Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno
Malaga have quietly had a tremendous season despite a major loss of investment in the summer, having to sell key players and being "scapegoated" by UEFA's new financial fair play rules.
Hello darkness, my old friend, I've come to talk with you again. Because a vision softly creeping, left its seeds while I was sleeping, and the vision that was planted in my brain, still remains, within the sound of silence. -Paul Simon
When Paul Simon wrote the "The Sound of Silence" in 1964 it was in reaction to something far more serious than soccer, but that won't stop me from borrowing his sentiment and relating it to Malaga's quiet as a mouse run into the Champions League Round of 16.
No matter what happens in their two legs against FC Porto, Malaga and Manuel Pellegrini have beaten the odds and accomplished more than they were ever supposed too. Los Boquerones (translated as The Anchovies) have taken figurative body punches like Muhammed Ali in his famous Rumble in the Jungle fight against George Foreman. All summer Malaga were battered, and they took the blows. Late in 2012 UEFA took their shots, and they took the blows. Now, like Ali, Malaga have a chance to show that their rope-a-dope strategy worked and that they're ready to shock the world.
Perhaps I'm being overly dramatic but Malaga deserves some credit and attention for everything they've done this season despite everything working against them and everyone expecting them to fail. It's a great story and while most of their trials are mostly of their own creation, that doesn't take away from the tale.
Yet nobody is really talking about it. Sure most people are aware of parts of the story but at its core its the kind of tale that Hollywood might tell of a team that keeps be given reasons not too succeed and despite all odds, they keep on winning.
As we've all focused our attentions elsewhere Malaga won Group C without a loss, besting AC Milan and Zenit St. Petersburg. As we wrote about other stories, Malaga have stubbornly held on to their 4th place spot in La Liga despite the fact they may not be able to claim the Champions League spot for next season. Malaga has done all this despite selling their three best players, facing a massive financial crisis and becoming the first target of UEFA's new financial fair play rules.
They aren't supposed to be where they are and when you learn what is working against them, you'll likely appreciate what they've accomplished even more.
In the summer of 2010, Malaga President and major shareholder Fernando Sanz convinced Sheikh Abdullah Al-Thani of the Qatari Royal Family to invest in the team. Al-Thani's financial infusion helped Malaga sign high-profile players, upgrade their facilities and begin a reclamation project around the club. The effects were immediate as Malaga built in 2010-11 and proceeded to have one of their best season's ever in 2011-12 finishing fourth and qualifying for a European spot for only the second time in their history.
Then in the summer of 2012 rumors spread that Al-Thani wanted to sell and panic set in. While Al-Thani remained the team's owner, he severely reduced his investment, forcing the club to sell Spainish international Santi Cazorla to Arsenal and striker Solomon Rondon to Rubin Kazan. Immediately the "experts" said that Malaga would crash back to earth and all the positives of the past two years would evaporate.
It hasn't happened...at least not yet.
Malaga took care of Panathinaikos in the UCL qualifying playoff round and were drawn into a tough group with Italian giants AC Milan and oil rich Zenit St. Petersburg who'd just spent millions on Hulk and Axel Witsel. Few gave Malaga a chance but the Anchovies started 3-0 in the group stages, with three straight shutouts. Three straight draws in the second round of matches (including games in Italy and Russia) were enough for Malaga to win the group and move on to the Round of 16.
Meanwhile in Spain, Malaga were playing well and in a Champions League spot (or thereabouts) as the year came to a close. Then UEFA began taking their shots.
One day after the knockout round draw that pitted Malaga against FC Porto, UEFA annouced the club was banned from European club competitions next season for failing to pay players' wages and tax bills on time. A second ban could come if the club fails to clean up their debts which are reported to be in the vicinity of $11.6 million in unpaid wage and tax bills.
Fullback Nacho Monreal was sold in the January transfer window to Arsenal and while the club has remained defiant, saying they're being used as a scapegoat by UEFA, it was another tough pill to swallow.
Now Malaga is ready to face FC Porto in a tie that is more than just about trying advance to the quarterfinals. Every win at this point means an additional cash infusion for the club and moves them closer to be being able to survive their current financial situation in the hopes of not losing all the progress they've made.
So far, Pellegrini has masterfully handled the squad this season adding former Barcelona and Benfica forward, Javier Saviola and Roque Santa Cruz (on loan from Manchester City) in the final moments of the summer transfer window. He's kept the team's morale high despite everything and they've continued to get solid results even in the wake of UEFA's late December announcement.
There's no question that this Malaga team is a great and mostly ignored story. There's also no question that even darker times could be ahead for Malaga if they can't clean up their books enough to satisfy UEFA. For the moment though, it's all about moving forward and seeing how long this run can go.