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Malaga building Spain's brightest hope

Video: Malaga's Weligton talks to FOX Soccer
Video: Malaga's Weligton talks to FOX Soccer
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Andy Brassell

Andy Brassell is a regular contributor to FOXSoccer.com, covering Europe and the UEFA Champions League. He is also the author of All Or Nothing: A Season In The Life Of The Champions League.

 
   
 

The scene has virtually everything you would expect as a star soccer team makes its journey to the stadium. As dusk settles, the procession of tracksuits files out of the palatial five-star hotel, set in the city center on the riverbank, clutching its various Louis Vuitton accessories.

As the players make their way onto the team coach parked on the Pasillo Santa Isabel, half-a-mile from Estadio de la Rosaleda, a ring of police and its cascade of blue flashing lights surrounds the entourage, ready to guide it on the short hop north.

With depth: Spain

With Barcelona and Real Madrid growing stronger each season, most have come to think of the Spanish league as a two club circuit. With his series of four articles, FOX Soccer's Andy Brassell takes a more detailed look at Spain's landscape, examining how various teams in the Primera Division are coping (or trying to transcend) the great divide.

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No answers for second tier
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Malaga Spain's best hope

It has everything, in fact, except the delirium of hoards of fans. A mere 50 or so supporters dressed in the blue and white of Malaga see the coach off on its brief journey. This is neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid, but it is the club that may, over the next few years, emerge as the pair’s most significant challenger.

While the traditional candidates to the summit attempt to regroup and innovate to adapt to La Liga’s new hierarchy, Málaga will make its own way with a far more blunt approach - money. With Spain and its soccer scene currently in financial freefall, every cent counts, but since the €36 million ($47.7 million) takeover by Qatari royal Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nassar Al-Thani in the summer of 2010, the Andalusian club is packing in bigger denominations than that.

A mere €9.5 million combined was spent by La Liga’s clubs in last month’s transfer window. If this shows that times are tight, it was the summer market that preceded it that showed where we’re at today. With a net spend of €60 million ($80 million), Málaga splashed almost as much as Real Madrid and Barcelona combined.

The profile of the signings caught the eye, too. Having already recruited La Liga experience in Julio Baptista and Champions League experience in the shape of Bayern Munich’s Martin Demichelis, Ruud van Nistelrooy took things up a further notch.

If the arrival of ‘Van Gol’, as he is known in Spain, paved the way for the rest, it was the signing of Santi Cazorla from Villarreal that really signaled the intent. The midfielder is not just a name but a big part of Spanish soccer’s glittering future, too – just as Málaga itself hopes to be.

News of Cazorla’s move was met with a collective raised eyebrow in Spain.  In Málaga the reaction was more the delight of surprise than any gung-ho posturing. If a sense of entitlement is on the way, it is so far hard to detect. Cazorla is cherished as a superb bonus. The club’s history is hardly replete with glory, with twin seventh-placed finishes by the current club’s predecessor CD Málaga the peak. With the fan base still pinching itself at the club’s dramatic change of circumstance, the new regime has available to it that valuable commodity so rare in the modern game – time.

Sheikh Al-Thani knows he has space to lay foundations for his project, and that’s exactly what he intends to do. January 26’s edition of Diario Sur (the city’s major daily newspaper) confirmed that plans for a new €18 million ($24 million) academy facility had been approved by the council. The new regime’s plan is not just to build on the strength of the club’s academy but to integrate facilities for young people and the community at large – an echo of the often overlooked philanthropic community developments authored in the Emirati era at Manchester City.

If there is one threat to the success of the Málaga project, it might be the uncertainty of the current landscape. While Valencia has stabilized and looks pretty solid in third place, La Liga’s fourth position – representing the final Champions League spot – is up for grabs. Like the headpiece of the Staff of Ra in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, it is the bounty without an owner, which promises untold power if only a steady hand could harness it.

The awkwardness of the situation is not lost on the locker room. “Yes,” club captain Weligton told FoxSoccer.com, “lots of people want to talk about how important it is to get into the Champions League, or the Europa League as a minimum, but we know we’ve got a lot of work still ahead of us, and we’re just concentrating on that.”

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The Brazilian defender will feel the changes in circumstance more acutely than most, having traversed the ‘before’ and ‘after’. Weligton arrived from Swiss side Grasshoppers in 2007 and has been through promotion from the Segunda, followed it with a pair of seasons flirting with relegation, to the current situation. “It’s true that there aren’t many players left from the old Malaga,” he nodded. “A lot has changed, but in general most of the things that have changed have been for the better.”

Change is apparent everywhere around La Rosaleda, from the Nike branding on every corner (the club began a four-year kit contract with the sportswear behemoth in the summer) to the marbled gleam of the smart new media center, beneath the east stand. Super-polite, smartly-dressed staff greet journalists, usher them in and provide fact sheets and bottled water. Most stewards and security staff at La Liga stadia tend to shrug apologetically if asked to so much as point the way. There is clearly a charm offensive under way.

Elsewhere, the seam between the old and the new is clearly apparent. The developmental nature of the project shows next to the plasma screens relaying happenings in the press conference room to the working area, where the toilets still have ‘cabelleros’ and ‘señoras’ scrawled on the door in black marker.

The club now faces a fresh administrative challenge after the tragic death on Thursday of the board’s chief advisory consultant José Carlos Pérez, who had suffered a stroke on January 28. With the club in mourning his duties are – for now - set to be carved up between general manager (and ex-Real Madrid star) Fernando Hierro and other directors.

The specter of administrative disarray reared its head again while FOXSoccer.com was in town, with the board’s chief advisory consultant José Carlos Pérez suffering a stroke on January 28. He is still recovering in hospital, and his duties are set to be carved up between general manager (and ex-Real Madrid star) Fernando Hierro and other directors.

Yet the potential is clear. In the recent match with Sevilla, the tradition of soccer in Málaga was clear, as a packed Rosaleda relished an Andalusian derby. Police helicopters circled over the stadium as a reminder of the tension apparent between the two. The new board is clearly aware of the importance of local support. Málaga currently has 26,500 season pass holders; the maximum possible in the 29,000-capacity stadium. A waiting list is growing.

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Local pride is a big deal. Homegrown and local players are important to the fans, as Pellegrini was to rue recently when he substituted fans’ favorite Isco to a hail of abuse during the Copa del Rey match with Real Madrid. The 19-year-old was born and bred in the city’s eastern suburbs before coming through Valencia’s academy. Bringing him back to his home was as smart a move by the board as their youth investment.

Yet the city (and its team) is also an international hub. With Málaga’s airport the terminal for British expats and holidaymakers heading to the likes of Marbella, Torremolinos and Fuengirola, the club is an oasis of sporting oxygen for them. There is a sizeable English supporters' club (or peña), the match program is in Spanish and English, and the public address system has both a Spanish and English-language cheerleader.

Herein lies the answer to why Málaga was chosen by the Sheikh. The modest investment for a medium-size club has opened up access to a platform ready-made for international development. By building brick-by-brick while gazing at the stars, Málaga has at least a chance of making a big noise without taking the habitual huge risks in the process.

Yet the ambition is clear. “The owner has invested a lot of money,” Weligton acknowledged after his headed goal set up victory over Sevilla. “He wants a team that can be in the Champions League. He’s signed some big-name players. It’s clear that the pressure has augmented, but the players are prepared for this.” With the spotlight so diligently trained on El Real and Barça, Málaga has the luck to be able to creep up one rung at a time.

Andy Brassell is the European correspondent for BBC 5Live's World Football Phone-In and a contributor to FOXSoccer.com. His work appears in titles including The Independent. Andy is also the author of 'All Or Nothing: A Season In The Life Of The Champions League' and can be found on Twitter at @andybrassell.

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