Real Mallorca are establishing themselves as La Liga regulars after a tumultuous period of five division changes in five seasons under their US-led ownership structure
There is a distinct international feel to Real Mallorca. A high-profile US ownership group, a Mexican manager, a former England international as a non-executive director and a squad which features Serbians, Slovakians, a Uruguayan, Senegalese, Colombian, Kosovan and Canadian in its ranks.
Perhaps this should not come as a surprise; the club represent an island with a population of less than 1 million and whose economy is heavily tourism-dependent, with 17 million visitors a year. Their situation presents challenges but also opportunities, with a clear sense on and off the pitch of what the club must become.
“Our aim is to develop players from Mallorca and the Balearic Islands,” the club’s veteran boss Javier Aguirre explained. “The idea is to help them grow and thrive at this club, or at the very top level. This is crucial for the identity of the club.”
Aguirre has spent the best part of three decades in management and has coached over 500 games across five Spanish football clubs. His most memorable stint was at Osasuna, a club he guided to a first-ever Copa del Rey final and top-four finish, almost unthinkably bringing Champions League football to Pamplona. “80 per cent of those players were from our local Navarre region or the academy,” he explained. “That is a key part of the success. When I joined Atletico Madrid, we had just one supporter of the club in the squad but when I left, it was double figures.”
For the Mexican boss, this is a key element for clubs to form an identity and earn success: “Those players love the team and know the club. That mentality makes a big difference for any club and it is important we have it.” Aguirre added: “The main thing with Osasuna was the academy. For Mallorca, I am pressing and advocating for money to be put into our academy. To recruit good managers and good teachers. We need to make Mallorca and the club a home for all our players.”
Long-serving forward Abdon Prats is the only youth-team product who has established himself as a regular in the first-team squad over the years. Mallorca-born and a Mallorca fan, he made his debut for Los Piratos over a decade ago and has played in all three divisions for the club, including the regionalised, 80-team Segunda B. “I play with my hand on my heart and I’m so happy to write history at my club, my home. I came here to watch my idols when I was little, and it’s very special to be able to live these wonderful years with Mallorca, watching the club grow,” Prats has said.
Two seasons ago, Prat scored a last-minute winner on the penultimate day of the campaign that ultimately secured Mallorca’s top-flight status. Speaking ahead of the side’s final game of the season, ironically at Aguirre’s former club Osasuna, Prats pledged: “I’ll speak to all the bosses of our fans to make sure they get the Monday off work.”
The need for a strong local identity is also shared in the boardroom. Former England and Chelsea defender Graeme Le Saux is a non-executive director at the club and has played a key role in the club’s stabilisation in recent years. “Football clubs represent something, they mean something, they are important for the community,” Le Saux – who came close to joining Atletico Madrid instead of Chelsea during his playing career – explained when speaking on Mallorca’s long-term aims. “Mallorcan locals tell me that I can never understand them because I am not a local, but because I am from Jersey – we share some island similarities!”
This summer, NBA icon and Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr became a minority shareholder at Mallorca as part of an ownership restructuring. President Andy Kohlberg – a former tennis doubles champion – became a majority shareholder after acquiring the shares of former Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver. Eight-time NBA All-Star Steve Nash is also a shareholder at the club, having previously served as a director.
With any ownership model, there will be questions asked about their understanding of the club’s idiosyncrasies, personality and identity, but Le Saux has been impressed by what he has seen. “The ownership has focused on what the club means to the stands and what it represents on the pitch,” he explained. “That fosters understanding and community. Our focus is always on the club, the fans and the island. We are united on that front, we want to embrace the uniqueness of Mallorca and overcome the barriers that exist.”
Mallorca’s heyday came in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They twice finished third in La Liga and won the Copa del Rey. Success came in Europe too, eliminating Chelsea en route to a narrow Cup Winners Cup final defeat to Lazio in 1999. Three years later, they beat every side in their Champions League group including a home win over Arsenal but were edged out by the Gunners on goal difference. Their 16-year uninterrupted stint in Spain’s top flight came to an end in 2013 and ushered in a painful period of significant economic problems in which they became perennial relegation battlers in Spain’s second tier.
It was at this juncture, in early 2016, that Sarver and Nash bought the club for just over €20million and asked for the help of Le Saux in evaluating the club’s infrastructure and culture. What was reported back was cause for alarm as the focus immediately turned towards a long-term vision. Relegation to Spain’s regionalised third tier followed 18 months later, an episode that Le Saux described as “the best thing” that has happened to the club: “It allowed them a proper chance to reset.”
With a renewed sense of urgency and focus, Mallorca enjoyed successive promotions back to La Liga and while relegation followed, they immediately bounced back in 2021 and are now entering their third successive season in La Liga. Aguirre, who rejected the chance to work in Japan and Saudi Arabia prior to his appointment in March last year, has described the club as his “family” and insists this feeling is central to his strategy: “I feel like a father figure to all my players.”
Aguirre’s natural charisma lights up any room and it is clear to see why he is so popular with his players, even if that does not always come across on paper. His description of his side’s star striker Vedat Muriqi as a “weird, ugly monster” may have raised a few eyebrows, but the Kosovan was unmoved. “He’s right: I am ugly. I think there’s something wrong with my wife’s eyesight,” Muriqi responded. “And he’s [Aguirre] not so handsome either.”
Aguirre insists “communication” with his players is the reason for his longevity in management. “You can never mislead them, even if it is the worst news,” he explains. “Don’t speak to them via the media or agents, be straight. You must be polite and professional but honesty is the most important factor. I like to think I am friendly and approachable. I don’t think I have some deep understanding of the secret of success, but I believe in honesty.” Muriqi clearly agrees: “You can talk to him about anything.”
Aguirre led the islanders to an improbable top-half finish last season. “I feel at home here, all my family is here, and my players of course,” he adds. “This is my island.” His straight-talking management style is complemented by American ownership with a background of success across different sports, which Le Saux is helping translate into football. The former left-back ensured priority was given to developing the training facilities, introducing a player’s canteen, and modernising the club. Mallorca will always be an international island but it is their home, and producing a sustainable flow of Mallorcan talent is the next priority.
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