Alavés won the hearts of millions when they almost shocked the world in 2001. But as Jamie McGregor reports, their subsequent fortunes have been topsy-turvey at best.
In the north of Spain, 65 km from Bilbao, lies the city of Vitoria. Despite being the capital of the Basque Country, Vitoria plays second fiddle to the region's two most important cities. Bilbao, with its heavy industry, has always been the economic heartbeat of the region while San Sebastián, with its picturesque beaches and Michelin star restaurants, is the cultural centre. Of course there is one more factor that confirms Vitoria's position as the third city of the Basque Country: its football team. On the football field there is no doubt Bilbao and San Sebastián are the two big powers in the region. While Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad are established Primera División clubs, Vitoria´s Deportivo Alavés play in the third flight of Spanish football. The closest Alavés get to playing the big two these days is when they face their reserve sides – but not that long ago things were very different.
This week marks the tenth anniversary of arguably the greatest UEFA Cup final ever. On May 16th 2001 Deportivo Alavés took on Liverpool in the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund. The English side were overwhelming favourites against the little known Spanish side and when Marcus Babbel and Steven Gerrard scored two goals in the opening fifteen minutes, the game seemed to be over. With a mountain to climb, Alavés coach José Manuel Esnal replaced defender Dan Eggen with striker Iván Alonso and four minutes later the Uruguayan fired his side back into the game. With their tails up, the Basques then pushed for an equaliser but a combination of poor finishing and good goalkeeping kept them at bay. It was looking as if Alavés would go in at the break a goal down but on forty-one minutes Michael Owen was brought down in the box and Gary McAllister stroked home the spot kick to increase Liverpool's lead.
With Liverpool re-establishing their two-goal lead, the second half looked a forgone conclusion but in an incredible opening six minutes, Javi Moreno struck twice to pull Alavés level. With fifty-one minutes on the clock, the score was tied at 3-3 and the momentum was most definitely with Alavés. Both sides then made changes with Esnal replacing Moreno with Magno Mocelin. With fifteen minutes to play Liverpool regained the lead when Robbie Fowler curled the ball past Martín Herrera. This time the game looked to be settled but incredibly, with one minute to go, Alavés pulled level once again. This time the goal hero was none other than Jordi Cruyff, who headed home an eighty-ninth minute corner to take the game to extra time. Cup finals are known for being edgy affairs with few goals but this one had produced eight and, with the golden goal rule in place, there was still time for one more.
Alavés had done incredibly well to take the game to extra time but in the process they'd picked up various bookings. Sadly, this came back to haunt them in extra time with both Magno Mocelin and Antonio Karmona shown second yellows. Karmona's dismissal was to prove decisive as it led to a Liverpool free kick on the edge of the box. With just three minutes of extra time left, McAllister swung in a dangerous cross that Delfí Geli headed into his own net. It was perhaps the cruelest possible way for Alavés to lose what had been an astonishing match. After the match, Alavés took many of the plaudits for pushing one of Europe's top clubs so close. José Manuel Esnal, the coach who led them there, declared: “Dortmund has seen a great final, and it was possibly the smallest team in the competition that made it great.” Esnal then went on to state, We played with pride and class to get the score back to 4–4 at the end of normal time, the result of that, however, was that we were half dead going into extra-time. But we're the same team as we were two hours ago.”
Two hours after the final, Alavés may well have been the same team they were before it but the question you're perhaps asking is how are they ten years after it? The answer, I'm afraid, is not good.
This Sunday, a day before the ten year anniversary of their biggest ever match, Deportivo Alavés took on Zamora CF in the final league match of the 2010/2011 Segunda B season. As it turns out, it won't be the club's last match as a top four finish has secured a play-off spot and a chance to win promotion to the second tier. Securing a play-off sounds good but the atmosphere in the ground is anything but festitive. The 7,000 or so spectators seem nervous every time their team attempt to play the ball from the back. Alavés started the season in great form and were even proclaimed Winter Champions after finishing the first half of the season top of the league. However, the second half has been much less consistent with the club slipping down to fourth. Luckily, fourth is still enough to make it into the play-offs but the loss of form is worrying. Alavés do little to reassure their fans as they throw away a half-time lead to draw 1-1 with Zamora.
Outside the stadium there are posters advertising events to mark the anniversary of the cup final which also coincides with the ninetieth anniversary of the club. It should be a happy occasion but it seems sad to see how far the club has slipped. Watching them struggle against Zamora, it's really hard to believe that ten years ago the same club beat Inter Milan 0-2 in the San Siro.
So what happened? Where did it all go wrong? The answer, as always, is bad management. Two seasons after their UEFA Cup final appearance, Alavés finished 19th in La Liga and were relegated to Segunda. While relegation is always a blow, it doesn't have to be fatal. Alavés had been known for being a financially secure club so on the face of it, they had nothing to fear. The problems started to arise when club was bought by Dmitry Piterman.
Piterman is one of the strangest characters to have ever been involved in Spanish football. An American of Ukrainian descent, Piterman had had a previous spell as owner of Racing Santander. Like many foreign owners, Piterman wanted to influence the team selection, in fact he wanted to appoint himself as coach. As he didn't have the correct knowledge, experience and most importantly licenses to do so, he appointed Chuchi Cos as manager and controlled the team through him. So desperate was Piterman to be the coach, he even passed himself off as an accredited journalist and photographer so he could be as close as possible to the dugout.
As you might have already guessed, Piterman wasn't the greatest coach and he was eventually forced out of Racing Santander. Undettered, he moved onto to Alavés where he promised promotion back to Primera División. To the fans' delight, Piterman put his money where his mouth was and spent big to achieve a third place finish and promotion back to the top flight. However, once back in Primera, Piterman's habbit of interfering re-emerged as the club went through three coaches in one season. One of the coaches, Juan Carlos Oliva, was sacked while on a five game unbeaten run. The reason, for ignoring orders from above. Unsurprisingly, Alavés went straight back down.
The drop back down to Segunda led to a major falling out between the fans and Piterman. It also led to confrontations between the players and Piterman with the latter threatening one player, Lluís Carreras, in front of the whole dressing room before sacking him days later. Piterman's time at the club was fast coming to an end and when he finally left in 2007, the club was left to pick up the pieces. During his four years in charge, the club's debt had tripled to 23M €. With the financial situation now dire, the club had to cut costs and big earners had to go. A last day win against Real Sociedad kept Alavés in Segunda in 2008 but in 2009 the inevitable happened and the club dropped to Segunda B for the first time since 1995.
Alavés are coming to the end of their second season in Segunda B with the prime goal being promotion back to Segunda. The Segunda B play-off system is notoriously tough and very complicated to explain and the feeling amongst the fans is that Alavés will probably fall short. The memory of their UEFA Cup final appearance, rather than helping the club, seems to be hanging over it as a constant reminder of how far they've fallen. However, there's always hope in football and Alavés' hope comes in the form of successful Basque businessman Josean Querejeta, owner of the local basketball team Saski Baskonia. Querejeta has turned Baskonia into one of Spain's most successful basketball clubs and Vitoria's current source of sporting pride, a position once held by Alavés. So let's hope that Querejeta or whoever takes over at Alavés can regain some pride and that the twentieth anniversary of Dortmund, the club's centenary year, will be a much happier affair.
Jamie is a regular contributor to IBWM, and also edits our favourite Spanish football website, Spanish Football Info.