The Last Word: Malaga's footballing fairy tale at odds with off-field chaos
Their unfettered attacking is sublime and their defence a model of austerity
Orwell himself could not have conceived a bureaucracy as dystopian as the one that determines football's "coefficients". Things reached a nadir this summer, when England were promoted to No 3 in the world rankings, and the champions of Spain, Germany, England and the Netherlands ended up in the same Champions League group.
Poor Roberto Mancini must suspect that no other English team would have mustered even that solitary point from his first three games. Even so, many neutrals will be gratified that teams assembled as organically, and inexpensively, as Dortmund and Ajax should simultaneously embarrass the prefabricated galacticos of Real Madrid and City.
Rival fans, certainly, see only the brassy candour of cosmetic surgery in a team like City, or Paris St-Germain. A club that spends its way to the top prompts a certain ambivalence even in its own followers. They instead view this new voluptuousness as might a husband the bosom of his spouse, when swollen by the arrival of an infant – and promptly requisitioned in some unnerving new capacity. Having long cherished a private emotional bond with their clubs, fans suddenly see glory both secured and appropriated by interlopers: new owners, new fans, new critics.
Every now and then, however, you encounter a team that hopelessly addles the instincts of fans and neutrals alike. Step forward Joaquin Sanchez, whose goal against Milan on Wednesday took this summer's crisis club of Europe to nine points from nine. As it happens, Joaquin was breast-fed until the age of six. "When other lads ran to the fountain, I went to my mum's tits," he confesses cheerfully. Whatever the merits, at least it prepared him for the challenged look of bystanders. Because nobody seems to know quite what to make of Malaga.
A couple of years ago, its acquisition by Qatari interests identified the club as a Mediterranean foil to City and PSG. Those who have witnessed Qatar's emergence as an overnight superpower on the Turf can testify that these guys have their mattresses stuffed with fresh saffron every night. But even as PSG moved to the next level, Malaga were staging a fire sale – with Arsène Wenger pouncing for the prize asset, Santi Cazorla.
It was mystifying. True, the just-add-oil packaged champions were derided for their chaotic integration, but they eventually found enough momentum to snatch fourth – and so made the qualifying round of the Champions League. Yet there followed tales of unpaid salaries and fees, rumours the sheikh was fed up, selling up. The bottomless pocket had apparently become a bottomless pit.
Malaga appealed as a salutary morality tale. Those who reckon a sugar daddy is now the only feasible key to the Champions League could instead be urged to borrow the wholesome option suggested by Ajax or Dortmund. But the rump of the squad, under the seasoned Manuel Pellegrini, has somehow transformed Malaga from a symbol of the game's sickness into one of the fairy tales of the season. Their unfettered attacking is in sublime contrast to the uncertainty off the field, yet their defence has been a model of austerity. The only team with three clean sheets in the Champions League has conceded just five times in eight domestic games.
Yes, it always seemed fanciful that even Qataris could redress the inequities, in distribution of Spanish television revenue, that petrify the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid. It was fitting, too, that imminent strictures of Financial Fair Play have also been blamed for the invertebrate condition of Malaga's victims on Wednesday – whose decline had been pitifully expressed, funnily enough, in discarding Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to PSG.
Malaga may yet cash in the sensational 20-year-old Isco in January. No doubt the Premier League's big spenders will head the queue, albeit no longer able to offer the Champions League spring beckoning "The Anchovies", as Malaga are known. For now, then, let's just enjoy the legitimate, abiding succour available in the Malaga adventure – for the city's half million inhabitants, or a manager who once got Villarreal to a Champions League semi-final, or Wednesday's match-winner.
Earlier in the game, Joaquin had missed a penalty for a second time in five days. The years rolled back to the 2002 World Cup, where the young winger was one of the revelations of the tournament before missing the vital penalty in a quarter- final shoot-out. The poor guy has since been frozen out of the national squad – after 51 caps, and even as a new generation of champions emerged – and sucked into consecutive club disasters. At Valencia, he was marginalised until Silva and Villa were sold off to arrest the haemorrhage. Now, at 31, he again finds himself unexpectedly restored as the cornerstone, while his latest employers in turn repent of their initial investment. Yet Joaquin has remained irresistible throughout. A matador manqué, he has always seemed as animated by laughter and charm on the pitch as off it.
Sometimes, then, even folly can give rise to joy. The authors of coefficients, likewise, are now trying to calculate Financial Fair Play. In football, it seems, nothing is black or white – even when you are deep in the red.
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