Last summer it seemed that Malaga were poised to become the biggest threat to el Classico dominance in La Liga. Sheikh al Thani bought the kind of funds needed to pose a threat to the dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona whose dominance is partly fuelled by the disproportionately large shares of television money that the two great clubs annually receive in comparison to other Spanish clubs. With Valencia prevented from genuinely challenging them for a number of years by their perennially precarious financial situation, Malaga had the foreign investment that is probably needed to genuinely challenge. The signings of Toulalan, Joaquin, Mathijsen and Santi Cazorla from Villarreal among others, were a signal of intent. With former Villarreal and Real Madrid Pelligrini in charge, Malaga were certainly building a team to gain entry to the Champions League. And they did. Well they finished 4th allowing them the chance to enter the competition via what can be the tricky playoffs (they may end up having to play Italy’s fourth best team (Udinese) to qualify). So the first step towards challenging for the title should be taken – Champions League football. And yet, this summer has seen zero transfers in with rumours that they are unable to pay wages and owe other clubs money from transfers. There are rumours that they are going to have to sell their best players to raise funds to eradicate these quite serious problems – Cazorla has notably been linked with a move to Arsenal in the last couple of days.
Rather than launching their challenge to Madrid and Barcelona in a similar way to how Man City surmounted the recent Premier League domination of Man Utd and Chelsea, there are instead fears of UEFA and La Liga punishments with enforced relegation suggested in some places. All at a time when Rangers have embarrassingly been forced down to the Scottish Division 3, Portsmouth face going out of business altogether and Villarreal have just been relegated from La Liga in financial turmoil following the most prosperous years of their history. Add to this the Leeds decline in the mid 00s. Are Malaga going to be another one of the football tragedies that come on the other side of the millions of pound coins of exuberant investment in football? Is it the case that for every Chelsea there is a Portsmouth? For every City is there a Malaga?
Cases when things don’t work out between a club and their cash cow owners are becoming increasingly common and they pose a real concern for any club who rely on the whims and indulgences of billionaires. For all their success, there have always been concerns about the longevity of interest from the Sheikhs at City or Abramovich at Chelsea. To be fair with the latter, 8 years into his dynasty Chelsea look to be fairly secure – Abramovich seems loyal and they have had enough time at the top to allow themselves to have built a substantial enough franchise to allow them to grow beyond their owner’s maintenance over the coming years and decades. City too will have to establish themselves will have to develop sustainability independent of the owners – they will have to use their current success to grow the fanbase and franchise that is needed to sustain an actual big club so that they actually become a big club. For all the accusations that Chelsea were a small club with no history relying on Abramovich’s money during the early years of his regime, there are few now who doubt Chelsea’s position as one of the biggest clubs in European football. These are the aspirations of City certainly, but it takes longevity of success to achieve, not just flash in the pan success. It will rely on the Sheikh’s willingness to continue with the City project and to see it through to the other side – the other side being the moment that City are big enough to operate without further investment.
Malaga, meanwhile, are a concern because their owner either seems to have lost interest or he has little competence. At Portsmouth wages were promised to players by the owner but the owner for some reason didn’t deliver. Is the same happening at Malaga? Should things not be resolved then the fears of what happens when a wealthy investor stops investing will be revealed. Should they not enter the Champions League – something that they will rely on to have any return on the investment – then they will be in serious difficulty (just ask any Leeds fan).
The trouble with wealthy owners is that they will often seek some return on their investment, whether that be in the way of financial return or some kind of PR exercise. I don’t doubt that some do it out of a childish ego-mania, but the successful owners have been the ones who have wanted to implement a long-term plan or project. City and Chelsea both have influential teams of officials and executives concerned with utilizing the period of significant investment to allow for investment in future seasons to be, let’s say, more organic. While City will rely on the Sheikhs’ investment in transfer activity for a few more seasons, Chelsea are at a stage where they can invest in players through self-generated profit via the success and trophies of almost a decade of being at the top of European football. The fear with Malaga is that, because they’ve only had one season since investment was made, no such project has been implemented properly, and with their owners seemingly unwilling to abet the current problems, they have no resources to pay the player wages and owed funds to other clubs. For all the excitement around clubs like PSG and the significant investment being made into clubs in the East, Malaga are currently doing a fine job of presenting the scenario when such investment doesn’t work out. Let’s hope that the likes of PSG and Anzhi Makhachkala don’t follow similar fates to Portsmouth and Malaga.