Heroes of Galicia, Champions of Spain: Remembering Deportivo’s La Liga Triumph
Deportivo La Coruña went into the 1999/00 season as yesterday’s nearly men. They ended it with a first ever league title, as a band of heroes whom Galicia would never forget.
On the final day of the 1993/94 season, Deportivo La Coruña had a chance to achieve the spectacular. Promoted to La Liga only three years previous, the Galicians were one game away from winning their first ever domestic title, and completing one of the most unlikely of triumphs in the history of the Spanish top flight. They faced Valencia on the last day of the season, holding a narrow one-point lead over second-placed Barcelona. It was the ultimate underdog story, and two points – Spain had not yet instituted three points for a win – would see it come to a glorious and unforgettable end.
Johan Cruyff's Blaugrana had gone 14 matches undefeated, so Deportivo could hardly rely on them to slip up. It was absolutely imperative that they beat Valencia, who had held them to a 0-0 draw at the Mestalla earlier in the campaign. Depor had reason to be hopeful, however, with the game being held at their formidable home ground, the Estadio Riazor. The match opened at frenetic pace. Soon enough, news filtered through on the fans' portable radios that Barcelona had gone a goal down to Seville.
With the atmosphere at the Riazor jubilant, Depor further picked up the pace. When a corner fell to the feet of star striker Bebeto, the stand rose in unison to celebrate a title-clinching goal. In a gut-wrenching twist of fate, his two-yard toe poke had been kept out by a reflex save from Valencia's reserve keeper Jose Gonzalez. Barcelona had equalised by this point, and the tension in the stands soon reached fever pitch.
With the game at the Riazor flowing back and forth at this point, more good news came over the wireless. Seville were leading Barca once more, with Davor Suker heading them back in front. If would only take one goal for Depor, and the title would surely be heading to Galicia. The supporters were straining at the sidelines, screaming their team on.
Nonetheless, the whistle went with the game goalless. In the dressing room of the Camp Nou, Barcelona were given time to regroup. They came out all guns blazing, equalising against Seville through Hristo Stoichkov. Meanwhile, Depor were peppering the Valencia goal with punts, potshots and piledrivers. Still, the home side couldn't find a way through.
Then came the news that Deportivo fans were dreading. Romario had put Barcelona ahead, before Michael Laudrup added another for the Catalans. The Camp Nou was thundering with applause, while the Riazor rocked on its heels. In an attempt to put his men back on the front foot, Depor manager Arsenio Iglesias substituted defensive midfielder and designated penalty taker Donato. This proved to be a pivotal decision. If Donato had stayed on the pitch, Deportivo might have been champions.
With the score now 5-2 at the Nou Camp, there was hardly any time for Deportivo to nab their winning goal. Then, in the last minute, it looked like they might finally get their reward. Depor were awarded a penalty, after left-back Nando was brought down in the box. Up stepped Serbian sweeper Miroslav Dukic. With the ground falling to a hushed silence, he placed the ball nervously on the spot.
Seconds later, Deportivo's dream was over. Dukic had seen his weak penalty saved by Gonzalez, and Barcelona had won the league.
There are not many teams who would recover from losing the title on the final day, especially in such heartbreaking fashion. Depor had missed out by a whisker, with Barca beating them on head-to-head alone. The psychological blow was massive, especially considering their underdog status. They had come so close to defying the odds, only to see their efforts reduced to nothing in the cruellest possible way.
Despite the devastation of their last-minute failure, Deportivo continued to perform well over the next couple of seasons. The fans spent that summer raking over the coals of their disappointment, but returned to the Riazor with fire in their bellies once the 1994/95 campaign had begun. Depor finished runners up to Real Madrid that term, though it was never quite as close as the previous season. It was still a magnificent achievement for the men in white and blue, made even more special by their victory over Valencia in the final of the Copa del Rey.
That win represented more than just a grudge match for Deportivo. Sure, it gave the club some measure of revenge against the team that had spoilt their title party, but that paled into insignificance compared to the value of the silverware. In the 89 years since Deportivo's foundation, the club had never before won a major honour. With Depor playing in the same league as the giants of El Clasico, that puts the relative obscurity of the Galician team into perspective.
The truth is, Deportivo couldn't have been more different to the global giants of La Liga. While Real Madrid and Barcelona were busy accruing vast wealth in any way possible, Depor were a regional club with a passionate local following, cast in a humble, unpretentious mould. If Real and Barca were the kings of Spanish football, Depor were the Galician shepherds, roaming the hills and coastlines of Spain's temperate north-west. They had been happy enough pottering from the Segunda Division to the lower echelons of La Liga, and back again. Now, they were Copa del Rey winners. They had finally sampled the taste of success, after decades living the simple life on the cliffs of the Cantabrian Sea.
When it came to attaining the ultimate glory, however, most would have dismissed Depor as yesterday's nearly men. They had blown their chance to win the title, and it would not be coming around again any time soon. Arsenio Iglesias bowed out in 1995, and was succeeded by Welshman John Toshack. Three turbulent seasons followed, in which Depor went into gradual decline.
The players who had come so close to the title in 1994 were now ageing, and found themselves mired in the middle of the table. Though Rivaldo shone for the team during the 1996/97 season, he was quickly snapped up by Barcelona, leaving Depor with a gaping hole in the team. The 1997/98 campaign ended in a lacklustre 12th-placed finish, though a core of players that included goalkeeper Jacques Songo'o, diminutive midfielder Djalminha and durable centre-back Noureddine Naybet had at least started to bed in. Then, in the summer of 1998, came the arrival of Javier Irureta. He was the manager who would revitalise Depor, and the man who would lead them to success beyond their wildest imaginings.
With expectations dampened by several seasons of drudgery, the studious-looking Irureta set about assembling a team that could outdo the achievements of their mid '90s predecessors. He signed a raft of new players ahead of his first full campaign, acquiring a couple of lung-busting full-backs in the form of Manuel Pablo and Enrique Romero, both of whom would go on to become long-serving stalwarts of the club. He also secured the signing of mercurial striker José "Turu" Flores from Las Palmas, who would have a crucial part to play over the next couple of seasons. Things didn't get off to the best start for the new-look squad, however.
Come January, Deportivo found themselves 12th in the table. Defensively suspect despite their increased attacking verve, they had just lost to Racing Santander in the league, and come close to a Copa del Rey exit to Segunda Division side Sporting Gijon. There was serious unrest in the stands, not helped by Irureta's past association with Depor's Galician rivals Celta Vigo. The fans were resigned to another campaign of mid-table obscurity, and their one-time title hopes had never felt further from being realised.
That is what makes Irureta's subsequent achievement so extraordinary. Depor dug their heels in, regrouped, and went on a quite spectacular run. They beat Celta and Mallorca in the cup, Real Madrid in the league, and eventually ended up finishing sixth, qualifying for Europe in the process. Despite losing to Atletico Madrid in their cup semi-final, Irureta's men had got the fans back on board.
This was the start of something special for Depor, something almost nobody would have envisaged. Irureta made several impressive signings ahead of the 1999/00 season, snapping up Cesar Martin, Victor Sanchez and, most importantly, Roy Makaay. Martin and Sanchez would go on to spend seven years apiece in Galicia, the former growing into a hulking centre-back and the latter becoming a crucial source of goals from the midfield. Meanwhile, Makaay would become a true legend at the club. The Dutchman arrived from Tenerife as a bright young striker, and would leave Depor for Bayern Munich four years later with just under 100 goals to his name.
Irureta wanted his team to express themselves, and they began to implement his attacking vision. Deportivo started the campaign with a comprehensive 4-1 home win over Alavez, Makaay scoring a hat-trick on his league debut for the club. Though a spate of difficult results left them seventh by the end of September, they then went on a seven-match winning run, beating Atletico Madrid, Celta and title-favourites Barcelona along the way. Depor were a team fuelled by flair and confidence, going for goals and glory over pragmatism and playing it safe. They climbed to the top of the table after a 5-2 win over Seville in November, before beating Malaga in the Copa Del Rey. All the while, they were busy playing UEFA Cup football, defeating Stabaek, Montpellier and Panathinaikos to reach the latter stages of the tournament.
Just prior to Christmas, it looked like things might unravel for Depor. Having tasted defeat at the hands of title-rivals Real Zaragoza, they went on to lose to Alavez and Racing Santander, taking one point from a possible 12 at the turn of the year. From thereon out, the title race descended into chaos. Depor struggled for consistency, but so too did their nearest rivals. The top teams seemed to zigzag between wins and losses, with nobody able to capitalise on the Galicians' weird and wavering form.
In late March, Deportivo were beaten 2-1 at the Nou Camp. Barcelona had cut their lead to two points, leaving the fans reliving the painful memories of 1994. This time, however, Depor found a response. They went on to beat Oviedo, Seville and Atletico and, having gone out of the UEFA Cup to Arsenal, they were left with a clear run at the title. They only needed to eke out their last few matches. Makaay made sure they maintained their momentum, popping up with priceless goals even when the rest of the team faltered.
On the final day of the season, Depor went into their home game against Espanyol knowing that a win would secure the championship. It was 1994 all over again, with Barcelona behind them waiting to pounce. This time, Deportivo were not to be denied. The decisive goal was scored by none other than Makaay, before all of La Coruña was flooded with fans in blue and white, singing, cheering and weeping with joy.
At the end of the match, there was a mass pitch invasion at the Riazor. The players were hauled onto the shoulders of the fans, and paraded around the turf like gods. They had achieved what even Arsenio Iglesias' beloved team could not, bringing the title to Galicia for the first time. Day faded to night, and fireworks exploded over the blue bays of the city. The streets were awash with jubilant supporters, chanting the names of their new heroes long after the lights had gone off at the Nou Camp, and the people of Barcelona had gone grumbling to their beds.
For most Depor fans, the thought of the club winning the league had seemed like a pipe dream. Now, the team were the heroes of Galicia, and the undisputed champions of Spain. They ended the season five points ahead of Barcelona and Valencia, and a whopping seven points ahead of Real Madrid. Their success was a vindication, but also something quite unprecedented. For a season at least, the title nestled amongst the foothills and promontories of La Coruña. With the landscape of Spanish football so changed in the time since, who knows whether Galicia will ever see such a feat again.