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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Rise and fall of RCD Mallorca put into perspective in Spain by challenge of derbies with Palma neighbours Baleares

At one time they reaching European finals and beating Real Madrid to win silverware, but while they are now in the third tier of Spanish football, there is hope for Mallorca.

Dani scores for Real Mallorca in the 1999 Uefa Cup Winners Cup final against Lazio at Villa Park. Almost two decades on, the Spanish side are now in the country's third tier of football. Mark Sandten / Bongarts / Getty Images
Dani scores for Real Mallorca in the 1999 Uefa Cup Winners Cup final against Lazio at Villa Park. Almost two decades on, the Spanish side are now in the country's third tier of football. Mark Sandten / Bongarts / Getty Images

Soon after leaving Palma’s flight- a-minute airport, many of the nine million tourists who take a Mediterranean holiday in the largest Balearic island of Mallorca each year pass two football grounds on the ring road which surrounds its beautiful capital, Palma.

The first is the aged Estadio Balear, the home of Atletico Baleares, the second team of the island and one which has long played in Spain’s regional third and fourth divisions.

It would seat 18,000 if it had been maintained, but it was closed in 2015 with a renovation planned.

The second is Son Moix, the centrepiece of the 1999 World Student Games, whose 23,000 red seats make it by far the biggest stadium in the Balearic Islands. And whose running track makes it unpopular with fans of the host club.

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RCD Mallorca have played at Son Moix since 2000 when they left their beloved Luis Sitjar home.

Son Moix has hosted Mallorca as a Primera Liga team finishing fifth as recently as 2010.

Mallorca won the Copa del Rey in 2003, the Super Cup against Real Madrid the same year.

A decade later, Mallorca were relegated. In May of this year, after four wretched seasons, they were relegated again to the third tier, where Baleares play.

On Saturday night, the pair met in a league game for the first time in 37 years.

The two clubs from Palma have long been used to operating in different worlds and as recently as January 2017 Baleares played Mallorca’s B team in a league match.

“Mallorca were the flagship club for Palma, Mallorca and the whole of the Balearic Islands,” explains Arnau Riera, a Mallorcan footballer who left the island, joined Barcelona and was Lionel Messi’s captain in Barça’s B team.

“People in Menorca and Ibiza and Formentera supported Mallorca and were proud that we could put up a La Liga team to compete with the best.

"Mallorca has had some great moments and great players – Samuel Eto’o, Miguel Angel ‘The Beast’ Nadal (uncle of Mallorcan Rafa), Diego Tristan, Ibagaza, Juan Carlos Valeron, Ivan Campo, Vicente Engonga, Carlos Roa and Jovan Stankovic. There were great coaches like Hector Cuper and Luis Aragones.”

The island of 850,000 (half live in or around Palma) has produced good footballers with Real Madrid’s Marco Asensio easily the best of the current crop. Many others have made good La Liga livings, from Albert Riera to Miguel Angel Moya.

“We love football in Mallorca, but we are not as passionate as other places,” explained Riera. “We’re laid back, we have a beach.”

Mallorcans were traditionally poor, conservative, discrete and austere. Embracing mass tourism, especially from Germany and the United Kingdom, changed Mallorca and the neighbouring islands.

The football team gradually reflected the change, enjoying their most successful spell in the 15 years after a 1997 promotion. They reached the 1999 Uefa Cup Winners’ Cup final, they twice finished third in the Primera Liga.

They are now in a regional league alongside the B teams of Villarreal, Valencia and Zaragoza. Average crowds actually rose to 9,200 last season and, along with Elche and Racing Santander and Recreativo Heulva, they are likely to be the best supported team of all the 80 teams in Spain’s regional third tier, but Real Club Deportivo Mallorca has been an example of how not to run a football club.

There were too many changes of owners and coaches. Foreign investment produced more suspicion than success. The local media could be so aggressive that coaches were reluctant to coach there.

Tolo Cursach, Mallorca’s nightlife king for 40 years, was involved (as he was with Atletico Baleares for one season) too. He was involved in third party ownership of Mallorca players, which came to an end when Fifa banned the practice in 2015.

Cursach was taken into custody and accused of 16 different offences in February 2017.

Atletico Baleares average 1,500, their fans known as Balearicos. Mallorca fans are known as Barralets, since their club has carried the ‘Real-Royal’ barralet crown of Spain since 1916.

Baleares reached the second division in 1963, but now they are a lower league team who for a long time occupied a stadium which was too big for them.

Promotion to Spain’s third tier meant the burden of flying to the Spanish mainland for almost every away game. They still do that, but there are now four Balearic teams in Spain’s Segunda B, group three which has cut down their time in the air.

There’s Pena Esportivo from Santa Eulalia in Ibiza and, astonishingly, Formentera, from a beautiful island with no airport, one whose principal town Sant Francesc Xavier boasts 2,700 permanent residents – the island’s numbers swelled by hundreds of thousands of mainly cool Italian tourists in July and August.

The players for Baleares and Mallorca are full time, earning around €3,000 (Dh13,000) each month. Baleares’ coach is Josico Moreno and his club have a connection with Atletico Madrid.

Atletico can loan players to the club who wear blue and white stripes, the blue coming from the sea, initially after the name of a boat company, Mecanico.

As the future of the empty Estadio Balear continues to be debated by the council who plan to redevelop it, Baleares are playing at the tiny 2,200 capacity Son Malferit stadium in Palma, with its artificial surface.

For Saturday’s game, the visitors were allocated only 200 tickets, but the small crowd made a big noise as the sun set over the bay of Palma.

Both teams have started the season well, with Mallorca favourites for a return to the second tier, and the crowd were optimistic that the match would be a showcase for Mallorcan football.

“The infrastructure is here for a La Liga team with RCD Mallorca,” Riera says. “The training facilities are excellent, the stadium is excellent – and would be better without the running track. Palma is a wonderful place to live.”

As Asensio shines for Real Madrid, Riera admits: “Mallorca fans knew he was quality, but nobody expected him to be this good. He was in a poor Mallorca team and we can’t believe that he’s now a star for Real Madrid, full of confidence even under all that pressure and competition.”

There was pressure and competition in Palma’s first league derby for 37 years, but unlike Asensio, neither team could break through and entertain in a poor match which ended in a disappointing goalless stalemate.

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