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

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.”


Why 2020 feels empty without a big football summer tournament

Updated 06 June 2020

Why 2020 feels empty without a big football summer tournament

  • Euro 2020 was meant to kick off on Friday. Instead, this will be the first even-numbered year without a major football competition in over six decades

DUBAI: Even-numbered years are the best ones — just ask any football fan.

But while 2020 will be remembered for many things, football — or the lack of it — will be well down a depressingly long list.

For the first time in six decades, an even-numbered year will be without a major summer football tournament.

Not an Olympic football tournament. Not a Copa America, an Africa Cup of Nations, or an AFC Asian Cup. Many of those often take place in odd-numbered years, but there will, nevertheless, be a gaping hole where a World Cup or European Championship would often be.

Every two years, the three or four weeks that straddle June and July are booked for a festival of international football. However, the coronavirus crisis has ensured that will not happen this year.

Euro 2020 and Copa America have been postponed until 2021, and though domestic competitions will return to complete an interrupted and now-prolonged 2019-20 seasons, this is quite simply no substitute for the different kind of excitement that these tournaments bring. 

In recent times it has become fashionable to see international football as inferior to club football, which in purely technical terms, it surely is. But make no mistake, these tournaments are like bookmarks in our lives, their mere mentions evoking memories of unforgettable, sun-stroked summers.

It’s in the way we reference them. World Cups are easily recalled by the name of the host country followed by the year: Mexico 86, USA 94, Germany 2006. European Championships, on the other hand, are more esoterically addressed Euro 84, Euro 96, Euro 2000. If you remember, the thinking must go, you remember.

In a different reality, we would now be looking forward to the opening match of Euro 2020 between Italy and Turkey at the Olimpico Stadium in Rome next Friday.

In a different reality, we would now be looking forward to the opening match of Euro 2020 between Italy and Turkey at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome next Friday. (EPA/File Photo)

Making plans with friends to watch the match. Organizing office sweeps. Selecting your fantasy teams.

Hotels and cafes would be preparing big screens in expectation of increased attendance by people who barely give football a second thought at any other time of the year. And they, in turn, add to the color, excitement and inclusivity of summertime football. Big tournaments are for everyone.

There’s the issue of who to support. If your country is taking part then you’re sorted. But for many orphaned football fans, those whose countries are not invited to the party (i.e. not good enough), it’s time to adopt a team. 

The World Cup brings out the usual suspects. Over the years, the likes of Brazil, Argentina, West Germany, Italy, France and England have amassed armies of fans from all corners of the globe. So have the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. 

Some will throw their allegiances behind African, Asian or Arab teams. Others for any underdog. 

Euros are no different. And while the likes of Germany, Italy or France will again be the big draws, many fans will simply support players that play for the clubs they support.

Above all, tournament football is about overindulging in the sheer amount of football on offer. Like at a brunch buffet, this is no time to nitpick over quality.

There is a modern tendency to over-analyze the standard of tournament football. Mexico 70 remains the gold standard. The 80s gave us two wonderful tournaments in Spain 82 and Mexico 86. Italia 90 was, technically speaking, a poor competition. Germany 2006 was fun, but South Africa 2010 wasn’t.

Over the years the Euros has come to be seen as a competition of higher quality than the World Cup.

The eight-team Euro 84, for those who remember it, is one of the finest tournaments of all time, lit up by Michel Platini’s genius and the emergence of Denmark’s wonderful team. Euro 2000, with 16 teams, was a joy to watch. Euro 2004 was dull.

(AFP/File Photo)

Today, there is a type of fan who sees dilution in quality with more teams taking part, who turn up their nose at early-tournament matches which include the weaker teams.

But even casting aside the lack of generosity of spirit toward nations getting a rare spot in the sun, those skeptics are still missing the point.

It is precisely the sheer volume of football that makes those tournaments so enjoyable in the group stages. Quality football can wait — three or four matches is what makes those hot summer days so memorable. 

We want plenty of goals, mistakes, red cards and controversies. We want underdogs to emerge, and players we’ve never heard of make a names for themselves. 

We want that odd shock where a footballing giant gets humbled by a no-hoper, a match that will be referenced in years to come. Or those magic moments in the group stages that sometime outshine the semifinals and finals.

We want Algeria humiliating West Germany in 1982. We want Denmark 5, Yugoslavia 0 at Euro 84. We want Morocco destroying Portugal at Mexico 86. We want Cameroon beating Diego Maradona’s Argentina at Italia 90. We want Paul Gascoigne scoring an absurd goal against Scotland at Euro 96. And Greece crashing the Euro 2004 party like no team has ever crashed a major competition before.

(Reuters/File Photo)

When it comes to summer tournaments, you have to sit through, and embrace, the quantity in order to be rewarded with the quality.

Once we’re into the knockout stages, matches rapidly start to disappear into thin air.

After the eight matches in the round of 16 — which had followed the 32 World Cup or 24 Euro group fixtures — you’re left with only seven, and those are spread over nine or 10 days. The binging days are gone.

Watching the hour-glass drain, you wistfully look back on those dead rubber group matches, even as the best teams prepare for the business end of the tournament.

In theory, at least, this is where the highest-quality football will be played between the best teams left in the competition. 

That doesn’t always happen. But when quarterfinals and semifinals deliver, they deliver big. And more than likely it will involve one version of Germany or another.

Italy’s 4-3 win over West Germany in the 1970 World Cup semifinal is dubbed the Game of the Century for good reason.

(AFP/File Photo)

There is arguably the greatest World Cup match of all time; a Paolo Rossi inspired Italy stunning Brazil 3-2 at Spain 82. A few days later, West Germany overcame France on penalties after extra time in the semifinals, the 3-3 draw one of the most dramatic and controversial matches of all time.

In turn, France’s 3-2 win over Portugal in the Euro 84 semifinals is a match for the ages, one that has to be seen to be believed. 

At Mexico 86, Diego Maradona produced a once-in-a-lifetime performance against England, scoring two of the World Cup’s most controversial and greatest goals minutes apart. Three days later, he conjured up an arguably better two-goal performance against Belgium as Argentina progressed to the final, where they eventually beat, you’ve guessed it, West Germany.

A decade later — in a repeat of the Italia 90 last four clash — England and Germany played out another excruciatingly tense Euro 96 semifinal at Wembley, before you know who progressed on penalties. Again.

In 2006, Italy beat hosts Germany 2-0 in a superlative World Cup semifinal, easily superior to their final win over France.

(YouTube Screenshot)

And perhaps the most jaw-dropping World Cup story of all time came when Germany annihilated Brazil 7-1 in front of their own fans in 2014.

Finals, over the decades, have increasingly failed to live up to those heights.

The eight World Cup finals from 1958 to 1986 delivered an astonishing 38 goals. The eight since have contributed only 16, with six of those coming two years ago in France.

Three of the last Euro finals, meanwhile, have finished 1-0.

Finals are at once a celebration and lament.

It’s what the whole summer has built up to. And then, just like that, its all over and you’re left feeling like it’s New Year’s day with a long, joyless January ahead.

But this year we will be denied even that. Sure, there is the resumption of domestic league football across Europe and the rest of the world. But played behind closed doors and clearly a means to finishing the season as quickly as possible, they have all the sterile excitement of a Zoom business meeting compared with the summer festival feel of a World Cup or a Euro.

Sadly, in the future, we will never refer to this big tournament match or that from the summer of 2020. It’s not the end of the world; that is seemingly happening elsewhere. But it does feel a bit odd.