Real Mallorca: From chaos to La Liga

Mallorca fans could be forgiven for having lost hope. For years they watched a glum team lacking in direction, organisation, and any sort of medium-to-long term plan. They were relegated from La Liga by a single point in 2013 and spent much of the following seasons either fighting relegation to the third tier or abjectly sitting mid-table. The fans harbored aspirations far above what they saw on the pitch, born from illusions fostered having seen their team play in the top category of Spanish football for the best part of the previous two decades.

In their first couple of seasons in the second division they panicked and went through managers with no clear vision of where the club was going. Eventually, in 2017, the Balearic club were relegated to the regionalised third tier of Spanish football.

As recently as 2003, Mallorca won the Copa del Rey, and finished in the top half of the Primera División. Atletico Sagutino played in the fifth tier, alongside hundreds of other clubs. In Mallorca’s darkest hour, these two clubs were on the same level on the pyramid. Just years before, the islanders were rubbing shoulders with the likes of Villarreal and Valencia but were now facing off against their youth B teams in league competition.

Perhaps the biggest ignominy of all for Los Bermellones was facing off against Atletico Baleares, a club that had only ever been in the afterthoughts of most football fans on the island of Mallorca. A small, gritty footballing entity, with more of a history in the Mallorca Regional Championship than the second division. In recent seasons, Atletico Baleares have averaged attendances of around 1,500 for their home games.

In the 1970s, the clubs played each other regularly, following each other from the third to the fourth tier. But at the beginning of the 1980s, the club’s fortunes began to change, on what seemed like a permanent basis, given the introduction of professionalism of the sport and the opportunities coming from more money influencing the structure of the game. Promotions and relegations saw Mallorca move from the fourth to first tier in five years, while Baleares bounced between the fourth and fifth.

From then, the tone was set for football clubs on the island. Mallorca were the successful giant, while Atletico Baleares were just one of many afterthoughts. It seemed absurd to think that Mallorca, with European football experience and major honours won this century, and Atletico Baleares – a regular opponent of Mallorca’s B team – could ever be on the same footing again.

But the giant would fall, and Mallorca went from regularly packing their more than 20,000-seater home, to visiting Son Malferit, the humble, temporary (while their regular stadium was being rebuilt), home of their lowly neighbours that holds just 1,250 spectators. There, Baleares claimed something of a scalp by earning a point off their neighbours, ending the match with ten men. They nearly repeated the trick in Mallorca’s ground too, but those blushes were spared with a winning goal immediately following Baleares’s 2-2 equaliser in the 71st minute.

From these dismal lows, Mallorca are now back in the Primera División for the first time in six years and will soon welcome the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona to the islands in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea once again.

How they completed this turnaround is in large part thanks to the astute ownership of Robert Sarver, the American businessman that also owns NBA outfit Phoenix Suns. Sarver, with little experience of European football before acquiring Mallorca, made the clever decision to surround himself with people who do know the game, including former Chelsea defender Graham Le Saux and, somewhat surprisingly, two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, in advisory roles. At first the takeover was met with natural scepticism, but hearts are won with results, and making their spell in the third tier as short as possible was a good way to win over the fans.

Key to their success over the last few years has unquestionably been the appointment of manager Vicente Moreno. Just a few years prior, Moreno took lowly Gimnastic de Tarragona from the third tier to the cusp of Primera, ultimately losing narrowly to Osasuna in the playoffs. Whether or not the full Primera promotion had been clinched with Mallorca, Moreno’s achievements did not go unnoticed in Spain’s top division, and there was significant worry on the island that he would be managing in the top tier next season with or without them.

Between the smart ownership and the exciting manager, Mallorca were able to attract some of the best youth talent in their category to play for them as well as sign some top veterans. On top of this, talent they already had were easily convinced to stay and work on the Mallorca project.

The manager was key for the arrival of Xisco Campos, the rock in the central defence at the heart of Moreno’s Nastic team that came so close to the double promotion. Ante Budimir arrived on loan from Italy and made a huge impact, including scoring the first goal in the comeback in the playoff final second leg. Lago Junior, the unpredictable attacker that so often shone for Mallorca even in the depths of the Segunda B, is another player brought from the Nastic team of Moreno. Goalkeeper Manolo Reina, yet another from the class of Nastic, turned out to be one of Mallorca’s most important players, playing as second captain but often wearing the armband throughout the promotion pushes.

Perhaps the most influential player in Mallorca’s last couple of seasons has been Salva Sevilla. Already a veteran when he arrived, his signature was met with a glum response from the fans, having already seen their club bet big on a string of veterans, only for them to repeatedly flop. Players like Culio, Arana, and Colunga all left fans disappointed, when their arrivals were intended to be injections of quality. Instead, the club finally hit the right note on Sevilla, who was a catalyst for the upturn in performances, and a scorer of many fantastic and important goals, including one vital free kick from distance in the playoff final comeback victory.

Many key players were given two-year, or in some cases even longer, contracts when the club were relegated to the third tier – something a lot of clubs are cautious to do when descending to such a low division, due to the lack of finances that comes with playing in Segunda B. The philosophy behind this was to create an atmosphere where players could feel safe in their positions in the club, that they could feel that the club trusted in them and believed in them, and they wouldn’t be discarded after one promotion season only to return to the journeyman cycle. The management wanted the players to grow with the club.

One promotion came, and the bulk of the squad that competed in the third tier were then trusted to compete in the second. The threat of relegation soon disappeared after a good opening to the season, and all of a sudden in just the space of a year, a squad went from playing Segunda B football to dreaming of Primera. Ultimately this was all done fully within the club’s means too; Mallorca’s budget last year was around €7.5m – their playoff final opponents was €20m.

It all came down to one night, in one city obsessed with fire. Down 0-2 from the first leg, Mallorca needed a miracle on the night of the Revetlla de San Joan, St. John’s Day Eve, for an awful translation. A night that is famous for fireworks, bonfires, and staying out all night eating, drinking, and partying. Mallorca fans would be doing so to either celebrate or to drown sorrows. What they got were the most spectacular fireworks seen on the island for decades, as three wonderful goals completed a perfect comeback that will live forever in the memory of all Barralets fans.

Three magnificent goals, all from long range and brilliantly worked and finished, lit the entire island up for one of the most special nights Spanish football has seen for years. Manager Vicente Moreno was interrupted a minute into his post-match press conference and drowned in champagne from his players. “There are no words to define these players,” he said. “It gives us an enormous amount of happiness because of how difficult this is to achieve. Our players and fans deserve this.”

The Primera División will no doubt be richer next season for having Mallorca in it.