LA LIGA

“It’s particularly hard for the fans”

Málaga winger Joaquín dissects the implosion of the south coast project

Málaga winger Joaquín Sánchez during a training session.
Málaga winger Joaquín Sánchez during a training session. García-Santos / El País

What should have been a fantasy season after Málaga’s historic qualification for the Champions League is unraveling fast. The club’s owner, Sheikh Al-Thani, has removed his financial support and sold off two of Málaga’s prized assets, Santi Cazorla and Salomón Rondón. Confusion and tension surrounds the club and fans are understandably concerned for the immediate future.

In this climate, Málaga faces a Champions League third round playoff tie against Greek giant Panathinaikos and the start of the Liga, where the club has overnight been transformed from top-four aspirant to another also-ran. Nevertheless, even though the sheikh has essentially pulled the plug, players like Joaquín Sánchez, one of the influx of stars on the back of Qatari riyals over the past two years, are determined to keep Málaga afloat.

“The situation the club finds itself in is one of great uncertainty,” says the former Betis, Valencia and Spain winger. “We want to get going in the league without problems, to concentrate on the competition while trying to put all the negatives to one side, but it isn’t easy. I hope we can start the league without so many financial problems. We really don’t know what the objectives are for this season; everybody’s looking at the short term, to get through the tie against Panathinaikos to place ourselves among the best on the continent and to start as well as we can in the league. What is obvious is that the situation has changed a lot; the project of building a great team bit by bit no longer exists.”

It will be even more complicated for the Andalusian side to punch its weight among the upper echelons of the league this year after losing key players in Cazorla and Rondón. “It’s obvious their departures will affect us. They were players who made the difference during last season. Santi is one of the best in Europe he was the heart of the team with his passing and tempo.”

I’ve never had more than two words with the sheikh. He’s very private”

Joaquín has fond words for coach Manuel Pellegrini, who has said he will stay on in charge as long as the club settles its debts with the players. “He has always been on our side, urging us on putting our situation ahead of his. He will carry on as long is there a path to follow. We all hope that path exists and that the problems are solved, although we have lost a lot of our potential.”

Joaquín learned his trade under Manuel Ruiz de Lopera at Betis, and also played under the eras of Juan Bautista Soler and Manuel Llorente at Valencia, all colorful characters in the Spanish game. Quite the contrast with the taciturn sheikh. “I’ve never shared more than two words with him,” says the winger. “I’ve occasionally said hello but always with the rest of the squad. Lopera had his ways, Bautista too, but they were people you could talk to. The sheikh is very private.”

Joaquín does not attempt to hide his frustration at the decline of Málaga, which he joined in anticipation of a grand design. “At this stage of my career I didn’t think there was much that could surprise me. I signed for a team with history, with great fans and in the middle of a grand project of growth, with other top players. Now it’s all falling to pieces and it’s disappointing. It’s particularly hard for the fans, who, after so many years of suffering, were looking forward to enjoying an historic season in the Champions League. But I still have the same enthusiasm as the kid who went to the World Cup at 20. I still love the game; that hasn’t changed.”

Neither, says Joaquín, is there likely to be any change at the top of La Liga this season: “No doubt at all. Real and Barça are several rungs above everybody else and they also have an advantage in the financial stakes. They buy the best players and that makes them even more powerful. Behind them will be Atlético, Valencia, I like Athletic and you can’t rule out Sevilla. If only we could be up there again like last season.”

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