Jamie McGregor examines the current state of one of Spain's most viscerally-supported football clubs.
I'm standing on a mountaintop, at the foot of a large statue of Jesus. It's a beautiful day and from up here I can see miles into the distance. Behind me lies the sea while in front of me there are mountains. Below me lies the city, its cathedral, a controversial shopping centre and an impressive looking football stadium. Despite appearances, I'm not in Rio de Janiero but in Oviedo, capital of Asturias. Unlike much of Spain, Asturias was never captured by the Moors, a fact not lost on the locals. In these parts they have an expression, Asturias is Spain and the rest is recaptured land.
The Asturians are not just proud of their history but of all things Asturiano. This includes their beautiful scenery, their food, their cider and of course their football. Few teams in La Liga are as passionately supported as Sporting Gijón, the region's only representative in the top flight. Indeed Sporting are at home today and with the beautiful weather and reduced ticket prices, it's a tempting offer but I'm resisting. Instead I'm heading down the mountain to the stadium I can see below me. The impressive, 32,500-capacity Nuevo Carlos Tartiere Stadium is the biggest in the region and wouldn't look out of place in La Liga. Real Oviedo is a club with a history and fan base worthy of being at the top table, however, today's match against Deportivo Alavés is in fact a third division clash.
How Real Oviedo ended up in the third division is a complicated tale of mismanagement and political interests. It's a tale that saw the club almost go to the wall on several occasions only to see itself saved by the pride and passion of its supporters.
To most young football fans, the name Real Oviedo won't be familiar. Football Weekly followers might recognise the club as being Sid Lowe's Spanish side, while others might remember Stan Collymore's three-match spell at the club in 2001. Indeed it was in that year that Real Oviedo played their last top flight match. Defeat against Real Mallorca on the last game of the season brought a thirteen-year stay in La Liga to an end and started one of the quickest declines in Spanish football history.
Relegation always brings financial consequences. Sponsorship and TV money decreases, attendances drop and big wage earners have to be sold. Real Oviedo went down with the likes of Paulo Bento and Viktor Onopko on the books. Some clubs get lucky and hold onto their stars long enough to get promoted back to the top flight but this never happened with Oviedo. A 7th-placed finish meant another season in Segunda beckoned and that's when the shit really did hit the fan.
Amidst accusations by players that they weren't being paid, the club finished 21st in the league and were relegated. To make matters worse, the players started legal proceedings against the club and this led to the football federation demoting them one league further to Tercera División, the fourth tier of Spanish football. For a club that had spent the majority of its existence in the top flight, relegation to Tercera was a nightmare. If money were hard to come by in Segunda, it would be almost impossible in Terecera.
It was at this juncture that the politicians stepped in, something that rarely works in any business never mind football. The local council, who may or may not have had an agenda against the club's owners, launched a campaign to dissolve the old Real Oviedo and reform the club by merging it with local side Astur CF. The new club would be called Oviedo ACF, sound familiar Wimbledon fans?
The players had had their say, as had the football federation and the politicians but no one had asked the fans what they thought. They rarely do, do they? Unsurprisingly the fans didn't want to see their club's seventy-three year existence come to an end and fought back. Despite being in the fourth division, Real Oviedo registered over 10,000 socios (club members) for the 2003/04 season. Undeterred the local council went ahead with their Oviedo ACF project, buying over Astur CF and changing the name. For the time being, there were two teams in Oviedo. When the two sides met that season, 16,573 people turned up, a league record for Tercera.
On the pitch Real Oviedo won their group, despite starting with a six-point deduction. However winning your group isn't enough to gain promotion and they lost their play-off with Atlético Arteixo in front of 20,000 fans in the Nuevo Carlos Tartiere Stadium. The following season the club were able to put that disappointments behind them and go one better, winning their group and the play-off to move up to Segunda B.
Off the park the fans had shown the club still mattered to them and therefore had a future. In 2007, after only four years in existence, Oviedo ACF was disbanded and Astur CF reclaimed their name and identity. The disappearance of Oviedo ACF was a minor victory for the fans and things seemed to be on the up until season 2006/07. Once again the curse of bad management struck with the board going through three managers with the inevitable bad results on the pitch and finally relegation back to Tercera. It was the first time in the club's history that it had been relegated to Terecera for football and not financial reasons. In Terecera history repeated itself with the club winning their group and failing in the play-off only to go one better the following season.
In season 2008/09, Real Oviedo returned to Segunda B after beating Real Mallorca B in the play-off. Over 27,000 fans turned up for the first leg in the Nuevo Carlos Tartiere Stadium, perhaps looking for some redemption as it was defeat to Real Mallorca which had started the decline in 2001.
Now back in Segunda B, Real Oviedo are fighting to go up to Segunda. The game against league leaders Alavés has attracted a crowd of almost 9,000. The stadium may be less than half full but the Ultras are making one hell of a noise and the game has a good atmosphere. The problems off the park still seem to be there as the game starts with a protest against the current chairman. Just 32km away, double the amount of people are watching Sporting Gijón take on Almería but that is a La Liga tie. As the play-off finals have shown, the more high profile the match, the more people will turn up.
Currently Real Oviedo have 10,500 season ticket holders and over 50 peñas (supporters clubs). Sporting Gijón may be the top club in Asturias at the moment but Real Oviedo only sit one place below them in the all time La Liga table. The fact that Real Oviedo remain so close to Sporting despite having been out of the top flight for ten seasons demonstrates just how strong a club they were in the past. Ten years is a long time in football and who knows where Real Oviedo will be then. Perhaps they'll be in the top flight, pulling in larger crowds than Sporting? Perhaps they'll be back in Tercera embroiled in another financial disaster? It could easily be either of the two but what is for sure is that they will still be passionately supported by one of the most passionate regions in the country.
Jamie is the editor of the outstanding Spanish Football Info, IBWM's favourite Spanish football site.