Beleaguered Malaga CF are all set to continue their adventure on one of the most delightful distractions in world football next Wednesday: the UEFA Champions League quarter-final first-leg against Borussia Dortmund at La Rosaleda.
The Andalusian club slipped past FC Porto in the Round of 16 (2-1 aggregate) in a tough matchup and were rewarded with the visit of BVB—the club many expect to progress all the way to the final.
Set to take to the field in Spain on Wednesday will be bona fide stars in Robert Lewandowski, Mario Goetze, Marco Reus and Mats Hummels. Set to take them on is a home crowd just happy to be there, regardless of the result.
Why? Because The past 12 months have not been kind to Malaga.
After Sheikh Abdullah Al-Thani, a Qatari Royal was named President, he came with big plans to make the Spanish entity a worldwide force.
A partnership with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) was created, making Malaga a feel-good ambassador for peace, equality and value.
La Academia was improved, the training schedules were changed and high-profile stars arrived to help the club's UCL push.
Martin Demichelis, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Nacho Monreal, Jeremy Toulalan, Isco, Santi Cazorla et al were signed to revolutionise the team and inject the necessary quality.
After a truly excellent campaign, los Boquerones landed in fourth and qualified for Europe's elite—the highest recorded finish in recent history.
But the summer of 2012 was an entirely different animal.
The likes of Santi Cazorla only stayed for one season as the club failed to pay its players over the course of the offseason.
Four complaints were lodged with the Spanish Footballers' Association, and it was revealed that players were missing between 35 and 40 percent of their salaries.
The club did what they could to battle what were considered incredibly strange circumstances—at one point it seemed Al-Thani had disappeared without explanation and left a project based on his money in the dust.
Inevitably, a lot of talent was sold. As you prepare for your maiden Champions League campaign, the last thing you want is oversee the exits of stars like Cazorla, Van Nistelrooy, Joris Mathijsen and Salomon Rondon.
But that's what happened, and los Boquerones went from attacking delights to defensive stalwarts.
Isco and Joaquin are the only two offensive forces on the team, and without Rondon Malaga have struggled to find consistent goals from a striker.
So the attention turned to the unheralded stars on the back line—Martin Demichelis and his group of forgotten men.
Willy Caballero has been an absolute sensation in goal, and keeping Carlos Kameni out between the sticks is no small task. Jesus Gamez is Mr. Dependable, and the central pairing of Demichelis and Weligton is one many of Europe's finest clubs envy.
Fans can scarcely believe it, too, as Demichelis in particular had a rough time toward his latter years at Bayern Munich.
Isco has signed a new deal with a buyout clause of €35 million, ensuring the Andalusian outfit won't lose him on the cheap. Ignacio Camacho has risen from nowhere and, in the absence of Monreal, Eliseu is looking reliable as always while Antunes provides depth and competition.
In sixth place in La Liga, Malaga have the chance to finish fourth, but as it stands UEFA have banned them from entering a European competition next season.
After all had gone quiet regarding missed payments and such, Europe's governing body for football announced a bomb shell at the end of 2012.
Uefa's club financial control body has taken its first decision due to the presence of significant overdue payables.
Malaga is excluded from participating in the next Uefa club competition for which it would otherwise qualify for in the next four seasons.
Malaga have been given the deadline of March 31—a date fast approaching—to get their house in order or risk further punishment, and los Boquerones have become widely recognised as the first club to feel the wrath of a more scrutinous footballing world.
Al-Thani and the board didn't agree with the decision, of course, and suggested they'd been made a scapegoat whilst simultaneously lodging an appeal.
But given the financial plights the club have experienced, not many are expecting a successful protest.
That makes this season's Champions League campaign Malaga's swan song, as the exclusion could form the basis of a major setback on the club's progress over the next half-decade.
And the fans know it, so they're lapping up every last second of glory on one of the world's biggest stages.
Malaga are a wounded animal, hurt by a year of minor tragedies. Dortmund fans walk into this game expecting to progress, but everyone connected to the Andalusian club will give everything they've got to continue what many thought was impossible.
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