Once considered the saints of the beautiful game, Barcelona are now facing accusations of ruining football in their homeland. Despite their breathtaking football, the Blaugrana are building a reputation for dabbling in the dark arts of football: diving, tapping-up transfer targets and showing a complete disrespect for their opponents both domestically and abroad. Madrid are often seen as the bad guys, but in reality Barca are no better.
It may sound odd but the European and La Liga champions, the same team who trained and groomed six of Spain’s starting XI who won the World Cup final in Johannesburg last year (seven if you include David Villa whose transfer from Valencia was completed before the World Cup began), are ruining Spanish football.
The foundation of this once-in-a-generation Barcelona team has provided Spain’s two greatest international triumphs at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, so claims such as these seem somewhat ironic. The heralded La Masia academy has produced the talents of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Pedro, Sergio Busquets and Francesc Fabregas just to name a few, all of which are mainstays in a Spanish national team that is achieving almost unrivalled dominance on the world stage.
For all the talent, skill and finesse that come out of the club however, recent rumblings from “the rest” of Spain against Barca and “big two” counterpart Real Madrid are painting a different picture of the league champions. The vast difference between the big two and the rest of Spain in terms of television revenue and squad size/quality is massive, it has created a race that now essentially only has two horses running in it.
From a neutrals perspective, there is more to it than just the money-vacuum they have created that is ruining a once glistening image. The recently reignited rivalry with Madrid since the second-era galacticos and Jose Mourinho taking over has brought out a dirty side of Barcelona. They are now dabbling in the darker arts with diving, transfer-market bullying and an air of arrogance creeping into their game. But have they become victims of their own success?
Part One: The Money Vacuum
Sports Illustrated writer and Spanish-based La Liga expert Sid Lowe has recently discussed the continually growing gap between La Liga’s also-rans and the two powerhouse clubs. Despite both clubs dropping points, and minnows Levante only just knocked off top spot, the picture being painted this early in the season is not indicative of the reality. The tightness the table suggests will not last, Levante were a fairytale – a feel good story for the rest of Spain. Over the course of 38 games, it will be Madrid and Barcelona; the fact is that these other teams do not have the resources available to mount a serious challenge over the course of nine months. And even now, the goal difference suggests they are a class above: Madrid at +26 and Barcelona at +28, already.
As Sid Lowe discusses, Madrid have finished second with over 90 points in the last two seasons; ridiculous. And last season’s third-placed team, Valencia, were closer to relegation than they were to the title. The reality of this prompted Sevilla’s president Jose Maria del Nido to label La Liga as “rubbish”.
And he has a point.
Such is his belief that the league is going up that creek that in September he invited Spain’s 18 other clubs to discuss the issues he believes are responsible for the enormous gap between themselves and the big two; namely, the television revenues structure. The Seville-hosted meeting was to be a briefing of their positioning against the new contracts drawn up prior to a Professional Football League (LFP) meeting the following week. It was designed to ensure the Spanish teams were going to act in their best interest.
In its current format, Spanish clubs negotiate individual television rights – much different to those in the Premier League where it is all done under the Premier League umbrella and then distributed depending on league position. Each season Barca and their Spanish powerhouse counterparts, Madrid, rake in around 150m Euros. The next most profitable team in Spain pulls nearly 100m less, Valencia at 48m. Sporting Gijon make 1% of the overall rights, as little as a measly 2.5m.
By contrast, the Premier League’s highest earners will only make about 1.7 times more than those at the bottom of the table.
12 of the 18 invited clubs turned up to del Nido’s proposed meeting. First on the agenda was an alternative to the proposed combined television agreement looking to be put into practice in 2015. As it stands, while somewhat more balanced than the current set up, the proposal looks to give around 34 percent to Madrid and Barcelona (still around 150m Euros a season each), 11 percent to Valencia and Atleti while the remaining 55 percent distributed among the rest.
“The contract they have offered to the two large teams, Real Madrid and Barcelona, I’m not going to sign it. This cannot continue,” del Nido has recently said.
For the league to revitalise itself, and ensure stability and survival of its smaller clubs, del Nido and others believe that it should be more equitably balanced still. The fact that other teams agree with the Sevilla president’s outspoken views is one thing, actually acting on it is another.
One week later almost all of those siding with the Sevilla chief’s view had changed their mind as Barcelona president Sandro Rosell and Real president Florentino Perez openly attacked Sevilla at the meeting for contesting the proposed changes. The only clubs to stand by Sevilla were Espanyol and Real Betis. As Lowe describes, the rest just “whistled and looked the other way”.
The fact these teams got scared or changed their minds so quickly just highlights the power and sway that Barca and Madrid have in Spain.
“When Madrid and Barcelona stand before them, when Florentino speaks they s–t themselves,” Espanyol director Joan Collett said after the meeting. “I said I hoped to be able to talk about the crap league and that I would do it again. But the others backed out.”
They all shied away from expressing concerns to the league’s board, seemingly happy to continue to be also-rans in a league with no potential winner outside of FC Barcelona or Real Madrid. The processes are meant to be democratic, essentially a vote per club. But when two disagree, everyone just accepts it; regardless of the ramifications.
It is not uncommon in the Spanish league for clubs to have no jersey sponsor; many legitimately face the prospect of insolvency. This was their opportunity to make a stand, and they failed to.
Furthermore, the circumstances surrounding Spain’s poorer clubs make it seem extremely nonsensical that Barcelona can claim they have financial difficulties while making astronomically more money than their opponents. And then fork out huge transfer fees (and wages too no doubt) on superstars Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas.
Such is the strength of Barcelona’s squad now that assuming Guardiola opts for something similar to his much-used 4-3-3 formation, with Messi playing centrally as a false-nine and their regular back four slotting into their respective positions, five of the following players will be left on the bench on any given match day: World Cup winners Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Busquets, David Villa, Pedro and Fabregas; former Argentina captain Javier Mascherano; Barcelona veteran Seydou Keita; Dutch starlet Ibrahim Affelay; and 2010-11 Serie A player of the season Alexis Sanchez.
And that’s without even considering youngster Thiago Alcantara, who burst onto the scene during pre-season and looks like he will be a superstar in the not-too-distant future, and certainly worthy of a position in Barcelona’s first team squad for this season at least.
We need not bother touching on Madrid’s ludicrous expenditure in the transfer market, for it will fill a whole column.
Comparing this strength and extremely expensive assembly of players to that of former first-placed Levante (who thought we’d be saying that?) just highlights the difference even more. Levante only just manage to pay their players, a success in itself, and their operating budget is at 22m Euros. Barcelona’s is at 461m Euros.
“Sevilla are the seventh or eighth club in terms of revenue, and I am disappointed to see the leaders of some clubs who have liquidity problems, who cannot see the wood for the trees,” del Niro stated. There are clubs worse off than his, who will gain more from a more condensed revenue structure, but they do not want to disrupt the status quo.
We will most likely never know why Spain’s clubs got cold feet when voting on TV rights. The one thing we do know though is that Barcelona and Real Madrid rule La Liga, and even with collective television rights being negotiated they will remain at a separate table to the rest of their “rivals”.
It is important to note, however, that since the September meetings several clubs have again reversed their stance and rejected the proposals; Villarreal and Osasuna among those; but there is still no end in sight in terms of a collective agreement. Barcelona, in late October, have again refused to budge on what they feel is their entitlement to a large piece of the Spanish league’s profit pie.
Hopefully, for the sake of the Spanish league, the 18 other clubs press the issue and force Madrid and Barcelona to give in.
You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.
Part two of this article can be read tomorrow so look out for it!