“I’ll never forget Málaga,” Shinji Okazaki said, and that much at least was true. Alas, so much else wasn’t. The Spanish second division team announced the signing of the former Leicester City player at 3.04pm on 30 July; at six minutes past midnight on 3 September, as the transfer window closed in La Liga, they announced that they were releasing him. Amid a crisis that could yet have far more serious consequences, Málaga had been unable to register the Japan international because of the salary limit. He leaves without playing a competitive game.
“I regret nothing,” Okazaki wrote in a message that was magnanimous, remarkable in its warmth; there was no bitterness. He even said that if he gets the chance to sign for Málaga in the future, he wouldn’t hesitate to do so, although presumably only if there is a different president in charge by then and some stability at the club.
Elsewhere, the regrets were profound: many regret the day in June 2010 that Sheik Abdullah al-Thani bought the club. The day they reached a Champions League quarter-final is long gone; this season, they barely made it to the opening day and the splits may be impossible to mend. This is just the latest, deeply embarrassing episode to disgust fans – and even many inside the club.
When Okazaki joined Málaga he had to wait for the deal to be given the all clear. The following day he played the final few minutes of a pre-season match against Córdoba and the day after that he was officially presented, performing kick-ups in his socks without boots. There were also the obligatory medical photos, suckers on his chest, and shots of him smiling with the Málaga shirt in his hand and holding a scarf aloft. Yet the first thing the sporting director, José Luis Caminero, said at his presentation was sorry: it’s “not normal”, he admitted, “for a new player to have to wait so long for his contract”. As for his registration, that never arrived at all, and never will.
Okazaki said he was “excited about this project” but it didn’t exist. Others were, too, even if the start was far from auspicious. The club shop was stacked with Okazaki shirts, which could be bought with his name on the back in Japanese lettering. Over three hundred were sold. Caminero described him as a “huge luxury for the club,” but it was one that they could not afford – and not because the player was especially expensive. This is not one signing too far; it runs far deeper than that. Caminero said Okazaki’s arrival was one of his “greatest satisfactions here”; it has proven the great disappointment, advertising the crisis.
Put bluntly, Málaga are a mess, in a sad state, often played out through Thani’s Twitter account. He has appealed a court ruling in June that 49% of the club’s shares are owned by the hotel company BlueBay, and has refused to walk away despite growing opposition. There have been veiled accusations, suspicions and interference at all levels, clashes between the president and the sporting director over signings. The debt is around €25m and their income from TV rights has been embargoed.
Malaga reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League in 2013 but were knocked out by eventual finalists Borussia Dortmund who scored two late goals. Photograph: Sampics/Corbis via Getty Images
Caminero spoke on the day of Okazaki’s presentation of the “light at the end of this tunnel.” Málaga knew that they had to generate over €8m. “In less than a week, we will have that money,” Thani told Marca in an interview he had personally requested in mid-August, but they didn’t.
On the opening day of the season, Málaga travelled to Racing Santander with just nine players on first-team contracts, filling the other positions with youth teamers. Luis Fernández and David Lombán both picked up injuries, leaving coach Víctor Sánchez del Amo in a position in which he could not make any real changes, because federation rules state that if a team has fewer than seven first-team players on the pitch they must forfeit the game. Okazaki watched from home as they somehow won 1-0 with an 85th-minute winner. And somehow, Víctor continues to conduct himself with dignity, but some naturally fear that he could walk away.
Despite the high-profile departures of Alfred N’Diaye and Javier Ontiveros, Málaga failed to raise the money. Nor is it just Okazaki. As the window closed on Monday night, although they had signed two more players, including 19-year-old Lorenzo González from Manchester City, they announced that they were releasing Okazaki, José Rodríguez and Simón Moreno. All of them had been signed but none of them had been registered. Moreno’s case was even more extreme: he had signed for Almería on loan, happily posing in the club’s shirt before the new Saudi Arabian owner, Turki al-Sheikh, decided he didn’t want him and he was sent back to Villarreal. He then signed for Málaga, presented in the club’s shirt, only to be sent back from there too.
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