How Deportivo toppled Barcelona, Real Madrid to win La Liga in 1999-2000, as told by the players who did it

Friday, May 19, 2000. Early evening, 20 years ago today, and the bus leaves the Hotel Atlántico, a crowd gathered outside. A couple of miles away, Cuatro Caminos, meeting point of multitudes, is preparing for the biggest party the city has ever seen -- if they make it, and some don't dare believe after what happened last time. It was six years ago now, but still it lingers and still it hurts. God, it hurts. The bus pulls out and begins its journey, past thousands of people in blue and white, air filled with smoke, past the flats where flags hang from balconies, and toward Riazor, where Deportivo de La Coruña face Espanyol.

And their destiny.

In 2000, Deportivo had been back in Spanish football's top division for only nine years. It was not so long ago that they were in Segunda B, the semi-amateur third tier, and even the regional tercera división didn't feel that far away. They had been relegated from the first division in 1973, and for two decades they had been closer to going out of business than they had been to returning. For much of the 1980s, their Riazor stadium was a place where barely 5,000 fans gathered most weeks. But things were about to change.

A goal from Vicente Celerio on the final day of the 1987-88 season rescued Depor from relegation from the second division to the Segunda B and an almost certain death, after 81 years of existence: it's said that the paperwork formalising the club's disappearance was prepared, ready to be handed over to the football federation.

And then in 1988, Augusto César Lendoiro took over as president. He had led Liceo, the local roller hockey team, to success winning the cup in 1983. He says that being president of Deportivo was the last thing he wanted, but the club were desperate, engulfed in institutional and sporting crisis, and no one else wanted the responsibility. The club was in debt and there were 4,000 members. Three years later they were in the first division and the year after that, amazingly, they were competing for the league title. They were a big club now.

Just not this big.

"Super Depor" had been born, a team led by Arsenio Iglesias, who had coached them in the third division. They started to sign players, competing with the best, a Brazilian core to the team. They were third in 1993 and second in 1994, when they had been so, so close, the great trauma that still haunted them. They were second again in 1995, third again in 1997. But they hadn't won the league. And, most feared, nor would they. Those days seemed to have drifted away.

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And yet here they were in May 2000, unexpectedly standing on the verge of history. It was the final day of the season and it was close now. All they needed was a point to win their first league title. It was a short bus trip, a half-mile covered slowly, but they had come a long way.

Just a little farther now.

This was their day and this is their story, told by the men who made history by winning Deportivo's only ever league title, 20 years ago today. It is an anniversary they celebrate with a sense of nostalgia and lost glory: today Deportivo are in the relegation zone of the second division, back where this story starts.

How this team came together

Augusto César Lendoiro, club president, 1988-2014: When we arrived at the club in 1988, Deportivo had gone almost 20 years without being in the first division, down there between the second, second B and third divisions. In 1991, we went up and, in front of 20,000 people in the Plaza María Pita, I announced: "Barça, Madrid ... we're here." Everyone laughed at me; they said I was mad. But that was a premonition. From 1993 to 2005, we fought with them as equals.

After 1994, when we could have won the league on the final day, lots of fans thought we'd never get another chance but I was convinced. I always said Spain owed us a league.

Slavisa Jokanovic, Deportivo midfielder, 1999-2000: There was so much quality in that Depor team, and depth too: more than 20 players who whoever played, they did it brilliantly. Up front they had Turu Flores, Roy Makaay, Pauleta ... and then later Diego Tristan and Pandiani came along, as if there weren't enough goals already. Noureddine Naybet was an incredible player, Mauro, Djalminha, Víctor, Fran, Flavio, Donato ... Djalminha struck the ball in a way I'd never seen, a born winner who could do anything. Tactically, technically and psychologically, he was brilliant.

Víctor Sánchez del Amo, Deportivo midfielder, 1999-2006: [Djalminha was] a genius. That's the word: genius. People used to watch our training sessions and they can safely say they saw Djalminha do things no one has ever seen any player do. There was Roy Makaay, one of the best strikers in Europe, a golden boot: right foot, left foot, headers, although he didn't like heading it. Jabo [Irureta, the manager] would be shouting "Head it, my son!" but he would step back and volley it into the top corner instead. "Yeah, but look where it is."

I hardly need to explain how good Mauro Silva was: we're talking about a World Cup winner with Brazil in 1994. He was incredibly strong and very intelligent in the middle of midfield, with an amazing competitive mentality. He never, ever dropped his guard. If you wanted to anger him, you took the ball off him. If you could do that, wow, the anger was incredible. He hated it. A train could hit him at 300 km/h and it wouldn't move him. Then there was Donato: you'd stand there, amazed. He was possibly the most intelligent player I've ever seen, which is why he could keep going at 40. He was 37 that day.

Jokanovic: You couldn't tell. It doesn't matter if Donato was 17 or 37. And he was tough. The slightest loss of concentration and he'd come over and leave you with no legs left.

Jabo Irureta, manager 1998-2005: [left winger] Fran had been at Deportivo his whole career, including in Segunda. It was his life. He's so important in the club's history. He's not a man to speak out, but he was a phenomenal player and an undisputed starter with me. When I came, I made him captain.

Lendoiro: I had met Luis Aragonés and we'd reached an agreement for him to be manager which fell through because of his agent's demands. So we took advantage of Celta's mistake in not offering Irureta the two years he'd asked for.

Irureta: Lendoiro got in there; he was always very astute. I remember having to leave the ground out the back. And then the first game I took charge of for Deportivo was at Celta ... wow. Depor's local rivals and the club I had come from. Depor were not like the biggest clubs but we competed consistently.

That 1999-2000 season, especially. Deportivo had been 12th before Irureta's arrival, those title-chasing days seemingly over. In his first season, they finished sixth. And then they strengthened the squad again. Deportivo looked to the Spanish market that summer, led by the Dutch international striker Roy Makaay. He joined for €8m from Tenerife, where he had been their top scorer the previous season, and he ended up getting 22 goals that season. He later became European Golden Shoe winner. He was good, they knew, but no one expected him to be this good. No one expected any of it to be this good, in fact.

Roy Makaay, Deportivo striker, 1999-2003: They changed the philosophy with transfers: they had signed Brazilians before but now they went for Spaniards or players who'd been in Spain like me, Jokanovic, Víctor, César. It all fit, from the first day. Víctor and I, Mauro, Flavio, Djalminha, Fran on the left; Naybet, Schurrer or Donato; Manuel Pablo and Romero; Songo'o in goal.

The structure was clear, the whole year we played the same way with almost the same team. If someone was out, the guy coming in did so with no problems. Scaloni, Flores, Jokanovic, Cesar ... The goal was to get into the top four, which was realistic: they'd been sixth the year before. But the league wasn't a target, no.

Víctor: Lendoiro rejuvenated the team. We had a very competitive squad and hunger.

Makaay: People didn't talk about the trauma 1993-94 when I got there, but towards the end of the season they did.

In 1994, Deportivo had been on the verge of winning the league title. All they needed to do was beat Valencia at home on the final day. Or at least match the result achieved by Barcelona, who were playing Sevilla at the Camp Nou. In the last minute, Deportivo won a penalty. This was it: one shot, one kick, to win their first league title. The pressure, though, was unbearable. Miroslav Djukic took a weak, seemingly fearful penalty that was easily saved, denying "Super Depor" the title and gifting it to Barcelona on goal difference instead. He had looked terrified; now he looked lost. It was a penalty he shouldn't even have taken.

Donato, Deportivo midfielder, 1993-2003: I should have taken it. The manager [Arsenio Iglesias] had never taken me off in a game but that day he did. No one understood it. I never understood it, I think he didn't either. That penalty marked three of us: Bebeto, who didn't have the bravery to take it. Djukic, who missed. And me, who if I had been on the pitch, we could have won the league.

I don't know if I would have scored, but I knew which way the keeper was going. If I had gone that way [with my penalty], the way Djukic went, it could only have been because I had s--- my pants. I had been practising all week. Even in the hotel, I had been imagining it, telling myself: "left side, left side, left side ..." And then he takes me off, and in the last minute there's a penalty. Madre mía, how can this happen? It wasn't God's will for us to win the league that day.

The final game in 1999-2000

Now, six years on they hoped that it would be at long last. In 1999-2000, Deportivo had gone top in Week 12 and never relinquished that position. They had beaten Barcelona at home, put four past Atlético, and five past Real Madrid and Sevilla. But if that makes it sound easy, a triumphant march it wasn't. They lost 11 times, seven of them in the second half of the season. They won just five times away and as the season drew toward a close, they couldn't quite get it over the line. And so, again, it went down to the final day.

Three teams could win the league: Deportivo on 66 points, Barcelona on 63, Zaragoza on 63. Again, Deportivo needed a result at Riazor. Again, they had Barcelona breathing down their necks. The memory of 1994 hung over them.

Irureta: We had got in between Madrid and Barcelona, fighting with them, getting on their nerves. 1999-2000 was tight, competitive. These days teams get more points -- it was 69 in the end -- but it was very equal right to the end. We went top early and it wasn't the hardest run-in but it got harder than it might have been. We drew both against Racing and Zaragoza, so we still had to get a result on the final day. And '94 was very present, "baggage."

Víctor: That fear of what had happened before might have been in the fans' minds but it wasn't really in ours. Maybe Donato, Fran, Mauro, those who'd been there at the time.

Donato: We had the chance to be champions, and we couldn't let that go. For me, personally, that bus journey to the ground was different to how it was for the rest: my friend Antonio Orejuela, who had played with me at Atlético, was in hospital, in ICU, with a heart problem. I couldn't even ring him because a call could even have killed him. He couldn't watch the game. I was worried about him. I've got to focus on the game but I can't get my friend out of my mind.

I decided to dedicate him a goal. And the first thing I did when I got to the ground and went into the dressing room was ask Javi, the kit man, to get me a T-shirt and we put on it "Ánimo Orejuela, va por tí." ["Be strong, Orejuela, this one is for you."] Problem is, that's something for a forward -- they score and dedicate lots of goals -- not someone like me. I know my job, and it's not that. But I swore to God I was going to score -- I don't know how -- so I could dedicate it to him.

Makaay: In terms of the pressure, the team was OK; it was more the feeling around us and inside the stadium -- a bit afraid that it's going to happen again, the title slips away in the last game again. In those last few weeks, everybody was speaking about the penalty trauma, but the point in Santander was a relief and we only needed a point. That was different to '94. And in the third minute, we get the corner.

Víctor: There was always time set aside [in training] for free kicks, set plays, corners. Simple things, repeated. I'd said to Donato, "I'll put it there at the near post, you get there on the run." In games, all we needed was a look and we knew. When I went to get the ball, I was looking at Donato.

Donato: I had been practicing with Víctor in the ground the day before, although it was at the other end. I told my dad, who was watching the session: "If he crosses it like that, I'll score." Toni Velamazán was marking me, really sticking to me, but I knew where Víctor was aiming, the timing of his run-up, so I got half a metre ahead at the near post.

Víctor: Suddenly, we were all in the corner celebrating.

Deportivo 1-0 Espanyol (Donato 3")

Donato: I lifted the shirt and dedicated the goal to Orejuela. There had been a nervousness among the fans in the stands but then the stadium exploded. Three minutes in and there was a certainty, tranquillity. The fans had been very tense, you couldn't hear them, but we had nothing to fear anymore. That frightened off the ghosts of 1993-94.

Makaay: The stadium was packed, with I don't know how many outside. Donato's goal coming so early meant we lost that last little percent of pressure.

Víctor: We used to say about Roy Makaay: if one drops to him, it's in. Which it did.

Deportivo 2-0 Espanyol (Makaay 34")

Donato: It was much calmer after Roy scored.

Lendoiro: But we were still a world away. Not even Makaay's goal, our second, calmed me down. Losing a league with a missed penalty in the last minute was still very fresh in my mind.

Irureta: At half-time, I told them it wasn't done, but we were close: be organised, keep the ball, play it. And they did so well. People were telling us scores from the other games, which helped keep everything calm too: we knew they were going our way. [Barcelona drew 2-2 with Celta, Zaragoza lost 2-1 at Valencia]

Víctor: As we got closer to the final whistle, we knew the fans were going to run on. We could see it. We're there saying to the referee: "Blow the final whistle." We're trying to get a bit closer to the tunnel so the fans can't catch us. It was as if the pitch had a slope towards the tunnel side. You don't know what's going to happen. It's not that you worry, but that many people hugging might end up suffocating you.

Actually, they were great: they let us through. Mind you, we got to the tunnel with less clothes than before. Fran was just his pants. Someone had taken my shorts, and I had to fight to keep my shirt. In the dressing room, everyone was singing, chanting, there were bottles being opened. Then we went back out. It was incredible to see.

Donato: I couldn't speak to Orejuela straight after the game, not until much later.

Víctor: In the dressing room, they had set everything up to dye our hair white in celebration: the entire team had to do it. So, we're all there with foil on our heads. It was supposed to be white but no one was going to sit still long enough with all that going on. Yellow, orange, a mess of colours. [Striker] Turu Flores came off the worst. We looked like a rainbow. I went to the European Cup final to watch Madrid with my hair still white.

Makaay: Everybody had to do it. Either you did it voluntarily or they held you down. Everyone except for two players who were getting married or something. They were allowed to have a one-wash job. Mine went yellow but luckily my wife is a hairdresser and she fixed it. I joined up with the Netherlands squad for Euro 2000 like that, then one day a local hairdresser put it back to my original colour.

Donato: I went to Brazil still blond, I looked like a pagodeiro, a samba star. Very handsome.

Irureta: For those who played in '94 -- Donato, Mauro Silva, Fran -- it was a liberation. My mind turned to them, to their manager Arsenio Iglesias, and I thought how bad it must have been for them. Without them, we wouldn't have been there. That league was a way of completing the work of the '94 team, of underlining what they had achieved. People said: "football owes Deportivo a league." No one owes anyone anything but it was a way of saying: "relax, it's done: we've got a league title now at last."

Donato: People talk about that [earlier] team as "Super Depor," which tells you something. They all contributed to the title; they were champions too. That was the highest peak for me. The league was like a thorn in my side, removed that day. And to score too. That was the culmination of my work in Spain, the crowning moment.

Víctor: At Real Madrid you're obliged to win trophies. When you leave there and play elsewhere you realise how hard it is: you can't compete financially. Winning the league with Deportivo is a huge, huge achievement. As a sportsman, you know what you've done, what that means.

Makaay: Of course it's the best moment. I won two titles in Germany with Bayern and they're all great, but doing it with a club that doesn't expect it, being part of the team that wins the title for the only time in their history, makes it more special. From the bus, it looked like there were more people on the streets than live in A Coruña.

There was happiness, excitement ... the trauma from '94 made it even more meaningful. The club's first title, so far its only one, brought so much joy to the whole city.

Lendoiro: Looking back on it makes me smile. That was the biggest party A Coruña's ever had, the entire city out and without a single problem: that night was the night the city had the fewest cases at A&E. A dream night, maybe never to be repeated. I remember the players throwing me into the air, laughing but terrified they were going to drop me. And going on the radio to sing "Vivir na Coruña que bonito é."

When my wife and I got home sometime the next morning, I thought about my parents who were no longer with us and tears came to my eyes, just as I'm sure they did for thousands of Galicians who couldn't share that party with parents or grandparents.

Irureta: There were so many people out. The party lasted all night. I don't know what time it was when we got back: 8 in the morning, maybe. What did I say when we finally closed the door and we were alone? Bloody hell, we did it.