

With an established production line of young talent in the pipe line, the attention in the short term remains the signing of significant names this summer under Manuel Pellegrini and then making an impact on La Liga with a vastly improved finish from last year.

For Malaga CF, a club that rose in 1994 from the dying embers of Malaga CD, a club they no longer share any relationship with nor recognise,  the latest twist and turns in their history represent not just a severe change in fortunes, but an exciting culmination to nearly two decades of desperately keeping the club afloat. Deep in the Rose Garden, the club are in full bloom.
Andrew Greasley

Total articles: 6

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