By Dan Parry
On the 18th of December 2008 in a Uefa Cup group match, Real Racing Club de Santander (Racing Santander) thrashed a recently purchased Manchester City 3-1 in their home stadium, El Sardinero.
Although that victory wasn’t enough to see Racing progress from the group, which also contained FC Twente (at that time Dutch champions), Schalke 04 and Paris St. Germain, the Cantabrian side had given a reasonable account of themselves and there was no reason to believe that this would end up being their only European campaign to date.
But whilst Man City and Paris St. Germain continued to grow into powerhouses, Racing Santander spiralled downwards. Over the past ten years, the historic club, a founding member of La Liga and one of the league’s staple teams for many years, has suffered much hardship.
Relegations, dodgy owners, financial mismanagement on a scale beyond belief have lead to the club enduring its darkest and most saddening times.
Ten years ago, they beat current English champions Manchester city and narrowly missed qualifying for the next round of the UEFA Cup. On the 13th May last season, they were defeated 0-2 by Real Unión de Irun, ending their hopes of getting a play-off place and leaving them in the complicated Segunda División B for yet another year.
From their promotion in the 93/94 season until 2011/12, with the exception of a solitary campaign in the Segunda in 2001/02, Santander were a mainstay of La Liga.
All seemed fine on the surface but Santander’s problems should have been obvious from the beginning of the century. The club were often stuck in relegation battles, the managerial office door was of the revolving kind, and there was a general lack of stability at El Sardinero.
The problems were exacerbated in 2003 when the eccentric American/Ukrainian businessman Dmitri Piterman brought a twenty-four percent controlling stake in the club.
Within a day of his purchase of the club nearly all of the coaching staff ‘resigned’, including manager Manuel Preciado and Director of Football Quique Setien.
Unbelievably, Piterman insisting on playing the role of owner/coach himself, even though he had little prior experience of the sport and no actual coaching certificates.
His desire to be on the touchline in spite of not having an appropriate licence caused quite the stir. La Liga’s hierarchy even attempted to ban Piterman from sitting in the Racing dugout during games. Something which he often sidestepped by granting himself match day credentials as a photographer, journalist or even a kitman.
And like all great con-men, the owner had a frontman/partner in crime in the form of Chuchi Cos. Cos would play the official role of manager whilst following the instructions of Piterman.
The situation became too embarrassing for some at Santander and at the end of the year the businessman was effectively muscled out of the club and his predecessor Santiago Diaz reassumed control.
Not to be deterred from achieving his dream, not long after getting over the incredulity of being ousted at Santander, Piterman bought Deportivo Alavés, where he embarked upon taking the club on its very own journey to near obliteration.
With Piterman out of the picture, life at Santander carried on as before. They continued to be a club that couldn’t steer clear of a relegation battle.
It was in the 2005/6 season that Los Racinguistas skirted mostly dangerously with the drop zone and when Manuel Preciado resigned with four games of the season still to be played it was up Nando Yosu to come in and save the club.
He did so in the penultimate fixture, leaving Santander one point above none other than Piterman’s Alaves.
The high point of this period came in 2007/08. Current Valencia manager Marcelino inspired Cantabrians to European qualification for the first time in their history thanks to a sixth-place finish. However, the prospect of European football was not enough to keep the much sought-after Asturian at the club.
At the end of the campaign he resigned from his position in order to take over at second division side Real Zaragoza. The fans, club and media alike were flabbergasted, Marcelino was not only giving up continental competition, but he was also dropping down a league.
He stated that Zaragoza was, in his opinion, better equipped to compete for higher honours in the long term. It’s reasonable that Marcelino genuinely believed this to be true.
His statement upon leaving suggested there was still chaos behind the scenes and he simply jumped ship knowing that the successes of 2007/08 would be difficult to repeat and that his ambitions as a manager wouldn’t be fulfilled. Either way losing a talented manager in this manner was a desperately embarrassing moment for the club.
In early 2011, with Racing languishing in 16th place, they finally found a saviour. This time in the form of Indian multi-millionaire businessman, Ashan Ali Sayed.
Sayed promised the world, he brought Marcelino back and spoke of turning Santander into a third power, one capable of challenging Real Madrid and Barcelona. He was going to pay off the club’s substantial debts, invest money into the footballing infrastructure and give Marceliño 50€ million euros for new signings…
It soon became clear that Sayed was just another charlatan. Wages and bills went unpaid and promises were not kept. It turned out that Santander’s new owner was not quite as liquid as he made out.
As the debts piled up and the vultures loomed, the situation became even more mortifying for Racinguistas. Yet again the club had been swindled, Sayed was nowhere to be seen, he had vanished completely. As hard as the club -and Interpol- tried, he couldn’t be tracked down.
Sayed was a serial con-man, his money had been made from sophisticated scams. His supposed company, Western Gulf Advisory, would promise businessmen hundreds of millions in loans for an advanced fee, only to take their money and run without providing the promised funds.
Furthermore, his previous attempts to buy Premier League side Blackburn failed as investigations into his finances showed that he had unpaid council taxes due in the UK dating back years. The writing was on the wall, but the Santander hierarchy chose to ignore it.
Miguel Ángel Revilla, President of Cantabria, later admitted that he had recieved several warnings from people telling him not to let the club do business with Sayed. But he chose to ignore the advice as investigations carried out by Deloitte and Credit Suisse showed that the Indian tycoon was legitimate.
An article on Marca from April 2011 stated that Sayed never intended to be at the club for longer than 3 months. His original plan had been to buy the club before selling it on to the Bahranian royal family at a huge profit.
The masterplan hit a snag when the Arab Spring stopped the family and representatives from attending Racing’s home game against Real Madrid, the moment Sayed had intended to use so as to convince the Bahranians to buy the club.
At the end of the 2011 season Marcelino left again, this time for Sevilla. He took aim at Sayed with his parting words.
“He has tricked us all and he has failed to keep a single promise.”
The following season Racing Santander were relegated to the Segunda División and a year after that in April 2013 Ali Sayed was finally deemed unfit to run the club and relinquished his shares. Several arrest warrants have been issued for the Indian since but so far he has managed to avoid capture.
There never ceasing wheel of misfortune didn’t stop there though. Unfortunately for Racing fans, they would be made to suffer more yet.
Apart from the constant power struggles and legal issues that had engulfed the club since Sayed did his runner, they managed to survive only one season in the Segunda before dropping down to the Segunda B. Then, In January 2014, the Cantabrians hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons once more.
Having not been paid their wages since September 2013, the players grew increasingly frustrated before deciding to make a stand. In the home leg of their Copa del Rey game against Almería, the Racing players stood motionless for 20 seconds after the referee blew his whistle for kick-off.
The Almería players didn’t take advantage of the situation and passed the ball amongst themselves before kicking the ball out for a throw-in, after which the game resumed as normal.
Around the 60 minute mark, a group fans voiced their own frustrations in a much more vocal and physical manner as they attempted to storm the director’s box. Bottles were thrown and kicks were launched but security were unable to escort club president Ángel Lavin and the rest of the directors out of the stadium relatively unscathed.
Amazingly, Racing Santander still managed a draw against the top flight side before defeating them 2-0 in the second leg. This meant they progressed to the quarter finals where they would face another top tier side, Real Sociedad.
Before the the tie the players had warned that they would protest again unless they were properly paid and the President and his board stood down.
At El Sardinero, in the return leg, the Racing players repeated their actions of the previous round. As the referee blew for the game to start, the players walked slowly towards the centre-circle, linked arms and refused to participate.
The bemused Real Sociedad players shifted the ball back and forth amongst themselves for half a minute before booting it off the pitch. The ref blew for a throw-in but unlike against Almería the Racing players, still arm-in-arm, did not budge.
The referee beckoned Captain and Goalkeeper, Mario Fernández, who duly informed the official that his players, on this occasion, would not be competing at all. The referee abandoned the game instantly and Real Sociedad went through to the semi-finals with an automatic 3-0 victory.
A stellar cup run that should have been a joyous moment for a club hard on its luck became a bittersweet showing of defiance. How hard it must have been for the players and staff to boycott such a match. But at the end of the day they have mouths to feed and bills to pay like everyone else.
After one season back in the Segunda, Racing fell back down to the third tier again in 2015/16. The club are in their fourth consecutive season in the league and although they consistently do well -normally finishing in the top 4- they struggle to make it past the play-offs.
In July 2017, with the club once more on the brink of liquidation, the control of the entity changed hands again. This time a consortium of Cantabrian businessman under the name Grupo Pitma swooped in to buy up a little over 60% of the total shares.
This season they are currently sitting rosy at the top of the league, a cool 5 points ahead of nearest rivals Mirandés and displays of sumptuous attacking football, which have seen them score 37 goals after 18 games, have brought hope and smiles back to the faces of their loyal fans.
The past ten years has been the stuff of nightmares for Racing Santander, it seems as though the light is at the end of the tunnel but one can never be truly sure what lurks around the corner for this club. What is certain though is this: they don’t deserve to be where they are, and the fact they are there is unjust.
What’s more remarkable is that despite that complete and utter mess of the past two decades, Racing Santander are still drawing in crowds of over 9,000, an astronomical number in comparison with their league rivals.
All the essential ingredients for a successful club are there: Historic club, great fans, fantastic stadium and facilities, good players and staff. All that’s needed now is a bit of stability, fans have been waiting almost 20 years for it. But once it’s there, they’ll surely be a force to be reckoned with once again.
Photo Courtesy of Pablo Gutierrez Cepeda