Where Did it All Go Wrong for Deportivo La Coruña?
“It’s like we’re a meme,” said one frustrated Deportivo La Coruña fan on TV after their 3-1 defeat at home to Real Zaragoza in December – a result that left Depor bottom of the second division with just 12 points from their first 19 games. He simply could not take it anymore. “Each week it’s getting worse and worse.” Twenty years after Depor fulfilled a dream by winning La Liga, they were 41 positions lower in the Spanish footballing pyramid and drifting towards disaster.
The story of Deportivo La Coruña’s recent history begins with a moment of ultimate joy and becomes gradually more dispiriting. The peak was on May 19, 2000. The club from Galicia in the northwest of Spain were top of the table going into the final day of the season. They were three points clear of Barcelona and only needed to draw at home to Espanyol – whose fans would happily welcome a title slipping through Barça’s grasp – to win their first ever league championship.
It seemed simple, but Depor fans were not getting carried away. Just a few years earlier, in the 1993-94 campaign, they had thrown away the title on the final day – with Barcelona benefiting. That day, Depor only needed to beat Valencia at home to guarantee top spot – and they were even awarded a penalty in injury time. Donato had been subbed off and Bebeto was too nervous to take it, which left Miroslav Dukic with the responsibility. The whole season came down to one kick from 12 yards. His tame effort was easily saved and Valencia – whose players, it later turned out, had received a bonus from Barcelona – held on for a goalless draw, breaking every heart at the Estadio Riazor.
So, nobody was taking anything for granted on the final day of the 1999-00 season. This title had to be won on the pitch. And that’s what Depor did. Goals from Donato and Roy Makaay gave Depor a 2-0 victory and secured the first league title in their history. That was the highest of highs, but “Super Depor”, as they became known, had other wonderful moments too. They followed up their league title by winning the Spanish Super Cup later that year. They won the Super Cup again in 2002, this time after they had beaten Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final at the Bernabéu. Real Madrid were celebrating their centenary that season, which gave the Depor fans the opportunity to sing “happy birthday to you” to the home fans as they lifted the cup.
Spool forward to this season and those same fans were chanting “out with the board” to their own directors. So, what happened? The decline was gradual at first. After winning the title, they finished second for the next two seasons and then third the two seasons after that, qualifying for the Champions League each year and reaching the semi-finals in 2003-04. They only missed out on the final after losing 1-0 to Porto over two legs in a tie decided by a penalty kick.
Depor fell to eighth in the 2004-05 season. The methods of Javier Irureta – the coach who had guided the team to the title and all their other successes – were growing stale, something the squad even admitted before he left in the summer of 2005. Depor could no longer invest in the transfer market in the same way. Some of their great players stayed, but most left. The squad just wasn’t the same. Like a small duvet, it was either lacking up top or at the bottom.
The money tap had been turned off by the club’s charismatic president, Augusto César Lendoiro, who had been in charge since the late 1980s. After initially spending ambitiously on players such as Bebeto and Rivaldo, and then on the stars who took the club to the title, debts began to mount and the idea of superstars lining up at the Estadio Riazor was consigned to the realms of fantasy.
At a press conference in 2009, the club’s manager at the time, Miguel Ángel Lotina, even jokingly revealed his line-up for the weekend’s match to journalists, naming long gone Super Depor legends such as Djalminha, Donato, Makaay and Diego Tristán. The glory days had well and truly passed into the “remember when…” stage.
Then came the relegations. First in 2011, then again in 2013. These setbacks strangled the club’s finances further – even if they did bounce back with immediate promotions on each occasion. The club’s debts hit €156m in 2013. Administration duly followed and the president was forced out.
When the administrators published their report into the club’s finances in March 2013, it was pretty damning. “The real causes of Deportivo’s insolvency lie in the fact of having maintained a mode of management disconnected from reality, taking on debts and investments for amounts absolutely outside of the economic means of the company.” The administrators slammed the club’s “reckless and misguided business model” and successfully brought about Lendoiro’s resignation, which was announced on Christmas Eve of 2013.
At first, it looked as if there was light at the end of the tunnel. The club were promoted back to the top flight in 2014 and managed to stay up for the next four seasons. By that point, new president Tino Fernández had halved the club’s debts and worked hard to restore the club’s reputation.
Off the pitch, Fernández’s presidency was proving to be a success. On it, results were so-so and he chewed through nine coaches during his five years in charge. Depor were avoiding relegation, but they were clinging on by the skin of their teeth. Things looked fairly desperate in the middle of the 2017-18 season, so they appointed Clarence Seedorf. It didn’t work. Seedorf led the team to just two wins in his 16 matches and the club went down. Their third relegation in seven years was confirmed in April 2018 after a 4-2 defeat to Barcelona, who were crowned champions on the same day.
Deportivo had bounced back from their two previous relegations immediately, but they could not repeat the trick last season. They reached the promotion play-offs and made it to the final, but were narrowly beaten by Real Mallorca 3-2 on aggregate. All the while, there was chaos in the boardroom. Paco Zas replaced Tino Fernández as president but he did not even have time to find a family photo for his desk. Toño Armenteros had an even shorter spell in charge before current president Fernando Vidal won the boardroom game of thrones.
Suffering through all of this were the fans. Another relegation would be disastrous. In Spain, the third tier is made up of 80 clubs who are split into four groups, meaning that the quality varies wildly. Were Depor to fall down, they would be visiting some clubs who are not even in the top 100 of Spain’s footballing pyramid.
For a while this seemed more inevitable than salvageable. From the middle of October until the end of the year, Depor sat dead last in the table. They are one of only five clubs who have been crowned champions of Spain in the past two decades, yet they were languishing at the foot of country’s professional leagues.
Now, though, something special is happening. Fernando Vázquez, who became the club’s third coach this season when he took over just after Christmas, has started to turn things around. Deportivo had only won two of their 22 matches before Vázquez arrived. They won his first six in charge. Numancia, Racing Santander, Cádiz, Albacete, Las Palmas and Alcorcón were all checked off and defeated: 18 points from 18. You can already hear documentary makers looking out Gold by Spandau Ballet for the montage.
There is still a long way to go and survival is not yet secured. Their winning run came to an end against Girona on Valentine’s Day and Vázquez suffered his first defeat as manager against Real Zaragoza on Sunday afternoon. Depor are now two points above the relegation zone. The happy ending their fans crave is still beyond the horizon but, if the club are still a meme, then maybe now it’s the one of “success kid”, with his fist clenched in determination. Football fans across Spain are not laughing at Depor now. Instead, the country is watching on in fascination, eager to see if they can finish the season in style – like they did 20 years ago.
The Guardian Sport