(by Martin del Palacio bigsoccer.com 5-6-13)
A year ago, Real Madrid and Barcelona arrived to their Champions League semifinals as heavy favorites. When they were eliminated, the feeling remained that the outcome of their ties might have been unfair. The Catalans ran riot over a fragile Chelsea side but missed the unmissable in front of an inspired Petr Cech and the Merengues were a Sergio Ramos’ penalty away from qualifying to the continental final.
Three hundred and sixty five days later, history repeated itself, but only in the statistics. In practice, the two big Spanish sides were defeated in all fairness by their German rivals, and the results showed what had been impossible to detect in the previous edition: Spanish football in general is in crisis, and there are very clear reasons behind it.
In its May issue, the prestigious English magazine World Soccer made a ranking of the best leagues in the world. Unlike the pathetic and incomprehensible rankings produced from time to time by the IFFHS (i.e. a German bureaucrat in his basement), the parameters were very precise: stadium attendance, financial status of the league, number of goals, variety of champions, quality of the coaches, better stadiums, star players and continental success.
You’d think, with Barcelona and Real Madrid at the top, Spain would finish first, didn’t you? Well, it was far from being the case. The leader was, by an important margin, Germany. The Bundesliga is not only the more spectacular league, but the more stable and better off financially. The so named by Marca, “Liga de las Estrellas”, finished in third place, behind the Premier League.
Essentially, the problem is that, outside of the big two, the Iberian league is in shambles. Almost no team pays its players on time and those who do usually have very modest budgets, such as Levante or Getafe. Of the teams that are fighting for the Champions League, only one, Real Sociedad, is not drowning in debt, and that’s because they went bankrupt a few years ago and had to institute a policy of absolute austerity.
Very distant in the past are the times when Deportivo, Valencia or Sevilla could sign the likes of Bebeto, Maradona , or Romàrio. In fact, it was those absurd expenses that have condemned medium and small teams in Spain. Like many entrepreneurs in the country, the club owners used their sides to make shady deals, and borrowed money until their finances collapsed. In that sense, football is a reflection of an entire society in total crisis without any apparent exit.
Meanwhile, Real and Barça are bathing in wealth and have used that to establish an impressive dominance locally. But that had only helped them in the trophy room. In practice, the two great Spanish sides play scrimmages every weekend and important games only four or five times a year, when they face each other or with bigger rivals in the Champions League. No wonder, then, that the Catalans have been humbled this season every time they faced a match against a top team and, in the last two years, the only top team Los Blancos managed to defeat en route to their Champions League semifinal ties was Manchester United, and the Red Devils couldn’t be blamed to think the outcome had been quite unfair.
The problem is that the situation will not improve, mainly because the smaller clubs have no income. The average attendance in the league, taking away from the big two, barely exceeds the 23,000 fans, and most of their shirts have no sponsor. And the worst part comes with television revenue. Real and Barça get 70% of the profits, leaving the crumbs to the rest, and are not willing to change the terms. Strangely, they have not realized that their local greed is what is leading to their continental downfall.
Thus the phrase “Spain is in crisis” now applies to all areas of the country, including football. It will not change soon and it doesn’t seem unlikely that, in the near future we will see the likes of Valencia, Atlético or Sevilla crash in the first round of the Champions League while Real Madrid and Barcelona fail at the last hurdle and wonder why others can make it to the final when they spend less money and have worse players than the mighty two.