A Coruña is a port city in the northwest corner of Spain with a population of around a quarter of a million. The city’s football club, Deportivo, currently plays in the third tier of the Spanish game, which makes their greatest success, just 21 years ago, seem all the more remarkable.
For any club other than the big three in Spain to win the league is remarkable, but Deportivo La Coruña’s title triumph in 2000 was a truly seismic achievement. What’s more, for half a decade, Deportivo were perched in the top three. Halcyon days for Los Herculinos.
Prior to Deportivo’s unlikely success in 2000, the Spanish title had gone to Real Madrid or Barcelona for 15 years, with the exception of Atlético Madrid in 1996. In the early 1990s, Deportivo stumbled into a golden period where they went agonisingly close to winning the league, losing out on goal difference to Barcelona. The club had Brazilian star Bebeto in their line-up, a talented individual who was signed from Vasco da Gama in 1992.
Deportivo’s fortunes really changed when politician and businessman, Augusto Joaquín Lendoiro became president of the club in 1988. He was also a sports fan and had been involved in both football and roller hockey. When he arrived at the club, they were struggling on and off the field of play. Indeed, they were on the brink of relegation to the third tier of Spanish football. He wanted Deportivo to challenge the big guns and upon taking his seat, he proclaimed, “Barca, Madrid, we’re here!.” People laughed about Leondoiro’s flippant boast, but in just a few years, Deportivo rose to the very top.
As it turned out, the president’s approach to running the club almost ended in disaster, in fact, the coach who managed the team in Leondoiro’s early years, Arsenio Iglesias, later said that the result of “Leondoirism” was virtual bankruptcy of Deportivo. Between 1992-93 and 1999-00, Deportivo were the third biggest spenders in Spain, they paid-out the equivalent of £ 141 million, some £ 45 million less than Real Madrid and £ 50 million lower than Barcelona. While they spent heavily, the club’s attendances were dwarfed by the big two, the Deportivo average was just 24,000 in 1993 compared to Barca’s 79,000 and Real’s 73,000.
As notable players arrived at Deportivo, so their league performance improved; between 1992-93 and 1998-99, they finished in the top three four times and in 1994, they lost the league title on goal difference, with Barcelona, an all-star team packed with talent, the eventual champions. Deportivo went into the final game on top of the table, a point ahead of Barca. While the leaders were at home to Valencia, Barca hosted Sevilla. Deportivo just couldn’t break down Valencia and drew 0-0, with Miroslav Djukić missing a late penalty, while Barca recovered from early setbacks to beat Sevilla 5-2.
As heartbreaking as this was for Deportivo – they had been top since November – they went close again in 1995, finishing runners-up by four points and winning the Copa del Rey. Bebeto, who had scored 86 league goals in 131 games between 1992 and 1996, departed for Flamengo. But between 1996 and 1999, the core of the team that would take Deportivo to new heights was assembled. Flávio Conceição was signed from Palmeiras for the equivalent of around £ 5 million, while another Brazilian, Djalmina, came from the same club a year later. In 1998, Manual Pablo, a Spanish international right back, arrived from La Palmas and left back Enrique Romero was secured from Mallorca. The club also hired a new coach in the form of Javier Irureta from Celta Vigo. Portuguese forward Pauleta, a prolific scorer and one of the most consistent in Europe, was signed from Salamanca. Another Las Palmas forward, José Oscar Flores, who won two caps for Argentina, was also added to the squad.
The key player among the new acquisitions was Roy Makaay, a 24 year-old Dutch international who had been playing for Tenerife. In the summer of 1999, the club paid 10 million pesetas for a striker who was strong in the air and fast on the ground. The Deportivo team was very multi-cultural, less than half of their 26-man squad was Spanish and other nationalities included Brazilians, Moroccans, Argentinians, Portuguese, a Dutchman, a Cameroonian, a Yugoslav and a Czech.
The squad was full of depth with highly technical players like Fran, Djalmina and Mauro Silva and was generally considered to be committed to attack but was also able to apply tough defensive tactics.
Deportivo started the 1999-00 season on fire, coming from behind to beat Alavés 4-1 with Makaay scoring a hat-trick. He proved to be the man for the big occasion, scoring both goals to beat Barcelona 2-1 at the end of October. Makaay wasn’t in the team when Deportivo hit top spot after beating Sevilla 5-2 at the Riazor stadium on November 21. They remained top for the rest of the season, despite hitting a rough patch in the new year.
They bounced back to their early season form in February, beating Real Madrid 5-2 at home, but some clumsy results meant that the title race was going to continue right until the final game of the campaign, with Barcelona and Real Zaragoza chasing Deportivo all the way.
Finally, Deportivo were crowned champions on May 19 2000, racing into a 2-0 lead inside 34 minutes against Espanyol through Donato and Makaay. Meanwhile, Barca were losing 2-0 at the interval against Celta Vigo at the Camp Nou and Zaragoza got off to an excellent start at Valencia. “We knew we were close to winning the title, but we still had 45 minutes to go,” said Irureta some years later. “We wanted to do this for those that played in 1994.” And so they did, winning 2-0. Barca were held 2-2 and Zaragoza capitulated and lost 2-1. “We have completed the work of the 1994 team,” beamed Irureta.
It was an achievement that may never be repeated. It was the year 2000, in a relatively short timeframe, football has become polarised, the elite clubs now dominate and control the game and have effectively created closed shop membership of that group. When Deportivo were champions of Spain, dreams were still possible, provincial football clubs could still occasionally compete. But probably not today.