La Liga's future at a crossroads
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were idle this weekend as the Spanish leagues were shut down by a strike, delaying the start of the new season for the first time in 27 years.
The question is: Did you even notice?
Odd as it sounds, the players might just be hoping you didn’t.
The nuts and bolts of the strike come down to this: The players want the federation to guarantee their contracts if clubs go belly up. They have real reason to fear that: A full half of the teams in the top flight are under bankruptcy protection and more are expected to seek refuge in the coming weeks.
Players also want the league to guarantee releases when players are not paid for three months. With clubs owing players a combined $72 million in unpaid wages, one can see why. An agreement to play next week remains elusive as the players are holding fast and talks Monday failed to resolve the issues.
The strike points up two very uncomfortable truths about the Spanish game. Two teams utterly control this league and have no interest in splitting revenues or taking a chance on missing out on a lucrative Champions League slot. The other, tougher fact to swallow is this: after a week that saw Real Madrid and Barcelona play each other twice in the Spanish Supercopa, it’s doubtful if anyone outside of Spain cared that the games aren’t on.
In fact, La Liga fans will get to see Barcelona this week. They hosted their own friendly against Napoli Monday and they will play Friday in the European Supercup against FC Porto at Monaco, the traditional friendly that coincides with the Champions League draw (live, 2:30 p.m. ET, FOX Soccer).
That’s a major reason why the players are making this stand. This goes beyond the bankruptcies and financial inequities that have rocked virtually every European league. Spanish league football is in a state of structural meltdown, and that’s why even the highest-profile players —unlikely labor organizers Carlos Puyol and Iker Casillas are leading this strike — are concerned. They rightly fear what would happen if Spain suddenly became a league that cannot develop talent or field competitive teams.
There are too many examples of this happening, with the saddest perhaps being the case of the once internationally-renowned Scottish Premier League. As is happening in Spain today, two teams, the Glaswegian giants Celtic and Rangers, slowly strangled the rest of the Scottish League by dominating advertising and TV revenues in a short-sighted plan to allow them entry into Europe every season.
What was the end result?
The league’s quality has hit the gutter, and teams are barely surviving. No one wants to play in Scotland anymore, making a lousy product worse. The end result has even laid the once great Old Firm teams low.
Spain isn’t there yet, but it’s not too far off either.
There are teams like Atletico Madrid, Valencia, Villarreal and Sevilla that still can make waves, and no one is comparing Espanyol to Hearts yet. But the fact that the vast majority of folks only tune in to watch the Big Two — or better yet, the Big Two head-to-head — means that there are a number of clubs that cannot tap into the revenue streams that modern teams need to succeed.
Fewer major clubs obviously means fewer well-paying jobs for players. It also means fewer competitive matches, fewer skilled managers, and more blowouts in the league tables. For instance, Valencia finished a full 26 points behind Barcelona in third place last season. They were one of only three teams who didn’t record double-digit defeat. Interestingly enough, Valencia was so far off the pace that they were out of the running by the seventh week of the 38-game season.
The solution the players have proposed isn’t a viable one. They are fully justified in wanting to ensure they get paid, but the fact that a number of teams are using bankruptcy protection to shield still lavish outlays shows how responsibilities are continuing to be ducked. What needs to happen is nothing short of a wholesale reorganization of the game - with a salary cap.
Unfortunately, until the European game as a whole makes moves toward a closed system that rewards financial responsibility - including treating players as partners, not goods to be bought and sold - that’s unlikely to happen. And despite ample evidence that shared sacrifice and restructuring would be in everyone’s interest, the big teams remain unwilling to make the hard choices.
As a result, any agreement is likely to simply paper over the inequities, pushing what will be a very painful reckoning down the road. Ultimately, the players will succeed in making their point, and fans will tune in to watch Barcelona and Real Madrid in a few weeks' time.
Whether they’ll watch such a lopsided league in a year’s time is the question that cannot be easily answered.