Instead, we’re sitting on our tushies, watching old Barca matches on the DVR and dreaming of better times ahead. Or something.
Because the LFP players are on strike. Here’s the quick and dirty lowdown on what’s going on.
There’s the AFE (the players) and the LFP (the Liga). At issue here is players’ compensation in the instances of teams that can’t meet their bills. The players want guarantees that wages will still be paid in the event of a club’s insolvency. There’s a lot of stuff going on, but the linchpin of the labor action is that the players want a fund set up that will guarantee wages, as almost 44m in wages are still owed from last season.
The Liga wants to set up a fund, worth some 40 million, that will address the problem. That fund isn’t even sufficient to cover monies owed, say the players, much less the looming problems that will be going on this Liga season. The rest of it is the typical posturing that Spanish businessmen (players are also businessmen) adopt that is often an impediment to their actually doing business.
At the root of things is a deeper problem: The Liga, as a whole, is in debt. Irrespective of how you look at that debt or decide to structure it, 3 billion isn’t a small number, particularly against revenues of 1.5 billion. It presents the picture of a league that is living beyond its means, and presents real complexities when the FIFA financial fair play strictures come into effect. The beautifully run Athletic Bilbao is the exception, rather than the rule. Another problem is that the players want the contract to include the provision that a player who hasn’t been paid in 90 days can become a free agent.
As we know, the Liga is us, Evil Empire then a second tier (Valencia, Sevilla, now Malaga, Villarreal), then the rest. And that’s the problem. When you consider that we’re paying Messi more than the entire payroll of some Liga minnows, it’s not easy to see trouble brewing, because clubs want to win. New stadiums, player transfers financed by bank loans, all in the interest of if not challenging the Big Two, at least getting to European football, where some of those costs can be recouped.
What concerns the players union in light of this debt crisis is that at present, Liga clubs can do what consumers do, which is to go into what is in effect bankruptcy. This creates a new set of rules for administration of the involved party’s finances. So the rule that says a club has to pay its players or be relegated, no longer applies. Six Liga sides: Zaragoza, Racing Santander, Mallorca, Betis, Rayo Vallecano and Granada, are in administration. Half the clubs in the second division are, as well. It’s easy to see the players concert that the LFP fund is insufficient to cover the problem. And now, we have questions:
Why don’t the players of an individual team just strike
Because any labor action, particularly under the auspices of a union, has a greater effect if everyone takes part. The players union voted to strike, and that’s that. Our captain, Carles Puyol, is all for the strike, as is his counterpart, Iker Casillas. Players risk their careers and futures on the pitch, and they should be paid for it, say the union. That’s a stance that’s pretty difficult to argue with. It’s then a matter of the public relations battle. The owners will present it as millionaire players taking their ball and going home. The players will say that they just want to be paid for their efforts, now and in the future. As usual with any strike, everybody gets screwed: owners, players, fans, club personnel, vendors, you name it.
What about next weekend?
There are talks scheduled today and Monday, aimed at salvaging the second weekend of matches. The LFP spokesman, however, characterized the positions as being “very far apart.” Most are expecting the first two weekends to be canceled, then a deal will be reached after people realize that this is crazy, because the more matches that aren’t played, the less money is made and the worse the debt problems become, as teams aren’t taking in matchday revenues.
Could the strike continue?
The thing about strikes is once they start, they’re hard to end. At their core, they’re games of chicken. Whoever flinches first, loses. Rarely does one side or the other want a strike. Usually they want to take things down to the wire, get the best deal possible, breathe a sigh of relief and have life go on. But once a strike happens, nobody blinks, and the staredown ensues. At this point it becomes a matter of which side stands to lose the most. You fans of American football will recall that in 1982, a players’ strike knocked out half of the season (based on a 16-game schedule). The players caved, and the effects are still being felt on free agency. In 1987 the players struck again, and the owners brought in replacement players to continue the games. Again, the players caved. Recall that last season there was also the threat of a strike, again over wages not being paid to players in the 3rd and 4th divisions. We can assume it’s symptomatic of Europe’s fiscal woes as a whole that this season, it’s spread to the first and second division.
Will the players cave?
Good question. The Big Two have players who are being paid millions of dollars. Those players are fine. It’s the players for the smaller clubs in the first and second divisions that see their livelihood severely curtailed. Every good union has a strike fund set up. But that fund usually covers only a fraction of the salaries of striking members. If you’re making a million per season, with the attendant lifestyle, it isn’t long before you start to feel your style being cramped. That’s what happened with the National Football Association, essentially. Once a number of players crossed the picket line, the strike was screwed. Back in the day, when I was a clerk at a unionized newspaper, it was easy for me to vote to strike, as the strike benefits weren’t all that much less than my regular salary. The guy making 10x what I was, however, was in a very different boat.
What about replacement players?
The Liga isn’t stupid. European football is far more star-driven than American football, where people went to see the replacement players. If Barca fielded a team that didn’t include Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, etc, who the hell would watch? Further, you can presume that those matches would then significantly alter the terms of the agreement between the teams and their broadcasters. Sometimes, it’s actually cheaper NOT to play the games.
Jeez, what a mess. What now?
Now we wait. The more matches that are lost, the more complex the season becomes. With the American football strike, it was easy to deal with, because that was the only game in town. With the Liga, there’s national tourneys, European competition and for clubs such as us, special competitions such as SuperCopa and the World Club Cup. Potentially, all those could be affected unless the players union votes to allow the club(s) in question to take place. And then there’s Champions League. An exhibition such as the Gamper Trophy match isn’t held under any of the official sanctions of the LFP, which is to say, Barca is representing Barca, rather than the LFP. It is, in effect, an exhibition match. Just as a Liga strike wouldn’t affect a club’s American or Asian pre-season tour, the Gamper will go on.
What about scheduling matches after the strike ends?
That bridge will have to be crossed when it comes. Those matches can’t be dumped except by unanimous consent, and teams agreeing to the lost revenue of a big club coming to town would have a very difficult time consenting to such a thing. It will almost certainly mean schedules being cramped, or traditional breaks being shortened. In my world, the LFP would tell national teams scheduling friendlies to go to hell, and play matches on those international dates. But anybody who thinks FIFA would allow that, is crazy.
Is there any good to come of this?
Not really. The selfish can say that it gives our injured players more time to heal, etc. But practices are also affected by the strike. Players can work out on their own, or get together and work out. But theoretically, club training sessions are part of the strike. Some clubs have already suspended training sessions until Tuesday of next week, probably in the hope that Saturday and Sunday talks will solve matters.
And we, we wait, but there is a real possibility that the Gamper might be the last footy that we see for a while. So brace yourselves.