But uncertainty remains off it
19 January ~ Malaga CF are having a quiet season so far. In the summer of 2010 they were taken over by Sheikh Abdullah Al-Thani (a very distant relative of the current ruler of Qatar), amid promises of taking on the goliaths of European football. A new 65,000-seat stadium and state-of-the-art youth academy were all in the pipeline, former Real Madrid and Spain captain Fernando Hierro was appointed director of football and Manuel Pellegrini was made manager. The club even signed a sponsorship deal with UNESCO, similar to Barcelona's agreement with UNICEF.
An initial spending spree seemed to be paying off – Malaga qualified for the Champions League – and there were wild ambitions of mounting a genuine La Liga title challenge for the following campaign. But the owner now seemed unwilling to finance the expansion he'd begun. Rumblings of discontent started and in July 2012 four players filed complaints with the Spanish authorities alleging they were owed wages. Hierro left, as did Ruud van Nistelrooy, José Rondón, Joris Mathijsen and Santi Cazorla who were replaced by a rag-tag mixture of free transfers and loan signings, some from the Segunda División. Familiar faces brought in included Roque Santa Cruz and Javier Saviola.
UEFA fined the club €300,000 (£244,000) and banned them from subsequent European competitions for at least one season due to a debt of €8.2 million to staff, tax authorities and other teams. Such a cull is normally accompanied by a relegation battle but not with Malaga. Amid the turmoil the club managed some impressive results. In fact the day after UEFA's ruling (December 22) Malaga beat Real Madrid 3-2, their first victory against Los Blancos since 1982. Six days before that they won 2-0 at Sevilla following a 4-0 win at home over Valencia. The victories were not restricted to domestic games. In the Champions League they qualified for the last 16 as unbeaten group winners, taking four points off AC Milan.
When La Liga resumed after the winter break Malaga were fourth again, only four points behind Real Madrid. Free transfer strike force Santa Cruz and Saviola managed ten goals between them and midfielder Isco has been linked with a January move to Chelsea, Tottenham and both Manchester clubs. Malaga's ability to continue performing on the pitch despite being stripped of so many key players has been Pellegrini. He has used the club's perilous position to rally his players. According to Spanish media reports he gave an us-against-the-world speech as early as September that José Mourinho would have been proud of.
But the off-field drama is far from over. Al-Thani has attempted to reassure supporters of his commitment to the club and recently announced they will fight UEFA's decision in the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The board feels the club are being made an example of to warn other big spenders. They have until March 31 to prove they are living up to the owner's promises and paying back creditors to be allowed in any 2014-15 UEFA competitions. Meanwhile, it's likely they will just be playing for pride in this season's Champions League, as even if they win the competition they will not be able to defend their title and would forfeit the majority of their prize money. With the saga set to rumble on through the rest of the season, who knows how many good results the manager can harvest from such adversity. Christopher Dyer