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Friday, June 21, 2024

Racing Santander refused to play in the Copa del Rey – and it helped save them

Most football clubs prefer to forget their darkest moments but in the offices of Racing Santander, there is pride of place for a framed copy of the New York Times article covering their own dramatic low point.

Ten years ago, this historic Spanish club — one of La Liga’s 10 founding members in 1928, who missed out on the 1931 title on goal difference — came close to ruin.

Under the corrupt presidency of Angel Lavin — currently serving a two-year-and-nine-month prison sentence for fraudulent management and embezzlement — Racing’s players went four months of the 2013-14 season without seeing a paycheck. After successive relegations in the two previous campaigns, they had dropped from Spain’s top flight to the regionalised third tier and were facing financial oblivion, having spent 77 of the previous 83 years in the country’s highest two divisions.

By January 2014, Racing’s unpaid players had seen off top-flight Sevilla and Almeria in a remarkable run to the Copa del Rey quarter-finals. The players realised their cup upsets were grabbing more national attention than the economic situation from which they were suffering, and unanimously decided that enough was enough. They demanded the board resign — or they would not fulfil their quarter-final second leg against Real Sociedad. Their calls went unheeded.

As their opponents kicked off, 3-1 up from the first leg, Racing’s players moved together to the centre circle and linked arms, refusing to engage in the game. Real Sociedad passed the ball out of play and officials were obliged to abandon the match after 56 seconds.

“This was a critical moment for ‘Racinguismo’, it accentuated the meaning of what we are,” the club’s current president, Manolo Higuera, tells The Athletic. Racinguismo is the identity that runs through the club and the essence of how the collective fanbase views itself.

Higuera — a former Racing player now in his second term as president — was a key figure in the removal of that ownership group, and the lawyer that helped seal Lavin’s prosecution.

“This was the most important game of their lives, for the players and the coach,” Higuera says of that home match with La Real on January 30, 2014. “Yet it was a gesture that exemplified our club. It was a moment of honour, of dignity. Nobody can ever take that away from us.”

Racing were disqualified from the tournament by the Spanish Football Federation and barred from the following season’s Copa, too. Many feared the club would cease to exist.

That Racing framed the newspaper report and its painful images from that match is another show of defiance. A message: Things must never be allowed to come to this again.

It is also a symbol of relief and acceptance that this episode is now over, its moral warning ingrained in their identity, allowing them to relaunch. Racing’s recovery has been slow and was far from inevitable, with seven seasons spent outside the top two divisions since. That was almost unthinkable for a club that competed in the Europa League group stages in 2008, beating Manchester City and drawing with Paris Saint-Germain.

Both of those opponents subsequently secured state-backed takeovers that changed the landscape of European football. What happened at Racing is quite a contrast.

As with many Spanish clubs after the global financial crisis of 2007-08, Racing were plunged into debt. In January 2011, they were bought by Indian businessman Ahsan Ali Syed. After spending €3.5million (£3m; $3.8m at current exchange rates) to secure the club, one local media outlet described him as “Ali the savour” on its front-page splash.

Always extravagantly dressed, Ali Syed gained swift notoriety for his headline-grabbing exuberance.

Flying in to watch games on his private jet, he instantly cleared up a backlog of unpaid player wages and debts with the local government. Far from a strict follower of decorum in the presidential box, he would wildly celebrate Racing’s goals by waving a club scarf around his head, much to the irritation of his often broody, conservative counterparts.

He was soon talking up his club as a challenger to Real Madrid and Barcelona. It began to feel too good to be true. It was.

Ali had previously seen his attempt to buy Blackburn Rovers break down following allegations of unpaid taxes, which he insisted were settled and were not the reason the takeover never happened.

The Western Gulf Advisory (WGA), Ali Syed’s company that had been set up in Bahrain to secure loans and financing for investors, was forced to cease trading by the country’s industry minister after an investigation found its “source of funding” had “violated the laws and regulations” after multiplying its assets from $64million to $1.2bn in one year.

Ali Syed went from being the centre of attention to entirely uncontactable. Again and again, deadlines were pledged for late player wages. Again and again, those deadlines were missed.

“He promises everything and delivers nothing,” head coach Marcelino Garcia Toral fumed as he walked out of the club at the end of the 2010-11 campaign, having already lost patience despite only being appointed in February. Miguel Angel Revilla, the president of the local Cantabrian government who had previously gushed over Ali Syed’s ambition, labelled the Indian “a compulsive liar”. Within months, Ali Syed was wanted by Interpol over alleged fraud and Racing were plunged into a fresh crisis.

Former owner Ali Syed holding up a Racing Santander scarf in March 2011 (Cesar Manso/AFP via Getty Images)

By July 2011, Racing’s debts had grown to more than €37million and the club, while remaining operational under “essential” activities, was placed into bankruptcy.

In October, the club’s entire board — led by president Francisco Pernia — resigned en masse. There was one exception: the elusive owner Ali Syed.

That season, Racing were relegated to Spain’s second division.

Lavin succeeded Pernia as president for the 2012-13 season but there was no end in sight for the club’s struggles on and off the pitch.

In December 2012, Pernia gave an interview in which he defended his record and insisted that no money had been taken out of Racing. He was also quizzed over Ali Syed’s continued role with the club and what relationship they shared. “Well, it’s very difficult,” Pernia said, having explained that the club owner was permanently based in Bahrain, “because he is non-compliant with everything.”

Pernia insisted that the club were on the right track under Lavin, and reassured fans that he was convinced they would be promoted back to La Liga at the first attempt, which would allow them to clear their debts and stabilise financially.

Racing were not promoted. At the end of the season, they were relegated to the regionalised third division.

Racing Santander (in red and white) taking on Sevilla in the Copa del Rey, December 2013 (Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

A week before Christmas in 2013, Racing’s players were told their cup trip to Sevilla would need to be made by bus — an 18-hour journey there and back. The board had told them that times were tight and needs must. On that painstakingly long journey south, the players questioned why club president Lavin was not one of their party. Upon arriving in Seville, they were startled to find Lavin already present. The players said they were informed he had travelled by plane.

Racing, who had lost the first leg 1-0, managed a 2-0 triumph over Unai Emery’s Sevilla, two divisions above them. Mamadou Kone’s last-minute strike sealed a 2-1 aggregate win that sparked wild celebrations and grabbed headlines in the Spanish press.

The giantkillers’ glory quickly evaporated with the ongoing fury at a board who would neither pay them nor respect them.

Two weeks before Racing’s fateful Copa del Rey match-up against Real Sociedad, Ali Syed was legally removed as owner of his WGA company, through which he owned Racing. WGA was registered in the Netherlands, with a Dutch judicial administrator registering the decision with the Dutch Chamber of Commerce.

This ensured that Ali Syed and WGA were no longer majority shareholders of Racing. Lavin was also soon after removed as president, having been found to have obstructed the holding of an important board meeting at which opponents planned to discuss alternatives to his tenure. But the club still had a long way to go.

In 2015, Racing Santander owed a year’s wages to staff and seven months of back pay to players, with €14million owed to tax authorities. This was Higuera’s first stage of presidency, at a club hooked up to life support and prepared for their figurative last rites. Desperately, they sold shares at €5 in a last-ditch bid to avoid liquidation and 13,000 became shareholders.

Higuera helped reduce the club’s debt from €34million to €22m and brought hope that there was light at the end of the tunnel. But he resigned in 2018 after the club remained rooted in the third division.

Racing Santander supporters at an April 2023 home match with Granada at El Sardinero (Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

Racing’s financial situation has significantly stabilised in the years since, even if they have not progressed further up Spain’s football pyramid. In December 2023, they made the penultimate payment on their bankruptcy proceedings, which had commenced in 2011. The final instalment of €1.2million is due in December 2024.

In November 2022, Ali Syed was arrested in London on behalf of the Swiss government on fraud charges unrelated to football or his Racing ownership. The Westminster Magistrates’ Court granted Switzerland’s request of extradition.

The businessman, who is now a Turkish national, was accused of defrauding 23 individuals to a total of £25million.

Ali Syed had argued that the passage of time and the ‘double jeopardy’ of evidence also being gathered against him in Bahrain should see the case dismissed, alongside the fact that his family had now settled in London. The court rejected his claims and gave the green light for extradition. He remains in London and can appeal the decision to the High Court. It could be years before a decision is reached.

In September 2022, a Spanish judge ordered Lavin to pay back €280,000 to the club over 60 yearly instalments and he was sentenced to a provisional two years and nine months in jail for misappropriation of funds during his time at Racing. His predecessor, Pernia, was ordered to pay the club €40,000 for the same offence but avoided prison.

In July 2023, Higuera and Argentinian businessman and mathematician Sebastian Ceria completed the purchase of 75 per cent of Racing’s shares through Sebman Sports International. Higuera and Ceria’s personal association has endured over two decades, with their wives sharing a friendship since the age of eight. Ceria is CEO of Qontigo, a New York-based company with more than 550 employees working in risk analytics globally.

Ceria, Jose Alberto and Higuera (from left to right) pictured after the manager’s renewal (Racing Santander)

Higuera explains how, when Ceria was introduced to the Racing players, he stood up and gave a speech about their duty to supporters. “Sebastian said he was here because he wanted to make people happy,” he says. “Neither of us intends to make money from the club, but we want to see people happy, and that responsibility falls on the sporting department. Ultimately, that is why we are here.”

The takeover continued a feel-good factor in Santander this summer. It followed the first season in 12 years that Racing had competed in the top two divisions of Spanish football without suffering relegation. Four months into the 2022-23 season, Racing were in the relegation zone and appointed head coach Jose Alberto.

“It was fundamental that we maintained our status in the division,” he tells The Athletic now. “For over a decade, this club could not do it but it was an important and very difficult step.”

The board believe they can increase revenue streams from €12million to €18m, allowing the club to become self-sustainable and no longer rely on individual shareholders making donations to foot the bill. A return to La Liga is an obvious priority, but corners cannot be cut. They are 12th in Spain’s second division.

“What the owners have done is precisely what I have been saying, to grow the club little by little,” Jose Alberto says.

“Football is unpredictable. Even if a club is run correctly, the results are not always good. Manolo and Sebastian are committed to this club, to this city, and when you have the unified connection, we can work seriously about achieving our objectives. We have the history and the fanbase of a top-division club.”

There are few stadiums in Europe with a finer approach than El Sardinero, Racing Santander’s home ground. A meandering walk out of the city’s vibrant, compact historical centre takes you past the dock, housing routes to Portsmouth and Plymouth, along the seafront and past the Palacio de la Magdalena — a summer residence to Spanish royalty. It is easy to see why Santander’s coastline is inundated with tourists from across the Iberian Peninsula in summer.

El Sardinero is one of the city’s most iconic beaches; packed in summer months but a tranquil setting of reflection in winter. Racing’s stadium was named after it and sits 400 metres inland, but its predecessor was built directly beside the seafront — before the club cashed in by selling the land to the council in the 1980s.

Racing fans live by the motto ‘Aunque llueva o sople el sur’. They will support the club ‘even through rain, or when wind comes from the south’. The phrase reflects Santander’s geographical location: when the wind and weather front comes from the south, it does not rain. To be there through rain or shine, the opposite of a fair-weather fan. A pledge that has been pushed to the limit in the past decade.

Santander is the capital of Cantabria, which has the second-smallest population of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities. Racing are the only professional football club in the region and subsequently find themselves in the curious position of not having a natural local rival.

In Spanish football’s formative years, they were a powerhouse and their competition with Athletic Bilbao was known as ‘the duel of the north’. Yet Athletic’s natural rivals are fellow Basque side Real Sociedad, while Asturias neighbours Cantabria to the west and pits Real Oviedo against Sporting Gijon.

Racing are steeped in history, with a uniquely advantageous geographical area for building a fanbase. A long-awaited return to Spain’s top flight would bring game-changing revenue and international exposure. Yet the fanbase carries the psychological scarring and collective anxiety of almost having lost their community institution.

Racing’s identity is still closely tied to the events of January 2014, a defining moment in a chapter that has now closed. That framed New York Times article remains in the club’s offices but they are on the lookout for their next iconic moment, to be achieved by competing — and winning — back where they belong.

(Top photo: Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

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