In 2000, Deportivo La Coruña shocked the world when they captured the LaLiga title. Now, two decades later, they’re in a battle to avoid relegation to the third tier. Spanish football expert Euan McTear breaks down what went so wrong.
“It’s like we’re a meme.” That was the view of one frustrated Deportivo La Coruña supporter during a match at the beginning of December. Speaking to Spanish TV after seeing his side lose 3-1 at home to Real Zaragoza – a result that left Depor bottom of the second division with just 12 points from 19 games – the fan simply couldn’t take it anymore. “Each week it’s getting worse and worse,” he added.
Exactly 20 seasons after Depor fulfilled a dream by winning the LaLiga title in 1999/2000, the club from the Galicia region of north-west Spain were shivering through a nightmare that was impossible to wake up from. They were 41 positions lower in the Spanish footballing pyramid, drifting towards disaster.
The story of Deportivo La Coruña’s recent history is not a fairy tale. It doesn’t finish with a happy ending. Rather, it starts with the moment of ultimate joy and hope before becoming gradually more dispiriting. Like Scrubs, but with even more Coldplay songs.
The peak was on May 19th, 2000. Depor were top of the table going into the final day of the season and held a three-point advantage over Barcelona, with the Catalan side boasting the better record should the teams finish level on points.
All Depor had to do to win their first ever league championship was collect at least a point at home to an Espanyol side, whose fans would happily welcome a title slipping through Barça’s grasp.
It seemed simple, but no Depor fan was getting carried away. Just a few years earlier, on the final day of the 1993/94 campaign, they’d thrown away the title on the final day – with Barcelona benefitting. That day, Depor only needed a win at home to Valencia to guarantee top spot, and they were even awarded a penalty in the final minute.
Yet Bebeto was too nervous to take it, and Donato had been subbed off, meaning the responsibility fell on the shoulders of Miroslav Đukić. His tame effort was easily saved and Valencia – whose players, it later turned out, had received a bonus from Barcelona – broke every steely Galician heart in attendance at the Estadio Riazor.
Some of the great players stayed, but most left for sunnier climes. The squad just wasn’t the same. Like a small duvet, it was either lacking up top or at the bottom.
So, nobody was taking anything for granted on the final day of the ‘99/00 season. This title had to be won on the pitch; and that’s what Depor did. Just three minutes into the game it was already clear that this was going to be a different kind of day as Donato opened the scoring, before Makaay added the second later in the first half, sealing a 2-0 victory that takes pride of place in every history book in the city of A Coruña.
That was the highest of highs, but 'Super Depor', as the team became known, had other wonderful moments too. A Spanish Super Cup followed the next season before they ended the ‘01/02 campaign by winning the 100th Copa del Rey final against Real Madrid at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu – on the capital city club’s 100th anniversary, no less. “Happy birthday to you,” the Depor fans ironically chanted as they lifted the cup.
Spool forward to ‘19/20 and the Depor 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, reaching the semi-finals in ‘03/04. Then, in ‘04/05, they fell to eighth.
The methods of Javier Irureta – the coach who had guided the team to the league title and all their other successes – were growing stale, something the squad even admitted before he departed in the summer of 2005.
Although Depor avoided relegation successfully up until 2018, they’d been clinging on by the skin of their teeth like a Spanish Sunderland.
Most significantly was the fact Depor could no longer invest in the transfer market in the same way. Some of the great players stayed, but most left for sunnier climes. 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 charismatic president, Augusto César Lendoiro, who’d been in charge since 1988. After initially spending ambitiously on players like Rivaldo and Bebeto, and then on the stars who went on to win the league title, debts mounted and the idea of superstar players lining up at the Estadio Riazor was consigned to the realms of fantasy.
At a press conference in 2009, then-coach 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, Roy 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 sporting setbacks strangled the club’s finances further – even if they did win bounce-back promotions each time. In 2013, debts hit €160m. Administration duly followed and the president was forced out.
“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,” a report from the administrators read.
That was pretty damning. They slammed the “reckless and misguided business model” and successfully brought about Lendoiro’s resignation, announced on Christmas Eve of 2013.
At first, it seemed there was light at the end of the tunnel. Promotion back to the top flight was achieved and Depor managed to stay up until 2018. By that point, new president Tino Fernández Pico – whose background was in economics and business – had halved the club’s debts and worked hard to give its reputation the Mr Muscle treatment. He also opted for transparency, revealing some of the murky activity that had gone on behind the scenes.
Off the pitch, Tino Fernández’s presidency was proving to be a success. On it, results had been so-so and he chewed through nine coaches during his five years in the post. Although Depor avoided relegation successfully up until 2018, they’d been clinging on by the skin of their teeth like a Spanish Sunderland.
And after ‘17/18, they slipped back into the second tier. Shortly after, Tino Fernández announced he’d stand down at the end of the ‘18/19 season. Still, the team reached the promotion play-offs and went to the final, where they narrowly lost out to Real Mallorca 3-2 on aggregate.
Paco Zas, the continuity candidate, won the next elections, but those fans calling for resignations as the ‘19/20 campaign started horribly got their wish, and he was gone before he could even look out a family photo for his desk.
Juan Antonio Armenteros Cuetos had an even shorter stint as he took the reins on a temporary basis, before current president Fernando Vidal Raposo won the boardroom game of thrones.
This is a 14th placed team in Spain’s second division, but this is a story of a club being too big to die.
Suffering through all of this are the fans. For them, football is not a game: it’s a way of life. Another relegation would be disastrous, potentially fatal.
In Spain, the third tier is made up of 80 clubs split into four groups, meaning that the level of quality varies wildly. Were Depor to fall down, they’d be visiting some clubs not even in the top 100 of Spain’s footballing pyramid.
For a while this seemed more inevitable than salvageable. From week 11 to week 22 of the current season, Depor sat dead last in the table. One of just five clubs to have won a LaLiga title in the past two decades were languishing at the foot of Spain’s professional leagues. Now, though, something is happening.
Fernando Vázquez – the first coach of Tino Fernández’s eight appointments – was reappointed having previously been dismissed for criticising the club’s transfer business. Now, five and a half years later, he is back, and he is winning.
Since taking over at the beginning of 2020, becoming the third coach at the Estadio Riazor this season, Vázquez has overseen six league matches and won all of them. Numancia, Racing Santander, Cádiz, Albacete, Las Palmas, Alcorcón – one by one they’ve been checked off and defeated. 18 points from 18. You can already hear documentary makers looking out Spandau Ballet’s ‘Gold’ for the montage.
There’s still a long way to go and survival is not yet secured – as Depor are very much aware. Even if they do stay up, the happy ending those in the city crave is still beyond the horizon. But something really special is happening and, in a way, ‘Super Depor’ are back.
This is a 14th placed team in Spain’s second division, but this is a story of a club being too big to die. Size and history alone don’t win you points, but the belief of a fanbase can contribute, and this is a big fanbase.
If Deportivo La Coruña are still a meme, then maybe now it’s the one of ‘success kid’, with his fist clenched. Nobody in Spain is laughing at Depor now. Instead, the rest of the country is watching on in fascination, eager to see how Depor’s ‘19/20 campaign will finish. Who knows what the future holds?
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Follow Euan on Twitter @emctear