Heading for a fall

Once famous for their success in Europe, Celta Vigo have suffered a dramatic reversal of fortunes. James Calder explains

Few areas in Spain are feeling the effects of the economic crisis more keenly than Galicia, its remote north-western corner. As companies go to the wall and the region’s dwindling number of workers try to make ends meet on salaries among the lowest in the country, its football clubs find themselves in an equally parlous state. Fourth-tier Ciudad de Santiago have just gone bust, unable even to pay their laundry bills, and Deportivo La Coruña and Celta Vigo, who were trading blows at the top of La Liga not so long ago, are beset by deep-rooted financial problems.

While Depor have maintained their place in the top half of the table despite a much reduced budget, Celta have slipped into the lower reaches of the second division, narrowly avoiding another slide down the league ladder in the last two seasons and filing for voluntary insolvency in June 2008 with debts of €84 million (£75m).

Celta’s current plight can be traced back to their golden era at the end of the millennium, a period of unprecedented sporting success and calamitous financial mismanagement, the full extent of which was revealed in a damning administrators’ report published in November. The document accuses former president Horacio Gómez of concealing the club’s desperate financial situation and publishing false accounts.

Among other creative bookkeeping practices, Gómez, who resigned in May 2006, allegedly failed to declare an €18m debt with the tax authorities, grossly inflated the value of youth players promoted to the first team and continued to list ex-players such as record signing Catanha among the club’s assets even after they had moved on.

Catanha’s spell in Vigo is instructive. The Brazilian-born, naturalised Spanish striker arrived in 2000 for €15m, an excessive fee inflated by Gómez’s desire to beat rivals Deportivo to his signature. A capable but technically limited goalscorer, he had excelled with Málaga and looked a sound acquisition in his first season under enterprising coach Victor Fernández, also appearing three times for his adopted country from the subs’ bench.

His fortunes would change, however, when Fernández left to be replaced by Miguel Ángel Lotina, ironically the man now keeping Depor afloat. After failing to adjust to the Basque’s more rudimentary tactics, Catanha was loaned out to Russian outfit Krylia Sovetov, before joining Belenenses in Portugal on a free transfer in 2004.

Yet, despite such diminishing returns, as long as Los Celestes were finishing in the top six and making regular UEFA Cup appearances, Gómez’s transfer dealings and the high wage bills they generated went largely unquestioned, particularly when Lotina took the club into the Champions League in 2003.

Although a natural progression after several years of sustained excellence, that achievement represented Celta’s zenith. Struggling to fight on two fronts, a stretched squad partially atoned for a dismal domestic campaign by reaching the last 16, where they were comfortably knocked out by Arsenal. Relegation followed a few months later, dealing a further blow to the club’s already ailing finances, not that Gómez’s accounts reflected that at the time.

Though local coach Fernando Vázquez engineered a swift return and another top-six finish, secured by a side containing loanee David Silva, Celta lacked the resources to maintain their regained status. Silva’s return to Valencia left a gap Vázquez could not plug, his fate sealed by a poor start to the 2006-07 season and his increasing unpopularity with the club’s fickle support. Opting for a marquee name to replace him, current president Carlos Mouriño brought in the then Bulgaria coach Hristo Stoichkov.

Tales of dressing-room dissatisfaction quickly spread after the Barcelona legend’s arrival. Powerless to prevent a second relegation in four years, Stoichkov was quickly on his way, his coaching ability in question. Four more managers have come and gone since then, although current incumbent Eusebio Sacristán, another Barcelona old boy, has at least been granted an extended run, albeit with the team (populated by loan players, youth products and free transfers) perched precariously above the drop zone once more.

Critical of both the Gómez and Mouriño regimes, the disaffected fans have been staying away from the appropriately rundown Estadio Balaídos in droves, with average attendances having dropped from 23,000 during the good times to 7,000 in 2009-10 .

Add to that the loss of €18m a year in television rights alone and an insolvency scheme that includes repayments to the taxman of €22m over the next ten years, it is clear that Celta’s money woes are not about to end. Nor is the public scrutiny, with a defiant Gómez, who is liable to an €11m fine for his improprieties, vowing to launch a vigorous defence of his reputation.

A return to the top flight is a central plank of the club’s post-meltdown business plan. Yet given the current malaise, there aren’t many people on the streets of Vigo who see that as likely.

From WSC 276 February 2010