Qatari sheikh’s ownership of La Liga’s Malaga: When a football dream turns sour

Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Abdullah Al-Ahmed Al-Thani bought Malaga in 2010 for $45 million and much was expected, but the club now finds itself in a financial mess. (AFP)
Updated 17 February 2018
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Qatari sheikh’s ownership of La Liga’s Malaga: When a football dream turns sour

BARCELONA: On a chilly April night in Germany’s football heartland the Ruhr valley, Malaga CF were denied a place in the Champions League semifinals by two controversial stoppage-time goals. Defeat to Borussia Dortmund was hard to accept, but what seemed clear was that a wealthy new European football power had emerged to challenge the Spanish and continental elites.
That was five years ago. Today, the outlook is very different. Malaga are facing domestic relegation and the promises of the club’s Qatari president, Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Abdullah Al-Ahmed Al-Thani, ring hollow, his name no longer venerated in the Mediterranean port city.
Last month posters appeared on the walls of Malaga’s 30,000-capacity stadium urging Al-Thani to leave, the club’s fans seemingly tired of his histrionics and failings since acquiring the club for €36 million ($45 million) in June 2010.
“When he first came to Malaga, he was king and we would shout in his honor,” said a long-standing supporter who declined to be named. “But with the results of the past few years, Malaga’s performances have steadily disappointed and have now reached a very low ebb.”

On Saturday, the side lost 1-0 to Atletico Madrid, leaving Los Boquerones seven points adrift from safety at the bottom of Spain’s La Liga with just 13 points from 23 games. Among Europe’s biggest five leagues, only Italy’s Benevento, a provincial team playing its first season of top-flight football, has a worse record.
Malaga’s summer sales of key midfielders Ignacio Camacho and Pablo Fornals, plus striker Sandro Ramirez, for a combined €33 million ($40.7 million) left now-departed coach Michel with a woeful squad that has racked up more red cards than wins in La Liga this season.
With just two points and two goals from their past eight outings, the club are a mess, and seven January signings — five loan players, one free transfer, and a second-division defender bought for €500,000 — seem unlikely to arrest the decline of a club Al-Thani vowed would become soccer royalty.
“It will take time, but our objective is for Malaga to be one of the greatest teams in Spain,” Al-Thani said in an October 2010 television interview in which he implied he had opted to buy Malaga, rather than Liverpool, which was sold the same year to American investors for about £300 million ($420 million).
Those boasts, and his status as a Qatari royal and chairman of the privately owned Nasir Bin Abdullah & Sons (NAS Group), one of Qatar’s largest companies, led to widespread assumptions that Al-Thani possessed incredible wealth. CNN described him as one of the Gulf’s richest men, but his actions over the past eight years suggest otherwise.
Now rarely seen in Malaga amid rumors he is unable to leave Qatar, Al-Thani remains prolific on social media, and his enthusiasm for Malaga appears undimmed, despite his ownership of the club in dispute pending a court ruling.
“For me it’s everything. It’s not just a team, it’s my life,” he told the club’s television channel in July 2016. “We hope to see them at the top of La Liga. We will work hard with the team.
“We don’t want to make a big jump and then drop again … we’re looking to be in the Champions (League) or Europa League. We can do this. There is a new strategy … but I don’t give you the numbers.”
Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Abdullah Al-Ahmed Al-Thani bought Malaga in 2010 for $45 million and much was expected, but the club now finds itself in a financial mess. (AFP)

Whatever the details, the plan failed, and the numbers that do matter, aside from Malaga’s paltry league points total, are the player sales that have generated a net transfer profit of €141.4 million from 2012-13 onwards, according to transfermarkt.com.
That alleged asset stripping has proved too much to bear for the official supporters’ group, which in January wrote an open letter to Al-Thani lamenting his failure to bring in adequate replacements for the players offloaded.
“You made us believe that we will grow big, to levels that never before has the fan club enjoyed,” the letter said. “But like a house of cards, without solid foundations the project started to crumble into the chaotic situation of today.”
Things had begun so differently, with Al-Thani clocking up a net transfer spend of €74 million during his first two seasons in charge. Among the arrivals were the likes of Argentina’s Martin Demichelis, Brazilian Julio Baptista and some of Spain’s most promising young players in Isco, Santi Cazorla and Nacho Monreal.
In 2010-11, during Al-Thani’s maiden campaign, the club finished 11th, its highest position in six years. The following year, former Real Madrid trainer Manuel Pellegrini led the Andalusians to their best-ever result, a fourth-placed finish and qualification for the Champions League.
Off the pitch, progress also seemed swift. In December 2010, Al-Thani announced plans to build a 65,000-seat stadium to replace the publicly owned La Rosaleda, telling the Spanish AS newspaper he was close to buying the land for the new ground, which would include a five-star hotel. It has yet to be built.
The first indications of trouble came early in his reign, with players revealing they had not been paid on time. Clubs including Osasuna and Villarreal, who had sold players to Malaga, made similar complaints, prompting Spain’s football authorities to prohibit Malaga from signing players as unpaid tax dues swelled.
The ban was lifted after Cazorla was sold to repay some of these debts, while Monreal and Salomon Rondon were also among those offloaded in summer 2012 to ease a deepening financial crisis.
Malaga, which declined to answer questions from Arab News, were ultimately banned from European competition for the 2013-14 season because of overdue debts, but the club shrugged off those setbacks to reach the Champions League quarterfinals in 2012-13, Dortmund’s late revival preventing them from reaching the last four.
The midfielder Isco, the talisman of that European campaign, was swiftly sold to Real Madrid for €30 million, while mercurial winger Joaquin and Demichelis were among another dozen departures.
“After the Champions League run, he put less and less money into the club,” said the supporter. “There was a lot of money made on transfers and we don’t know where it has gone because there is this never-ending debt. The club was supposed to be debt-free, but the problem keeps resurfacing.”
Malaga's Adrian Gonzalez during the warm up before the match with Atletico Madrid. (REUTERS)

In 2012, Malaga officials approached Marbella-based BlueBay Hotels to see if the company could help get the club’s finances in order in return for taking a stake.
“The sheikh was really frightened because the debt was €130 million and the club was losing more or less €50 million annually, so every year the debt would increase,” said a source.
A new company was created in which Al-Thani would own 51 percent and BlueBay the remainder. The sheikh sold his 97 percent stake in Malaga for one euro to this new company, which assumed responsibility for the club’s debts and outstanding taxes.
Al-Thani also promised a further €30 million to help repay the debts if necessary, according to court documents cited by Diario Sur newspaper. He would remain president, while BlueBay would manage the club. Spain’s Higher Sports Council approved the ownership structure in August 2013.
However, BlueBay opted not to renew the expensive contracts of players and coaches, including Baptista, who was earning around €5 million annually. Pellegrini and his backroom staff were costing €10 million per year in wages — a quarter of the club’s income.
“With Malaga’s budget at around €40 million, it was not meant to be a club in the Champions League but maybe eighth to 11th in La Liga and some seasons play in the Europa League,” said the source.
In April 2014, with the club in better shape, Al-Thani announced the BlueBay deal had never materialized, evicted the hotel and resort chain from club premises, and then transferred the shares in the jointly owned holding company to another owned solely by him.
BlueBay, which declined to comment, launched a civil case in 2015 in a bid to force Al-Thani to comply with their agreement. The judge gave a provisional order preventing the sheikh, whose firm NAS Group did not respond to requests for comment, from selling the club shares until the case is resolved.
Al-Thani then filed a criminal case against BlueBay and two of his former advisers, Abdullah Ghubn and Moayad Shatat, claiming they conspired to defraud him of his shares. This was likely a stalling tactic and was dismissed in December 2017, with the matter now returning to the civil courts for a likely resolution this year, said the source.
Furthermore, in January 2016, Nasser Al-Thani, a Malaga director, was given a three-year suspended jail sentence in Qatar for writing bounced cheques worth 850,000 Qatari riyals ($234,000), according to La Opinion de Malaga newspaper. He used those cheques to buy a luxury car, subsequently paying the amount owed in June 2016 to avoid jail, although the case remains open.
As well as failing in soccer, the sheikh’s €400 million redevelopment of Marbella’s marina, 60 kilometers west of Malaga, has come to nothing. The project was unveiled in 2011 but soon ran into trouble as Malaga’s financial problems also began to surface. In November 2017, Andalusia’s high court annulled the tender granted to Al-Thani after his company missed payments and failed to make good on its plans, according to media reports.
As the eldest brother, Al-Thani, a former director of Doha Bank, was the manager of the family’s wealth and is believed to have invested much of this plus some loans from Qatari banks into Malaga CF.
Al-Thani awarded generous salaries to himself and some of his children who were given positions at the club. The board of directors, which comprises Al-Thani and three of his children, were paid a combined €1.44 million last season, according to the sports daily Marca. Plans to increase those payments were scrapped following fan disquiet.
“The strategy now is to milk the club and, as you can see, the quality of the team has declined markedly. All the players that have some value have been sold,” said the source. “The magic word ‘sheikh’ made people blind to the reality that there’s nothing behind his bluster. There’s no intelligence running the club right now and nobody there knows what to do.”


Riz Rehman is the man with a plan to ensure Premier League passion is Muslim-friendly

Updated 22 September 2018
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Riz Rehman is the man with a plan to ensure Premier League passion is Muslim-friendly

  • Mohamed Salah's record-breaking season has focused attention on the Premier League's Muslim players and fans.
  • Past three players to win Player of the Year have all been Muslim.

LONDON: The face of English football has changed unimaginably since the start of the Premier League in 1992 — not least in terms of the number of Muslim footballers plying their trade in the most popular league in the world.
Twenty-six years ago, Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Nayim was the league’s only practicing Muslim. Fast forward to 2018 and there are now more than 40 Muslim players gracing England’s top flight — many of them global stars such as Mohamed Salah, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante. 
This is a hugely welcome development for the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) and its education adviser, Riz Rehman, who is himself a Muslim. 
Rehman’s role involves him supporting players of different backgrounds — including Muslims — and aiming to boost their participation in football. Little wonder, then, that he is delighted that the past three winners of the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award were all Muslim — Salah, Kante and Riyad Mahrez. 
“It’s great for the Muslim community — young people, players, aspiring players and coaches — that three Muslims have won this award and that two of them (Salah and Mahrez) are Arabs,” Rehman told Arab News. 
“It’s very important because it’s created more awareness about Muslims being good at the game and sport in general. It’s important we highlight this.” 
Leading Muslim footballers’ soaring success and stardom have coincided with rising Islamaphobic attacks in Britain following the Brexit vote in 2016. Regressive attitudes toward race, religion and immigration have raged in some parts of the country, as Rehman acknowledged. 
“The biggest misconceptions are that Muslims are all terrorists or that they are all Asian and have long beards,” he said. “Isolated incidents are giving Muslims a bad name.” 
Mercifully for Rehman and the PFA, the likes of Salah and Kante are portraying Muslims in a far more positive — and realistic — light on and off the pitch. 
During his sublime 2017-18 season, Liverpool star Salah topped the Premier League goal-scoring charts with 32 goals and reached the Champions League final. His unstinting brilliance led to him being serenaded with his own song by Liverpool fans, which includes the line: “If he scores another few, then I’ll be a Muslim too.” 

Mohamed Salah has created a positive image of Muslims during his record-breaking year in the Premier League. 


Many social media posts and videos showing young supporters copying the Egyptian maestro’s overtly religious goal celebration have also been posted many times. This involves him performing sujood, the Islamic art of prostration. 
“Things like that are really helping to bring down barriers in the game,” Rehman said. 
Likewise, he cites the fact that Salah and his Liverpool teammate, Sadio Mane, visit a mosque every week after training for Jumu’ah, the Friday prayer. 
Meanwhile, only last Saturday the humbleness of Chelsea’s irrepressible midfielder Kante — who has two Premier League winners’ medals and one FA Cup success to his name — was widely hailed. 
After missing his Eurostar train to Paris, Kante — who achieved World Cup glory with France in July — was invited home for dinner by Arsenal fan Badlur Rahman Jalil after meeting him while praying at a London mosque. Remarkably, Kante duly obliged and spent the evening watching Match of the Day and playing the FIFA video game with Jalil and his friends. 
“People are more aware that we have Muslim players in the game,” Rehman said. “Players are not afraid to come out and embrace the fact that they are Muslims and showing the world that they’re good people.” 
But are the PFA — and clubs in the Premier League and England in general — doing enough to increase Muslim representation in English football? 
“I think things are better than ever. A lot of clubs are working hard on all-inclusive programs,” replied Rehman, who was a promising youth-team player at Brentford before injury cut short his career at the age of 17 in 2000. 
“We deliver workshops aimed at club staff to educate them about better engaging Muslim communities. We get staff and coaches together and tell them more about Islam, what it involves and discuss Ramadan and how it might affect performance and participation at all levels. 
“On the back of that, hopefully clubs will deliver programs around the needs of the community. There are clubs like Crystal Palace who are looking to deliver Asian-specific programs to get more Asian kids playing football, more Asian coaches and look at the Muslim community as well.” 
Rehman himself helped organized an Iftar event at League One outfit Portsmouth earlier this year, which “went really well.” 
“We also had players come along to support the day. Clubs such as Crystal Palace, Leicester City and a few others are showing an interest in holding similar events next season. 
“Leicester City are a club with a massive Asian community and we are supporting them with trying to set up some programs.” 
Also high on Rehman’s agenda is encouraging more BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) coaches into the game. As well as sitting on the advisory group for the Premier Leagues Elite Coach Apprenticeship Scheme, one key program he is involved in is “Sidelined-to-Sidelines.”

N'Golo Kante has been one of the best players in England's top-flight since he moved to the Premier League three years ago. 


This was established by the Zesh Rehman Foundation — which was set up by his brother, a former Fulham defender — to address a shortage of qualified South Asian coaches. 
“We are setting up sessions to try and recruit young coaches at clubs like Crystal Palace, QPR and Chelsea,” Rehman revealed. “Coaches wearing those club badges become role models and are able to influence their own communities and encourage more kids (from under-represented ethnicities) to take up the game.” 
Rehman is keen to recruit more Muslim “ambassadors” at clubs “up and down the country” to emulate the likes of the inspirational Salah. 
“We want them to work with the community, local groups, mosques, and get players to actually go into those communities and build links with the clubs. It’s a two-way thing.” 
Progress has also been made in attracting more Muslim supporters to Premier League matches, Rehman added. Liverpool and Brighton and Hove Albion are among the clubs that have multi-faith prayer rooms to cater for their increasingly diverse fanbases, he said. 
“Some clubs sell halal food, too, so there’s something for everyone.
“It’s a worldwide game now. Mo Salah has reached out to a lot of people. I think Muslim communities themselves have to make an effort to go to matches. 
“It’s not an overnight success, but you do see different communities represented on match days, week in and week out.”