Rise and rise of Real Mallorca: From mid-table obscurity in third tier to La Liga in two seasons
When it comes to sporting underdog stories, there are few more inspiring than Real Mallorca as they prepare to do battle with the big dogs in La Liga this season.
Working on a shoe-string budget, the Balearic boys crept through the Segunda play-offs last season, securing back-to-back promotions from ignominy in the third tier to a place in the top-flight once more.
Theirs is a fascinating story, of no-hopers in the regional lower leagues struggling to get results in front of a handful of fans, to their first three points back in the big time on Saturday night.
Mallorca’s players celebrate after winning against Eibar on their return to top-flight football
Fans at Mallorca’s Estadi de son Moix will be treated to some of the world’s best this season
Let’s take you back to 2015, when matters were at their lowest ebb off the eastern coast of Spain. On the pitch, the team were struggling in the second tier, with no long-term plan and few fans turning out at the Estadi de Son Moix.
Off the field, managers were coming and going, the club were leading a hand-to-mouth existence only dealing in free transfers and free agents, and there was no money to help propel the club back towards the big time they were so used to.
Indeed, from 1997 to 2013, La Liga was all they knew… Mallorca won the Copa del Rey in 2003, beating Real Madrid to the Super Cup a few weeks later. Samuel Eto’o was on the books, Ivan Campo too, while Hector Cuper and Luis Aragones occupied the space in the dugout.
Although not a particularly passionate footballing island, to have a club in the upper echelons of the Spanish game was a source of pride for Mallorcan locals back then.
‘Mallorca were the flagship club for Palma, Mallorca and the whole of the Balearic Islands,’ Arnau Riera – a local lad who captained Lionel Messi in the Barcelona B team – told The National in 2017.
‘People in Menorca and Ibiza and Formentera supported Mallorca and were proud that we could put up a La Liga team to compete with the best.’
When the club were struggling in the third tier, few fans turned out to watch the team play
Fans were proud to have a top La Liga team in the mid-2000s but they dropped to the third tier
In 2016, though, that pride was lacking and few of the locals or nine million tourists on their Mediterranean holidays were talking about the team with any sort of passion.
Change was afoot, though, as Robert Sarver touched down in 2016. The owner of the Phoenix Suns NBA team became the majority shareholder in a consortium that paid £21million to take over, bringing with him former American tennis player Andy Kohlberg.
There was scepticism to begin with; foreign owners with little knowledge of football – let alone the lower-tier Spanish game. That was made worse by an inexplicable relegation to the third division, where they rubbed shoulders with local island rivals Atletico Baleares, a thought almost inconceivable a few years prior.
In front of a meagre 1,250 supporters, Baleares claimed the scalp of their history with a 1-1 draw against Mallorca, this result now used to illustrate the lowest point in Los Bermellones’ recent history.
Robert Sarver’s arrival changed everything, while ex-Bolton star Stuart Holden is also involved
Two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash (left) and Holden are both minority stakeholders at Mallorca
‘I remember Robert (Sarver) coming to watch a match when we were in Segunda B (the regional third tier) and the team we played had no real stadium and the ball kept ending in a swimming pool,’ club CEO Maheta Molango told Reuters recently. ‘He said it was like American college soccer.’
Off the field, though, Sarver was working his magic and proving himself to be quite the astute owner. Openly noting his lack of knowledge, the American surrounded himself with those who did know their stuff.
Chelsea legend Graeme Le Saux was, and still is, an advisor, while another big name arrived in the form of two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash. Stuart Holden, formerly of Bolton, and NBC Sports super-host Kyle Martino are also minority stakeholders.
And when they hired coach Vicente Moreno, things really started to look bright. His impact cannot be underestimated in the tale of Mallorca’s rise to the very top.
The impact of Vicente Moreno has been huge; he has dragged them to successive promotions
Mallorca’s stadium has seen some incredible times on their journey back to the top division
The former midfielder enjoyed an understated playing career, making his La Liga debut at the ripe old age of 35, before moving into coaching at Xerez in 2011. Two years later he took over at Gimnastic and guided the club to within touching distance of La Liga, just missing out on back-to-back promotions in the Segunda play-offs.
What Moreno couldn’t manage at Gimnastic he managed at Mallorca, though. Now a hero on the island, the 44-year-old steered his side up through the third tier, and then almost without pausing in the second, booked their place at the top table.
Despite their cash-flushed American owners, this is not a story of money. Mallorca’s budget last season was reportedly €7.5m. They beat Deportivo La Coruna in the play-off final, a team whose operating budget was said to be well over double theirs at €20m.
The bulk of their third-division squad was trusted to compete in the second division, a path which clearly paid off. It was an unprecedented decision to hand out long contracts in the third tier, a league in which teams notoriously struggle financially.
It was believed that by entrusting their players with deals longer than one season, the squad would feel safe in their jobs, knowing that they wouldn’t be thrown back on the journeyman scrapheap to find a new club the next summer.
A fan sits on the crossbar as Mallorca celebrate their dramatic promotion to La Liga in June
Graeme Le Saux is heavily involved behind the scenes, acting as an advisor to the owners
Moreno’s Gimnastic contacts helped, too, of course. Lago Junior was the club’s top scorer last season and he played under the boss at his old side. Defensive rock Xisco Campos was also a Gimnastic player with Moreno at the helm, as was goalkeeper and regular star of the show Manolo Reina.
All three played in last weekend’s La Liga opener, another sign that their loyalties lie with those who have got them to where they are today.
The second half of last season was a frantic and unexpected rollercoaster ride. First they had thrown off the anxieties of relegation, fought above their weight to work their way towards the top half and finished it with a late run to the play-offs.
In the convoluted Spanish system, nothing like the simple one-match shootout of England, Mallorca comfortably lost the first leg of their play-off final against Deportivo La Coruna 2-0.
A die-hard Mallorcan fan runs on the pitch to celebrate their play-off win over Deportivo
Back in 2013, Mallorca defender Alan Hutton faces up to Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo
They had a home leg to turn it around, but had been written off by fans and media alike. The dream was over, but it was still an incredible season of which they could be proud. Plucky little Mallorca had come close to back-to-back promotions.
The players, and manager Moreno, had different ideas though. The boss, of course, had already missed out on the feat once and wasn’t keen on earning himself the reputation of falling short.
The match took place of the night of Revetlla de San Joan, an evening famous for fireworks and festivities, drinking and dancing.
As though written in the stars, like these incredible footballing stories so often are, the Mallorcan fireworks occurred on the pitch instead.
From 2-0 down, the unlikely lads won 3-0 to spark the biggest party San Joan has ever seen. Three long-range goals, too… those moments that make you hold your breath as a supporter, that feeling of pure elation as the ball ripples the net.
Mallorca were 2-0 down in the play-offs but came back to win the second leg 3-0 at home
Mallorca’s most famous son Rafael Nadal was in attendance to watch the play-off second leg
And so, La Liga awaits. The club are under no illusions of the task at hand; the top-flight is a different, money-fuelled beast and it would be a surprise to see them finish anywhere higher than a relegation spot.
But these players have shown their worth. They are a club on the up, with exciting things happening both on the pitch and behind the scenes.
Although they are the clear bookies’ favourites for relegation back to the Segunda Division, you just can’t write off the team that never stop bouncing back.
With their American owners at the helm, there’s a story fit for Hollywood ready to be written.
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