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Wild Presidents: Sheikh Abdullah Al-Thani at Málaga

Written by Matt Clark

There was understandable excitement among Malaguistas when Sheikh Abdullah Al-Thani agreed to buy the majority of shares in their club from Fernando Sanz for €36 million in 2010. Foreign investment in football had really taken off, and increasingly the big money was coming from the Arabian Peninsula. Historical ‘big club’ status did not seem to be a precondition, so fans of clubs like Málaga dared to dream, and dream big.

Sheikh Abdullah Al-Thani is a member of the Qatari ruling family and runs a business empire from cars to hotel chains to mobile networks. He arrived with a promise to consolidate debts and aspire to greater things.

Initially, he delivered and put his money where his mouth was. Writer and fan Andy Headspeath (@Andy_Headspeath) acknowledged that things started positively under Al-Thani; he eradicated the debt, brought in Nike and UNESCO as new sponsors and made exciting signings. In his first season, Málaga spent €25 million as Eliseu, Martín Demichelis, Júlio Baptista and Salomón Rondón all arrived at La Rosaleda. in November 2010 he also brought in a new head coach in Manuel Pellegrini who had done an admirable job at Villarreal. The spending spree continued the following year, as Al-Thani splashed out nearly €60 million on the three most expensive signings in the club’s history: Santi Cazorla, Jérémy Toulalan and Nacho Monreal. Add to the mix Joaquín, Ruud van Nistelrooy and a young Isco, and you can see why fans were ecstatic about the developing project.

In 2011-12, Málaga were fourth in LaLiga, which was their highest-ever finish and earned them a place in the Champions League play-offs. The club cashed in on their increased prominence by selling both Cazorla and Rondón. In hindsight, this policy should have perhaps sparked some warning signs.

2012/13 was the high point in Al-Thani’s tenure and perhaps Málaga’s entire club history. Their incredible run in the Champions League saw them become everyone’s favourite underdog. Their talent-packed squad achieved cult status as they beat AC Milan in the group stage and Porto in the round of 16. It was only a controversial exit to Borussia Dortmund in dramatic circumstances that prevented them from making the semi-finals. Conceding two stoppage-time goals to the Germans, both with more than a suspicion of offside, was a cruel way for their romantic journey to end.

Things were beginning to turn sour off the pitch too. Players were complaining about unpaid wages and the debt mounted. Málaga had finished sixth in LaLiga, but were banned from participating in UEFA competitions for a year, a ban which was upheld on appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

They couldn’t keep the squad together that summer, and the transfer window quickly turned into a fire sale. Isco left for Real Madrid for €30 million, with Toulalan and Joaquín also departing. After a couple of years of big net spending, these years marked the beginning of an austere period. The money had dried up very quickly. Málaga fan Ian Currie (@IWJ86) spoke of the inevitability of the downward spiral: “it was probably only a matter of time before what’s happened [in] the last 2 years at the club became a reality, unfortunately”.

Andy pointed to the failed real-estate project on the Costa del Sol as another key factor for the unravelling of the project. The prospect of pumping money into prime real estate was supposedly one of the reasons why Al-Thani invested in the first place. When this never materialised, he effectively pulled the plug on Málaga’s spending, and consequently their positive trajectory tapered.

Club debt was becoming a significant concern, spiralling over €100 million. Al-Thani looked to hotel chain BlueBay to take on some of the debt in return for shares in the club. But soon after things were slightly stabilised, Al-Thani backtracked and transferred shares into another company he part-owned. This, as Ian says, was “a fiasco which dragged the club to the point of nearly ceasing to exist”. He was lending vast amounts of club money to other entities, as well as loaning himself funds and using this for personal expenditure, as Andy points out. From chauffeur-driven cars to holidays, Al-Thani was living a life of luxury all on club credit. There are still vast sums outstanding which he has failed to put back into the club. Last month, Marca reported that the auditors uncovered over €7 million worth of debts owed by Al-Thani to the club, through loans and credit. The situation had clearly escalated out of all control.

The sheikh has also done himself no favours with other off-pitch histrionics. Every year on the anniversary of the controversial Champions League night in Germany, Al-Thani has made it his personal mission to tweet out his dissatisfaction, and demands a UEFA investigation. Fans like Ian feel that regardless of what happened that night, his vendetta rants do not look good: “The annual tweet about Dortmund and UEFA continues to make him, and by default the club, look ridiculous”.

There have also been unseemly controversies surrounding Al-Thani and his attitude to rights. This includes the time he forced the club to take down a tweet with an image of their shield on a backdrop of the LGBTQ flag. Ian states that this together with the subsequent shunning of these annual awareness days show Al-Thani to be “intolerant and pathetic”.

The financial troubles and PR disasters inevitably affected Málaga’s LaLiga form. In 2017/18, they were relegated after finishing bottom with just five wins and 20 points. It was a despairing season, and the club went down with barely a whimper. By now the vast majority of fans had endured enough. They saw Al-Thani as nothing more than an asset-stripper, weakening the squad at every opportunity and mishandling the finances of the club. Andy recalls the increasing levels of protest in the form of big, bold graffiti around La Rosaleda demanding that Al-Thani leaves: ¡Al-Thani vete ya!

Unfortunately, their problems have continued unabated in the Segunda. At the start of this current season, it appeared the club had signed Premier League-winner Shinji Okazaki, but they were unable to register him due to forced restrictions on their wage spending, and he duly moved to Huesca instead. This was not an isolated case and led to the embarrassing situation of being unable to make some substitutions in the first game of the season for fear of breaking rules by fielding ineligible players or too many B-teamers. Ian describes this as “just another humiliating moment for the club”.

Ian and Andy have also both described the sacking of popular manager Víctor Sánchez del Amo this season as another low point. Al-Thani was unwilling to back his head coach despite the incredibly difficult extenuating circumstances. A sex-tape was leaked online as part of a blackmail plot against him, but as Andy outlined, “instead of backing… [his manager] …Al-Thani sacked him”.

The wishes of the fans were finally granted in February this year. Al-Thani was forcibly removed by order of a Spanish regional court for the alleged misappropriation of funds, “a day the fans celebrated wildly”, recalls Andy. Fans flocked to La Rosaleda to show their support for their club with a renewed sense of hope.

Administrators are now in place, attempting to sort out the mess he has left behind. However, just this week, they have stated that the club must find €15 million before the start of next season or are likely to face serious consequences, including forced administrative relegation. In a worst-case scenario, they could become Spain’s next CF Reus Deportiu and disappear off the map completely. This would be heart-breaking for fans and would represent the ultimate nadir of the ultimately ruinous Al-Thani era.

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