Deportivo La Coruña: A Cautionary Tale

deportivoSpanish football.  Fútbol español.   Over the last decade, Spain has become the game’s spiritual home.  And why not?  Its national team is the first side to be defend the European title while reigning as World Champions.   Out of the last 20 Champions League semi-finals, a Spanish team has been present for 11 of them.  In fact, Barcelona has reached the semis seven out of the last eight years, earning three titles in the process.   Sevilla and Atlético Madrid have each earned themselves a brace of UEFA Cup/Europa League trophies.   Spain has the best co-efficient in Europe and FIFA has the national team leading the world rankings by a country mile.

But as the nation itself teeters between austerity and economic ruin, so must Spanish football clean up its financial house.   Like the Spanish economy, many clubs have lived beyond their means, wanting the things that they haven’t got… and then paying the price in the long run.

There is likely no better cautionary tale than that of Deportivo La Coruña: a small club that found short-term success through front-office debt and backroom decisions.  Until the early 90’s, the Galicians were a yo-yo club.  But after securing top-flight football in 1991, they picked up two young Brazilians, Bebeto and Mauro Silva.  The pair were excellent for both club and country, with Bebeto earning the Pichichi in 1993, and then scoring three goals as Brazil won the 1994 World Cup.   A year later, the pair helped Los Blancoazuis win their first-ever Copa del Rey.

Roy Makaay was arguably Europe’s best player during his Depor days.

The club’s pinnacle came in 2000, when Diego Tristán and Roy Makaay led Deportivo to their first and only league title.  That win kicked off five straight seasons of Champions League football, culminating in 2004 where they were a penalty kick away from the finals.  If they kept eventual champions Porto from scoring from open play, who knows what they could have done against Monaco in Gelsenkirchen?  Tristán and Makaay won the Pichichi in 2002 and 2003, respectively, with Makaay earning the European Golden Boot as well.   Between 2000 and 2004, Deportivo La Coruña were Spain’s most consistent team in league football.

But after a series of mid-table finishes — and no money from Champions League football — the tiny team was in over its head financially.   Players begin to leave with the club still owing them wages.  (Albert Luque claims that he is still owed €2.1M.   He left in 2005).  Deportivo finally hit bottom in 2011 when they were sent back to the second division after a 20-year stay in the top flight.   “Superdépor” was no more.

The club came back on the bounce, but the signs were not good in 2012-2013.  The first half of the season was filled with multi-goal disasters: a 5-1 loss to Real Madrid; a 5-4 loss to Barcelona that could have been uglier; a promising start against Real Zaragoza that ended with the Aragonese side coming back to win 5-3; a disheartening 6-0 loss to Atletico Madrid.  By Christmas, Deportivo were dead last.

The team could find the back of the net and they spread the goals around.  But they couldn’t defend to save their life.  Manager José Luis Oltra was good enough to get them out of the second division, but he just wasn’t the man they needed for the Primera.   Just before New Year’s Eve, the club dumped Oltra and brought in former Portuguese international Domingos.  But the 43-year-old lasted just 41 days (a delicious parallel to Brian Clough at Leeds United, who later also overextended themselves for Champions League football and paid the price).  On March 10th, club brass brought in Galician “national” team manager Fernando Vázquez, who had coached Deportivo’s rivals Celta Vigo just five years before.

The Vázquez era began poorly, but it was to be expected.  His first four matches in charge were against Sevilla, Real Madrid, Barca and then an inexplicably successful Rayo Vallecano.   In those four matches, A Coruña went 0-3-1, giving up seven goals in the process.  It was their season in miniature.

But then came the Galician derby at the Riazor, a nasty affair between two clubs who were trying to claw their way off the bottom of the table.  A 3-1 victory over Vázquez’ old employers sparked a seven-game unbeaten streak, easing fears that Los Turcos were headed back to the Segunda after only one season.  And even though they lost two of their next three games, they were out of the drop zone heading into their last match.

Alas, it was not to be.  Deportivo dropped their final game 1-0 to Real Sociedad, a club hungry to taste European football for the first time since 2003-2004 (a season when Sociedad, Deportivo and Celta Vigo were all Champions League participants).  Meanwhile, down the AP-9, Vigo got past a middling Espanyol to survive another season in the top flight.  It hurt Deportivo to drop back down again.  But to do so while helping your biggest rival stay up? Galling.

It wasn’t the last of Deportivo’s woes.   In January, the club had applied for bankruptcy protection, with an estimated debt load of over €150M, more than a third of that owed to the Spanish government.    Panic set in among the players who demanded the club pay their outstanding wages.   A last-minute deal with creditors at the end of July — literally 15 minutes to midnight — saved them from getting dropped into the third division.  But that meant a) many players were out the door, including their two top scorers, and b) any player acquisitions had to be approved by debt administrators.

Eight of the league’s top-flight clubs — eight!!! — were in administration last season.  Twenty-four of Spain’s top two division teams have done the same over the last two years.  But obviously, not all of them were relegated.  Being a second-tier team makes things tough for Deportivo, who won’t be able to play the Big Two with their massive television audiences, unless they get them in the Cup.   But even though they have had a uneven start, it is still early and promotion is still a reasonable goal.

Bad business practices, player flight, unfair television deals: these aren’t unique to Deportivo La Coruña.   Clubs like Valencia, Villareal, Sociedad, Zaragoza have all been stung in the past few years (Sociedad were relegated after their last CL appearance and spent three years in Primera exile).   Nor are these problems unique to Spain.   But with several good players leaving what is supposed to be the best league in the world, and with so many eyes watching around the globe, Spain’s problems become embarrassingly obvious.

Deportivo’s problems are fixable.  So are Spain’s.  But it will be a long haul back to where they were just a few years ago.

Brent Lanthier

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