Real Madrid’s dramatic UEFA Champions League final win on Saturday underlined just how good these times are for Spanish football.
Madrid’s home-grown captain Iker Casillas lifted the trophy after a game in which Spain international Sergio Ramos was the decisive player. The beaten opposition was Real’s neighbors Atletico – in what was a first ever European Cup final between two teams from the same city.
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The all-Spanish occasion hammered home what has been an increasing reality – no team from outside Spain has overcome a La Liga side in European competition this calendar year.
Barcelona were too strong for English champions Manchester City, but were beaten by Atletico. Diego Simeone’s side took care of AC Milan and Chelsea, but fell just short against Madrid in the final. Los Blancos had earlier dispatched German champions Bayern Munich and runners-up Borussia Dortmund, as well as overcoming Serie A winners Juventus in the group stages. Nobody else could live with the Spanish sides.
Even in the Europa League, Betis and Valencia overcame all opposition until both were eliminated by eventual champs Sevilla. The Andalusian club’s victory over Benfica in the final means that trophy has been won by La Liga sides in six of the last ten seasons.
On the international level the dominance is also striking – the Spain national team is of course reigning World Cup champions, and has only won both the last two European Championship titles.
Such a situation has not occurred since 1975 – when West Germany, Bayern Munich and Borussia Munchengladbach combined to hold all the available senior trophies. That ascendancy was fleeting – but Spain’s current hegemony looks more solid.
Ever since Luis Aragones’ "tiki-taka" side took Euro 2008 by storm La Roja has dominated the world scene – this generation of Ramos, Casillas, Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, David Silva, Cesc Fabregas, Juan Mata, David Villa and Fernando Torres has hoovered up trophies wherever they go.
Even when other non-La Liga teams have won titles recently there’s been a strong Spanish influence. Mata and Torres were key to Chelsea’s Champions League win two seasons ago. Last year Javi Martinez was one of Bayern Munich’s main men – and the Bundesliga club then hired ex-Barca serial winner Josep Guardiola as coach. Manchester City also have a huge former La Liga [if not Spanish] influence in sporting director Txiki Begiristain, coach Manuel Pellegrini and star players Silva, Sergio Aguero and Yaya Toure.
So the question must be asked? How have the Spanish done it?
Not just by prudent financial management or good governance, that’s for sure. Between them Spain’s 20 top clubs have debts of over two billion dollars, including close to half a billion owed in back-taxes. Serious issues over racism and match-fixing have also arisen in La Liga over recent months. Mega-rich Real and Barcelona are perhaps exceptions – but generally speaking Spanish football is not well run on a business or administrative level.
It sounds simple, but that does not mean it’s not true – Spain’s success is mostly down to just having better players than anyone else, and lots of them. Barca’s La Masia academy is [fairly] the most famous, but potential talents are also identified and polished at other clubs throughout La Liga.
The youth systems at clubs including Real, Atletico, Athletic Bilbao, Villarreal, Sevilla and Real Sociedad keep sending a steady stream of players ready to compete at the elite level. The widespread financial issues also mean youngsters get early chances to play and improve in the senior side, or if not they are quickly sent elsewhere to gain experience. The big club’s financial resources mean they can also afford to buy the best emerging players. Real Madrid’s Isco, Jese and Dani Carvajal, Barcelona’s Gerard Deulofeu and Rafinha and Atletico midfielder Koke are all already world class talents, and all 22 or younger.
The standard of coaching in Spain is also a step above. The Primera Division may not always have the drama of the Premier League, but games are much more tactically interesting. Spanish coaches are in huge demand throughout Europe – besides Guardiola at Bayern and Rafa Benitez at Napoli, Julen Lopetegui recently left a job as national Under-21 boss to take over at FC Porto. Three of the Premier League’s most innovative managers – Mauricio Pochettino, Roberto Martinez and Gus Poyet – all have playing or coaching roots in La Liga.
These solid playing and coaching foundations mean that – even though La Liga’s financial issues show no signs of abating – Spain’s clubs are again well placed for 2014/15. Real and Sevilla meet in August’s European Supercup, so that’s one trophy already guaranteed. Real are also favorites for December’s World Club Cup in Morocco, and they and Barca will again be there or thereabouts for the Champions League.
Meanwhile few would bet against Del Bosque’s retaining their World Cup trophy in Brazil next month. Vamos.