The rise and fall of Real Mallorca, the club Samuel Eto’o calls home
A Real Mallorca side that won 5-1 at Real Madrid a decade ago pose for a team photo. Two pillars of that team - Miguel Angel Nadal and Samuel Eto'o - stand at either end of the back row.
“When they ask me in the street if I’m Barca or Madrid, I respond with pride and tell them that I’m Mallorca.”
That’s what 300 vocal Mallorca supporters sang during Saturday’s match against Alcorcón. A year ago, the Palma side were top of the Primera Liga. By Saturday, they were bottom of the second division after losing their opening three matches and conceding 11 goals under new coach Jose Luis Oltra, the man who took Deportivo up in 2012.
Mallorca went down in May. They’d been in the top division since 1997, promoted on a day this writer arrived in Palma for a week’s holiday.
Then, the taxi driver listened to the game on his radio as the taxi went around the bay of Palma from the airport, past the huge, squat, cathedral.
There were no fixture websites around then, no instant access to find out there was a big game in advance. So I missed a game I’d liked to have watched.
By the time of my next visit, Mallorca had moved stadium from their cramped but loved (and still decaying) Lluis Sitjar stadium in the centre of Palma, to the 23,000 seater Son Moix, built on the industrial outskirts of the city for the 1999 world student games.
Spanish football expert Andy Mitten takes a snap of the Iberostar Stadium, home of Real Mallorca, during last weekend's match with Alcorcón.
Fans of concrete may appreciate it, fans of Mallorca never warmed to the running track around the pitch. An attempt by this writer to get inside Son Moix in June 2002 was aborted following an unfortunate incident involving a wasp sting while scaling a perimeter fence.
Mallorca didn’t go straight back down after that 1997 promotion. They twice finished a club high of third in 1999 and 2001.
They reached the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup v Lazio in 1999, played Champions League and won the Copa del Rey in 2003.
They boasted players like Samuel Eto’o. I interviewed him many times and saw his eyes light up when Mallorca was mentioned.
"I love Mallorca and have a house there," he explained.
"And winning the cup was my greatest moment in football. I’m serious. It was so hard for a small team to do this. In Mallorca, I am one of them. When I go to the supermarket, the girls at the checkout shout (laughs) 'Hey, negrito!' (little black man).
"I feel like part of one big family, like in Cameroon. I watch Mallorca when I can. They let me sit on the bench!"
Such was his popularity, a Mallorcan band La Granja (The Farm) released a reverential Eto’o song, sample lyric: "He’s fast, he dribbles, he doesn’t lose the ball, he gives balls from all sides… He didn’t need to say anything, only to dribble."
Mallorca sold him to Barcelona for £17 million in 2004.
They finished fifth as recently at 2010, but while last season started so well, it finished so badly. Mallorca won just one game in five months between September and March. Two wins and a draw in their last three matches were not enough to keep them up.
Fast forward to Saturday. That’s Saturday of an international weekend. As in, "Ok, wife, I’ve spent most of the last two months travelling to football matches. Let’s go to Palma for a weekend together without football."
That pious hope was dashed after spotting two men in yellow tracksuits sitting in our hotel overlooking Palma on Saturday afternoon. Officials of Alcorcón, they had every reason to feel satisfied as they took in the vista that included the world’s third largest cruise ship with space for 6,000 humans – more than would fit inside Alcorcón’s tiny 5,000 seater home.
Their side, from a fast-growing, working class Madrid satellite town which where Atletico fans dominate, was proudly top of Spain’s second division with a 100% record. The officials claimed it was down to "team spirit, a settled side, experience and some luck."
Alcorcón played local football for their first 20 years before winning promotion to Spain’s third tier in 2000. That’s one of four regional third division leagues which feed into a national second division.
Few expected them to go up to the second level and they didn’t for a decade, but then nobody expected what happened on 27th October 2009 when Alcorcón thrashed the Real Madrid of Benzema, Raul, Albiol, Guti, Van Nistelrooy and Van der Vaart 4-0 in a Copa del Rey match.
‘Humiliated!’ ran the headline in one national paper. They lost 1-0 in the Bernabéu, but it didn’t matter. They won 4-1 on aggregate and the term ‘Alcorconazo’ entered the Spanish vocabulary as a term for cup giant killing. Borja Perez, a former Madrid youth player, scored twice.
The Estadio Llíis Sitjar, home of Real Mallorca until 1999.
The men were in town, with their club’s two travelling supporters "a couple who’ve taken a weekend in Mallorca", to play Mallorca. I was desperate to go.
Three hours later, I followed former player Finidi George into the Son Moix. The Nigerian, a star for Ajax when they won the Champions League, but not so much for Ipswich Town, is a youth coach at the club and everyone is pleased to see him.
Miguel Angel Nadal (the Beast, Rafa’s uncle, who played for Mallorca and Barca) and Eto’o would receive a similar reception, as would Hector Cuper, the Argentine coach who took the islanders to two cup finals and into the Champions League, before moving to Valencia, whom he took to consecutive Champions League finals.
Saturday’s crowd was pitiful – 8,000 at best. A space for advertising hoardings ran the length of the pitch. It was empty. Companies will advertise when Barcelona and Madrid are coming to play, not when it’s Lugo or Alcorcón.
"They spent the last match whistling Ferrer," explains a local journalist of the low crowd. We’ll come to Ferrer soon. "They’re not happy, but we will win today."
Bottom vs. top, but he’s convinced that bottom will prevail.
The fans share his surprising optimism. Mallorca is a conservative island, the islanders have a reputation for being more apathetic towards their team than fanatical. There are also other smaller teams on the island, yet the best most Balearic teams can hope for is to reach the third division – before slipping back down because of the burden of air travel for almost every away game.
That leaves Mallorca and their impressive vocal hardcore who sing about going straight back up. Tired of the mismanagement and the internecine civil wars at the club, many fans have stopped attending matches and the average crowd has halved.
A textbook case for all that’s wrong with Spanish clubs, the farce that is Mallorca could fill a book, but gained an English angle when, in 2008, controversial businessman Paul Davidson said he’d buy the club’s shares for €50 million.
"He did all the publicity and gave interviews," noted the journalist. "He was everywhere searching for publicity… except when he was needed at the bank to transfer the actual funds."
The deal fell through. Turbulent ownership issues continued, the club went into administration, competent coach Michael Laudrup was sacked and now the club is headed by former coach Lorenzo Serra Ferrer.
He’s a hero with Betis fans as he took them into the Champions League, but Mallorca supporters blame last season’s relegation on him as he’s the face of the consortium which owns the club.
A much-changed Mallorca side on a much-reduced budget looked shaky. They sold Giovani dos Santos and Tomas Pina to Villarreal in the summer for €11 million because they needed to. Almost all the other players on big contracts left, but they did duly win on Saturday against the league leaders.
"Mallorca until death," chanted the vocal fans, who did a great job rousing the fans in the huge bowl. "We’re going up!"
When it became clear that they’d win, they started again.
"When they ask me in the street if I’m Barca or Madrid, I respond with pride and tell them that I’m Mallorca."
Mallorca fans have been through the mill, they’re understandably cynical, but the hardcore never gave up. The mess on and off the pitch wounded them, but it couldn’t kill that love, that passion for their team. Mallorca will rise again.