Racing are a club adrift, who do not know who owns them, with no president and an owner who is absent
Everyone walked except their owner, who ran. Their president walked: former Trappist monk, racing car driver, politician and baker Francisco Pernía decided he'd had enough and very publicly left, taking his board with him. Their coach walked: after just one win in 13, former Internazionale and Valencia manager Héctor Cúper thought that the time had come – and, besides, back in Italy he had a few questions to answer about illegal betting and the mafia. And most of the players walked. One of them said he was going to walk because he didn't play; others did play and they walked too. Game after game. As for the owner, he ran. Ran and hid. Wanted by Interpol, Ahsan Ali Syed had disappeared without a trace.
There was no one left. No one and no hope. Attendances were down, dropping from almost 20,000 to below 13,000, and depression set in. Behind the scenes there were discussions and pacts; there still are. Twists and turns await, probably tragedy too. Players have had enough of the men who run the club and supporters are, as so often, the victims. Even the team's shirts appeared appropriate: "Palacios" runs the slogan splashed across the players' chests, "leader in chorizos". For those who don't know, Spain's spicy sausage is also slang for thief. Racing Santander are in debt, in administration and in trouble. Big trouble.
Last year, the Indian businessman Ahsan Ali Syed arrived as Racing de Santander's new owner, entourage in tow, all dark glasses and big promises, with the cover of AS in Cantabria splashing "Ali the saviour" across its cover and the president of the Cantabrian government Miguel Angel Revilla talking him up. (Mind you, Revilla will talk anyone and anything up, as long as it keeps him in the public eye.) Ali Syed went potty in the palco, celebrating a dramatic victory against Sevilla, and he talked about huge signings and a huge future. We could be up there with Madrid and Barcelona, he said.
But pretty soon he was not anywhere. The man whose bid for Blackburn had been blocked found that there were accusations of fraud and an investigation was opened. Interpol wanted a chat. Ali Syed's "proof" to people at the club that there was actually a campaign against him would have been laughable were it not so sad and it was not long before he did not even bother going that far. Instead, he just disappeared. He stopped turning up and he stopped returning calls. At board level, they were at a loss to explain it. One theory had Ali Syed's plans for further investment ruined by the crisis in Bahrain. He had decided to cut his losses and leave. There were losses too: he did indeed invest money that he has now lost; it had cost him around €3.5m (£3m) to buy more than 99.89% of the shares in the first place. Still, he showed no interest. No one has seen or heard from him in months.
Speaking of interest, it was growing: Racing still had to make monthly repayments to the revenue on a debt with the state that was more than €10m. With Ali Syed not there to pay it, as he had promised, Roberto Bedoya, the club's director general, had to turn to a loan. Players went unpaid, the coach too. In the summer, the decision Marcelino García Toral had long since taken was made effective: he departed for Sevilla, to be replaced by Héctor Cúper. Eight players went too and the nine that joined the first-team squad cost them nothing: two were promotions from the youth team, three returned after loans, three were on loan and only one was an actual signing. That one, Alexandros Tziolis, came on a free. And one of the three administrators running the club even voted against that, arguing that any investment on players was "frivolous".
And that's the thing. Almost €50m in debt, Racing had been declared bankrupt in the summer and administrators took over. Vultures circled; one insider makes extremely strong accusations about the interests and actions of those involved and those positioning themselves to get involved. Legal action began to recover the shares from Ali Syed; the Cantabrian government, who had propped the club up, wanted their control back. Jacobo Montalvo, the former majority shareholder, made a formal legal challenge upon Syed – he wanted his shares back too.
Syed's disappearance has led to an almighty, if silent, scramble for power. A formal board meeting is scheduled for 17 December. If Syed does not turn up – and no one is expecting him to – another meeting will be held the following day. Syed's 99% shares will prove irrelevant and control of the club will become available on the cheap. Yet the resolution will be a precarious and probably temporary one: at the same time, the legal system will chug along slowly as it decides what to do with Syed's shares and who will own them. And if Syed does turn up on the 17th (or if someone else can secure authority for his shares) control will be his (or theirs) again. Which explains why even Montalvo is trying to do a deal with him: give me control via your shares and I'll drop legal action.
With the club in the hands of administrators, most are working on the assumption that Ali Syed will not show. Nor will Dmitry Piterman, the club's second-largest shareholder – not least because if he returns to Spain, the authorities will be waiting for him. In the meantime, there has been a new share issue but those shares will be irrelevant if Ali Syed shows. Pernía, the president, bought €16.60 worth of shares. A supporters' group prepared to stump up almost €9,000 but with just 15 minutes to go until the close of business, José Antonio González, the acting CEO of the club, friend of Pernía, and the owner of a fish company, backed by unnamed investors, turned up at the bank and handed over €40,000, to scupper that move, rendering their shares worthless.
Before that, the entire board had walked – even as legally they were forced to stay and offer a testimonial presence and even as they refused to relinquish their power entirely.
Last week, the coach walked too; he had only lasted as long as he did because of the cost of sacking him – the only thing that truly concerned the administrators. Ultimately, he agreed not to take a payoff at all. Cúper's departure was inevitable. Racing had drawn with Real Madrid and Sevilla and Valencia had beaten them 4-3 after Racing had been 3-1 up, but that fleeting result flattered them. And they simply were not scoring enough. Before this weekend, they had hit just nine goals – the worst record in the league after Granada. They had won just once – a 1-0 victory against Real Betis. Seven times they had failed to score at all.
The departure of Cúper did not necessarily bring optimism. Pedro Munitis, the club's captain and the man who, as of this weekend, has played for them more times than anyone else, insisted: "We're not dead." But many thought they were: bottom of the table and facing a relegation that could see them go out of business. Deep down, everyone knew that the situation was far too critical for that. There is an institutional vacuum; Racing are a club who do not know who owns them, with no president, an "owner" who is absent, and where there are fights over shares that do exist but might not for much longer. Until 18 December, when the next assembly will be held, and a new board is named – at least in theory – this is a club adrift. After then, it still may be. As for the squad, it simply is not that good.
It is not as if Racing have replaced Cúper with some big-name coach either. Instead, they replaced Cúper with three coaches: Juanjo González, the sporting director; Fede Castaño, the director of youth football; and Pablo Pinillos, the former player who retired last summer and who is taking his coaching badges. The reason? They came free. All three of them have remained on the same salaries they already drew. The €350,000 saved on sacking Cúper – the money he waived to enable them to sign a new coach – can now theoretically be used to buy a striker. But what kind of striker can you get for that? And will the administrators let them? And what if 18 December throws up a surprise first?
Still, at least González, Castaño and Pinillos care. They are the first triumvirate in Spanish football history and a successful one too. On Saturday, Gonzalo Colsa was returned to the side for the first time this season. Racing played higher up the pitch, as González had insisted they would do, and pressured Villarreal. This time they did run, not walk. AS called them "14 beasts". A Stuani header gave them a 1-0 win. A solitary win in 13 before; now they had doubled their win count in just one game and come off the bottom of the table. "This will give us huge confidence," González said afterwards, showing a distinct lack of fantasy, "we really could not have dreamed of a better night."
The trouble is that it could yet prove a single night. The triumvirate might be the solution or it might not. And even if it is, on 18 December, a new board will come in and may have different ideas. Different interests too. A new battle for control will begin, and a new owner may emerge. And then the club that has gone from Piterman, the Ukrainian-American who named himself president, coach, matchday delegate and team photographer but was its worst nightmare, to Ali Syed, the phantom saviour, via politicians, charlatans and speculators, will place its fate in another pair of hands.
On Saturday night Racing Santander's fans sang about dumping Pernía in the sea and declared José Antonio González a Judas. They also held up a banner. It declared: "no politicians, no businessmen, Racing is ours!" Sadly, they were wrong.
• And so it starts. The whingeing and the whining and the accusations – before a ball has even been kicked. Well, this column ain't having it.
• "The girls don't like Isaac Cuenca," said Pep Guardiola, "but he plays brilliantly. When he's in his place, he plays so well you shit yourself." Asked what he thought of his coach's words, Cuenca blushed and replied: "I supposed you'd have to ask the girls that."
• Another stunner playing stunning football is Angel di María. He scored Madrid's first at Sporting and could just be a candidate for La Liga player of the year so far.
• It should have been the week in which Málaga climbed into a Champions League place, but two goals in three minutes saw Real Sociedad beat them 3-2. And they were two awesome goals too: a header-control and thumping overhead kick from Carlos Vela and a tiptoeing, cool-headed shuffle inside by the six-yard box from Diego Ifrán. Manuel Pellegrini, meanwhile, blamed it all on the referee. Which is better than blaming it on yourself.
• Pepe Mel couldn't believe his eyes. "I don't like to talk about luck," he said, "but boy did we have bad luck. We could have won 5-2 but instead lost 2-1." He was right too, but Betis's slide continues. They are now one place off the relegation zone and have lost nine and drawn one of their past 10 games.
Results: Sporting 0-3 Real Madrid, Racing 1-0 Villarreal, Barcelona 5-0 Levante, Valencia 2-1 Espanyol, Atlético 3-1 Rayo, Real Sociedad 3-2 Málaga, Osasuna 2-1 Betis, Mallorca 1-1 Athletic, Granada 1-0 Zaragoza. Sevilla-Getafe, Monday night.