• Vie. Jul 12th, 2024

-> Noticias de futbol internacional

Real Zaragoza: Proud of their past but looking to future – with plans to stage Messi

“He scored one of his most beautiful goals in our stadium. We want to bring him back and play again here.”

Lionel Messi gave La Liga opposition teams nightmares across 17 seasons, but one Spanish club want to face him again. In 2010, the Argentina forward scored a hat-trick for Barcelona away to Real Zaragoza in a 4-2 win. His second goal was that good the home fans stood and applauded.

Messi’s Inter Miami have a different connection to Zaragoza. In 2022, Inter Miami’s American owner Jorge Mas expanded his football portfolio, leading an international investment fund that bought 51 per cent of the shares in Zaragoza. 

Zaragoza is Spain’s fourth-biggest city — recently overtaking Seville — home to a population of 668,000 and is within two hours of Madrid and Barcelona by train. Its football club, Real Zaragoza, has historically competed alongside Real Madrid and Barca for honours in Spain and Europe. But in 2013, they were relegated from La Liga and have yet to return.

Zaragoza’s most memorable goal — in the UK, at least — came in May 1995, when Nayim scored just past the halfway line in the final moments of extra time as his side defeated Arsenal 2-1 to win the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup.

Nayim’s long-range strike was mirrored by David Beckham — the man who later brought Messi to Inter Miami — 15 months later against Wimbledon in the Premier League. But while the Englishman’s wonder goal heralded a new era for United in 1996, Nayim’s did little to kickstart a Zaragoza golden age. 

Copa del Rey titles in 2000 and 2004 preceded significant financial difficulties. Following relegation in 2013, they are now a sleeping giant in desperate need of modernisation.

In Miami, Mas is hoping to build a new club. But in Zaragoza, he is aiming to revive an old one.

Real Zaragoza’s offices sit opposite the Romareda stadium, in the heart of the city in north east Spain. The stadium is unique with its deep goal nets and pillars at the main entrance to mark the three matches it staged at the 1982 World Cup. That coincided with its most recent refurbishment. Many seats inside the stadium have lost their colour, and the Soviet-like structure gives it a utilitarian feel inside and out. The matchday experience could be from the 1990s.

The offices are below ground level, lined with tributes to the six Copa del Rey-winning sides, alongside the team that won Zaragoza the old Inter-Cities Fairs Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup. This epitomises the club: historically successful, proud and respected… but out of sight. 

Zaragoza is the capital of Aragon, the Spanish region with a population of 1.3million.  “We do not have a natural rival, so we are the de facto Aragon national team,” Zaragoza’s director general Raul Sanllehi tells The Athletic. “Our badge is an emblem of Aragon. This identity is crucial to us.” Until the recent rise of the football team Huesca, who traditionally played in Spain’s regionalised lower leagues, Zaragoza were the only professional club in Aragon.

The city of Huesca, a one-hour drive north of Zaragoza, has a population of just over 50,000 and its football team has averaged above 5,500 fans in a season only once. Huesca played in La Liga in the 2018-19 and 2020-21 seasons. This exacerbated the absence of Zaragoza, whose 23,000 average attendance is comfortably larger than every other club outside Spain’s top flight, and more than 11 La Liga teams.

Zaragoza are steeped in their community (Tino Gil/Real Zaragoza)

Sanllehi spent nine years as Barcelona’s director of football before becoming Arsenal’s head of football in 2018. His model is built on specialising club roles, divided into four areas: head coach, sporting director, football operations and academy.

Sanllehi tells The Athletic that despite his fond memories of working at his boyhood club Barcelona and Arsenal, helping return Zaragoza to La Liga would be his “most satisfying achievement”.

“We can develop it from the ground up,” he says. “Zaragoza is a one-club city and we are connected directly to Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia (Spain’s biggest three cities).”

Zaragoza hired Sanllehi in June 2022, two months after the Mas-led takeover. The process began when Jim Carpenter of Riverside Management Group, a merchant bank in Connecticut in the U.S, spoke with Jim Miller and Mark Affolter of Los Angeles-based Ares Management, who were involved at Inter Miami.


Ares is a minority partner in the holding company that controls Atletico Madrid. From 2016 to 2017, Atletico owned a 34.6 per cent share in Lens before selling to the Ligue 1 club’s president Joseph Oughourlian, who is the founder of London-based Amber Capital.

Oughourlian is the majority shareholder in Millonarios from Bogota, Colombia, and Padova of Italy’s third division. He is the chairman of Spanish media conglomerate Prisa, whose stable of Spanish media outlets includes the newspapers El Pais and AS, and radio stations Cadena Ser and Los 40. Gustavo Serpa, the Colombian CEO of Amber Capital, is president of Millonarios.

Together, a group of Carpenter, Miller, Affolter, Jorge Mas and his brother Jose, Oughourlian and Serpa decided to invest in Zaragoza. The one remaining member of the previous board was the Aragonese businessman Juan Forcen, who stayed at the behest of Mas. Retired footballer turned agent Mariano Aguilar and former manager Emilio Cruz also joined.

Miami-born Mas is the first non-Spanish president of the club. Relegation in 2013 was their third in 12 seasons and came two years after they voluntarily went into administration. “Before the takeover, the club was close to disappearing,” says Sanllehi.

At the time of the takeover, Zaragoza’s debts stood at more than €60million (£51.4m, $65.1m). “There was the clear risk of bankruptcy. The debt was 10 times the club income, it was unmanageable.”

With a commitment of investment from the new ownership, 60 per cent of the debt was written off by courts with a strict timeline implemented for the payment of the remaining outstanding amount. “The investors were key for my interest; not only was the financial muscle there, but they are football people.”

Sanllehi describes the convoluted ownership model as the “opposite” of multi-club models City Football Group or Red Bull. “We are independent of each other,” he says. Yet there is, as Sanllehi explains, “sporting synergy” between those in the investment group.


Among other aspects, Zaragoza and Inter Miami share knowledge. In 2022, Zaragoza signed centre-back Jairo Quinteros from Inter Miami, while the Spanish club’s loan signing of left-back Gabriel Fuentes from Colombian side Junior FC came after running through data compiled by Millonarios. Last year, Zaragoza legend Alberto Zapater, the defender who made more than 400 appearances in two spells, wanted to join a North American club before retiring. The ownership structure helped him join Atletico Ottawa in the Canadian Premier League.

In 2023, Zaragoza played Millonarios in a pre-season friendly and Sanllehi insists it would be a “dream” to host Inter Miami in a similar arrangement: “They know this and understand the benefits. Jorge Mas wants to bring Inter Miami to Zaragoza. One of Messi’s best goals was in the Romareda.”

The connections allow Zaragoza to tap into the North American market. “We feel much sexier than other clubs at this level,” Sanllehi said. “We have the city, the connectivity, everything. Players want to play before crowds. Ours is bigger than everyone else at this level.”

From the late 1980s to early 2000s, Zaragoza fans were treated to many South American stars. The Cup Winners’ Cup team featured Uruguayan Gus Poyet alongside Argentine internationals Fernando Caceres and Juan Esnaider. Zaragoza’s connection to Argentina was particularly strong: Jorge Valdano first made his name in Europe at the club, while the arrival of wingers Kily Gonzalez and Gustavo Lopez preceded the signings of Milito brothers Diego and Gabriel, alongside Roberto Ayala and Pablo Aimar, in the 2000s. 

Frank Rijkaard, Andreas Brehme and Cafu all had stints at Zaragoza. The Romareda enjoyed Paraguay’s legendary goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert for three years and his international team-mate Roberto Acuna for five seasons. Strikers Fernando Morientes and David Villa rose to prominence at Zaragoza.

Zaragoza’s glory days may be long gone but the fans, as always, remain. Merchandise is everywhere in the city — strikingly so among younger fans. It would be easy for fans to turn to Barcelona or Madrid for their loyalties, but this is a club rooted in its community.

“We have 28,000 season ticket holders,” Sanllehi says. “We had to stop sales because the stadium capacity is 33,000 and we need flexibility to give tickets to other teams.” 

This highlights Zaragoza’s biggest issue: they have the fanbase to succeed but not the infrastructure. A new stadium is central to their future.

Inter Miami’s Chase Stadium opened in 2020 and Mas will oversee a similar development in Spain. Sanllehi describes how Zaragoza’s stadium is “losing the club money every single game”, with it having no VIP area.

“A new stadium benefits everyone,” Sanllehi says. “But we need the club’s image to be modern and progressive. Then there is the financial side. And the World Cup.”

Spain is hosting the 2030 World Cup along with Portugal and Morocco, and Zaragoza has been shortlisted by the Spanish Federation as a potential venue. Demographically and geographically, it ticks all the boxes.

“Zaragoza has to host World Cup matches,” Sanllehi says. The tournament is still six years away, but it has hastened the need for change.

The Romareda is regularly sold out but is in desperate need of modernisation (Tino Gil/Real Zaragoza)

In recent years, dozens of top-level European sides have relocated outside city centres, but Zaragoza will not leave their Romareda area. “It has the location, public transport, parking space, the history, the tradition,” says Sanllehi. “This was the club’s verdict, and the city council’s experts agreed.” 

Work will begin this summer. The ‘New Romareda’ will have a capacity of 43,184, with the works — with a planned competition date of 2028 — ensuring at least 20,000 spectators can attend during the construction. The cost of the stadium is estimated to exceed €150million.

Sanllehi acknowledges fan concerns over an ownership group comprised of outsiders, with plans to change their home. “The Zaragozan pride is very strong,” he says. “This is their club. If those fans lose that sense of ownership, we are dead.”

A key strand of retaining that identity is the academy, which Sanllehi describes as “fundamental” to their future. Zaragoza’s target is for 50 per cent of their first-team squad to be homegrown players. “They have that unique passion, like playing for a national team.” Zaragoza’s 12 first-team youth graduates account for 40 per cent of their squad.

One of Sanllehi’s first acts when he joined Zaragoza was to renew the contracts of its trio of Spain Under-21 internationals: defender Alejandro Frances, midfielder Francho Serrano and forward Ivan Azon, all from the city. “The best squads historically have been based on homegrown players — the Barcelona team of the 2000s won the Champions League with 10 academy players,” says Sanllehi.

“It is not that the academy needs to play like the first team, but the other way round. It is crucial for the club to have that identity, then everything else answers to that.”

Zaragoza’s long-term La Liga absence and the competition’s strict financial rules ensure there can be no spending spree. Financial backing and income from a loyal fanbase help ensure long-standing debts can be paid off and the future is guaranteed. With squad funding limited, clever recruitment and a steady stream of youth-team talent are required.

This season, Zaragoza won their first five league matches but just six of the next 35. They are on course for a third consecutive lower-half league finish in 15th place.

In March, Victor Fernandez returned for a fourth spell as head coach. First appointed in 1991, the 63-year-old masterminded the Cup Winners Cup victory. He had most recently been in charge in 2020 when the club narrowly missed out on promotion — finishing third after Covid-19 brought a sharp downturn in form.

“I’m just another coach, I’m not the saviour,” Fernandez said in March after his appointment, fighting back the tears. Fans did not believe him. The Romareda was sold out for his return, against Espanyol. Zaragoza lost 1-0.

Despite a new stadium in their old home and a new coach who was their previous one, the results continue to underwhelm at Zaragoza. But the fans keep coming back. 

(Top photo by Martin Silva Cosentino/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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