The Rise and Fall of Deportivo La Coruña

Posted on April 16, 2013

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2004 was a memorable and record breaking year for football.  It was the season of ‘The Invincibles’ as Arsenal remained unbeaten for an entire league season, Wayne Rooney emerged as England’s future hope at Euro 2004 and the world was introduced to José Mourinho, as he led Porto to European glory in the Champions League.  The Portuguese side did the double that season, winning the Primeira Liga as well as Europe’s biggest club prize.  Arsenal, Porto and Rooney grabbed the attention of world football and Mourinho quickly went on to announce himself as the Special One as he took the managerial hot seat at Chelsea in June 2004.  There was another European story which captured the hearts of football romantics that year.

Deportivo line-up in the Champions League

Deportivo line-up in the Champions League

RC Deportivo de La Coruña managed to reach the semi finals of the Champions League in 2004, putting on one of the greatest European shows of all time to make it there.  It was a journey to remember for Blanquiazules’ (The Blue and Whites) and the pinnacle of the Spanish clubs’ most fruitful period in their history.  But where did the competitions outsiders emerge from?  The rise and fall of Deportivo is another tale of dreams, aspirations and accomplishments as a team that exhibited so much promise reached the precipice of ultimate glory before falling back into obscurity, consigned to the history books as another team that “nearly did it.”

La Liga

I think it would be best to start with a little bit on La Liga.  The constant power struggle outside of Spain’s top two clubs varies year-on-year as a selection of teams mount challenges to break the dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona.  The hope of claiming the accolade of Spanish Champions all the incentive needed, but sustained success has never been achieved.  The quest to conquer La Liga seems to hold a biblical aura similar to that of the Holy Grail for the rest of the league.

However, you can count the number of clubs to win the Spanish top division since 1985 on one hand; Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Valencia and RC Deportivo de La Coruña.  Competing with the financial might of The Galacticos of Real Madrid or Barcelona’s modern mix of tika-taka and talent development has proved close to impossible.  Clubs have spent fortunes mounting a challenge on first or second place but none have managed to completely break the mould in La Liga.

Atletico Madrid last won the league in 1996 but have continued to play second fiddle to Real since then.  Valencia are the most recent club to beat Real and Barcelona to the title as they were crowned champions in 2002 and 2004, however, Los Che almost fell into to complete financial ruin following their triumph.  Recently forced to sell their best players, David Silva, Juan Mata and David Villa to name a few and have not been the same force in La Liga since.  The only other side to take a league title away from either of the two goliaths were Deportivo La Coruña in 2000.  Deportivo finished runners up in 2001 and 2002 and the clubs most successful spell culminated in the Champions League campaign of the 2003/2004 season.

A short history of modern Deportivo

At the turn of the century Deportivo La Coruña were a side on the up.  Club president Lendoiro had recruited Celta Vigo’s first team coach Javier Irureta to lead the side for the 1998/1999 season and the president entrusted his new manager to take Blanquiazules’ forward and build upon an established, quality team.  Irureta inherited a squad containing the likes of Nourredine Naybet, Djalminha and Flávio Conceição but quickly went out hunting for potential acquisitions to mould his side into title challengers and European contenders.

Lendoiro operated a very open and aggressive transfer policy and provided his new manager with the necessary funds to add to the squad.  During his first three seasons in charge of Deportivo, Irureta secured the signings of Portuguese striker Pauleta, Argentinian Aldo Duscher, Braziliian midfielder Emerson, Dutch forward Roy Makaay and Spanish quartet Juan Carlos Valerón, Joan Capdevila, Diego Tristán and Albert Luque amongst others.  With a total net spend of around €250 million; Lendoiro had invested heavily in the transfer market on top of stadium redevelopment during his quest for the La Liga Holy Grail.

With Javier Irureta at the helm, the investment would pay off during the early 2000’s.  After displacing Barcelona and Real Madrid to win La Liga in the 1999/2000 season, Blanquiazules’ then finished runners up in 2001 and 2002 and then third place in 2003 and 2004.  A Copa del Rey title in 2002 and two Supercopa de España victories in 2000 and 2002 were the extra jewels in Deportivo’s crown during the clubs most successful period.  However, during the 2003/2004 season, Blanquiazules’ came close to achieving greatness in one of the most thrilling Champions League campaigns in footballs recent history as they mixed it with Europe’s big boys.

Deportivo La Liga Champions 1999/2000

Deportivo La Liga Champions 1999/2000

Champions League

Finishing third in La Liga in 2003, Deportivo entered the 2003/2004 Champions League competition in the Third Qualifying Round facing off against Norwegian side Rosenborg BK.  Over a conservative two legs, Irureta’s side came away with a 1-0 aggregate victory as Albert Luque scored the only goal for Blanquiazules’ at Riazor.

Depor were handed a tough draw for the group stages as they were paired with the Dutch Eredivisie champions PSV Eindhoven, French League Cup winners AS Monaco and Greek side AEK Athens.  It was a solid but un-exuberant start for Depor earning a hard fought 1-1 draw away to AEK, beating PSV 2-0 at home with an impressive, professional display and then topping Group C after a late win over Monaco courtesy of Diego Tristán.

After a convincing start to their European adventure, Depor were looking good value to progress from Group C.  However, the second round of matches saw the Group explode in a melee of goals and excitement as the battle to qualify for the knockout stages began to heat up.

Depor suffered a spectacular 8-3 defeat in the return fixture against Monaco at the Stade Louis II in one of the games of the tournament.  Despite missing Spanish striker Fernando Morientes, the rampant Monaco attack of Dado Pršo, Ludovic Giuly, Jérôme Rothen and Jaroslav Plašil took full advantage of a shaky Depor defence.  French winger, Rothen opened the scoring after a meagre two minutes of play, latching onto a soft back pass and looping the ball over José Molina in the Depor goal; it was downhill from there for Blanquiazules’.

Pršo scored a first half hat trick on his way to equaling the record for most goals scored by a single player in a Champions League game (four).  A record jointly held by Marco Van Basten and Simone Inzaghi. Plašil added to the woes of the Spanish side just after half time before Pršo grabbed his fourth inside 50 minutes.  Édouard Cissé concluded the scoring for Monaco on 67 minutes of play.  A brace from Diego Tristán and a solitary Lionel Scaloni strike provided little consolation for Depor in a game that would need to be quickly erased from memory if they were to progress from Group C.

Reaction

After the crushing defeat to Monaco, the final two group matches were crucial to Depor’s chances of progressing to the knockout stages.  The home game against AEK Athens was a welcoming fixture in which Blanquiazules’ returned to winning ways with a dominant 3-0 victory over the Greeks, who would not win a single game in that seasons competition.  Goals from Héctor, Valerón and Luque secured the points for Depor, albeit against a lacklustre AEK side as they moved closer to progression from Group C.

The final game against PSV held great importance for both sides and would decide who finished runners-up in Group C.  Guus Hiddinks PSV had to win the game 2-0 or by three clear goals and pray that Monaco did not lose to AEK if they were to progress to the knockout stages of the competition.  If Irureta and Depor managed to register a draw, or even a loss by a goal against the Dutch champions, then they would go through to the last 16 based on the head-to-head record between the two.  There was everything to play for in another chapter of Deportivo’s dramatic European adventure.

PSV started the match with a point to prove, taking the game to Deportivo and opening the scoring just before the quarter of an hour mark.  John de Jong set PSV on their way as he pounced on a loose ball in the area and subsequently slotted it past Molina in the Depor goal to make it 1-0.  A young and talented PSV midfield was the highlight of the game as Ji-Sung Park and Arjen Robben were making telling strides in their respective careers.

Robbens pace down the left wing caused serious problems for Depor and it was the Dutchman who scored PSV’s second of the game.  Robben capitalised on a defensive mix-up, taking possession, jinking his way past an onrushing challenge and calmly striking the ball past Molina.  Two goals to the good, PSV were now in pole position to progress from the group.  Robbens goal was decisive and provided the catalyst for Depor tactictical changes.  Irureta acted quickly as Albert Luque replaced Sergio González on 57 minutes and Walter Pandiani came on in place of Diego Tristán just after the hour mark.

The comeback was on for the Spanish side, within two minutes of his introduction Albert Luque fired in a long-range free kick to claw a goal back for Blanquiazules’.  Depor’s influence on the game grew and PSV’s task became even harder, Walter Pandiani put all PSV’s hopes of progression to rest after he connected with Luque’s pass in the box to level the scores on 83 minutes. Despite an injury time winner from de Jong on the night, it was not enough for PSV as they finished below Deportivo in third place.

Final Standings

Group C Home Away Total
  Club P W D L W D L W D L F A +/- Pts
1 AS Monaco FC 6 2 1 0 1 1 1 3 2 1 15 6 9 11
2 RC Deportivo La Coruña 6 3 0 0 0 1 2 3 1 2 12 12 0 10
3 PSV Eindhoven 6 2 0 1 1 1 1 3 1 2 8 7 1 10
4 AEK Athens FC 6 0 2 1 0 0 3 0 2 4 1 11 -10 2

 

Depor’s Jeckyll & Hyde performance in the second half of Group C was indeed one of the highlights of the tournament. There were more twists and turns in the group than a 90 minute display from Scott Parker in centre midfield and Depor managed to pip PSV to the runners-up spot behind Monaco.  Comfortable wins against Monaco and PSV were overshadowed by the 8-3 demolition away to the French side but a memorable comeback against PSV Eindhoven put Irureta’s team deservedly through to the knockout stages.

Deportivo Vs Juventus

Drawn against Marcello Lippi’s Juventus in the last 16 of the competition; Depor’s work was cut out as the Italian giants were clear favourites, expected to progress to the quarter finals with relative ease over two legs.  Juve were at the height of their powers in 2003, winning the Scudetto that year along with the Supercoppa Italiana.   Only losing out to AC Milan in the Champions League final the previous year and just before the Turin outfit were implicated as one of five clubs in the Calciopoli match fixing scandal.  The tie provided Depor with an opportunity for revenge after the Italians eliminated Blanquiazules’ from the competition in 2002/2003.

Albert Luque’s bust up with Javier Irureta in the same week as the tie was not ideal for Depor and a dip in domestic form only exacerbated issues.  The first leg in Spain was a cagey affair as a typical Italian defence set up to press and frustrate Depor’s creative influencers.  Alessio Tachinnardi was assigned to man mark Juan Carlos Valerón and Lillian Thuram and Nicola Legrottaglie attempted to shackle Tristán and Luque.  However, it was Depor who broke the deadlock as man of the moment Albert Luque converted a failed clearance from Thuram with a volley on 37 minutes.  Despite Juve’s array of attacking options, Blanquiazules’ were the dominant side and ran out with a 1-0 victory at the end of the first leg.

A visit to the Stadio delle Alpi for the second leg would be a difficult obstacle for Depor to overcome, especially with only a narrow 1-0 advantage from the encounter at Raizor.  However, Turin would be the setting for Depor’s sweet revenge over their old foe.  Walter Pandiani effectively put Blanquiazules’ into the quarter finals after 12 minutes of play, losing fellow countryman Paolo Montero and firing a right footed strike into the top corner.

The vital away goal made Juve’s task even harder, the Italian side came on strong but could not make the pressure count as chances that fell to Nedved, Miccoli and Stephen Appiah went begging.  Juventus didn’t have the luck they needed to beat the Spanish side and Del Piero’s injury early on in the second leg typified their quarter final exit.  Irureta and Deportivo had managed to mastermind a complete shut out of Juventus over two legs to set up a tantalizing quarter final tie against AC Milan.

Deportivo Vs AC Milan – First leg

Depor travelled to the San Siro in the first leg of the quarter final but it was not be a dream return to Italy for Irureta’s side.  Six times Champions League winners, Milan were defending their European crown in 2003/2004 and the first leg against Depor seemingly set Carlo Ancelotti’s side well on their way to a successful defence.  Ancelotti employed his classic 4-2-2-2 formation that Milan were renowned for during his tenure.  Kaká sat behind the two strikers, Inzaghi and Shevchenko along with Seedorf slightly deeper and Pirlo in front of the back four accompanied by Gattuso.  Irureta began with Aldo Duscher as one of two defensive midfielders and the Argentinian was delegated the task of shackling the young and vibrant Kaká.

Albert Luque tussles with Kaká

Albert Luque tussles with Kaká

Depor were in dreamland after 11 minutes as Walter Pandiani opened the scoring.  Left back, Joan Capdevila provided the cross from the left wing as the Uruguayan forward broke away from a static Milan defence to duly apply the finish.  However, the early goal would not be enough for Depor as Milan grew into the match and Kaká’s equaliser just before half time helped to change the flow of the game.

Milan picked up where they left off at the start of the second half as Andriy Shevchenko scored a brilliant solo effort, exquisitely turning two defenders before placing his shot into the bottom right hand corner of the Depor goal.  A domineering Kaká extended Milan’s lead all of three minute later, Clarence Seedorf laid the ball off to the Brazilian on the edge of the box who took one touch and unleashed a powerful and precise strike into the bottom corner.  Andrea Pirlo then added the extras for Milan with an expertly taken freekick to make it 4-1, pouring more misery onto Depor who capitulated under sustained pressure.  Importantly, Walter Pandiani’s away goal would prove to be vital for Depor as what was about to unfold in the second leg at Riazor would go down in Champions League history…

Second leg

The greatest and most memorable game of the 2003/2004 Champions League campaign was about to unfold in the second leg of Depor’s quarter final tie with European heavy weights AC Milan.  With a 4-1 deficit to overturn, Depotivo’s dreams of reaching a Champions League semi-final were lying in tatters and the star studded men from Milan looked set to take their place in the last four of the competition.  However, there is no such thing as formalities in football.

Once again, Blanquiazules’ took an early lead through Walter Pandiani.  Controlling the ball inside the Milan penalty area, the striker swiftly manoeuvred onto his left and burried his shot past Dida and set Depor on the road to recovery.  After such a promising start to the match, Irureta’s team continued to pressure Milan and chances were created as the enigmatic duo of Victor Sanchez and Juan Carlos Valerón combined on several occasions to trouble a typically strong, Italian defence.

Juan Carlos Valerón scores against AC Milan

Juan Carlos Valerón scores against AC Milan

It was Valerón who managed to grab the important second goal for Depor as he converted a free header on the edge of the Milan six yard box on 35 minutes.  Albert Luque whipped in a delightful cross from the left wing, which Dida subsequently floundered underneath and the Spanish playmaker was on hand to turn the ball into an empty net.  The Spanish side were now only one goal away from levelling the tie on aggregate.  With a crucial away goal the tide had begun to turn in Deportivo’s favour and it seemed a real possibility that Irureta and his team could make it through to the semi finals.

Up stepped Albert Luque in Deportivo’s time of need once again, Nesta’s mistimed header in midfield fell to the feet of the Spanish winger who surged through the centre of the Milan defence and unleashed an unstoppable left footed strike into the roof of Dida’s net just before half time.  Blanquiazules’ were now in the driving seat with the scores level 4-4 on aggregate with 45 minutes left to play.  The comeback was then completed on 76 minutes as Albert Luque’s replacement Fran, broke through the Milan defence to get onto the end of a right wing cross.  His powerful effort found its way into the back of the net courtesy of a slight deflection to ensure Depor went through to the semi finals on aggregate.

Deportivo had managed to resurrect the European dream against a team of world class talent that included the likes of Cafu, Maldini, Gattuso, Pirlo, Kaká, Seedorf, Inzaghi and Shevchenko.  Blanquiazules’ created Champions League history as they became the first side to overturn a three goal, first leg deficit, dumping the defending champions AC Milan out of the competition in what is now one of the defining matches of the Champions League.

Javier Irureta and his Depor team were beaten in the semi finals by the eventual winners of the competition in 2004.  José Mourinho’s Porto emerged victorious in the clash of the outsiders, Brazilian striker Derlei scored the only goal over two legs to take Porto to the final.  The Portuguese side subsequently dismantled Depor’s Group C rivals Monaco in a 0-3 victory to lift the coveted Champions League trophy at the Arena AufSchalke in Germany.  The hearty performances of the competitions underdogs, Porto, Monaco and Deportivo capped off a historic European season that would not be forgotten.

I was about 14 years of age at the time of Depor’s success and still going through my early football education.  However, as the world saw Blanquiazules’ overturn the 4-1 deficit against AC Milan in the quarter final and the epic 8-3 group game defeat to AS Monaco, my attention was well and truly captured by Irureta’s side in that year.  Deportivo were one of favourite teams on Fifa 2005 and in a sad way Fifa (coupled with the 2003/2004 season) formed a large portion of my football education as a spotty adolescent.  Juan Carlos Valerón, Albert Luque and Diego Tristán proved to be the undoing of many opponents during the games lifespan, and Spanish playmaker Valerón was actually one of the best players on the game with an overall rating of 91 (A bit of football hipster trivia for you there.)

Downfall

Ultimately, it is another sad story of a team that promised so much and very nearly delivered sustained success.  It is a story that is similar to that of Leeds United during the same period in English football.  Deportivo began the fall into the abyss after 2004 as their form and results dipped considerably, key players left and the presidents’ financial policy swiftly changed.  No longer could Lendoiro afford to splash millions of Euro’s on the playing staff and despite Javier Irureta signing a new contract, the 2004/2005 season would be his last campaign in charge of Depor.

Both of Depor’s star forwards left the club, Albert Luque departed for the Premier League and Newcastle United in 2005 and Diego Tristán’s career took a sharp downturn as he managed only twelve goals for four clubs (including a brief stint with West Ham United) between 2006 and 2010.  Stalwart defender, Noureddine Naybet left to join Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League in 2004 before retiring in 2006 along with other club legends like Fran, Mauro Silva and Djalminha who all retired within a year of the 2003/2004 campaign.

The dawning of the economic crisis during the 2000’s hit the Galicia region in Spain hard with other football clubs such as Celta Vigo also falling victims to financial problems.  Depor’s period of austerity finally hit an all-time low as Blanquiazules’ were relegated from La Liga in 2011 to the Segunda Division, finishing in 18th place and agonisingly only a point behind Mallorca.  Despite this, Depor managed to bounce straight back to La Liga, winning the Segunda División in 2012.  Juan Carlos Valerón and Manuel Pablo were the two, main first team players who remained from the 2004 Champions League semi final side, staying with the club through their financial troubles and relegation from La Liga.

Deportivo celebrate their Segunda División title

Deportivo celebrate their Segunda División title

Despite Depor’s return to La Liga for the 2012/2013 season they have struggled massively, remaining in and amongst the relegation zone for the majority of the campaign.  However, the clubs financial troubles have not gone away and January 2013 saw the club file for bankruptcy protection, joining a list of seven other teams in Spain’s top division currently going through a similar process.  Depor’s debts are believed to be around €80m and with the club have now in administration, after years of attempting to mask the clubs problems with a facade of explanations, the calls for Lendoiro to leave Blanquiazules’ have been voiced.

It may be time for Lendoiro to move on.  Having led Depor through their most successful period, to the heights of a La Liga title and a Champions League semi final, Depor’s success has come at a very high price as their existence as a professional football club is threatened.  Perhaps it is now the right moment for Lendoiro to hand over his beloved Blanquiazules’ to someone who can revive the fallen champions, securing the clubs long term future.

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