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You’re allowed just one. Just one love, just one club. Your heart isn’t built to cope with any more. Swansea City Football Club are that love for me – no ifs or buts about it. It’s an indisputable, boundless love. None of this “but my second team are…” or “so and so are my German club” nonsense. You can only have one. No arguments.
Admittedly, I have had soft spots for various other clubs over the years, having not lived in South Wales for ten years now – these usually being clubs my friends support and endearing clubs that I’ve visited on my groundhopping travels – but it has never come close to actual full-blooded, heart-pounding love. (A disclaimer: you are permitted to spread your love to your national football team of course).
No second team: the fulcrum of my football fan manifesto. Until now. I only went and debunked my own rule. So I’ll just say it now and get this admission out of the way.
I love Málaga Club de Fútbol.
There, I said it. Even looking at those words and knowing that I wrote them truthfully is still a strange concept to me. I’m still very new to this whole two team malarkey and, as I stated at the start, the heart is definitely not built for the burden of two teams. The joy of Swansea winning on a weekend is now relatively short-lived, as I then have to deal with Málaga (who rarely win – but more on that shortly). When both win though, it is an incredible feeling – a feeling I’ve only experienced once so far.
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself…so what on earth has prompted this powerful romance with a football club on the Costa del Sol? A good question considering the club are in absolute freefall at the moment.
This summer I accepted a job in Marbella teaching at Swans International – an appropriately named school for a Swansea City fan. Teaching is a pretty demanding job, so I would of course need a football distraction from the heavy workload. It became a toss up between a season ticket at third-tier Marbella or second-tier Málaga. Having been convinced by others – and with it somehow just feeling ‘right’ – Málaga won out and for a mere €220 I became the owner of a season ticket at La Rosaleda. I would find myself with a seat in the top corner of the bowl-like stadium amongst the Guiri Army – the jolly gang of booze-loving British expats who follow Málaga.
This whole Málaga thing was just going to be a bit of fun – a football fandom fling of sorts – it wasn’t meant to lead to this stupid, excruciating love. I knew I was in trouble when after a few games I involuntarily began to refer to Malaga as ‘we’; I hastily corrected myself the first few times I made this ‘slip’, but then I just gave up and accepted it reluctantly and almost ashamedly. This was dirty two-timing, but ultimately I soon realised that I enjoyed embracing the Málaga ‘we’. I was part of it now – I was part of the ‘we’ – and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. For me, Nick Hornby summed up falling in love with a football team perfectly in Fever Pitch and the way it has happened with me and Malaga is exactly how he described the falling in love process: ‘suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.’ I’m in the early stages of this love, but it has certainly brought a lot of pain already.
So where exactly has this love come from? A question I’ve pondered many, many times in recent months, as Málaga are not exactly setting the football world alight at the moment to say the very least. Why them? I’ve lived in several places outside my homeland and I’ve never been seduced by another football club before, so what was different here? Musing on this, I think there may be a number of reasons.
Reason 1: One friend who thinks my Málaga fandom is something akin to a sudden madness, suggested that I’ve latched on to Malaga as a sort of support network and as a kind of replacement for the fact that I arrived in Spain on the back of being dumped. Maybe if I sat down with a therapist this would perhaps be the deep, buried psychological reason we’d arrive at to explain my terminal bout of Málaga-nisation. Maybe they’d be right, but I wouldn’t agree.
Reason 2: It could just be the idea of re-entering and enjoying the ritualistic world of having a season ticket again. I’ve not possessed a season ticket for ten years having not lived in South Wales for the same amount of time and I hadn’t realised how much I’ve missed that fortnightly pilgrimage to the home of your club. I think it could be this, as I absolutely love matchdays at La Rosaleda: the way the streets around the stadium are flooded with blue and white; the buzz in the dingy little bodegas and cafeterias; and those passionate pre match chats about our (usually low) expectations for the upcoming game, whilst I try to naively convince my friends that our erratic and inconsistent Venezuelan playmaker, Juanpi, will almost certainly come good soon (they still aren’t convinced). And of course, it goes without saying, that those superstitions you fall into and live by are returning to my life too: the checking of lucky trainers, going through the same turnstiles or walking down a certain street; I write this having seen Málaga win only once at home and have made a point of mimicking my moves and attire from that matchday in that deluded spirit that it will bring a second win some time soon.
Reason 3: I think this is the main reason for my Malaga love: the jeopardy. I think I’m enjoying (and equally hating) the jeopardy – because Malaga are certainly in jeopardy. In the space of six seasons, Malaga have gone from a cavalier Champions League to potential relegation to the third tier of Spanish football.
The arrival of a new wealthy owner, Qatari Sheik Abdullah Al-Thani, in 2010 led to a heightening of Malaga’s ambitions and a spending spree on star players such as Isco, Cazorla, Joaquin and Van Nistelrooy; it was this spending spree that took Malaga to a Champions League quarter-final where they sadly lost late-on.
Al-Thani did not just want to douse Málaga CF in his riches, but he also had haughty ideas for developing the whole Costa del Sol. Casinos, leisure centres, shopping malls were all on the Al-Thani agenda, but his pet project was Puerto Al-Thani – an exclusive, upmarket port to compete with the billionaire playground of Puerto Banús down the coast near Marbella. Toys were soon being well and truly launched out of the Sheikh’s expensive pram though, as Al-Thani’s marina plans were labelled too ‘pie in the sky’ and so planning permission was denied; the vehicle to display Al-Thani’s rage at the city that had scuppered his ambitious coastal empire? The local football club. Málaga CF became Al-Thani’s punching bag.
The money tap was abruptly turned off at Málaga CF and keeping a hold of the superstars of 2013/14 proved financially inviable and a steady exodus began. Málaga sank to mid-table over the coming seasons, before they finished bottom of the league in 2018 and thus spiralled down into the second tier.
Back now in 2019, Málaga are struggling – struggling badly. When I arrived in Spain this summer, I’d read enough beforehand to know the situation was bad at Málaga, but only living and breathing it have I realised quite how bleak the situation is.
Malaga lost in the Segunda play-offs last season and that playoff defeat has proven fairly fatal for Malaga – fatal for the finances. In recent years, La Liga have taken a hard line on financial fairplay and they’ve adjudged Malaga’s books to be off-balance and so sanctions have been placed upon them. Thus a fire sale began as Malaga’s highest earners and most-prized assets were forced out. The levelling out of the club’s financial landscape has become paramount to a steady future, as Al-Thani seems reluctant to invest again and the takeover by any new owner seems a million miles.
Since I plunged myself into this Málaga adventure, there has been one bonkers story after another. The ludicrous tone was well and truly set on transfer deadline day with the plight of new star signing Shinji Okazaki. Malaga had ‘signed’ Okazaki on a free, but the league refused to register him for the league until the club balanced their books. Three games into the season and Okazaki was denied the chance to be in the squad and the clock was ticking on him remaining at the club. Málaga continued to sell players to cover Okazaki’s wages, but it wasn’t enough and on deadline day night, the club had no chance but to release Okazaki (who was devastated as he had really taken to the club). Okazaki moved on to Huesca. Never guess which newly adopted Málaga fan had blindly gone and got ‘Okazaki 23’ on the back of their new Málaga shirt…One fan urged me to keep a hold of it as a memento of what was described as one of the darkest weeks in the club’s history. I opted against downbeat memorabilia and the club shop kindly let me swap my sullied shirt for a gleaming new, nameless shirt; I certainly don’t trust the club’s transfer policy enough to brand the back again either.
On the pitch, the team are devoid of quality and after a multitude of draws and losses, it wasn’t long until Málaga descended into the relegation zone. Regardless, it has become an established, sacred rule at La Rosaleda that you never boo this team or the much-loved manager Victor Sanchez. This is a team bundled together under a dark cloud of mismanagement from above and no blame is placed on those wearing the shirts on the pitch. The mismanagement has been so chronically incompetent that there have only just been enough players to form a matchday squad at times with appeals even being launched to postpone one recent game due to a lack of available players.
Hearty is the word for this small mishmash of a squad. They may lack quality – particularly in regards of creativity – but they do try. Consequently, because of this, there are no moans and groans from the stands at La Rosaleda as Málaga battle on the pitch and even the raging calls of ‘Al-Thani vete ya’ (‘Al -Thani go now’) are reserved only for long breaks in play and for the anti-regime graffiti that plasters much of the roadside around La Rosaleda. A few weeks ago, the plaque on the roundabout outside La Rosaleda commemorating the Al-Thani was stolen and hung from the nearby bridge in symbolic show of hatred towards the family.
The owners may be despised, but the team on the pitch are backed wholeheartedly. Following a recent game against Elche, their manager Pacheta spoke almost misty-eyed in a flattering speech ending with, “This is football in its fullness – the atmosphere was excellent.” The injustice of the way the club has been pillaged by a crazed owner who sees it as a plaything and the way the fans are fighting back is a large part of why I think I love this club. I love being in the stadium with the Ultras’ colourful and buoyant displays whilst I stand above them amongst the Guiri Army, cheering on this band of underdogs. Sadly, quality does still lack with scoring goals being a particularly troublesome issue for Malaga. And things are not going to get better any time soon either it seems.
Over recent months, local and national newspapers have reported to varying degrees about how there may not be enough money for Málaga to make it to the end of the season. In recent weeks, Marca reported that the club needs to find €5million or possibly face ‘doing a Reus’.
The tragic tale of CF Reus Deportiu could very easily be repeated in Málaga. Last season, second tier Reus did not have enough money to complete the league season and were subsequently kicked out of the league for not paying players. Reus are yet to play again as a row continues about which league they should be placed in. Where once Marco Reus haunted Malaga in the Champions League, it is a different Reus now who hint at a far darker future for Malaga. The club are desperate for new investment, yet it seems that the ever stubborn Al-Thani will not budge and he seems absolutely determined to destroy the club in some sort of act of revenge for the city’s denial of his beloved uber-marina project.
I would genuinely be heartbroken if the club suffered the same fate as Reus and I’m still new to all this; I can only imagine the damage it would do to the city itself and the hardcore who have been going for years and years. Going to watch Málaga has become the highlight of my new life in Spain and after some reluctance, I’ve just accepted and fully embraced this powerful bout of ‘second team syndrome’.