Believe it or not, but there was a time when La Liga was contested by clubs other than Barcelona and Real Madrid. There was even an occasion when the Catalans needed a 90th minute overhead kick to secure Champions League football. How times have changed. Only as far back as seven years ago Deportivo La Coruna were Champions League semi-finalists, yet since that day the club has been on a gradual decline accumulating to this season, when they were relegated to the Segunda Division for the first time since 1991.
Their latest cycle in the Primera Division was the most successful in the clubs history; three Spanish Super Cups, two Copa Del Reys and their first La Liga trophy that they won in 2000. In the past 20 years ‘Super Depor’ became everyone’s second team. The Galician side of the early 90’s consisted of experienced players like Luis Lopez Rekarte, Donato, Nando and Adolfo Adana and blended that experience with the youthful legs of Fran, and Brazilian internationals Bebeto and Mauro Silva. In only their second season back they showed how good they would become by qualifying for Europe for the first ever time and consisted of the Pichichi (Bebeto) and Zamora (Paco Liaño) holders.
That form transferred to the next season and they were a minute away from that first La Liga title. Regular penalty taker Donato had been substituted and eventual World Cup winner Bebeto shied away from the pressure having missed his last spot-kick. So up steps Serbian defender Miroslav Dukic, whose timid effort was saved by Valencia keeper Jose Luis Gonzalez. Bribe accusations followed after Valencia’s joyful celebrations; perplexing as they had nothing to play for. Irony and fate made sure that Dukic would get his hands on the title, not with his Depor teammates, but with Valencia in 2002.
Coach Arsenio Iglesias’ reign was over the following season, and the Copa Del Rey was the perfect send-off. The following few seasons saw mixed success under John Toshack, Jose Manuel Corral and Carlos Alberto Silva, but Los Turcos would become a force in Spain and Europe following the appointment of Javier Irureta in 1998.
Great teams succumbed to defeat. This was a time when thrashing Real Madrid 4-0 or winning in consecutive seasons at the Camp Nou was deemed the norm. Deportivo would go to Old Trafford, Highbury and the Olympiastadion and win in the Champions League and people were not that surprised. The team gradually transitioned, and the experienced stalwarts like Djalminha, Fran, Mauro Silva, Noureddine Naybet, Romero and Donato were slowly edged out. Youngsters like Lionel Scaloni, Aldo Duscher, Walter Pandiani, Cesar and Joan Capdevila were signed to gradually edge themselves into the team. The Riazor was not just a foreigner’s playground. The team was gifted with many Spanish internationals during that period like: Juan Carlos Valeron, Jose Molina, Victor, Sergio, Manuel Pablo, Diego Tristan, Cesar, Capdevila and Albert Luque.
Players like Luque and Tristan might be a laughing-stock in England because of their poor spells at Newcastle and West Ham, but they were key ingredients in this team. In the three seasons Makaay and Tristan were together they formed a potent partnership, destroying defences with 131 goals between them. It is a shame Tristan’s time in the limelight was so short-lived because he had all the attributes of a top striker, and was just adept dropping off and driving from deep as he was scoring one-on-ones.
Luque joined as a promising prospect from Mallorca in 2002 in a deal costing roughly €15m. Just as comfortable playing on the left as he was up front, the Barcelona reject was renowned for his thunderous left-foot, mazy dribbling and El Matador-esque celebration, but it was his inconsistency in the second half of his career that stagnated his development.
They possessed the flair of Djalminha, a showman of a midfielder who could do the spectacular and ridiculous. The purchase of Valeron from Atletico Madrid along with head-butting Coach Irueta helped edge him out of the club, but his technical qualities such as his free-kicks, chipped penalties and knack for pulling off ridiculous tricks like this saw him as a symbol for this beautiful side.
Then there was the midfield enforcer in Mauro Silva. Believe it or not, but pre-Claude Makelele there were defensive midfielders, and few better than this Brazilian. An imposing player who would sit back while Valeron roamed free, the ’94 World Cup winner had remarkable reading of the game. He could rampage forward with powerful runs and had quick feet to get himself out of tight situations. Here are former Coach Toshack’s thoughts: “He’s the best in the world on his position. When he’s in form, he works like a horse.”
The final cog was the captain and home-grown lad Francisco Javier Gonzalez Perez, better known as Fran. He saw the transition from a financially troubled Segunda team to Champions League stardom. Despite injuries and competition denying him his starting place, he was seen as god for the Deportivo fans. Standing at 5’9”, he gradually developed from a free-roaming attacking midfielder to a winger. At the top of his game he had many admirers, and came close to joining Real Madrid in 1991.
The 2003/04 campaign is sketched in everyone’s mind as the season when Deportivo should have been champions of Europe. After scrapping out of the group stage thanks to a goal advantage they had over their two matches with PSV, they would conquer two Italian giants to reach the Semi-finals. If winning 1-0 in the Stadio delle Alpi isn’t enough for them to gain respect, then the historic triumph over AC Milan is. After taking the lead through Walter Pandiani in the first leg, Depor got destroyed in an eight minute period where they conceded four goals. The home tie was deemed as a chance to restore pride; to bow out on a high. But an amazing 4-0 victory, with veteran Fran scoring the all important goal, saw the stuff of miracles. Defeat to Jose Mourinho’s Porto in the semis however ruled Irureta’s men out of the chance to compete in the final in Gelsenkirchen.
And that was the end of an era. Irureta remained for another season, but an 8th place finish and group stage elimination saw the end of ‘Jabo’ and with that, the end of ‘Super Depor’. The team slowly began to demise, with the likes of Pandiani, Luque, Naybet and Scaloni all departing for England while Mauro Silva and Fran retired. The gifted Valeron would never be the same force again after a knee injury in 2006 which saw numerous set-backs and Molina, a former testicular cancer sufferer, returned home to retire with Levante.
The 2006/07 season was the regeneration period. The recycling of the team had reached its third major episode, but this time the team would not be able to replace their stars. Spending under Chairman Augusto César Lendoiro had caught up with the club and debts of €100m+ had amassed, leading to the transfer budget being cut gradually. The man who had saved the club in 1988 when he took full ownership of Deportivo, who were 500 million pesetas in debt, had made the finances quiet for a while, but it meant eventually the big stars would leave, with the likes of Makaay joining Bayern Munich for €18.75m and Luque leaving for Newcastle in a deal worth €14m.
Successful B team players like Alvaro Arbeloa, Joan Verdu, Cristian, Rodri, Javier Arizmendi, Filipe Luis and Real Oviedo forward Adrian Lopez were signed with hope that this long-term strategy would be the best financially speaking. However the best new manager Joaquín Caparrós could muster under this group were successive Copa Del Rey semi-final appearances, which wasn’t enough.
The club however was not the platform it once was, and the better players departed. Arbeloa and Antonio Barragan would join Rafa Benitez at Liverpool. Capdevila and Verdu left because of their poor wages. Fabricio Collocini and Jorge Andrade left for big money to Newcastle and Juventus respectively, while some of the big wage signings like Mista, Omar Bravo and Ze Castro proved to be disappointments.
It is hard to see Deportivo returning to La Liga quickly, especially with the lack of quality in the squad. Lendoiro has promised the fans seven new signings, with Ayoze being the first, and Jesus Vazquez touted to follow. Remaining assets like Andres Guardado and Adrian are in discussions to leave the club, but the fees will be low because of expiring contracts.
The transfer strategy now will be free transfers and hope that the Canteranos like David Rochela, Juan Dominguez and Álex Bergantiños can form the nucleus of Jose Luis Oltra’s side.
So was the Champions League a curse for Deportivo? Like Real Betis, Real Sociedad and Celta Vigo in the last 10 years, the qualification to the prestigious tournament has resulted in relegation. The rise to the top propels the team’s best names to the rest of Europe, and with that comes the cost of losing star players. Just as Betis lost Joaquin, Sociedad lost Nihat and Darko Kovačević and Celta lost Peter Luccin. The success makes players eager to experience this again, which can either lead to overspending and debt, or failure to cope with multiple competitions on a tight budget.
From a period where they could attract a young Rivaldo to play at the Riazor to possessing World Cup winners in Bebeto and Mauro Silva, times have changed. Whether Deportivo can return to the Primera Division is a difficult question, and Oltra will have a tough time trying to build a squad when his chairman has tightened the purse strings. Whatever happens, and despite their fall from grace, they will still be remembered as ‘Super Depor’.