Another Big Spanish Team Dwindles As Qatar-Backed Málaga Risks Relegation

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Once a swashbuckling side that reached a Champions League quarterfinal less than a decade ago, Spanish club Málaga now barely resembles its successful former self.

With just seven league games remaining this season, one of the country’s prominent soccer names is chancing relegation. And the worry is not demotion to the second division. Instead, it’s falling to the third tier—a farfetched prospect in its heyday. With the lowest goal tally and the second-worst goal difference in the league, it’s becoming a real possibility.

If that wasn’t bad enough, it’s now relying on a new boss, Pablo Guede, to pick up the pieces after dismissing Natxo González following a poor run of results. Although it hopes fresh leadership will lead to a bounce in form, the decision smacks of instability and desperation. Sat just above the drop-zone, the run-in appears tricky too, with four of its final seven games against teams in the top seven positions in the league.

All of this is extraordinary when you consider the structure at the top. Usually, when a Middle Eastern country and soccer ownership meet in the same sentence, it symbolizes financial prosperity and a clear direction, if not some controversy. In reality, since boosting the club upon purchase, Qatari Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani has discontinued his interest and even briefly left office two years ago after being charged with misappropriating club funds.

Málaga is an anomaly in how it proves Gulf state-owners do not always spark long-term achievement. Al Thani has headed the entity over the last 13 seasons and has seen it crumble in stature and finances. Matters have worsened under him, culminating in a situation where the club is at its lowest ebb and miles away from where it expects to be. Compare that to what on-field aspirations Premier League side Newcastle United hopes to fulfill with Saudi Arabian investment, and the outcomes could hardly be more different.

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Málaga has gone from scaring Borussia Dortmund—then led by one of Europe’s finest managers in Jürgen Klopp— in the Champions League to being unable to pay wages and saying goodbye to La Liga. Coaches have come and gone during that time, some doing better than others. One of them, Víctor Sánchez del Amo, even walked after a video circulated of him inappropriately exposing himself, leading to his dismissal. In response, he claimed the leak was an invasion of his privacy. In any case, it didn’t help club operations. Equally concerning has been Málaga’s struggle to field full squads in recent times due to harsh penalties resulting from their shortage of funds.

It is not the only sizeable team to suffer, though. Deportivo La Coruña from Galicia, previously a national champion, has been in the third division for a while now. Meanwhile—while clubs like Deportivo and Racing Santander suffer—names like Eibar have climbed up and enjoyed their time in La Liga. Indeed, the whole picture has changed quite considerably, especially when you consider what is happening at the top, with Villarreal making the Champions League semifinals for the first time in nearly 20 campaigns.

Should Málaga go down, it could still recover. Last year, there was a change in the Spanish soccer pyramid, with the third tier splitting into two national groups. Before that, it was awash with dozens of teams up and down the country, vying for very few promotion berths and at risk of becoming lost in the system. Unless it descends into freefall, Málaga could stabilize and push for a La Liga return in seasons to come.

But for that to happen, there will need to be alterations at the board level. Málaga is not what it used to be, and staying in its league is the top priority.