14 May 2012

La Liga: played by geniuses, run by idiots

May 14, 2012 17:34 by author Irish Examiner Sports Joseph Sexton 

It was a cruel end to a wretched season for Spain’s best run club. With a number of sides in administration and many more struggling with debts and poor management, Villarreal represented something of a beacon of hope.

Yes, it is true this small-town club from a neighbourhood of Castellón owe their rise to the Primera to their president, Fernando Roig. But even if he did bankroll that initial phase, he also left the club with an enviable youth infrastructure and on a sound financial footing. Roig — a ceramics magnate — suffered like many others when Spain’s construction bubble burst, so it was just as well.

But now, Villarreal are facing a future in the segunda. 

For this they can blame many things — themselves, of course; incredibly bad luck with injuries played a part too. They can hardly be blamed for not knowing Giuseppe Rossi’s season would be written off due to serious injury, but the decision to keep him rather than Santí Cazorla has been costly. In Rossi’s absence, Nilmar has talked more about wanting to leave than contributing anything of note on the field.

Stupid points dropped also play a part. Firing one very decent manager, only to replace him with a dud who was out the door himself before too long didn’t help. Hiring Ángel Miguel Lotina may have been something of a bad omen with his form, but more on that later. Nobody within the club is saying this now of course, but perhaps the LFP, Spain’s league regulator, needs to take a share of the blame for the situation.

In the end it was as tragic as it was pointless. Radamel Falcão García hit a late winner for Atlético Madrid against the submarino. Pointless, because with Málaga beating doomed Sporting, it wasn’t enough for his side to steal the last Champions League spot. Instead they go into the Europa League, a competition they won in midweek and already qualified for. But with Real Zaragoza winning 2-0 away to eight-man Getafe, that was enough to condemn Villarreal. They went down on 41 points. Real Zaragoza’s barely believable great escape had seen them move from just 22 points — and rock bottom — after matchday 29 to 43 points. And to safety. 

Many will question the logic of hiring Lotina, a man they are christening The Relegator. Last season, he took Deportivo La Coruña down, ending that club’s 20-year stay in the top flight. A few years earlier, he’d taken their fierce rivals that way too. Last night, because of Spain’s system of allowing reserve and youth - B and C - sides to play in the lower divisions he trumped all that. With those sides in the divisions immediately below the top, it wasn’t just Villarreal who dropped a division last night. Villarreal B did also. As did Villarreal C. 

But he can hardly be blamed this time around. Villarreal have been shockingly poor for most of the season. Although rarely in the relegation spots since the opening months of the season, they stayed hovering precariously around the periphery. His results haven’t been all that bad either, certainly not compared to what went before. Three wins and five draws from 11 - including a memorable late comeback against Real Madrid - isn’t relegation form by any stretch. There is the external factor too - horrible Zaragoza, a side so awful for so much of the season it is difficult to find words accurate enough to convey it - a team that looked dead for three quarters of the season  finally came to life.

Whether or not they deserve to be still alive leads us to crux of the matter.

Broke, in administration, players and creditors not getting paid. Just another day in the life of just another club on the Spanish footballing merry go round. Zaragoza is not a small team, it’s a proud one, with great tradition. But their recent history has been far less rosy. Somehow, they managed to dodge a third relegation in five seasons and it’s questionable whether they’ll be so lucky next time. But they did so thanks to some friends in high places.

None more so than the Portuguese super agent Jorge Mendes, a man who has everyone from José Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo to Bébé, whose transfer to Manchester United is currently under criminal investigation back in Portugal, on his books.

Jorge Mendes brokered a lot of interesting transfers to Spain last summer. Falcão, of course, was one. Then we had the curious case of a couple of players he moved to Atletico on deadline day, but ultimately ended up in Turkey or at other Spanish clubs. One of those Atlético phantoms, Rúben Micael ended up at Zaragoza, with Mendes also brokering the deal that brought former Tottenham striker Hélder Postiga from Sporting Lisbon. In too came Juan Carlos and Fernando Meira. But by far the most curious deal was that which brought the Spanish goalkeeper Roberto to the club from Benfica.

This deal was curious in many ways. Roberto had been a big money signing (guess who settled the details on that move) for Benfica the year before at some 9m. He’d also been an unmitigated disaster, arguably costing them their title chances with a series of high profile howlers. Even now, a quick google search for ‘Roberto’ and ‘frango’ (‘chicken’ in Portuguese, meaning goalkeeping gaffe) will throw up scores of videos created in his honour by fans of other Portuguese teams. So early had the ‘frango’ label stuck, that in their autumn mauling at FC Porto, home supporters unleashed a live chicken in his goalmouth.

That’s only to speak of the footballing side of it. The details of the deal are murkier still. Officially, he moved to Zaragoza for 8m, an astounding figure in its own right but even more so for a club with no money and in administration. A club that really, by rights shouldn’t be signing anybody. But of course, Zaragoza didn’t pay a penny of that fee. His economic rights remained in the hands of an investment fund based in Dublin, with Peter Kenyon one of its investors. Needless to say, Jorge Mendes has a big stake.

Spain and Portugal are just two of many European leagues in which third party ownership is not frowned upon in any way.

But on the field, Roberto was unrecognisable. Some Spanish journalists said he deserved to be man of the match during their opening day 6-0 chasing at the Bernabéu. It wasn’t in jest. Without the keeper, who registered several stunning saves, it could well have been 12. He kept up this form as they scored early points against Espanyol, Málaga, Villarreal and Sociedad. They subsequently slumped to nine defeats in 10, with Roberto now good rather than supernormal. But neither will you find too many clangers in his season.

Zaragoza’s escape has seen them claim eight victories out of the last 11 played. Away at Granada and Valencia in particular, he’s produced top form in many of those games. Of course, manager Manolo Jímenez deserves immense credit for bucking up the rest of the team’s ideas. But they wouldn’t be where they are now without Roberto. And they certainly wouldn’t without the help of Jorge Mendes. 

Manolo Jimenez oversaw Real Zaragoza's great escape

But that’s the way the cookie crumbles in Spain. Severe mismanagement and going into administration carry no sporting penalty. No club is ever docked 10 points, and none are demoted. The only people who don’t lose out are the unscrupulous presidents. Amongst the many that do include teams that keep their house in order, who are left at a competitive disadvantage when others act in bad faith. Teams who don’t, in Arsene Wenger’s words, engage in ‘financial doping’. Sadly, teams like Villarreal.

As one Spanish journalist wryly noted: La Liga; played by geniuses, run by idiots.

At least Spain’s best run club will be well positioned to bounce back. For many others, the loss of income coming with the drop has proved near-fatal. Just ask Real Oviedo. 


No comments: