Fans try to save broke Spanish team Oviedo

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Associated Press

Posted on November 13, 2012 at 6:03 AM

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Faced with impending bankruptcy and extinction, the debt-ridden Spanish soccer club Real Oviedo has discovered a precious asset that may yet save it from doom: the loyalty of its fans.

As one of many clubs struggling to survive in the country's economic crisis, Oviedo needs to raise nearly 2 million euros ($2.5 million) by Nov. 17 to stave off legal writs that would force its dissolution after 86 years.

But thanks to a novel fund-raising effort — selling shares in the club at cut-rate prices — and a rampant social-media campaign, the third-tier club is halfway toward reaching its target.

"There is a lot of excitement to save the club. All of us, from the fans all the way to the town mayor, are going to do what it takes to pull through," lifelong fan Jose Garcia Ordonez told The Associated Press. "The effort is coming from people with financial problems like so many are facing in this country. With 30, 40 euros they are doing what they can so that one day we can tell our children how we saved 86 years of history of the club of our parents and grandparents."

Oviedo opted to issue new shares at a price of 10.75 euros ($13.74) — down from 60 euros ($77) at its initial offering 20 years ago.

Current shareholders were slow to reply at first, but when the offer was opened up to the public, the response was overwhelming.

Thousands have bought shares as a plea to help save the club spread across Twitter, and even Real Madrid President Florentino Perez — whose budget this season is 520 million euros ($661 million) — has approved the purchase of 100,000 euros ($127,000) worth of shares.

When more than 20,000 fans showed up to support the team at its 1-0 victory Sunday against Real Madrid's C-team, Oviedo President Toni Fidalgo could make a triumphant announcement: "Without including Real Madrid's contribution, we have now collected more than 1 million," he said, drawing huge cheers.

Several of the club's former standout players — including Chelsea forward Juan Mata, Arsenal midfielder Santi Cazorla, and Swansea's Miguel "Michu" Perez — also have bought shares.

But in the end, it's the support of regular fans that can ensure Oviedo's survival.

"This is a very, very delicate moment," Garcia said. "The fans have always supported the club, and even more so in moments of crisis. We are born with a love for the team's colors. It's a religion."

Oviedo is the provincial capital of Asturias, a mountainous northern region along the Atlantic coast. It has some 200,000 inhabitants, 11,000 of which are members of Real Oviedo. The club has languished for the last 11 years in lower divisions, but it has a proud past.

It has spent a total of 38 seasons in the top division, finishing third on three occasions. Garcia, 47, is president of Oviedo's Garra Azul fan club. He said he'd bought 37 shares, while 45 other members had purchased at least 10 shares apiece. Four shares give the owner a seat and a vote at the club's annual meeting.

Fans still have fresh memories of how Oviedo celebrated a victory against Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the 2000-01 campaign. But later relegation started a downward slide — accelerated by the trap of living beyond its means — that saw it fall as low as the fourth division.

Having climbed back to third division, it has six wins, three draws and three losses this season, staying unbeaten at home.

Just a week ago the prospects of rescuing the club seemed dim. The club initially restricted the share offer to existing owners, and only 194 individuals responded to raise just under 60,000 euros.

But after the club opened the plan on Nov. 3 to all comers, regular fans have bought in for 750,000 euros — blowing away even the most optimistic forecast by the club's own economic adviser, Jorge Sanchez. Online purchases have been received from as far away as Australia.

"A week ago I wouldn't have believed we had a chance to reach (2 million)," Sanchez told the AP. "I am beginning to see the glass half full."

The club's total debt is 12 million euros ($15.25 million), mainly in back taxes, but it reached a deal with the government in 2004 to pay it off in annual payments.

"With 2 million we will be satisfied," Fidalgo, the club president, said.

Fidalgo was asked by Oviedo's city officials in July to take over the club after former president Alberto Gonzalez was charged with tax evasion. An arrest order has been issued for Gonzalez, who is in hiding, according to media reports.

Spain's double-dip recession has undermined efforts to encourage local business to participate in share purchases, Fidalgo said. While fans have helped prop the club up, a major investor is the only long term solution, the president said.

If Oviedo can't raise the needed cash, it will join a steady stream of minor clubs that have been dissolved.

In July, Montaneros disbanded after being relegated to the fourth division. In January, Sporting Villanueva and Polideportivo Ejido were both forced to abandon official competition. Villanueva promptly announced it was folding.

Like the rest of Spain, Oviedo is struggling with an economic stagnation that has left one fourth of all workers jobless and the state on the verge of needing an international bailout.

Oviedo's mayor Agustin Iglesias fears not just the psychological blow the loss of the club would mean to his city, but also its economic implications.

"If the club disappears, we lose a large part of our history," said Iglesias, who has bought shares as a private citizen and committed 600,000 euros ($771,000) of the city's budget to the upkeep of the team's stadium and installations.

Oviedo's Carlos Tartiere stadium was built in 2000 with seating for 30,500 spectators, making it larger than the stadiums of eight first-division teams.

"These are critical moments in the history of this club," he said.

Barcelona and Real Madrid's successes in churning out titles as well as revenue have long masked the precarious and often downright dire state of finances for many clubs in Spain.

"The case of Real Oviedo is representative of the poor management in Spanish football," University of Barcelona professor Jose Maria Gay, an expert in football finance, told the AP.

He said that when a club descends to the third division it loses TV revenues but retains debts from the first division to deal with.

"Clubs enter into a death spiral," he said.

In the 20-team first division, there are seven clubs either under bankruptcy protection or paying off their restructured debts after emerging from bankruptcy: Zaragoza, Levante, Real Sociedad, Granada, Real Betis, Malaga and Mallorca. Sporting Gijon, the other major club in Asturias which was relegated last season, can also be added to the list.

"The situation in the lower divisions is even more dramatic," Gay said. "While first-division teams may have debts, clubs like Barcelona still make more than they owe."

While England's second division remains healthy, Spain's economic decline has been particularly harsh on its smaller clubs. Lower-division teams traditionally depend on local sponsorship, usually the biggest company in the town or province. In many cases, that was the leading construction or real estate firm, the source of much of Spain's growth during two decades before the crisis hit and burst the real estate bubble, taking away the major source of backing that kept many small clubs afloat.

"It's a bad time to be raising capital," Gay said. "I hope Oviedo can be saved, but I think it is going to be difficult."

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Harold Heckle in Madrid contributed to this report.

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