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It's the final of the Champions league in the Rosaleda and Málaga are playing. A man dashes into the stadium, looking for somewhere to sit but the place is absolutely jam-packed. Suddenly, he sees a solitary empty seat out of the corner of his eye. As he approaches, the woman next it says: "you can sit here if you want." The man is grateful, but confused. After all, how did the seat come to be empty? "It's OK," the woman says, "it was my husband's."
"And where is your husband?" the man asks.
"I'm really sorry to hear that," says the man, but still he is a bit confused. "Wasn't there some friend of family member that could have taken the seat today? Why did no one come with you?"
"Because," says the woman, "they're all at the funeral."
And with that Joaquín Sanchez pulled the microphone away from his face and fell about laughing, a gigantic grin stretching across his face. Up in the packed stands of the Rosaleda others joined him. There was giggling from some, an awkward unconvinced chuckle from others, a snort or two, and proper belly laughs from the rest. Then there was a huge roar; OK, so it wasn't the greatest gag ever, but still ... what a genius! A moment or so later, Joaquín was performing bullfighting passes with a Malaga flag, olés cascading down with every swish.
Joaquín Sánchez chose to mark his presentation as a Málaga player with a joke and then a matador's moment. It was not normal but it felt right: the sevillano wanted to be a bullfighter when he was a boy, sneaking out of the back window and dashing to the ring to practice, despite being grounded by his mum. He is also a natural comedian, all smiles and mischief, instantly likable -- the man whose Spitting Image puppet spent the whole time slapping the table in front of him, ha ha ha ha ha-ing at the top of his voice. It is impossible not to warm to him for normal people; Malaga fans were melting.
Better still, he was going home too. After years at Valencia he had finally returned to Andalucía. A land that prides itself on its sense of humor, on its flamboyance and downright silliness, here he was laughing and messing about, delivering the perfect performance.
And yet there was something in the joke, the hint of a dream. Possibly even a realizable one. Málaga holds the record for the highest number of promotions in Spanish soccer history. The trouble is, that's a roundabout way of saying it has been relegated rather a lot. Last season it was close to it. Again. And despite its redevelopment, the Rosaleda stadium remains some way off being a European Cup final venue. But still ...
Still, after a season in which he had returned to something like the form that made him the superstar that Real Madrid once so openly courted, Joaquín had joined Malaga for €4 million ($5.7M). "So what?" you might ask. Here's what: although he was the player that got them most excited, Joaquín was not the first. He wasn't even the second. Or the third or the fourth. Malaga had already signed Ruud Van Nistelrooy. And Jeremy Toulalan. And Nacho Monreal. And Sergio Sánchez. And Joris Mathijsen. Oh, and Diego Buonanotte, who joined after finalizing a deal last season. And let's not forget the players they signed last summer: Sebas Fernández, Eliseu, Jose Rondón, Rodrigo Galatto, Sandro Silva, Edinho and Quincy Owusu-Abeyie. Or the players they signed in the winter transfer window, at a time when no one else was spending any money at all: Ignacio Camacho, Enzo Maresca, Martin Demichelis, Willy Caballero and the Beast: Julio Baptista.
Joaquín was a statement of intent. Then, as if that was not enough, they went and signed Isco from Valencia. This week they took Santi Cazorla to the bullring and unveiled him before their fans. One of the nicest guys in soccer, a man even more of beamer than Joaquín, whose Villarreal's teammates once dubbed "Our Ronaldinho" because he was just as ugly, just as smiley and just as good. Only Cazorla, these days, is better. Much, much better. Something was really starting to happen on the Costa del Sol.
When Sheik Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani bought Málaga for €36 million ($51M) last summer, he spent a little under €20 million ($28.6M) on new players. Not a huge amount but significant by Spanish standards where, outside of Real Madrid and Barcelona, few clubs spent heavily. And it did include €3.5 million ($5M) for Sebas Fernández -- more than Málaga had ever paid for a player. The team talked about building a power base in the south to rival the center (Madrid) and the north (Barcelona), but by the halfway stage of the season, it was not working. Jesualdo Ferreira, the coach, was ditched and Manuel Pellegrini brought in.
Importantly, too, a new sporting director took over. Antonio Fernandez was the man who had been so successful under Monchi at Sevilla. It took a while, and in the meantime Malaga was humiliated at the Santiago Bernabéu, conceding seven to Real Madrid. Worse, the interest form the owners appeared on the wane; their presence was no longer being felt. Had they got bored already? Were Malaga going to be an unwanted toy, tossed aside.
Eventually it worked. By the end of the season, with Julio Baptista as the star and Rondón climbing to 12 league goals, Malaga moved into the top half of the table. A couple of weeks more and it might have claimed a European place. Only three teams performed better than Malaga in the second half of the season. It had become a genuinely good side. Hope and interest had been rekindled. And then the team added to it. It made a real impact.
So far this summer, Malaga has spent €6 million on Monreal ($8.5M), €11 million ($15.73M) on Toulalan and €20 millon on Cazorla. In total, eight players have come in. In total, the team has spent more than €55 million ($78.6M). That's more than anyone else in Spain. In fact, prior to PSG's reported impending signing of Javier Pastore for €45 million, it was more than anyone else, full stop. Not one club in the world has splashed so much cash.
The structure is good too: with Pellegrini, Fernandez and now Fernando Hierro, the man who was sporting director for the Spanish Football Federation, the brashness of the money seems offset by lower profile football men who have proved that they know how to manage, that they understand the game. Suddenly, Malaga is being talked about as if they are Spain's third team, as if that power base in the South is a reality. That might be a tad premature but, try reading out the players it has: Baptista, Toulalan, Rondón, Van Nistelrooy, Cazorla, Joaquín ... it's some team, that's for sure.
It could all go horribly wrong of course -- and some are gleefully waiting for it to -- but there is a buzz around Malaga now, where season ticket sales have rocketed and a full house is guaranteed.
There is a buzz around the whole country, in fact. People are actually talking about someone else for a change. Not least because Spain needed someone to try to complete with Madrid and Barcelona. Cazorla's signing was symbolic at a time when the big two hoover up all the best players or watch them leave Spain altogether. Here at last was one of the "other" clubs buying one of La Liga's standout players. Yes, with a truckload of cash, it is true. Maybe even a little artificially, too. But still. When did that last happen?
Cazorla's smile was eloquent and emblematic. But it was Joaquín who perfectly embodied the mood with his European Cup final joke and bull fighting passes: the optimism, the excitement, the sheer giddiness of it. That sense of: they couldn't could they? My goodness, they have as well ... imagine if it works. Imagine. There will be time to argue about the rights and wrongs of it later, the morality of it all, the meaning and the consequences. For now, it's just very good fun.
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