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Malaga's malady: When foreign ownership goes wrong

By Tom McGowan, CNN
August 23, 2012 -- Updated 0841 GMT (1641 HKT)
Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani (right) purchased Spanish La Liga team Malaga in June 2010 and proceeded to spend millions bringing top players to the Costa del Sol. Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani (right) purchased Spanish La Liga team Malaga in June 2010 and proceeded to spend millions bringing top players to the Costa del Sol.
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The Sheikh's spending spree
Powered by Pellegrini
Cashing in on Cazorla
Fan fury
The kids are alright
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Qatar's Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nasser Al-Thani bought Malaga in June 2010
  • Malaga finished last season fourth in La Liga -- the highest position in the club's history
  • The Costa del Sol team face Panathinaikos in a European Champions League qualifier
  • Al Thani has ceased investment in the team, following a spending spree 12 months ago

(CNN) -- Over the last decade, Europe's football clubs have become the new must-have accessory for any billionaire itching to blow a significant chunk of their wealth.

European champions Chelsea, English title winners Manchester City and French team Paris Saint-Germain have all been transformed by benefactors willing to splash out on world-class players.

Another example is Spanish team Malaga, which has gone from La Liga also-rans to European Champions League qualifiers in just two years thanks to the riches of Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nasser Al-Thani.

The Qatari spent a reported $80 million in 2012 assembling a squad containing big names like Spain's double European champion Santiago Cazorla and Dutch defender Joris Mathijsen.

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In May, Al Thani's expensively assembled team, ably led by former Real Madrid coach Manuel Pellegrini, completed Malaga's best ever season, finishing fourth in Spain's top division and qualifying for Europe's top club competition for the first time.

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But suddenly, inexplicably, while Chelsea, City and PSG's owners continued to invest, Malaga's tap was turned off.

"It is riches to rags in a very short amount of time," Spanish football journalist Tim Stannard told CNN. "No one has actually given a reason; it has been very, very quiet."

After a single season at the club, Cazorla and Mathijsen have departed to Arsenal and Feyenoord respectively.

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The pair, along with veteran Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy and top scorer Jose Rondon of Venezuela, launched a complaint with the Spanish football authorities regarding unpaid wages.

The quartet have since withdrawn the complaint, but all four players, along with seven others, have left La Rosalera stadium.

Al Thani's interests in the Costa del Sol are not restricted purely to football. He has plans to build a "Sport City," complete with a new stadium, along with a luxury marina and hotel complex in the nearby resort of Marbella.

So why would a man of substantial means, with such an expansive vision for Malaga and the local area, suddenly get cold feet?

"I think he has lost interest and I think it stems from the fact Malaga didn't get the TV rights they wanted," George Prior, a reporter for the English version of Spanish newspaper Sur, told CNN.

"There are rumors he has lost interest because of a lack of urgency from the Spanish authorities with regards to his other projects -- the Marbella hotel, the Marbella port, the football academy he wants to set up and launch in Malaga. This has frustrated him.

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"I think he is biding his time to see what is going on with his other projects. If the sports village and the port moved forward, it might reignite his interest in the club."

Trouble has been brewing for some time. The death of long-serving official Jose Carlos Perez Fernandez in February was a blow to the club, and in May highly-regarded former Spain captain Fernando Hierro left his role as Malaga's sporting director.

"It's a personal decision which I've already informed the owners of. I think it's the right time in order not to affect future plans," the former Real Madrid star said in quotes reported by the AFP news agency.

Prior rejected the idea Al Thani could have run out of cash, suggesting his lack of investment could be an attempt to push through his ambitious building projects.

"He's one of the richest men in the Gulf," he said. "He could resolve all of the financial problems within five minutes. I think it has now become somewhat personal, which is obviously frustrating fans and frustrating the players and the manager.

"It has been mooted by the fans on social media sites. Some of the fans are saying this is him saying, 'Look what I can do' ... But there is now a worry there isn't the financial backing that was there before."

Malaga were unavailable for comment when contacted by CNN, but the official line is that the sudden cost-cutting is to ensure the club complies with Financial Fair Play regulations, a set of rules implemented by European football's governing body aimed at ensuring teams live within their means.

"Malaga Club de Futbol has begun an internal restructuring process to adapt to financial fair play standards, with the intention of guaranteeing self-sufficiency and sustainability," Malaga said in an online statement.

"This process, which does not mean any investment by the current owners has been ruled out, will involve organizational changes, to strengthen the club in the future."

For fans, Al Thani's apparent preoccupation with conforming to UEFA's new laws could not have come at a worse time.

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The holes which have been left in Malaga's decimated squad have already been exposed ahead of Wednesday's historic Champions League qualification first-leg match with Panathinaikos.

In Saturday's La Liga opener against newly-promoted Celta Vigo, Malaga needed a goal from 16-year-old substitute Fabrice Olinga to secure a 1-0 win.

Where last season Rondon and former Manchester United star van Nistelrooy provided firepower, now Malaga must rely on unproven young talent.

"That is how badly it has gone for them," said Stannard. "At the beginning of the transfer window there was genuine talk of signing Robin van Persie and Gonzalo Higuain. Now this kid is who they are relying on."

Rumors in the Spanish media suggested Al Thani was looking sell Malaga, with Albanian Rezart Taci thought to be heading a consortium interested in purchasing the club.

"A couple of weeks ago (Taci's) company came straight out and said there was absolutely no interest whatsoever in buying Malaga and have no idea where the story came from," explained Stannard.

"So at the moment no one else is really touching it because no one quite knows what is going on.

"There are a lot stories about Al Thani wanting to sell the club as soon as possible. But to sell it they want to reduce the amount of debt to make it a little more palatable, hence the sale of Cazorla."

Pele (top) leaps on his teammates during Brazil's 4-1 victory over Italy in the 1970 World Cup final. The Brazil team of that tournament, which clinched a third World Cup triumph, is often heralded as one of the finest in football history. Pele (top) leaps on his teammates during Brazil's 4-1 victory over Italy in the 1970 World Cup final. The Brazil team of that tournament, which clinched a third World Cup triumph, is often heralded as one of the finest in football history.
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The growing uncertainty around the club has led to local journalists asking serious questions of the Malaga hierarchy.

But this has been received negatively by sections of club's support, who view the media's suspicions as an attempt by Spanish football's more established powers to destabilize the team.

"Over the summer fans were attacking local journalists -- not physically -- who were asking lots of pertinent questions which turned out to be true," said Stannard.

"National newspapers had local correspondents saying, 'Hang on a second, what's wrong with this cashflow issue? Why aren't players getting paid on time? Why aren't other clubs being paid?'

"A group of fan clubs wrote a communication saying, 'This is a campaign from Madrid, they are jealous of our success.' But it turned out to be quite correct. At the moment I think there is an awful lot of confusion."

A few short months ago, the Champions League playoff represented the start of a brave new dawn for Malaga.

Now, reaching the group stage of the world's most prestigious club competition might be the only way to return stability to a team which is endanger of slumping back from whence it came.

"I think he may very well invest again," said Prior. "If he wants something to sell on in the future, it is probably worth his while to invest in the club because he can afford it. If his other projects go ahead, that looks more likely.

"The Sheikh was an absolute hero, but in some respects he has almost gone from hero to villain in the eyes of some fans. But football fans can turn on a sixpence -- if he gets the checkbook out he could become the hero again."

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