Different season, same old story. Instead of the traditional two horse race for the title, this year Real Madrid surrendered early and made sure that FC Barcelona walked towards yet another La Liga title untroubled – they have already won the title and if they win their three remaining matches it will be the second consecutive season where the winner notches 100 points. Lionel Messi would have easily beaten his own La Liga goal record set last season if not for an injury picked in Paris during a Champions League tie against Paris Saint-Germain, and Real Madrid still comfortably finished second despite a pretty bad season for their standards. Atlético Madrid impressed at the start of the season, with Falcao in devastating form, but they predictably failed to keep up that form for the entirety of the season and will finish in a distant third place.
The gulf between the ‘Big two’ and the rest doesn’t seem to have shrunk at all, well on the contrary; the league has only been becoming more and more monotonous with each passing year. As soon as Real Madrid dropped behind in the race early, it was a given that Barcelona would win the title. For the first time though the negative consequences of such a lopsided league were felt in Europe, in the Champions League. Used to fighting for every point and having to keep a very high intensity week in week out, Bayern and Borrussia Dortmund dished out some very heavy punishment to Spain’s top 2 in the Champions League semifinals. They were simply on a higher gear from the very first minute and completely overran Spain’s finest to book a date at Wembley. A lot of fans and experts were tipping an El Clásico final, but both Barcelona and Real Madrid were completely shell-shocked in Germany; Real Madrid still attempted a comeback Spain, while Barcelona, without a fully fit Messi, just practically gave up on the tie. While last year’s elimination at the same stage was seen by many as a fluke of sorts, this year saw both Spanish giants get beaten down so comprehensively that no doubts can possibly be cast over whether there has been a shift in supremacy.
Barcelona and Real Madrid still have a collection of some of the finest players in the world, but they are finally feeling the effects of their league’s lack of competitiveness, of only really having a few really high intensity matches per season. Historically, bar some exceptions, the dominant teams (or leagues) in European competition are those who boast of a high level of internal competitiveness. The lack of internal competition almost inevitably brings complacency, not to mention lack of preparation for games of the highest intensity against the best teams in Europe. Barcelona and Real Madrid are too big and powerful brands to ever fade into irrelevance like Celtic or Rangers, but they have just started reaping what they sow with their financial stranglehold over the rest of the league. Their refusal to take part in a fairer revenue distribution system has made it far easier for them to monopolize the top talent and dominate the league, but it has come at a price. Real haven’t been to a Champions League final in 11 years now, and while Barcelona dominated Europe with their golden generation, the cracks in their armour are being exposed now that they have slightly declined – the 0-7 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich might very well mean the end of an era for the Catalans.
Spain’s ‘Big two’ will continue to have a monopoly of a significant share of the world’s best players and managerial talent and their stranglehold on La Liga is hardly likely to wane (well on the contrary), but the odds are that their Champions League results will continue to suffer. Bayern and Dortmund did not prevail because they have superior squads, but because they played on a higher gear that Barcelona and Real Madrid simply couldn’t match. They are so rarely forced to go all out during their La Liga campaigns that they were completely shell shocked.
It is too early to claim a shift in the supremacy at the international level towards Germany as well, but it’d hardly come as a surprise. Spain continue to produce talents, but a lot of them end up on Barcelona or Real Madrid’s bench from an early age or in a smaller team – either way far from the best environment for them to fully achieve their potential despite the immense talent they showed at the youth level.
Spanish football is at a crossroads at the moment, a predicament that could have been foreseen a few years ago. The league feels more and more like a monotonous non-event and the consequences are starting to be felt in European competition. Never has the need for a fairer TV revenue distribution deal been more evident and from it might depend the future of Spanish football as a whole.