Deportivo de La Coruña: The Demise of a Spanish Giant
Once Galician giants and La Liga champions in 2000, Deportivo de La Coruña surprised everyone with their rapid rise in Spanish football in the 1990’s. Now precariously sitting fourth-bottom of the Segunda División, the famous blue and white stripes could soon find themselves playing in Spain’s third tier for the first time since the 1980-81 season. But where and how did it all go so catastrophically wrong for Branquiazuis in the 20 years following their reign atop Spanish football?
A Brief History
Hailing from a small city on Spain’s rugged and moody northern shores, Deportivo de La Coruña have experienced their fair share of ups and downs since their founding in 1906. Spending most of their history in the Segunda, the club enjoyed brief success in the 1950’s with a nine-year stay in La Liga, but up until the 1990’s, they had struggled to inspire much since. Just like the city they are situated in; Depor were often overlooked prior to their monumental breakthrough towards the turn of the 21st century.
The club’s development into one of the biggest in Spain, arguably in Europe at the time, can be traced back to one man in particular; Augusto César Lendoiro. In the summer of 1988, after years of mismanagement that had crippled the club with financial problems, an assembly of the Colegio de Los Salesianos chose the club’s new board of directors, and Lendoiro was elected as the president to head the club’s new, ambitious and forward-thinking project.
By then, Deportivo had been sat outside the top flight for 15 years, had amassed debts of around £3 million, and were desperately lacking established structures at both the economic and sporting level. Something had to change at the club and quickly.
Lendoiro’s plan at first was simple enough; to plan a route back to La Liga whilst bringing in a wave of new club members along the way. Lendoiro, who was born in the city himself, understood the importance of the community around the club and set about making instant changes, with outreach programmes being used to improve the club’s relationship with A Coruña’s residents.
When he became chairman, Deportivo had around 5,000 club members, but Lendoiro wanted to at least triple that figure in the near future, using the club’s success on the pitch to drive up the city’s passion for their team.
Two years later and the first step of his plan was complete. Finishing 2nd in the Segunda during the 1990-91 season, Deportivo were promoted to La Liga on goal difference from Real Murcia. After 18 years in Spain’s lower divisions, they returned to the top flight thanks to the ambition of Lendoiro, who in the summer of 1989 had overseen a plethora of new signings in an attempt to rejuvenate the club.
During Lendoiro’s first season in charge, Depor had lost in a tense play-off against Tenerife, but in their second attempt at promotion in the following season, their place amongst the Spanish elite was sealed. It was not just a sporting triumph, but an economic and social triumph as well; the number of club members by 1992 would swell to around 17,500.
Despite the original plans being achieved with safe passage to La Liga, Lendoiro’s ambition was limitless, and upon their return to Spain’s top flight, the charismatic chairman significantly upped the transfer and wage budgets in an effort to push the club on.
The transfer policy was simple but effective at first. A blend of veteran experience was paired with the signing of young talent, and despite a first season flirt with relegation, Deportivo would soon rocket up the La Liga standings.
Deportivo icon Arsenio Iglesias would be appointed manager by Lendoiro during that first season back in La Liga just prior to their relegation play-off win against Real Betis, and would go on to enjoy a successful fourth spell as Deportivo manager.
The La Liga Nearly Years and the Copa Del Rey
The summer of 1992 can be highlighted as the starting point for the Turcos’s real rise to prominence amongst the Spanish elite. Under the guidance of Lendoiro, Deportivo began to sign a higher calibre of player. Targeting veterans from the bigger Spanish teams of Real Madrid and Barcelona amongst others, Depor’s incredible rise was now well underway.
Star players López Rekarte, Paco Liaño, Claudio Barragán, José Luis Ribera, Adolfo Aldana, Donato all joined in the span of a few years, whilst the club further signed many promising youngsters including local midfielder Fran and Brazilians Bebeto and Mauro Silva. The eclectic mix of exciting, raw young talent and experienced veterans transformed Iglesias’ team, now nicknamed ‘Súper Dépor,’ and took them to the next level.
The 1992-93 season would prove to be Súper Dépor’s true breakthrough. With majestic wins against Barcelona and Real Madrid at home, Deportivo finished ‘best-of-the-rest’ in 3rd spot in La Liga and only four points behind eventual champions Barcelona. On the back of a string of mammoth performances from forward Bebeto (pictured above with Silva), who won the Pichichi Trophy with 29 goals, Depor qualified for European competition for the first time in their history.
It would have been easy for Lendoiro and Deportivo to be satisfied with the third place finish, but they still wanted so much more. The 1993-94 would bring late heartbreak, as the club’s quest for their first La Liga title was denied by Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona, who finished ahead on goal differential.
After another fantastic season, one which saw Súper Dépor smash a wayward Real Madrid 4-0 at Riazor, the northern Spanish outfit went into the last La Liga matchday top of the table knowing that a win at home against an average Valencia would be enough for their first top flight trophy. In true Deportivo fashion, the afternoon would be a rollercoaster of emotions that would ultimately end in despair.
The state of play before kick-off was simple; if Deportivo won, then the Galicians would capture their first La Liga title, if Barcelona bettered their result on the day, the title would once again head back to the Nou Camp.
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After a largely uneventful first half, Deportivo limped into the break on level terms with Valencia, but were understandably struggling with the weight of expectation on their shoulders. Over in Catalunya, Barcelona were down 2-1 at home to Sevilla. Things were looking promising for Depor, but everything would dramatically change during the second half.
The Blaugranas slotted away four second-half goals to win 5-2 at the Nou Camp, whilst the drama was unbearable in Coruña. With everything seemingly lost for Deportivo and the title heading back east to Barcelona, the Branquiazuis were awarded an injury-time penalty. The Riazor erupted, and up stepped defender Miroslav Đukić to take the most important penalty in Depor’s history.
The Serbian’s effort was weak, completely tame, and was easily saved by Valencia’s José González. Once again, the title was heading back to Barcelona by a matter of goal difference. It was heartbreak for the Galicians, who could have easily crumbled under the near miss. Instead, though, it inspired them to push even harder for greatness.
Deportivo would again finish second the following season, this time to an impressive Real Madrid side. Despite the dark cloud hanging over the club, with Iglesais stating prior to the season that this would be his last in charge of Depor, the club would finally break their silverware hoodoo in the Copa del Rey.
Playing Valencia at the Santiago Bernabéu, the first match would be abandoned due to heavy rain in the 83rd minute and rescheduled for three days later. With only seven minutes left on the clock at the restart, Deportivo’s Alfredo Santaelena slotted home a late header to seal the win. The 1995 Copa del Rey win would be Depor’s first major honour, their first trophy at the top level in the club’s entire history.
The Transition Years
After their string of near misses in La Liga, Deportivo started to dramatically fall off the pace after Iglesias’ retirement. With an ageing squad in place, Lendoiro turned to former Real Madrid boss John Toshack to shape the club’s fortunes.
Finishing 9th during the 1995-96 season, Depor were well off the pace in the end, and with early exits in the Copa del Rey to Valencia and in Europe at the hands of a Youri Djorkaeff-inspired Paris Saint-Germain, the handbags were regularly out between Toshack and his players. After a particularly poor end to their season, Toshack didn’t hold back in the press when asked about his transitioning squad.
“It was the worst group of players I’ve seen in 20 years. I couldn’t identify myself with the identity of those people. They were settled, burned out and there wasn’t a future nor youth. I needed all my 18 years of experience as a coach to survive.”
The following season, it was evident that the squad needed to be completely overhauled if Depor were to challenge for the La Liga title again. Lendoiro stuck with Toshack, the Welshman chosen as the architect of a new-look Deportivo side.
The eager chairman once again invested millions into the signings of Rivaldo, Flávio Conceição, and Nuno Espírito Santo in a desperate attempt to rediscover the club’s momentum. Veteran and fan favourite Bebeto left that same summer, stating that “this season, nothing worked and the coach who arrived complicated all.” The tension was palpable off the pitch, but Depor would enjoy a brief resurgence in the league.
By the turn of the new year, Toshack had pushed his Deportivo side into a battle for the La Liga title. The showdown that season would come much earlier than usual, a clash at home to Barcelona in January 1997.
Prior to the game, Lendoiro had taken his total investment to £31 million that season with the signing of Benfica center back Hélder Cristóvão, a monumental figure for 1997. However, a late Pizzi goal would see Barcelona win 1-0, and Toshack announced a day after the match that he would depart in the summer. The Galician faithful say he was influenced by paintings which were visible in the Riazor soon after, “Toshack Go Home” and “Toshack, bastard.” Depor would go on to finish third.
During his reign in Galicia, Toshack did elude to one issue at Deportivo that could be viewed as a reason for the club’s long-term downfall. The Welsh manager wasn’t fond of the way Lendoiro used his money, claiming that the chairman was only focused on transfers and failed to invest in vital training and youth facilities, two key components in a modern-day football club.
After the Welshman’s departure, the next two seasons were relatively understated for Deportivo, with the club finishing 12th and 6th, with a semi-final appearance in the Copa del Rey in 1999 being the only consolation prize for the Galician faithful.
Their poor performances were partly due to the departure of Rivaldo, who joined Barcelona after the Catalans paid his release clause of around £21 million on the summer deadline day of 1997. It was a move that made Deportivo pay dearly for a few years, but the turn of the century would finally bring what Lendoiro had always dreamed of.
Javier Irureta and Depor’s Breakthrough
After the failed reign of Toshack, Lendoiro first turned to Carlos Alberto Silva to revamp his failing squad, but the Brazilian’s time in charge was cut short after another relatively poor showing from Deportivo in La Liga. The chairman desperately needed a manager who could rejuvenate the ageing Depor side, and this time, he decided to look a little closer to home.
In the previous season when Depor finished in a disappointing 12th position, bitter rivals Celta Vigo were soaring in the other half of Galicia. Under the stewardship of coach Javier Irureta, Celta had surprised the nation by challenging for a top-three La Liga finish in the previous season, and Lendoiro saw him as the perfect fit for his failing Deportivo squad.
Over his first two seasons with the club, Irureta embraced Deportivo and had them playing some fantastic football, which nearly resulted in them qualifying for the Champions League. Nevertheless, the 1999-2000 season would prove to be Depor’s final breakthrough.
Again, Lendoiro spent big in the summer transfer window, recruiting Roy Makaay and Slaviša Jokanović from Tenerife, Victor Sánchez for Racing Santander, César Martin from Oviedo and Jaime from Real Madrid amongst others for a combined £24 million.
The result of these transfers came in the form of an electric start to La Liga that term, with Depor and Makaay in particular firing on all cylinders. As the turn of the millennium approached, ‘Súper Dépor’ were eight points clear at the top of the Spanish ladder after impressive wins against Barcelona and Atlético Madrid prior to the Christmas break.
Deportivo would struggle in early 2000, with a late Rivaldo goal costing them three points in the Nou Camp, but with everything seemingly unraveling once again, Barcelona crumbled in their late chase. Irrueta’s men held onto nerve to bring home their first and only La Liga title on May 19, 2000. Lendoiro’s dream had finally been realized, and A Coruña celebrated late into the spring night. It would prove to be the true pinnacle for the Branquiazuis domestically.
Over the next four seasons, Depor would finish second twice and third two further times, participating in the Champions League every season. 2002 would bring Deportivo’s second Copa del Rey title, as they beat Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu on Los Blancos’s 100th birthday, despite being huge underdogs going into the showdown.
On the recruitment front, Depor continued to splash the cash on transfers. Lendoiro himself revealed since that he tried to lure a young Cristiano Ronaldo from Sporting Lisbon in 2003, but a lack of funds would not allow the move.
Speaking to MARCA last year, Lendoiro stated; “They asked us for 10 or 11 million euros and the party was over because we could not reach those figures. Cristiano was a kid that you didn’t know what he could give, although what we saw was spectacular, but Manchester United came, paid the price and took him away.”
In the Champions League, Depor enjoyed huge wins over PSG, Manchester United and Arsenal as they continued to battle for European glory. Their run to the semi-final of the competition in the 2003-04 season was an achievement perhaps only topped by the 2000 title conquest. Despite suffering an embarrassing 8-3 loss to AS Monaco in the group stage, Irureta’s team would progress through the group stages and advance past Juventus in the first knock-out round.
With now-legends Diego Tristán, Fran and Juan Carlos Valerón amongst their ranks at the time, the Galicians turned around a 4-1 deficit at Riazor against a world class AC Milan side to progress to the semifinals. The Depor performance in the return leg that night was so strong that it led Andrea Pirlo to question the events that had occurred in his autobiography.
“We’d won the first game 4-1 and the chances of us not going through were roughly equal to those of seeing Rino Gattuso complete an arts degree…For the first and only time in my life, I’ve wondered if people I’d shared a pitch with might have been on something.”
Unfortunately for Lendoiro, Deportivo would go on to narrowly lose in the semi-finals to José Mourinho’s Porto, the eventual champions. From then on, the Galicians’s fortunes capitulated. Andrea Pirlo in his autobiography stated; “within a short space of time, they’d disappeared from the face of all the major European competitions.” His words were not wrong.
Super Depor’s Demise and Current Situation in Galicia
Deportivo’s decline was slow at first, and the club would enjoy two more semi-final appearances in the Copa del Rey in 2006 and 2007. There was another brief revival during the 2008-09 season with a sixth-place La Liga finish, but as their former stars left and the overall squad aged, ‘Super Depor’ were no more the force they once were.
With debts amounting to over €100 million, the club slipped further towards the top-flight trap door with their first relegation back to the Segunda in 2011. Despite bouncing straight back with promotion, Depor declared a state of insolvency in December 2012, and a year later, Lendoiro agreed to not stand for re-election. His 25-year reign and the big money spending was over, and ever since, Deportivo have relied too heavily on loan signings and free transfers.
Lendoiro single-handedly brought the glory that Deportivo fans so desperately craved, but he was also the architect of the club’s untimely downfall. His lack of overall understanding has crippled the club financially since. In his own words; “my big mistake was not selling players when I could, but that is the illusion of winning titles.”
In his place, the board elected Tino Fernández Pico, whose background in economics and business led to the halving of club debts by 2018. However, on April 29, 2018, the Galicians were dumped back into the Segunda, after four years of miraculously fighting against relegation with minimal investment. The culprit was, once again, Barcelona, who secured the La Liga title after a 4-2 victory at the Riazor.
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In his five years as Deportivo president, Pico would appoint and sack nine different coaches, the instability being the principal reason for Depor’s final fall from grace. Since Pico’s dismissal at the end of the 2018/19 season, the Galicians have had a further two presidents in a brief and horrible spell that currently leaves them fourth-bottom of the Segunda.
If the league season ended today, Deportivo would be relegated to the third division along with Lugo, Extremadura, and Racing Santander. A further relegation to the third flight of Spanish football could prove to be the end for Depor. But there’s still hope yet in their fight against relegation. Deportivo were rock bottom of the Segunda nine matches ago, but since the appointment of Fernando Vázquez, who managed the club in the 2013/14 season, Depor have bounced back. His side have taken 18 points from a possible 18 to start his reign, doubling their prior season total in the process.
Vázquez has rejuvenated Depor on the pitch, and his work with the squad has largely made them more difficult to score against and much tougher to beat. While they still occupy the final relegation spot, they are tied with Real Oviedo and Albacete on points, with the latter two boasting a higher goal differential.
There’s also hope elsewhere. Despite a lack of investment from Lendoiro in the club’s training and youth facilities, Depor still possess a few young gems. Mujaid Sadick, 20, in particular has shone in his debut first team season, playing 18 matches across all competitions for Vázquez’s outfit prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Regardless of whatever comes next for the Galicians, the legend of that La Liga-winning ‘Super Depor’ side will live on in European football and will continue to inspire those smaller clubs from more humble beginnings and backgrounds.
By: Nathan Evans
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Getty Images