Coming back from financial turmoil and against all the odds, the Spanish club is going for glory in the Champions League
The first thing that Roque Santa Cruz did when he scored Málaga's second goal against Porto was look up at the scoreboard to see how long was left. "Those final minutes could have been eternal," he admitted. Málaga were so close but one mistake and it would disappear. As the clock ticked down, fans whistled for the referee to blow full time. When he finally did, the Rosaleda erupted. "This is historic," said Isco, the night's other goalscorer.
Santa Cruz's goal may be the most important Málaga have ever scored. A club that has never won a major trophy, had reached the Champions League quarter-final in their first appearance in the competition. Manuel Pellegrini became the first manager to take two debutant teams so far, having led Villarreal to the semi-finals in 2006. "If you'd told us at the start of the season this would happen, we'd never have believed you," said Isco.
Supporters were delirious. TV cameras kept focussing on Antonio Banderas draped in a Málaga scarf, crying. Yet it is only five years since Málaga were in Spain's Second Division and they were as low as the regionalised, Tercera division in 1995 after the original Málaga had gone out of business in 1992 before being effectively re-founded through their reserve team Atlético Malagueño.
They have suffered this season too: having clinched a place in the quarter-final of a competition that Uefa have told them they will not be allowed to compete in next season for financial reasons. Málaga say they are up to date with their creditors but there had been overdue payments to players and other clubs, plus the former owners, and there's a debt with the Spanish state.
In the summer, as they battled the crisis, they had to sell Joris Mathijsen, Solomón Rondón and Santi Cazorla. Cazorla went to Arsenal for a fee that Pellegrini pointed out was "a gift" but they had little choice. It could have been worse: there was interest in Isco, Jérémy Toulalan's agent admitted his player was contemplating a departure, and privately others said the same.
The coach noted: "It was inexplicable that they sold Cazorla at that moment and the price was absurd. It was a poor decision but it was an emergency and luckily they changed their mind on others." During the winter window, Nacho Monreal followed Cazorla to Arsenal.
On one level at least, the romance has been overplayed. It's not so much that Málaga were a poor club as that they were an apparently mega-rich one where the money suddenly dried up. They were taken over by the Qatari sheik Abdullah al Thani in 2010 and the following summer their net spend was larger than anyone in Spain, including Madrid and Barcelona: almost €60m on nine players, amongst them Cazorla for €19m, and Ruud van Nistelrooy.
But half way through the 2011-12 season, there were signs that something was not right. Although not yet public, players complained about going unpaid. At the end of the season, Fernando Hierro left his post as director, and there was inertia and silence. Thani was nowhere to be seen. The club was in limbo, fans feared the worst.
Eventually, Thani's representative Moayad Shatat arrived and, with the assistance of some staff who had been at Málaga for years, they restructured. The talk was of meeting Uefa's Financial Fair Play requirements but the changes went deeper and sales enabled a transfer embargo to be lifted while the immediate danger was averted. Málaga were allowed into the Champions League. Just before Christmas, though, they were included in a report by Uefa's Financial Control Body adjudication chamber and punished for "significant overdue budget balances."
By then they had secured a historic success by emerging from the group and beating Milan. That night Thani re-appeared, later turning up in the dressing room. Midfielder Joaquín remarked pointedly: "this success is down to the players and the coaching staff." They have isolated themselves from the problems, with Pellegrini quietly building the side that in style and attitude is similar to Villarreal. The adversity may even have helped unify the side and in the absence of Cazorla, Joaquín and Isco (the latter named the best young player, "Golden Boy" of 2012), took a step up.
Almost two years ago, when Joaquín was first presented as a player at Málaga, part of that dramatic €60m outlay, he cracked a joke before the fans. The scene is the Champions League final, with Málaga playing. It feels like a long time ago now, a different club. Of the nine players from that period, only four remain. And yet it could still happen, their success all the more impressive for their struggles.
After the Porto victory, Joaquín was laughing as usual. Reminded of that joke, he said: "Wow, that's true. I nailed it!" Paused and added: "well, not quite: the joke was about the final ... But, hey, we're just two small steps away."