by Tom Barnett
It’s injury time minute and a plucky, unfancied side is holding on to a slender lead against a Barcelona side heralded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, club sides of all time. Only the venue is far removed from Glasgow and Lionel Messi isn’t even four years old yet; instead we’re in North Western Spain on January 13th 1991 and Real Oviedo are enjoying victory in a memorable encounter on the way to their best ever La Liga finish.
It’s a funny old world sometimes. Last week we saw Celtic score one of the great nights of their own long and memorable history with a remarkable victory over a Barcelona side in a fantastic night of Champions League football, a competition where you can’t move for sponsorship, branding and high-stakes prize money. The official beer, ball, car seat…everything is there, along with a multinational collection of the greatest players in the world playing in some of the most glamorous locations world football has to offer.
It’s a far cry from the reality felt by most football clubs, particularly in the lower leagues, where these proud public institutions are becoming ever more dependent on fans for survival.
You might have read over the last few days about the move by Real Oviedo to sell shares to far-flung fans across the globe in a bid to survive, with Guardian journalist Sid Lowe in particular using his social media prowess to spread word of the cause. This isn’t just a float to go public in order to buy new players and push up the leagues, this is a last ditch attempt to keep the club alive.
For me, this all seems very strange. Founded in 1926, Oviedo punched above their weight through the 20th century, with time spent in the Segunda and sizeable stints in La Liga, albeit without too much notable top-level success. In 1988 they were once again promoted to La Liga and were a mainstay of the (generally lower) mid-table regions of Spain’s top tier for over a decade, making many appearances on Sky Sports of a Saturday night – a key reason perhaps why their story has captured the imagination of football fans across the UK in particular.
Oviedo offer a cautionary tale to every single club in Spain, where financial mismanagement goes far beyond the top two of Real Madrid and Barcelona. The numbers involved across the board are absolutely staggering, and well documented in Kane Prior’s piece on Spanish football’s financial crisis back in September.
Oviedo’s finest season in the modern era came in 1991 when they finished 6th and qualified for the UEFA Cup. That season they took four points off Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona, fondly remembered as the Dream Team and featuring players like Ronald Koeman, Txiki Begiristain, Michael Laudrup and Hristo Stoichkov, including a memorable 1-0 home win secured with an early goal by Ricardo Bango.
They were eliminated in their one and only UEFA Cup appearance by Genoa, but continued to pile on the misery for Barcelona – a dominant side in the middle of winning four league titles in a row – with a 2-1 win at the Camp Nou following their exit from Europe.
If it weren’t for these fans, the same fans keeping the club alive today, it’s likely that Oviedo would have gone under
This was made even worse as Oviedo had recently opened a brand new 30,000 seater stadium, the council-owned, Carlos Tartiere.
Oviedo finished second in their first season following relegation from the Segunda, but never looked like going up and finished a long way off the promotion places.
In my opinion, this is the moment to which you can trace their current-day decline; proper investment and a bit of good fortune may have seen them push for promotion, however this investment was not forthcoming and they fell into an even worse financial state, struggling to pay players and debts – a situation further exasperated when club captain Oli was among the players that took them to court for unpaid wages.
Under these incredibly tough circumstances they floundered and were again relegated at the end of their second season, finishing eight points off survival. Things went from bad to worse, with the Spanish FA punishing Oviedo further for failing to pay its players by relegating them to the Tercera division – Spain’s fourth tier, along with a further six point deduction for the start of the new season.
Some fans cried foul at the time; not at the league, but at the players themselves. By taking legal action and triggering relegation to the fourth tier, Oviedo was no longer in a position to keep many of its players. It’s a difficult situation to assess as one can understand the players’ desires to leave, but matters were made worse by the fact that many felt they weren’t putting in their fullest efforts on the pitch.
The drop in their final league position from 2001/02 to 2002/03 despite keeping most of their personnel would, however, suggest there’s something in the theory that the players themselves weren’t too disappointed to see Oviedo consigned to the Tercera.
The Tercera – Spanish football’s fourth tier, in theory an equivalent to League Two – is a real mess of a league, consisting of 361 teams competing across 18 regional divisions which are followed by a series of elimination playoffs, with the prize of promotion to Segunda B – itself a series of regional leagues – awaiting the very few teams who make it through. If that doesn’t sound bad enough, matters were made even worse for Oviedo with a significant level of funding withheld by the town’s governing mayor, who in his own words was “signing the clubs death certificate”.
Remarkably, considering the difficulties they’d faced, a new-look Oviedo took to the Tercera rather well, narrowly missing out on promotion in 2004 before firmly bouncing back in 2005, finding themselves in the third tier of Spanish football. Significantly, over 30,000 fans attended the promotion clinching playoff, demonstrating the level of affection held for the club in what was arguably its greatest moment in almost 15 years.
Fans have been used to their team competing in higher levels than even the Segunda B since 1979 but progress was progress. Oviedo continued to attract attendances in excess of 15,000 against teams who were usually lucky to play in front of hundreds, with these fans also packing in to tiny grounds, often with no seats, across the local regions.
If it weren’t for these fans, the same fans keeping the club alive today, it’s likely that Oviedo would have gone under; Mayor De Lorenzo’s actions only strengthening the bond between Real Oviedo and its fans.
After yo-yoing around divisions for some years Real Oviedo are now in Segunda B, with a couple of promotion pushes indicating that they could yet return to the second tier of Spanish football.
Despite this recent positivity, the reality is that Real Oviedo’s situation is dire. Unlike higher profile cases, such as Deportivo Alaves, Villarreal and Depotivo La Coruna, Real Oviedo aren’t in this position because their eyes were too big or that they dreamed too big; it’s simply an issue that in Spain, football clubs are becoming increasingly and frighteningly dependent on the local community, governing bodies, sugar daddies and player sales to keep their balance books from spiralling horribly out of control.
Despite nurturing such talents as Juan Mata, Santi Cazorla and Michu early in their careers, Real Oviedo have suffered from their inability to attract significant funding from any of the above sources. Real Oviedo didn’t dream big, they just dreamed to stay where they were; and in doing so very nearly fell into the great black hole of history.
It seems ridiculous to think that a club that attracts attendances that wouldn’t look too out of place in La Liga (or, for that matter, the Premier League) can be so close to going bust, and this in itself provides reason for optimism that Real Oviedo will always exist in some shape or form.
What provides even more reason for optimism is the truly astonishing response to this final plea for help, with a host of top-level players – including the aforementioned Mata, Cazorla and Michu as well as Raul – buying these so-called shares and appealing for fans to do the same. Fans across the world have taken to the cause, recognising the plight of Oviedo as something which is just round the corner for hundreds of professional football clubs worldwide.
Which is why I’m sat here in Tottenham, which may as well be a million miles from Oviedo, with my wallet out and a Paypal page open in my Internet browser, ready for another £10 (or thereabouts) to be donated to the cause. Why not do something great with your evening and do the same?
If you’d like to purchase shares in Real Oviedo, head over to http://www.yosoyelrealoviedo.com/ingles/index.html for more information.
Tom Barnett is a Spanish football columnist for Just Football.