Malaga ride out growing pains
Buoyed by Qatari cash, the Andalusians scent a Champions League spot but progress has been uneven
Saturday 03 March 2012
In the recent derby with Seville, the Malaga coach Manuel Pellegrini cut a far more animated figure on the touchline than usual. As the final whistle went and the win was confirmed, the Chilean energetically pumped his fists on the touchline, his grey hair flapping in the breeze. These are strange times in this part of Andalucia.
Pellegrini is an admirable, dignified personality on the merry-go-round of La Liga coaches. A qualified civil engineer, the urbane 58-year-old takes on a new study project every year. In recent years, these have included learning German and to play the piano – the latter venture "a disaster", he admits.
One imagines Pellegrini has rather less hobby time on his hands at present. Expectation at Malaga is growing. With the pinnacle of their achievements a pair of seventh-placed finishes in the 1970s and a Uefa Cup quarter-final in 2003, this traditionally modest club set on the travel hub of the Costa de Sol have been more notable for their sizeable English supporters' club than any feats of wonder on the pitch.
This changed when Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser al-Thani, a member of Qatar's royal family, paid €36m (£29.8m) to buy the club from former player Fernando Sanz in the summer of 2010. Along with the Qatar Foundation's shirt sponsorship deal with Barcelona and QSI's (Qatar Sports Investment) subsequent takeover of Paris St-Germain, it signals the nation's determination to make inroads into European football ahead of hosting the 2022 World Cup.
Pellegrini was appointed in November 2010, with Malaga bottom of La Liga after a disastrous start to the new regime under former Porto manager Jesualdo Ferreira. The club have backed him heavily in the market. The purchase of experienced players such as Julio Baptista and Martin Demichelis in January 2011 helped haul the team out of trouble, then Ruud van Nistelrooy and €20m (£16.5m) Spain midfielder Santi Cazorla were among last summer arrivals. At almost €60m (£49.7m), Malaga's net summer spend was bigger than that of either Barcelona or Real Madrid.
With financial hardships and internal troubles handicapping the likes of Villarreal, Seville and Atletico Madrid, Spain's fourth Champions League spot is begging for a taker – but Malaga do not look ready. As season ticket holder Christian Machowski told The Independent, "the club has managed expectations well and the message is still that this is a long-term project."
Still, the change in culture from a yo-yo club based on nurturing local talent towards an international concern is jarring. The disjointed performance in defeat at Seville on the opening day of the season presented Malaga's identity crisis in microcosm. Behind the scenes cracks were even more apparent when Pellegrini told midfielder (and youth product) Apono he was being substituted at half-time. He blew his top, later admitting he was "livid" with the coach. Pellegrini suspended him indefinitely, and last month Apono was packed off on loan to bottom club Real Zaragoza.
"There just wasn't any rapport between us," Apono said. "I'm from Malaga and I always will be. I grew up in the neighbourhood and I've been coming to La Rosaleda [Malaga's stadium] since I was little. I still hope for the best for the club." If his insubordination gave Pellegrini legitimacy, integrating sons of the soil is still an issue that bristles.
In January's Copa del Rey defeat to Real Madrid, La Rosaleda booed Pellegrini for the first time after he substituted 19-year-old Isco. The talented midfielder was raised in Benalmadena, next to Malaga airport, and brought home from Valencia amid much fanfare in the summer. Isco represents the union between the club's tradition and its future. He can do no wrong – after being sent off in the win over Seville for a brutal studs-up lunge on Álvaro Negredo, he was given a standing ovation.
"The fans love their young and local players," Machowski said. "The €14m investment into the brand new academy and the partnership with other Andalusian clubs [Real Jaen and Cordoba] are being seen as an assurance from the owners that the club will heavily invest into young players."
Pellegrini has struggled in the shadow of a grand project before. As Real Madrid coach, he presided over the first season after Florentino Perez's return as club president. He received €200m-worth of new talent including Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka but absolutely no power of attorney and was sacked in May 2010. It was a far cry from Villarreal, the small-town club he took to the brink of the 2006 Champions League final and whose wealthy owner Fernando Roig trusted him with team affairs.
Today's Malaga is not quite so beatific. "This was a lot more than just three points," Demichelis, one of the flagship signings, said after the Seville match. "We've had an intense week, but we've cut the gap on the leading pack." Minutes earlier, Pellegrini was brutally frank. "On many occasions, we've given the impression of a team that lacks cohesion and that we haven't had the spirit to get results," he said. "Today we did what we had to do, with conviction and with the intention of improving."
Supporters appear ready to be patient. "The fans are aware that the players who have joined recently are of a different quality to what was there before," said Machkowski. "Signings like [Joris] Mathijsen and Van Nistelrooy have not necessarily lived up to expectations, but we know not all signings are going to turn out to be great ones." It seems that after the scarring experiences of the Bernabeu it is Pellegrini, as much as Malaga's owners, who must adjust his demeanour and expectations.
Money no object: Europe's new rich
Owner Suleyman Kerimov
Net worth of owner £4.92bn
Where money comes from Russian Vnukovo Airlines and traded shares in Transneft, the oil-transportation monopoly; shares in gas producer Gazprom and retail bank Sberbank.
Players bought Samuel Eto'o (£21.8m), Yuri Zhirkov (£13.2m), Christopher Samba (£12m).
Owner Qatar Investment Authority
Net worth of owner £37.8bn
Where money comes from Oil wealth, and investments in Volkswagen.
Players bought Javier Pastore (£38m), Kevin Gameiro (£9m), Mohamed Sissoko (£7m), Jérémy Ménez (£8m)
Owner Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser al-Thani
Net worth Estimated £20bn
Where money comes from Gas, hotels, shopping centres, mobile phone companies, car dealerships, and the Doha Bank.
Players bought Santi Cazorla (£16.5m), Ruud van Nistelrooy (free), Jérémy Toulalan (£8m), Martin Demichelis (£2.5m)
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