Víctor Fernandez at Real Zaragoza: The most remarkable story in Spanish football management this season

Colin Millar by Colin Millar / 04 March 2020, 11:15

Zaragoza is Spain’s fifth largest city by population with circa 40,000 more inhabitants than Athens. 

There's plenty of fine architecture in the capital of the Aragón, and the resplendent Basílica del Pilar reflecting in the Ebro river is truly a site to behold. 

The city is famed for 18th century painter Francisco de Goya - who defined the contemporary art in Spanish culture - and for being home to a thriving scene of tapas restaurants and bars. Yet for many people, the city is best known outside its boundaries for its football club: Real Zaragoza.

They are officially the seventh-best supported club in Spanish football and have won six Copa del Rey titles - only five clubs have won more - with three arriving in the last 25 years. 

Their La Romareda home houses just shy of 34,000 spectators and have had in excess of 27,000 season ticket holders for each of the past two seasons. 

What makes those numbers so remarkable is that the club are in their seventh successive campaign outside of La Liga.

Prior to their 2013 relegation, the club had spent 52 of the preceding 56 seasons in the Spanish top-flight and were one of the nation’s most recognised names throughout Europe. 

The club’s illustrious list of alumni is indicative of their standing within the game and was, at various points - home to many of South America’s most coveted talents.

Jorge Valdano - one of Argentina’s greatest ever players - spent five years at the club before joining Real Madrid, while many of his compatriots also made Zaragoza their home: Roberto Ayala, Kily González, Pablo Aimar, Andrés D'Alessandro along with the Milito brothers Diego and Gabriel. 

Not to mention Brazilians such as Cafu, Ewerthon, Ricardo Oliviera and Sávio who all played their parts in Zaragoza successes, while Uruguayan Gus Poyet made over 250 appearances for the club.

The modern-day struggles of Real Zaragoza contrast with their past glories and naturally create a sense of sentimentality, but this combination has in turned propelled a wave of optimism which has been reflected in this season run of positive results. 

Halfway through last season, the club were languishing in the bottom reaches of the second tier and turned to club hero Víctor Fernández to save them once more.

Fernández is perhaps the most remarkable story in Spanish football management this season. He is in his third stint in the Romareda hotseat and today (4 March, 2020) marks the 29th anniversary of his first appointment as Zaragoza boss.

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The local lad was aged just 30 when he first took charge of Real Zaragoza in 1991

The local lad was aged just 30 at the time of his appointment and is the second youngest manager to ever coach in La Liga, after Xabier Azkargorta. 

He oversaw five glorious years for Los Blanquillos - guiding them to the Copa del Rey in 1994 and, 12 months later, landed the club’s crowning moment in their 88-year history.

Fernández masterminded Zaragoza to the Cup Winners Cup final - seeing off the likes of Feyenoord and Chelsea en route - and defeating favourites Arsenal in the showpiece with the winning goal one of football’s most iconic moments from the 20th century - Nayim scoring past a stranded Gunners goalkeeper David Seaman from the halfway line.

Fernández was known for his brand of attacking football and transforming players positionally - he famously reverted Gus Poyet from a forward into an attacking midfielder, whilst retaining his eye for goal. 

He would go on to have a highly successful four years in charge of Celta de Vigo and oversaw their glory days, securing three qualifications to the UEFA Cup, while also overseeing stints at Tenerife, FC Porto (he was Jose Mourinho’s successor) and Real Betis.

He returned to his beloved Zaragoza for the 2006/07 campaign and once more brought immediate success - a sixth-placed finish in La Liga was their highest since the turn of the millennium (Diego Milito’s 23 goal league return a major factor), and a return to European football. However, the success did not continue and he exited the following season.

Further spells followed at Betis (again), Belgian side Gent and Deportivo La Coruña, where he managed just six wins from 32 games. He left the Riazor in April 2015 and became Real Madrid’s youth system coordinator that summer, with suggestions that his future involvement in football would be away from the spotlight.

That was until December 2018, Zaragoza were in the midst of a relegation battle and Fernández was rushed in to replace the sacked Lucas Alcaraz until the end of the campaign. The change in the dugout galvanised the club to steer clear of the drop zone and the club made extending Fernández’s deal into a permanent one. Despite reports he was hesitant to be drawn into a long-term commitment, a new deal was penned and a formidable promotion challenge has been built.

Almost three decades after his first appointment at Romareda, Fernández has led Zaragoza into the automatic promotion spots after 30 games. Five points clear of Almería in third and three from league leaders Cádiz. 

Striker Luis Suárez (no, not that one) has bagged 16 league goals while Raúl Guti (no, not either former Real Madrid star) has been crucial, while Shinji Kagawa (yes, that one) may be the star name, but has only started in 60% of league matches. 

Fernández and Zaragoza are kindred spirits whose successes over the past three decades have gained greater regularity and significance when they work in tandem.

A passionate 30,000-strong fanbase can help propel this great club of Spanish football back into La Liga and start a new chapter in one of the great managerial stories in Spanish football.

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