Spanish La Liga Players’ Strike – Reasons And Repercussions

The customary Super Cup is done with and FC Barcelona has emerged victorious in an intense and breathtaking display of football, sans the brawl at the end of the match. In a normal scenario, the spotlight would immediately shift to the commencement of the La Liga with fans waiting for the new season to kick off. But instead, there would be no matches played for the next two weeks as the players are on strike for the first time in three decades over their wage payments.

Wait a minute! Aren’t footballers supposed to be uber-cool, rich, wealthy and earning more than necessary? After all, Spain are the World Cup champions and the domestic league houses two of the most decorated clubs in football history.

Well, for a fan, who follows less of Spanish football, this might come as a rude shock but for this correspondent and numerous others, who are in awe of the Spanish players artistry and religiously preach La Liga dominance, this comes as no great surprise.

The players union and the league are at loggerheads and have been negotiating intensely since the past few weeks over more than €50 million in unpaid wages by many clubs to its players and some players have not even been paid for months now. It’s a situation that was kept under wraps for many months until the players, finally, decided to take the matter into their own hands.  According to Sid Lowe, more than 200 players have been paid late or not been paid at all since two years, which is quite appalling, to say the least!

Spain itself is facing a severe economic crisis, with people going jobless and unemployment is on the rise. It seems that Spanish football  has been bitten by the same bug. 22 clubs out of 42, in the first two divisions are in administration, including the three recently promoted teams – Real Betis, Rayo Vallecano and Granada.

The national football administration seems quite competent, as they have successfully designed a plan to make Spain a dominant force in the world and also sustain the dominance for years to come. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the various clubs in La Liga.

Club Finances

For example, a club like Real Zaragoza, with an average attendance of 25,210 and Telefonica, one of Spain’s largest companies as the sponsor, it’s shocking to note that they have more than €150 million in debt. They owe money to almost everybody, even the ones, who are remotely related to football on earth. They are bankrupt and have no money, but have the audacity to sign Juan Carlos for €2.5 million from Real Madrid and a keeper from Benfica for €8 million. Its stupidity of the highest kind. Such stupidity in the transfer market and deals with players being promised wages, more than they can afford, is sadly the sad story of majority of the clubs.

Valencia, the La Liga champions under Rafa Benitez and Champions League finalists were placed comfortably both in terms of finances and football. They had a stunning 55,000 seater stadium but the President and Board of Directors decided to do something stupid. They proposed a 75,000 seater splendid stadium that would rival the opulence of Camp Nou and Santiago Bernabéu. They thought that they would sell their current stadium and training ground and build the new stadium with the money. Then recession struck and everything came down crashing to the ground. Work had started on the new stadium but none was ready to buy the Mestalla and the club debt has reached an unprecedented €500 million from a manageable €125 million.

Those were the days

Valencia, in the words of their manager, Unai Emery, had reached rock bottom. Players’ salaries were delayed and the club struggled for stability. The players’ exodus started as Valencia started selling their prized possessions including David Villa and David Silva and may have also lost out on Juan Mata. But, contrary to all expectations, Valencia has managed to stay afloat, thanks to their intelligent signings, their coach and the regional government bailing them with a package of €74 million and is playing Champions League football regularly. But still, the debt remains and is growing with their dream of new stadium in tatters.

Another major club,  Atlético Madrid are in a debt of  above €300 million and could be on the cusp of bankruptcy. Instead of utilizing the profit gained by selling Kun Aguero, they decided to invest in Radamel Falcao. This move could prove healthy as well as disastrous in the long term. But the vice-president maintains that Atlético, inspite of the debt being unsustainable, will survive the wrath of administration.

Rayo Vallecano, whose home is five kms from the giants, Real Madrid, have gained promotion but applied for administration earlier this year and their players have been unpaid for months. Racing Santander, a club on the verge of collapse, was bought by Ahsan Ali Syed, an Non-Resident Indian, but are now facing disastrous consequences. The owner has fulfilled none of his promises and the players and staff are waiting for their salaries to be paid. The same can be said about Hércules. They did shock Barcelona in the beginning of the season but later their finances deteriorated. They did not even have money to pay for hot water and could not afford a flight journey and had no proper dressing room. Their salaries also were not paid for six months.This is the story of many clubs in the Spanish League.

Levante, another club in administration, survived this year and managed to stay in the top division, and in three years they still haven’t paid a Euro for any transfer. All have been free transfers. Atleast, they were not stupid.

And then there are teams like Real Mallorca, who applied for administration and were rescued by the tennis superstar, Rafael Nadal, but were denied permission to play in the Europa League because of administration. Getafe have been taken over by new owners and their interest in the project remains to be seen. Malaga seem to have landed a really smart owner, who has charted out a fantastic long-term strategy for their club and could be on the verge of creating a new identity for themselves.  Espanyol, who were cash-strapped have managed to redeem themselves and seem to be in better health thanks to emphasis on their youth products and their coach, Mauricio Pochettino.

Villarreal, last year, for the first time, failed to pay its players when its owner suffered losses in his business but now are fairly operating at a stable level managing a profit of €5-10 million. This summer they have sold Cazorla and allowed Capdevilla to leave and hence could gain a bit more financial health. But, they also need the European Championships to keep operating in green.

Even Barcelona are in huge debt, but can manage because their income is huge and with a few adjustments and better marketing, could very well operate in profits. Real Madrid are an exception though. With an unbelievable marketing clout and record revenues, it is highly impossible that Real Madrid will face any problem financially in the near future. Their income can only increase in the future, as Los Blancos have shed the Galactico policy and have started investing in youth, which can further stabilize them in case of any crisis.

Athletic Bilbao - A Model Club

But, the best club of them all is undoubtedly Athletic Bilbao. With a policy of picking only home-grown players (Basque to be more specific), Bilbao have maintained their status as a model club in terms of everything – finances, football, academy, stadia and administration. Their current stadium, La Catedral or San Mames will be replaced by a new swanky one – San Mamés Barria, a 55,500 capacity, UEFA 5-star stadium, built at a cost of €160 million, whose expenses will be shared by the club and the Basque government.  For every football club in the world, this club should be an example of how to manage and survive without compromising their values.

Repercussions

Spanish footballers are certainly extra-ordinarily talented and their ability on the ball might be the envy of many but without proper wages and livelihood, it will be difficult for Spanish football players to secure their future. The club owners and management are responsible for harboring desires out of their reach and pushing the clubs into administration. The irony is, the owners do not mind even if the clubs goes into administration, as the La Liga has set up a central fund to pay the unpaid wages. But, the unpaid levels have risen upto a staggering €50 million and the proposed central fund is only € 10 million. Sid lowe notes that the reason for clubs languishing in administration without any fuss is that there is no sporting penalty for economic mismanagement and thus, administration becomes an opportunity rather than a problem for some club owners – the chance not to pay players, or other clubs for players they have purchased.

The effect of this strike on the image of Spanish football is beyond imagination. Its been tarnished beyond repair, but the players should not be blamed for it. The clubs, their owners and their mindless spending is responsible for this. The clubs can go on and on about the inequality in TV rights money distribution, but first they need to set their houses, before they can claim such justice.

Its a shame, that the country which gained international recognition on the world-stage for its breath taking football has now fallen down to shameful levels, for its domestic football administration. The league body now needs to wake up and lay down strict rules and financial guidelines for the clubs to comply; otherwise most of these clubs will collapse and there would be no more good players, interested in playing for majority of the clubs.

Its time to act or it would be too late.