The Rise & Fall of Deportivo La Coruña: 20 Years on From Super Depor's La Liga Glory

Roy Makaay
Roy Makaay of Deportivo La Coruña | Getty Images/Getty Images

Deportivo La Coruña were crowned champions of Spain for the first and only time in their rollercoaster history on 19 May 2000, a fitting way to define the ‘Super Depor’ era that had seemed destined to sadly end without the success it deserved.

A Coruña is not a massive place like Madrid or Barcelona, or even Valencia or Sevilla, and only just creeps into the list of the 20 most populous cities in Spain. Similarly, Deportivo are not among La Liga’s historic giants and today are struggling just to survive in the Segunda Division.

Mallorca v Deportivo de La Coruna - Segunda Division Promotion Play-Off: Second Leg
Mallorca v Deportivo de La Coruna - Segunda Division Promotion Play-Off: Second Leg | Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Very close to half of the club’s history has been out of the top flight in Spain. A golden era that began with promotion for the first time in the late 1940s and peaked with a second place finish in 1949/50 was later followed by a frustrating existence as a yo-yo club in the 1960s.

By 1981, having been relegated to the third tier of Spanish football for the second time in seven years, Deportivo were in danger of fading from the scene completely. In 1987/88, only a very late goal on the final day of the season prevented relegation to the third tier for the third time.

At the same time, Deportivo were in extreme financial trouble. Relegation in 1988 might have killed them off completely, but then things changed for the better in a rapid way under the presidency of the initially reluctant Augusto César Lendoiro.

The early 1990s brought promotion back to La Liga for the first time in 19 years. And while Deportivo initially struggled in the top flight and only avoided immediate relegation by beating Real Betis in a two-legged playoff, they went on to challenge for the title the very next year in 1992/93.

The capture of Brazil star Bebeto, who won that season’s Pichichi Trophy with 29 La Liga goals, was a significant one. Future club legend Mauro Silva had also arrived from Brazil in 1992 and a perfect balance between rising stars and established La Liga veterans brought in was found.

Mauro Silva of Brazil
Mauro Silva of Brazil | Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

In 1993/94, Deportivo should have won La Liga. Only a weak missed penalty from Miroslav Djukic in the closing stages of the final game of the season cost them – the 0-0 draw they got wasn’t good enough and Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’ took the title on goal difference.

Another second place finish followed in 1994/95, with the club also third in 1996/97. But the ‘Super Depor’ era looked to be waning by the end of the decade. In three out of five seasons in the mid to late 1990s they finished outside the top five in La Liga and as low as 12th in 1997/98.

Bebeto had left in 1996, returning to Brazil after 86 goals in four seasons. But, crucially, the club got a new lease of life when Javier Irueta was appointed manager in 1998.

Recruitment at that time remained smart, yet moved away from the influx of Brazilians that had brought Bebeto, Silva, Djalminha and Flavio Conceicao to the club, the latter three of whom still remained, and towards younger Spanish or existing Spain-based players.

Step forward Spanish trio Victor, Manuel Pablo and Enrique Romero.

Victor
Victor Deportivo La Coruna | Stu Forster/Getty Images

Serbian midfielder Slavisa Jokanovic and Dutch forward Roy Makaay both came from Tenerife in 1998 and 1999 respectively. Argentine forward Turu Flores came from Las Palmas, fellow countryman Gabriel Schurrer from Racing Santander, Portuguese striker Pauleta from Salamanca and Moroccan centre-back Noureddine Naybet from across the border in Portugal.

Deportivo attacked the 1999/00 season. Only a late equaliser from Raul stopped them beating Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in September, while Barcelona were beaten 2-1 at the Riazor in October thanks to a double from Makaay, who netted 22 times in the league that season.

Deportivo thrashed Madrid 5-2 at home in February and beat Valencia in March. Both clubs would represent Spain in the 2000 Champions League final in Paris at the end of the season.

Deportivo sealed their historic title on the final day of the season by beating Espanyol. They only needed a point to do it, but where glory cruelly eluded them six years earlier, the team made absolutely sure this time and won 2-0. Donato, part of the 1993/94 side, and Makaay scored.

It is the 1990s that are more associated with the ‘Super Depor’ tag. But while securing La Liga glory in May 2000 was the ultimate target achieved, it was not the end of the story.

It paved the way for a more consistent era of Deportivo strength. In the 1990s, second and third place finishes had been tempered with the occasional ninth or 12th, but between 1999 and 2004, the club were a top three La Liga side for five consecutive seasons. No other side matched that.

The title winners were boosted during these years by the arrivals of big players like Diego Tristan, Sergio, Walter Pandiani, Joan Capdevila, Jorge Andrade, Jose Molina, Albert Luque, Aldo Duscher and perhaps most of all by Juan Carlos Valeron.

Deportivo La Coruna
Deportivo La Coruna 2000/01 Champions League | Phil Cole/Getty Images

In their first ever Champions League season in 2000/01, Deportivo reached the quarter finals, topping both group stages in the process at the expense of Juventus and AC Milan.

They again reached the last eight in 2001/02. Irureta’s team fell to Manchester United at that stage, although they had beaten the Red Devils home and away in the first group stage and got to the knockouts at the expense of both Juventus and Arsenal in the second.

All told, Deportivo faced Manchester United six times across those two Champions League seasons, won three of the meetings and lost three. They were, without a doubt at that time, one of the best and most potent sides in all of Europe.

After 39 goals across all competitions in the 2002/03 campaign, Makaay was actually poached by Bayern Munich for close to €20m, a club record fee for the Germans.

Still, Deportivo went to the Champions League semi-finals without their former top scorer, producing one of the competition's all-time great comebacks in the quarter-finals to beat AC Milan 5-4 on aggregate.

In the end, it was only a single penalty across two legs against Jose Mourinho’s Porto that stopped them from potentially going all the way.

Italian referee Pierluigi Collina argues
Deportivo La Coruna 2003/04 Champions League | MIGUEL RIOPA/Getty Images

After that, things began to unravel for Deportivo. The break-up of a second great team was inevitable and they fell away after 2004 to become more a mid-table La Liga side, finishing no higher than seventh between then and their eventual return to the Segunda Division in 2011.

Like many others, Deportivo have since paid the price for consistently suspect recruitment and poor leadership. The early 2010s saw another yo-yo existence, while four consecutive seasons back in La Liga thereafter all ended in a relegation fight, falling back down to the second tier in 2018 with Clarence Seedorf (who had been on the end of the European comeback at Milan 14 years prior) as manager.

Now, 32 years after a late escape saved them from Segunda Division B, Deportivo are staring down that same third tier barrel once more.

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