So here we are, the first proper trip to be detailed in this blog. I’m just back from a very pleasant overnight stay in Málaga, where I went to the home side’s game against Sporting Gijon on Friday night at the atmospheric Estadio La Rosaleda.
This trip came about by happy coincidence, a look through the La Liga fixtures a few weeks ago alerted me to this game being on Friday night and a quick search showed that buses between Sevilla and Málaga were relatively frequent and inexpensive. After booking a cheap room at a city centre pension, I was ready to go.
Football-wise, Málaga doesn’t have the historical importance of Recreativo Huelva, or the history of success of the two big Seville sides, but nevertheless they have established themselves as a regular presence in the top flight in recent years, being ever present since promotion in 2008. In the early part of the current decade, Middle-Eastern investment in the club saw the arrival of a number of big name signings, including Ruud van Nistelrooy, Joaquín and Santi Cazorla (for a club record fee) led to a fourth place finish under Manuel Pellegrini in 2012, a first ever Champions’ League campaign and talk of them becoming the new third force in Spanish football.
But that very summer the investment suddenly dried up and any of the club’s star players were sold off, with UEFA later handing them a ban from European competition starting the following season. Despite losing most of the players who got them there, Málaga made the most of their season in the spotlight, topping their group ahead of seven-times winners AC Milan and then eliminating FC Porto, before an agonising defeat in Dortmund, where leading 2-1 after a 0-0 draw at home, they were seconds away from the semi-finals, only to concede twice in injury time.
The current Málaga side has developed a reputation of being a bogey side for the big boys of Spanish football. Last season, they were the only side all-conquering Barcelona failed to beat, or indeed even score against, thanks to a 0-0 draw at La Rosaleda and a shock 1-0 win at the Camp Nou. This season they’ve drawn twice with Real Madrid and inflicted a rare defeat on Atletí, which prevented them from going into the winter break as league leaders. But how would they fare against newly-promoted Sporting?
Quite well actually! Despite missing rhyming midfield lynchpin Nacho Camacho and Juankar, every schoolboy’s favourite player, only starting on the bench, they dominated the first half. They deservedly went in front through a brilliant strike from Juanpi, who curled the ball home from just outside the box after 25 minutes.
From my position in the far corner or the ground I had a great view of it as it left his boot and hit the net. The second half saw both teams have chances, though Málaga’s stand-in ‘keeper Ochoa was probably tested more severely. Sporting did feel that they should have had a penalty right at the end, but Málaga did just about enough to win, which lifted them into the top half for the first time this season.
I really enjoyed my visit to La Rosaleda. For a start, it’s more or less a city centre stadium, only about 20-25 minutes walk from where I was staying in the old town. It’s easy to find too, you just follow the river which runs through the city. I say ‘runs’, in fact the river is dry for most of the year.
When you get your first glimpse of the stadium appearing behind the trees, it’s quite a sight, especially on a pleasant sunny spring evening.
Once you get to the ground there’s the usual array of stalls outside, selling drinks, snacks, club merchandise and the usual baffling array of Real Madrid and Barcelona scarves (a feature of most Spanish grounds and one I’ll never understand). I paid a visit to the club shop, where oddly, it was cheaper to buy a scarf than at the stalls outside.
Outside the club shop there is this unusual-looking statue of a fish juggling a ball, which pays tribute to Málaga’s nickname of los boquerones, coming from the Andalucían anchovies which are such an important part of the city’s culinary culture. You can also buy a small blue peluche version inside the shop.
Beyond the ground there are a number of bars painted in club colours. Presumably a large number of the ex-pat community on the Costa del Sol have made Málaga their team. One corner of the ground boasts a St George’s flag banner plus the food stalls inside sell that British football staple, pies. Though someone needs to inform them that a steak and onion pie needs to be served hot!
Atmosphere in the ground largely comes from two groups of ultras, one situated behind each goal. They take turns to go through their repertoire of songs (mostly familiar tunes) and try and gee up the rest of the crowd. As with most Spanish grounds, the club song is played directly before kick-off and everyone joins in. Of the numerous ‘himnos’ I’ve heard on my travels, Málaga’s isn’t one of the more memorable.
The day after the game I went for a post-breakfast stroll on the beach, and then embarked on the punishing climb to the Castillo de Gibralfaro, the mountain fortress built by the eleventh century Islamic rulers of Al Andalus, where I was rewarded with some stunning views of the city.
I definitely plan on returning to Málaga sometime in the future. The brief nature of my stay meant there was lots I couldn’t do, which is of course, the perfect excuse to return!