Fans invade directors' box
12 January ~ In December 2008, Racing Santander beat Manchester City 3-1 to fall just one goal short of the knockout stage in the UEFA Cup, having finished level on points with Paris Saint-Germain. A little more than five years later, life has changed dramatically for them: the club is in the Spanish third tier approaching bankruptcy and their players and fans are starting to take drastic measures against the board. Nobody expected a hangover following the best years in the club's history. At least not such a painful one.
In the 2007-08 season Racing were sixth in La Liga – their best performance for over 70 years – and they got to the Copa del Rey semi-finals for the first time in their history. The next year they were playing European football and in 2010 they reached the cup semi-finals once again. Last Wednesday night, in the round of 16 of the Copa del Rey against Almería at El Sardinero, all that glow seemed long gone.
The problems began with the arrival of the Indian millionaire Ahsan Ali Syed. In the past, Racing had been the victim of Dimitri Piterman, the Ukrainian businessman who bought the Cantabrian club with the desire to become a manager. But that didn't stop local politicians from welcoming Ali, who took over in 2010 and promised big investment after failing to complete a proposed takeover at Blackburn Rovers. The money never arrived and Racing were left in an even poorer situation than previously, while it had emerged that Ali had pulled off previous scams in Australia and had a false degree from the London School of Economics.
The club suffered back-to-back relegations in 2012 and 2013 (their centenary year) and now they top their Segunda B group. Knocking out Sevilla in the previous round of the cup didn't hide huge mismanagement behind the scenes, and the round of 16 match that should have been a party for the fans and players turned out to be a drama involving living statues. It's not common to see 11 players standing still on the pitch while the match is on and the ball is live, but that's what Racing players did in the first seconds of the game in order to protest against the board, who stopped paying them more than three months ago – even longer for the coaching staff, according to Spanish newspaper El País.
The protest from the fans went a bit further, with some invading the directors' box where the club's president Ángel Lavín was standing. The police and private security stopped an assault on the president, who is accused of being complicit in the club's downfall. The head of Racing's biggest supporters' association said that the invasion, while not justifiable, was understandable.
The match ended in a 1-1 draw, and some Racing fans will make the 630-mile trip to south coast for the second leg. Even if they get through, the future doesn't look too bright in Santander, as players are starting to leave and Lavín has confirmed that he will remain in his position. "I have a sailor's soul," the president said after the protests. "I'm the skipper, so I'll be the last one to leave the boat." Racing fans, meanwhile, are hoping that there is enough time to change direction. Antonio Mateo