Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Abdullah Al Ahmed Al Thani could have done anything with his time, and with all of his responsibilities on his docket, president of a football club would seem to be near the bottom of his list. Born from Qatari royalty, the Sheikh billionaire currently sits on the Board of Directors of Doha Bank and the Qatar Equestrian Federation as well as running a business empire including but not exclusive to hotel chains, shopping malls, and cellular phone companies.
Sheikh Al Thani, however, worked and negotiated to buy Málaga Club de Fútbol for a price of €36 million in June with then-owner Lorenzo Sanz and president Fernando Sanz, while devoting and extended four to five months to this acquisition. Foreign ownership has become the rage throughout Europe, but La Liga, and Spain in general, has historically kept ownership and president roles to Spanish citizens only. When the Sheikh took over Málaga in June, he opened the old boys’ club and became the only non-Spanish owner in the top flight of Spain.
Whereas most of the new crop of foreign owners in Europe keep to the matter of their own clubs and merely worry about big-money signings, Sheikh Al Thani put his nose into the internal issues of Spanish football. Aside from the historical teams in Spain, the rest of the clubs usually have little say when it comes to the RFEF (the governing body of football in Spain), but Al Thani cared little for the normal protocol when the issue of revenue sharing came to light.
The new TV deal will come into effect starting in the 2014-15 season, and according to the contract, Real Madrid and Barcelona will take 34% of the pot, Atlético Madrid and Valencia will garner 11% of the money, 1% will be held for those who get relegated to the Segunda División, and the rest will be split among the remaining La Liga teams. Several of the clubs symbolically spit on this contract, Sevilla president José María del Nido leading the charge. While Málaga agreed to the terms of the deal, Sheikh Al Thani still voiced a dissenting opinion concerning the future TV contract:
“The situation now honestly is not good, regarding the TV rights,” he said, according to Reuters. It’s not good for the clubs, because only the two big teams are leading the whole issue. We wish to have the same system as they have in England because it’s much more fair. There are some clubs at the bottom, they have some financial problems. It doesn’t make for fair competition.”
While these statements might come off as a tad (or completely) hypocritical since he has the billions to pay for any player in the world, his sentiments are no less correct or meaningful. Usually, any new owner, whether domestic or foreign, wants to assimilate himself into the league and the other owners before speaking out on important football issues, but Sheikh Al Thani has been a trend-breaker in his business career, and his association with Málaga has not changed the way he operates.
One of the trends, however, that he has followed has been the tendency for new owners to make an immediate impact with a multitude of new signings. Sheikh Al Thani was not shy in splashing the cash during the summer transfer window, but knowing Málaga’s modest standing in Europe and Spain’s pecking order, Al Thani did not immediately start with huge, mega-million Euro bids like what Sheikh Mansour executed when his Abu Dhabi United Group purchased Manchester City in 2008. The club spent a relatively middling €16.15 million on eight different players, the two most expensive being €4 million striker from Banfield, club-record signing Sebastián “Seba” Fernández, and €3.5 million striker from Las Palmas, Salomón Rondón.
With this infusion of new players, Jesualdo Ferreira replaced incumbent Juan Ramón López Muñiz as manager of Málaga, and the new dawn was supposed to rise on the Costa del Sol.
Nine matches into this season, with losses in their first five home matches and a grand total of seven points earned, Sheikh Al Thani fired Ferreira, who José Mourinho described as “a story of a donkey who worked for thirty years but never became a horse.” Seba found it hard to adjust to life and football in Spain, a goalkeeping crisis hit the club with three different goalkeepers having to start within those nine matches, and the defense leaked an astonishing twenty-one goals in that short nine-game span.
Sheikh Al Thani’s experiment was blowing up in his face, but he made a big and surprising splash with the hiring of former Villarreal and Real Madrid manager Manuel Pellegrini to replace Ferreira. Unfortunately, for Pellegrini and Málaga, the situation did not improve significantly as los boquerones only gained six points in seven matches to end 2010, and if there were one owner in Spain to mark as the wheeler and dealer of the January transfer window, Sheikh Al Thani was the odds makers’ favorite.
Six new players joined Málaga in January, and while new club-record signing and Pablo Piatti clone Diego Buonanotte will arrive in the summer, the other five players can be sorted into two different groups: the has-beens and the could-bes.
If this were 2005, Martín Demichelis, Enzo Maresca, and Júlio Baptista would have been quite a triumvirate of transfers. Baptista signed from Sevilla for €20 million to Real Madrid, Maresca joined Sevilla from Fiorentina for €2.5 million and became a staple in the attacking midfield for los nervionenses, and Demichelis established himself as an ever-present in the Bayern Munich central defense, with whom he was a part of three Bundesliga titles, three DFB-Pokal (German Cup) crowns and a finals appearance in the 2009-10 UEFA Champions League. Now, these three are in the twilight of their careers, hoping to recapture the magic they wielded in the past.
Ignacio Camacho and Sergio Asenjo were supposed to be the future of both Atlético Madrid and the Spanish national team. Camacho rose through the ranks of the Atleti cantera to the first team while captaining the Spanish under-17 team to a European Championship in 2007. He could not supplant the likes of Paulo Assunção, Tiago, Raúl García, Cléber Santana, etc., so Atlético let go their once promising midfielder to Málaga for a bargain-basement price of €1.5 million.
Asenjo was presumed as the heir to Iker Casillas in the Spanish national team. He was the first-choice goalkeeper for the Spanish under-21 team at the 2009 European Championships and the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup, and when he supplanted both Ludovic Butelle and Alberto López as the undisputed number one goalkeeper for Real Valladolid at the end of 2007, he became the youngest starting keeper in La Liga at the tender age of eighteen.
Atlético thought so highly of Asenjo that they let go of Grégory Coupet and long-time starter Leo Franco and brought Asenjo from Valladolid for €5 million in the summer of 2009. A nervous start and some unforgivable gaffes saw his grip on as first-choice Atlético keeper loosened completely with Roberto Jiménez taking over, and eventually David de Gea rose above both Roberto and Asenjo with Asenjo relegated to third choice, a stunning and immediate fall from grace.
Manuel Pellegrini drafted all five of these players directly into the starting eleven, but circumstances had not improved. Four points out of five matches in January, including conceding a late goal that lost a match 1-2 to relegation rivals Real Zaragoza, had the Andalucian club at the foot of the table, four points below the safety line. So when Málaga traveled west to their provincial rivals Sevilla on Sunday afternoon, the gloaming looked to continue los boquerones.
Málaga had conceded forty-seven goals in La Liga prior to Jornada 22, eleven more than any other team in the Primera División, and with a rojiblanco team loaded with talented attacking players like Frédéric Kanouté, Luís Fabiano, Jesús Navas, etc., it was not a question of if but how many would they allow.
Sevilla trainer Gregorio Manzano, however, strayed from the normal 4-4-2 and employed a 4-2-3-1 with Fabiano as the lone striker up front in order to shore up a midfield that had given up a plethora of scoring chances in the past few weeks.
Manuel Pellegrini changed his tactics for this match by closing his open, attacking style and employing Eliseu Pereira, the attacking left winger, at left back ahead of the incumbent Patrick Mtiliga. Pellegrini’s strategy worked to perfection, as his team allowed only one scoring chance and gave up three shots, only one of which was on target, in the first half. Eliseu bottled up Jesús Navas on the right wing for the most part, and while Eliseu could not bomb forward because of the Navas threat, he unearthed defensive acumen that apparently Pellegrini only saw.
The match did not perk up that much in the second half, and Málaga nearly stole the three points in the fifth minute of stoppage time. In the last action of the match, Eliseu whipped in a free kick into a host of bodies in the box, and Weligton got a surprisingly unmarked header on target. Andrés Palop, who had little to do for the whole match, came up with a flying parry that saved the draw for Sevilla, and Seba Fernández fluffed a potential reply from Palop’s save as it screwed miles wide of the right near post.
0-0 fulltime, and Málaga could not be more pleased with a boring, tedious draw.
Málaga fully deserved to come out of the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán with at least a point, and while the match was a snoozer for the neutral and a frustration for the Sevilla fans, this match was a very positive sign for Málaga, not only because they got a point in the middle of a relegation battle against a European-caliber team but also because they kept a clean sheet for only the third time all season. While Pellegrini will likely not apply this type of defensive strategy too often, he made a point of making Sevilla have to penetrate a Fort Knox-like team to signal to his players that they are capable of playing well defensively while limiting the egregious turnover and mistakes to a minimum.
If Pellegrini can keep his team this organized while opening up a little more to allow Baptista, Rondón, and the other attacking personnel to express themselves in the final third, they should rise above the bottom three by the end of the season. Pellegrini’s main objective is to keep Málaga in La Liga, and if he accomplishes this task, Sheikh Al Thani has shown that he is fully invested in all facets of this club besides player transfers but will also provide all the funds necessary for Pellegrini to craft this team in the way Pellegrini wants. Bright days are ahead of this club that has been known as the classic yo-yo team, bouncing up and down from the first division, and if Málaga becomes a mainstay in La Liga, what player would not want to play in a beautiful city on the Costa del Sol that is bankrolled by a billionaire?
Fueras de Juego
– Villarreal must have assumed that playing at El Madrigal against a modest Levante team would require little effort, but their sleepwalking performance inspired Levante to channel this disrespect into a positive outcome, and Levante shocked their Comunitat Valenciana neighbors 0-1, handing Villarreal only its first loss at home all season. With Valencia comfortably handling Hércules 2-0 at the Mestalla in the other Comunitat Valenciana derby on Sunday, Valencia is only one point behind Villarreal for third in the table, and the Yellow Submarine will regret their arrogant attitude against Levante if Valencia and they remain close together at the end of the season.
– Many assumed Osasuna would experience a massive letdown after the physical and emotional nirvana of defeating Real Madrid 1-0 at the Estadio Reyno de Navarra last weekend in front of their ravenous home faithful, but while they only managed a 1-1 draw at home to Mallorca to remain one point above the relegation zone, Osasuna performed with a surprising vim and vigor throughout the ninety minutes, scoring within the first ten minutes from a Miguel Flaño goal. Six of Osasuna’s next seven fixtures feature teams tenth or below in the standings, so the gorritxoak could sew up top-flight football for another year in this stretch.
– FC Barcelona won their sixteenth consecutive La Liga match on Saturday, breaking the 1960-61 Real Madrid record of fifteen, and Lionel Messi scored another hat-trick to raise his total to a mere twenty-four goals in nineteen starts in the league and thirty-seven goals in thirty-one appearances in all competitions. What is new? Not much, and that is the brilliance of this streak. They have had more 5+ goal victories (Sevilla, Almería, Real Madrid, and Real Sociedad) than one-goal victories (Valencia and Levante) during this run, and besides the occasional knocks and niggles, the squad has been healthy for the most part.
Real Madrid kept pace to stay seven points behind Barcelona after they cruised to a 4-1 victory over Real Sociedad, but to expect Barcelona to drop points in three or four matches in order for Real Madrid to catch up seems improbable at this point. With the Champions League returning next week, that might provide the only plausible avenue for Barcelona to drop points, balancing La Liga and the Champions League with possible squad rotation and general fatigue.