For a second successive season Barcelona and Real Madrid have stormed to the La Liga summit obliterating the rest of the domestic competition. There was a staggering 21 point gap between 2nd placed Madrid and 3rd placed Valencia. Last season 25 points separated the same two teams in the same two positions. It paints a gloomy prediction for the lack of quality competition in the league and has drawn critics of the league, predominately those from England, to claim it is an uncompetitive league with poor teams outside the top two. And that the clasico clubs are made to look so good because they play in a weak league.
Last month’s Champions League final and the extent to which Manchester United were outclassed put to bed a lot of the doubts with regard to the quality of this Barcelona side. They are certainly a good distance ahead in current world football. Yet despite this, there is still a perception that with the exception of Real Madrid there is no competition in their domestic game, thus making it predictable and dull. Essentially a healthy league cannot survive on a two-team format, as the lack of wider competition eventually drives players away who want to be playing competitive games week-in week-out. You have only to look at the Scottish league to see the detrimental impact of two teams dominating the domestic scene. In 1967 Celtic were the first British club to be crowned European Champions, now neither them nor Rangers make any impact on the tournament, if and when they do qualify. This is in partly down to the lack of competition in the league.
La Liga however is in not in line to go the same way. It must be admitted that currently and probably for the next few years Spain’s top two will dominate the league convincingly. But this does not mean it will last indefinitely as in Scotland. As stated this is a special Barcelona team, built on a gifted generation of La Masia graduates. Will those who come from those fabled football halls always be this gifted? It is unlikely, although rest assured it will still produce talented players. It is just difficult to imagine them being as good and as cohesive as the current crop.
As for Real Madrid, they are the club of Castile, the Spanish Royal family, the rich and powerful of Madrid and the most successful club of all time. They could not sit back as their main rivals not only begun to dominate European football but did it in such an emphatic style that was supposed to be their domain. They responded in the only way they could, by attempting to rise to the challenge and spending millions in the process as they re-launched the galacticos. Florentino Perez’s return as President to Madrid saw them recruit some of the best players in the world outside of Catalunya. It meant Spain’s top two were now at the strongest they had been for years, perhaps even ever as rival squads. However this is not a situation that will continue unabated, when this current Barcelona team breaks up, Madrid will not have to spend as much to be constantly trying to match them. UEFA’s financial fair play regulations could also potentially curb Madrid’s spending.
Just as the top two have been good over the last couple of seasons, it must be admitted that the rest have not been up to the standard. This is not to say that it is an uncompetitive league, but Barcelona and Madrid hitting a peak has coincided with the nearest challengers hitting a trough. Former prominent challengers and chasers Atletico, Valencia, Deportivo La Coruna, Sevilla and Villarreal are all undergoing their own problems at the moment. Deportivo’s financial troubles were such that they were unable to pay players full wages for several months.
This finally culminated in their relegation this year, having until recent years been regulars in the Champions League and having won the championship in 2000. Valencia are also in financial difficulties, being forced to sell star players Villa and Silva last year and it remains unclear how long they will be able to hold on to the likes of Mata, Soldado, Pablo and Banega. Atletico Madrid, despite financial vice-President Fernando Garcia Abasolo insisting the club is not bankrupt, also face severe financial difficulties. The club is in debt of €250–300 million and will also struggle to keep hold of their star players such as Sergio Aguero.
There is no denying this financial strain being felt by Spain’s big clubs outside of el clasico is in part down to the way TV rights are sold. With Barcelona and Madrid able to sell their matches separately and command a much higher rate, a financial gulf is building which is stifling competition in the league. It enables the top two to take home around half of the TV revenue pot of the entire league.
Last year the League’s President Hose Luis Astiazaran announced “We had a meeting and it was proposed that television income should be shared on a basis of percentages linked to audience share, a fixed percentage, and further percentages that vary according to historical results.” Ultimately the deal put forward by the clubs merely cemented 35% of TV money going to Madrid and Barcelona. The power of the top two is still undermining progress and stands in the way of truly fair and competitive league. But to dismiss the ability of the rest of the league is foolhardy, especially when they are regulars in the latter stages of European competition.
To look more broadly at the history of La Liga than just the last two seasons, it compares relatively to the Premiership in terms of competition. As Manchester United picked up their 12th Premier League title in 19 seasons, when the Premiership was formed, Barcelona were crowned champions for the 9th time in the same period. Just like the Premier League it has had only 2 champions since 2004 when Valencia won the title.
In this period since the Premier League’s inception, La Liga has seen 5 different clubs crowned champions in comparison to 4 in England. Infact of Europe’s ‘Big 5’ league of England, Spain, Italy France and Germany, only England has had as few as 4 champions in this period. English critics should take a look at how much diversity there is at the upper echelons of the Premiership before being are so quick to dismiss La Liga as an uncompetitive league.
– Joseph Walsh
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