The curious case of Deportivo Maldonado: Uruguay's second-tier side whose stars play for Real Madrid, Juventus – but never them

They average crowds of less than 350 but are vying for the hottest South American starlets with the world’s richest football clubs. How? FourFourTwo investigates…

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In a summer when Paul Pogba broke news of his own £89 million move to Manchester United, Chelsea surprisingly re-signed David Luiz for £30m and Arsenal, for some reason, desperately tried to capture Jamie Vardy, one of the transfer window’s most unusual deals went largely unnoticed.

When Argentina Under-23 striker Jonathan Calleri confirmed his loan switch to West Ham in the middle of August 2016, the media coverage was fairly minimal. Even Simone Zaza, who also arrived on loan in east London during the same month, caused more fanfare. The Hammers had reportedly paid a £4m loan fee and have an option to buy the Argentine for £16m, a deal that would represent a tidy and rapid profit for a club whose gates rarely surpass a few hundred.

Calleri is a product of the All Boys youth academy – the same club where Carlos Tevez, another Argentine player to have turned out for the Hammers, began his career. In fact, both moved from All Boys, now in the Argentine Second Division, to Boca Juniors. But that is where the two career paths veer off in very different directions.

Carlos Tevez

Like Calleri, Tevez played for West Ham after being part of the All Boys academy

In January 2016, 18 months after acquiring a 20-year-old Calleri for £765,000, Boca sold him on for £9.3m. But what stood out the most wasn’t that whopping 1,115% mark-up on a player who had played just 41 league matches for the Bombonera club, rather the fact that the buyer was not your typical plunderer of hot South American talent. Not PSG, Benfica, Real Madrid or Juventus. Not even Shanghai Shenhua or Guangzhou Evergrande.

No, the club that had enough money to fork out almost £10m for the youngster was Deportivo Maldonado.

Who? Well, quite.

Unspectacular outfit

It was a further 63 years until they finally made their professional debut, when in 1995 they moved from the nation’s amateur ranks and into the Second Division

The fact a small club playing in Uruguay’s second tier, who rarely play home matches in front of more than 300 people, could afford to sign an Argentine youth international from the six-times Copa Libertadores winners, certainly raised a few eyebrows. But for this humble club to then be in the position to almost immediately loan said tyro out to a side that is playing in one of the richest and most-watched leagues in the world? Surely something odd was afoot.

And it wasn’t even the first time, either. Founded in 1928 under the peculiar name of Batacazo Football Club (Batacazo meaning, among other things, to upset all the odds), the club would change its name to Deportivo Maldonado in 1932. It was a further 63 years until they finally made their professional debut, when in 1995 they moved from the nation’s amateur ranks and into the Second Division.

Fernando Clavijo

Former USA international Fernando Clavijo (left) was born in Maldonado

They lost the promotion play-offs in 1998, but with the Uruguayan FA deciding to up the quota of top-flight clubs from the ‘Interior’ region of the country to four, they were given promotion anyway. They would remain in the top division until 2004, with their seventh-place finish in 2002 their highest within the Uruguayan football pyramid.

Throughout Maldonado’s history, financial instability has been a near constant. In 2004, the outlook was so bleak that they were forced to merge with another small football club, Centro Cultural y Democratico Punta del Este, becoming Club Deportivo Maldonado Punta del Este. That season proved to be their last in the top flight, and it wasn’t long before the two clubs went their separate ways, opting to split after the 2005 campaign.

In come the English

Racehorse owner Malcolm Caine and London-based lawyer, Graham Shear, became president and vice-president of the club

It would have taken a spectacularly wild imagination to predict what would happen to the Rojiverde (Red and Greens), an outfit hailing from Uruguay’s fourth-biggest city (with a population of around 87,000), just four years later.

In December 2009 came another new name – but that wasn’t the biggest change. History was made when the club became Deportivo Maldonado SAD (Sociedad Anonima Deportiva, or in English ‘Public Limited Sports Company’), the first such organisation in Uruguay and one that has been under intense public scrutiny ever since – and it’s not hard to see why. It’s not every day you see a club from such a small city buy a player for a few million pounds, never give him any playing time, loan him out to a big club in Europe, and then eventually sell him on for a massive profit. But for this club it has now become a tried-and-tested model.

Estadio Centenario

The Estadio Centenario is part of Uruguay's rich football history - but Deportivo Maldonado aren't

The restructuring took place when the club was taken over by two Englishmen; racehorse owner Malcolm Caine and a London-based lawyer, Graham Shear. The pair became president and vice-president of the club, respectively. In October, the latter told The Guardian that he is no longer involved with the club.  

Most football fans are well aware of the concept of third-party ownership, which for a long time – particularly in South America – was something FIFA and other governing bodies were powerless to stop. Agents or rich investors become heavily involved in the football transfer market, owning players’ registrations and shipping them across the globe with the primary aim of making money.

The clubs who became involved, many of them in dire financial difficulty, were over a barrel. They couldn’t afford the elite players their fans were demanding, and these middlemen were offering them the only solution available.