Malaga is enjoying their most successful season but Uefa's Financial Fair Play rules are derailing the club off the field, says Andy Mitten.
Malaga pay the price for falling foul of Uefa
Thursday afternoon and life had never been so good for Malaga fans. The draw for the last 16 of the Uefa Champions League paired their club with Porto.
Malaga have excelled in their first season in European football's top tournament and they had last night's home game against Real Madrid to look forward to, a team they had not beaten since 1983.
Whatever happened, Malaga would be going into the Primera Liga's winter break having accumulated more top-flight points at this stage of the season than any previous Malaga side. A likely February Copa del Rey cup quarter-final against Barcelona awaits, too.
The fans who had seen their side win a Champions League group ahead of AC Milan plotted their trip to Porto, a game that will be shown live on Spanish terrestrial television - which still has novelty value for Malaga fans.
They were satisfied not only that the opponents were beatable, but, at 860 kilometres away, they had drawn the closest possible team.
Football fans love planning and within four hours of the draw they had talked of a sizeable ticket allocation of 4,000 and planes were reserved, with trips priced at €360 (Dh1,700) return. Those prepared to make the nine-hour road trip by coach will pay just €95 return - an option which would not have been available had they drawn Shaktar Donetsk.
The mood in Malaga contrasted sharply with that of July when they feared their Qatari-owned club was about to implode following the sale of attackers Santi Cazorla and Rondon. A fire sale appeared imminent and the Champions League play-off game against Panathinaikos looked crucial to their future.
Players, some who had received their wages consistently late, would stay if they knew they would be playing in the competition and the club coffers would be boosted by Champions League revenues, although few knew the state of those finances. Malaga won, though the situation still baffled.
Qatar's Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani had taken charge in 2010 after buying the club for €36 million. He had spent €150m on players and overseen their annual wage bill rise from €25.7 to €150m, yet just as his investment began bearing fruit, it stalled.
Why? Only he knew, although there were vague mentions of Uefa's Financial Fair Play system.
The mood did improve as the season started and progressed very well and fans hoped the financial problems belonged to the past.
Such optimism was shattered on Friday with the bombshell from Uefa that Malaga will be banned from the next European competition they qualify for over the next four seasons, starting in 2013.
The ban will be increased to two competitions if Malaga do not prove, by March 31 next year, that they have no overdue debts to other football clubs, their employees and or social/tax authorities.
Uefa, who will also fine them €300,000, claim their actions are in accordance with their club licensing and Financial Fair Play regulations.
Malaga, their players and fans were understandably shocked and angry. Players, such as the left-back Nacho Monreal, had just a day earlier talked of the "good dynamic" of their current form and the "happy sensations" at the club.
Fans such as the season ticket holder Christian Machowski, who a day earlier said: "It has been a fantastic season so far. Whatever the future holds, the last six months have been the best in the club's history and it probably won't get as good as this for a long time, perhaps never again.
"The fans are loving it and watching the delight on the faces of some of the Malaguistas just going through the turnstiles at the San Siro in November made me realise that many of these fans thought they would never see the day that their club would play at this level of European football. To then walk this group and win it convincingly was just pure fantasy."
They had suspected all was not well behind the scenes at a club that had not paid its debts to other clubs and the Spanish tax authorities on time.
The appointment of acting vice-president Moayad Shatat in July was needed at a club with nobody in charge. He appeared to calm matters and with everything going so well on the pitch few fans asked searching questions, but deadlines were still missed and Uefa withheld €18m of European prize money earned so far this season because of non-payment of wages and taxes.
Manuel Pellegrini, their Chilean coach, has been frustrated and hinted at leaving. He has been getting it right on the field with a small squad, that, while expensively assembled, has seen local boy and star playmaker Isco thrive and has also overcome the loss of Rondon and Cazorla by actually improving.
Malaga released an angry riposte to the European ban, citing their "total and absolute indignation and outrage" and saying that they considered the suspension "disproportionate and unjustified", that they "will work tirelessly until justice is done".
Vicente Casado, their director general, later spoke, claiming that Malaga will fight the ban, that their Qatari owners were serious about their investment in the club and had recently invested another €7m.
Casado added that the club will have the full support of the Spanish football association and also said that an agreement will be signed with the tax authorities in the coming days to take care of Malaga's €8m tax debts. Casado maintained that all players' wages are now paid up to date and said the issues had come about through "internal restructuring".
Malaga have not always been so quick to communicate their thoughts. When the alleged improprieties took place - not paying Villarreal for the full amount for Cazorla being one of them - the club said nothing.
Public relations were not Malaga's forte, although the playing staff spoke to the media as normal.
This week, Pellegrini told of his frustration at losing Cazorla, rated the best player in Spain outside the big two, saying: "With the exception of Real Madrid and Barcelona, many clubs have had to give up their big names.
"That is why there is so much difference between them and us. Economically the club was forced to retrace its steps and we had to sell Santi Cazorla. There was an acute crisis at the club, but the sale at the time and the price was a blunder."
"Acute" is relative. When Arsenal paid Cazorla's bargain £16m (Dh95m) fee - less than Malaga had paid for him and less than half their buyout clause - the Spanish government confiscated some of the money.
As Friday's news settled in, fan reaction varied between "We've been asking for this" and "How can Malaga, who owe 'just' €8m to Spain's tax authorities and others millions more, be punished that harshly by Uefa?"
And all this was happening as the team prepared to play Madrid, the day after another Qatari-owned team, Paris Saint-Germain, were reported to have agreed a deal to receive €150m, rising to €200m per season until 2016, from the Qatar Tourist Authority for naming rights as a publicity campaign "to promote the image of Qatar".
Such a deal, if approved, would help PSG avoid penalties under Uefa's new Financial Fair Play rules.
Malaga continue to mystify off the pitch as much as their players mesmerise on it.
A HISTORY OF FINANCIAL WOE
1904 Founded as Malaga Football Club, the team goes through several name changes and mergers because of financial difficulties. The most recent name, since 1994, is Malaga CF. A century after their formation, Malaga, under their various guises, are 19th in the all-time Spanish league table, having spent more seasons in the second division than the first.
2002 Malaga play European football for the first time, winning the Intertoto Cup. It remains their only ever trophy. Victory ensures they qualify for the Uefa Cup, where they reach the quarter-final stage. Fans of defeated opponents Leeds United are said to be confused by the many British Malaga fans, thanks to the 300,000 strong expatriate community on the nearby Costa del Sol.
2010 Club president and former top-level footballer Fernando Sanz, the son of the former Real Madrid president (and main Malaga shareholder) Lorenzo Sanz, looks for a buyer for the strugglers, who have just avoided relegation. He travels to Qatar to meet Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani. An agreement later takes place where the Qatari buys the club in a €36 million (Dh174.4m) transaction. The Sanz family claimed they have not received €3m from the sale two years later.
2011 Malaga spend €56m in the summer on stars including Santi Cazorla, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Jeremy Toulalan. Their arrivals are greeted by daytime fireworks and thousands of fans at La Rosaleda. The investment pays off as they finish fourth in 2011/12, their highest ever finish. They are also banned from buying new players after previous unpaid bills.
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