FOR the first time since 1996, no English clubs are through to the last eight of the Champions League, but there will be more than a few of the country’s supporters at one of this week’s quarter-final ties.
When Borussia Dortmund visit Malaga’s La Rosaleda stadium on Wednesday night, they will encounter a crowd in which around ten per cent of the 26,000 season-ticket holders are foreign. Most of them are English, some Scottish.
Malaga’s support is arguably the most international in Europe, thanks mainly to the expatriate population living on the Costa del Sol. Among the 3,000 fans who followed them to Porto in the first knockout stage were Finnish and Danish flags, as well as the usual flags of St George.
British fans are such a part of the Malaga family that the Spanish majority even have a song that is sung in English. “Malaga is wonderful,” goes the opening line of a chant that was first aired in the ground by the Guiri (foreigners) Army, a supporters’ club for expats.
On the Guiri Army’s bus to every game is John Scott, a Hibs fan who moved to Spain with his father 27 years ago. In that time, he has seen the Malaga support increasingly supplemented by holidaymakers and British residents, for whom watching their original team on satellite television is no longer enough. He says that, as the support has grown more cosmopolitan, so has the club. Malaga’s players and their Qatari owner, Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Abdullah Al Ahmed Al Thani – who has been responsible for a remarkable rise in recent years – recognise that expats form an important part of the organisation’s identity. “The Sheikh has acknowledged the presence of the Guiri Army,” says Scott. “The players all know we’re there. They are a very approachable bunch as well. They think it’s fantastic that all these foreigners support Malaga.
“We must have one of the biggest foreign supports in Europe, but the rest of the Malaga fans love us. It’s not like they’re saying ‘f***ing foreigners’. They want to meet up with us. Some of them come through from Malaga to Benalmadena, where I live, to join us on the coach to the game.”
Despite the club’s financial troubles, which have incurred the wrath of UEFA, these are good times to be a Malaga fan. Little more than a decade ago, they were slumming it in Spanish football’s fourth tier. As if it wasn’t miraculous enough that they finished fourth in La Liga last season, they are now taking the Champions League by storm. Not only did they reach the group stages by beating Panathinaikos in the qualifiers, they finished top of a section that included AC Milan, Anderlecht and Zenit St Petersburg. In the last 16, they responded to a 1-0 first-leg loss against Porto – their only defeat in Europe this season – by beating them 2-0 in Spain.
Manuel Pellegrini, the Chilean coach who guided Villarreal to the 2006 semi-finals, has assembled a squad of players with big-game experience such as Martin Demichelis, Joaquin, Julio Baptista and Javier Saviola. But the main man is 20-year-old Isco, a Spanish playmaker who is expected to attract a summer bid from Manchester City.
The team’s recent domestic form has been inconsistent but, in such a surreal season, few would like to be in Dortmund’s shoes this week. “It’s been a fairytale,” says Scott. “It’s not going to be an easy game, but none of them have. People say we can’t go any further, but they said that before we played Panathinaikos, AC Milan, Anderlecht and Zenit St Petersburg. We turned them all over.”
Malaga fans are determined to enjoy the experience while it lasts, for there are signs that it may not. Accused by UEFA of failing to pay debts, wages and taxes, the club have been banned from the next European competition they qualify for. An appeal will be heard at the Court of Arbitration for Sport before the end of the season.
“It’s ridiculous,” says Scott. “The new financial fair play rules come in next year, and we’re an easy target.
“They’re making an example of Malaga because we are one of the small teams. But, if you want to make an example of someone, do it with one of the big boys so that everybody knows about it.”
Even before the ban, Al Thani, who took over in 2010, had been losing interest. He was angry about the distribution of Spanish television money, which is concentrated in the hands of Real Madrid and Barcelona. He was also frustrated at the lack of support for his plans to develop the marina in Marbella.
“It shocked everybody,” says Scott. “We had qualified for the Champions League. There was talk of Wesley Sneijder coming. Then, all of a sudden, he is saying that he is not going to invest so much in the club. It was like having a jug of cold water poured over you.”
Last week, there were suggestions that a Spanish-Libyan, who owns a chain of holiday hotels, was after a 49 per cent stake in the club. This could be good news for the existing owner and, in turn, for Pellegrini, who says that he will continue only as long as “the project” continues.
But, more than anything, it will be good for the club’s expat supporters, who like their seasons in the sun to last a lifetime.
Champions League quarter-finals
Bayern Munich v Juventus
First leg: Tues, 2 April (Sky Sports 2)
Second leg: Wed, 10 April
Paris SG v Barcelona
First leg: Tues, 2 April (ITV)
Second leg: Wed, 10 April
Malaga v Borussia Dortmund
First leg: Wed, 3 April (Sky Sports 4)
Second leg: Tues, 9 April
Real Madrid v Galatasaray
First leg: Wed, 3 Apr (Sky Sports 2)
Second leg: Tues, 9 April
All kick-offs 7.45pm