THE MOURNING OF SD COMPOSTELA

If the name brings an "oh yes, whatever happened to them?" then read on dear reader, read on....

We are all too familiar with the sad tale of the tumbling colossus, the once-great club who fall from grace and briefly worry about vanishing off the face of the footballing earth. Usually complete with talk of “clinging on to household names”, invariably followed by “financial meltdown”. But who spares a thought for those clubs that were never “too-good-to-go-down” and for whom financial meltdown was a dangerous possibility even when they were safely sat in the top division?

In 2004, if you listened very carefully over the deafening uproar in the aftermath of the relegation of Leeds United, you might have just been able to hear a tiny whimper coming from the town of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, northern Spain. The sound of a small side quietly suffering two demotions in the same year, their financial meltdown all but realised. For a club like SD Compostela the closest players to household names, Peter Hoekstra and Lubo Penev, had long since left when they were unceremoniously booted down two divisions. If you haven’t already guessed, El Compos were hardly a Nottingham Forest or River Plate. They weren’t even a Real Oviedo.

So why is this, the story of a small club becoming marginally smaller, of any interest? Well Compostela were briefly a side who punched considerably above their weight. In 1990 El Compos were happily in the Tercera División, recovering from a match-fixing scandal involving former president Fransisco Steppe. Then, the arrival of charismatic new president José María Caneda brought back-to-back promotions followed by three successful years in the Segunda División. This period culminated in the arrival of the brand new 14,000 seater Estadio Multiusos de San Lazaro and by the end of the 1993/94 season the Promised Land, La Liga.

Compostela spent four glorious seasons in the top flight of Spanish football, finishing in some respectable positions and producing some famous results. Barcelona, Zaragoza, Athletic Bilbao, Sevilla and Atlético Madrid were all sent home defeated from Santiago at some stage or another. Perhaps even sweeter were games against the giants of Galician football - a first season double over Celta de Vigo and some thrashings of Deportivo de la Coruña (4-0 at home and 6-2 away). In their second season Compostela even briefly scaled the dizzy heights of second place, so what went wrong to leave them in the Preferente Autonomica de Galicia, Grupo Norte, four tiers below La Liga only six seasons later?

The first answer is a combination of sheer bad luck and a helping hand from everyone’s favourite footballing philanthropists, FC Barcelona. In Compostela’s fourth and final season in La Liga, they finished 17th, only one point off 14th placed Racing de Santander. They would have been spared a place in the relegation play-offs as long as fellow minnows UD Salamanca didn’t do the unthinkable and win away at the Camp Nou. Barcelona duly fielded a weakened team and capitulated to a 4-1 defeat, leaving El Compos to face a play-off against Villarreal. Only two weeks after walking away from Estadio Riazor after that 2-6 victory over Depor, Villarreal’s away goal victory cast Compostela from La Liga, never to be seen again.

The second factor in Compostela’s sad tale is the classic story of disastrous financial mismanagement. Caneda may have brought the heady heights of top division football, but those Compostela fans that remain he is the man who lined his own pockets with the lucrative proceeds and failed to financially support the club in its hours of need. Whilst in La Liga, Compostela were the only club without a television deal. They had the sort of presidente who failed to pay players wages when results took a turn for the worse and who publically brawled with another chairman on national television. In short, not the man you need when the ship starts sinking. In the turbulent years between 1998 and 2004, the players publically called for Caneda’s head, they went on strike and the club suffered four relegations, twice due to league position and twice due to unpaid debts. The club then spent four seasons in the Preferente Autonomica de Galicia before again winning back-to-back promotions into the Segunda B. Unfortunately, cycles have a habit of repeating themselves and the debt collectors again turned an unsuccessful season into a double relegation, the club once more consigned to the fifth tier of the Spanish football pyramid.

Perhaps the difference between SD Compostela and other sides to fall from grace lies in the town itself. Santiago de Compostela is a small sleepy pueblo tucked away in the north-west corner of the autonomous community of Galicia, and something of an anomaly in the country as its 95,000 residents simply aren’t football-mad. Compostela had a small fan base even when in La Liga, their 14,000 capacity rarely tested even at the top of their game. Even the Galacticos of Real Madrid could only tempt 8,000 to the ground. Galicia has only two clubs as far as the world is concerned and many inhabitants of Santiago count themselves as fans of Depor or Celta de Vigo. Clubs with extensive fan-bases almost invariably bounce back, but Compostela never had this to fall back on, so they slipped away without the world batting an eyelid. This is certainly part of the explanation as offered by the now-departed Presidente, who, of the clubs current plight, declared that, "Es una pena pero es lo que quisieron los ciudadanos de Santiago.” (It’s a shame, but it’s what the citizens of Santiago wanted).

Whatever the reasons for Compostela’s capitulation, next time you discuss the sleeping giants of the game who may have temporarily slipped from their perch, spare a thought for the sleeping minnows. When you talk of the great that was Ronaldo in the glory of his Barcelona years, remember he scored what he called his greatest ever goal on a grey night in October 1996 against a La Liga club that exited the stage with barely even a whimper. And next time you watch El Classico play out in front of hundreds of thousands in the ground and millions more on SKY television; take a moment to remember the 700 who still turn up at SD Compostela, reminiscing that they too lived the dream.

You can follow Benji on Twitter @man_on_football

 

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