"We want to build a team that will be capable of battling with the best in the league." Sheikh Abdullah al Thani's words to Málaga's club website in October 2010 have been delivered upon resoundingly nine months later. The Andalusian club is approaching the new season from a rare position of institutional strength, backed by the investment capacity of an owner who has sanctioned nine signings during the summer as Málaga launches its bid to reach the Champions League.
So far, Málaga has splashed out 58.3 million euros on players, more than any other club in the world. Manchester United is close behind, with expenditure of 57.3 million euros, followed by Real Madrid (55 million euros) and Manchester City (52 million euros).
Al Thani's first season at the helm, though, was disappointing. The shiekh, a member of Qatar's ruling family, bought Málaga from Lorenzo Sanz in 2010 for a sum of 50 million euros. Barely into his first season, Al Thani had cause to question the viability of his project. Manuel Pellegrini was brought in to replace Jesualdo Ferreira in November, yet the team was languishing in the relegation zone when La Liga shut down for the winter break.
Pellegrini's Midas touch, the construction of a new sporting management team and wise investment in the winter transfer market combined to guide Málaga to an 11th-placed finish - although it was only three points above the relegation abyss, from which the side was definitively spared on the final day of the season. In 2010-11, with 25 million euros spent on signings, the club's budget rocketed from 25 million euros to 70 million euros.
With its foundations made solid, Málaga has continued to expand. Fernando Hierro, the former sporting director at the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), was hired as director of football, with ex-Spain and Athletic Bilbao star Julen Guerrero placed in charge of the club's youth-training program, a post he also held at Bilbao. Funding has been poured into the La Rosaleda stadium and Málaga's training complex and, in the long-term, a brand new stadium and sports city with 17 pitches is on the planning board.
Most importantly, the caliber of player that Málaga has been able to lure to the club has risen in accordance with the club's bank balance. Ruud van Nistelrooy, Joris Mathijsen, Jérémy Toulalan, Isco, Nacho Monreal, Joaquín, Sergio Sánchez and Diego Buonanotte were recently joined by club record signing Santi Cazorla. Understandably, expectations in Málaga are high.
In addition to the new arrivals, Málaga has players with international, Liga and local experience in Júlio Baptista, Duda, Apoño, Seba, José Rondón, Martín Demichelis and Enzo Maresca. In the space of one summer, Málaga has a waiting list for club membership. "I've been at Málaga for years, and that players such as Van Nistelrooy and Cazorla are coming is a midsummer night's dream," says José Carlos Pérez, one of the two-man advisory council to the sheikh and his number two, Abdullah Ghubn.
Antonio Fernández has, alongside Pellegrini, been one of the driving forces behind the new Málaga. A former RFEF employee, Fernández was responsible for signing Baptista and Dani Alves while at Sevilla: "Last December we had to persuade players to come to Málaga. Now they don't even need to think about it," he says. "But this is soccer. Spending power is a bonus, but having a great squad is not always synonymous with success. It's a long-term project, in which we want to place Málaga among the best sides in the best league in the world."
"We are a point of reference now but, if we don't run, we won't get anywhere," says Apoño, one of the very few Málaga natives in the side.
CD Málaga, which disappeared due to debt in 1992, achieved two seventh-placed finishes in la Liga, in 1972 and 1974. The current Málaga CF's greatest achievements are an Intertoto Cup win in 2002 and two eighth-placed Liga finishes in 2001 and 2009. It seems inevitable that the club's record will be improved upon this season.