As Gordon Gekko said in the movie “Wall Street,” “Greed is good.”
But is it? And what kind of greed are we talking about here?
We all know that the Big Two Liga clubs, Barcelona and the Evil Empire, have started the season perfect. Both clubs have also won pretty easily (if you look at the scorelines), while not at their best. Players are still learning each other, there are various injuries to contend with, etc, etc. Some matches they’ve been sleepwalking, others have been at half-speed.
And yet, 5-0 for the both of ’em. Is this good?
As Eduard mused in the Almeria preview post, “There’s too much money and not enough enforcement and laws leveling the playing field. When was the last time E.E. and Barca came out of the gate winning 5/5. I’m happy Barca is winning, but this is bad for la liga.”
He’s the inspiration for this post (thanks, Eduard!), which will muse about that very thing.
When the EE went on its summer spending spree, UEFA supremo Michel Platini leapt upon a high horse and said “Dammit, we should do something about that,” as he does whenever something arouses his dudgeon. There was talk of salary caps, stricter penalties for “tapping up,” etc, etc. And let’s face it, the big two clubs have the kind of money and pedigree that can destabilize a player. If we want your man, and we come waving, say, 60 million or so, suddenly a player who was deemed “Unsellable” is landing at El Prat. Or you can load your roster with Golden Children, toting their boots and balloons.
Meanwhile, we spend more on lunch than Xerez will spend on players this season, and that’s only a slight exaggeration.
The result is a top-heavy Liga, in which, barring something crazy, the Liga B (thank you, La Liga Loca) sides don’t have a chance in hell of beating one of the top two. How lopsided the Liga really is will be discovered tomorrow, when Liga B leader Sevilla comes rolling in to battle the EE. They’re playing great football right now, putting everyone they see to the sword, in Liga and Champions League. If they get spanked by the EE, expect the rumblings to ensue.
“What’s the point of us playing the rest of this season, when those two are so good?”
Now, before anyone gets their bloomers in a bunch, we aren’t the only league with a lopsided top of table. You have to go back to 1984 to find a season where Inter, Juventus, Milan or Roma weren’t in the top two. The Wayback machine will take you to 1994 to find a time when someone other than Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal or Chelsea won the Premiership, etc. In the Liga, it was as recently as
1969 2002 that us or EE weren’t in the Liga top two.
So what is the point of playing? Why not just have a six-match, home and away faceoff between the Big Two and crown the champion, right?
This doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that Liga clubs make their own TV deals, so the rich get even richer, which gives them more money to buy players, which means that when someone such as Hugo Sanchez rolls into the Camp Nou saying “We can beat Barcelona,” he doesn’t really mean it. Deep in his heart, he knows that even if they score the first goal, the talent that is coming at them in waves will eventually do the trick. Because that’s how life is.
Yes, luck will bring the occasional crazy result this season, the Numancia winning 1-0 kind of thing, or bottom-table Espanyol beating us. Those are going to happen. But they will in no way bring anything approaching parity to the table. Sevilla has bought wisely, and is enjoying players in the prime of their productivity. But look at Valencia, who are one big Burger King bill away from insolvency, and will need to have a fire sale this summer if they don’t make Champions League (and maybe, even if they do). Atletico Madrid is scraping bottom, despite a collection of talent, proving that money doesn’t always buy excellence, right?
But still, the big two. Yes, some will say that we got our excellence by raising players on the farm, and bringing them up through the system, that seven of our starting 11 in the Champions League final were home-grown, so let’s see you top that. But we all know that number would have been five, had Alves and Abidal not been suspended. Yes, five farm players in a side is still a lot. But when any cule sticks out their chest and says “We do it right, we’re better than the EE,” it kind of makes me giggle, even as someone who is both cule and soci.
Because we have the kind of money that makes players available. If you had asked Shakhtar Donetsk last season if they could envision selling their best defender, they would have said “Hell no! Are you crazy?” Flash-forward to this season, and there’s Dimitro Txigrinski, landing at El Prat for his Camp Nou photo op.
Kaka wasn’t for sale, Thong Boy wasn’t for sale, Benzema wasn’t for sale, and yet they were bought and paid for. And I’m sure had another loan worked out, the not-for-sale Ribery would have been bought.
It doesn’t matter how a club acquires its high-priced talent, whether it does it via bank loans or with balanced books. It still doesn’t give Tenerife a snowball’s chance in hell of getting anything more than a 0-0 draw, and even that will require some luck.
So is this kind of dominance good for the Liga? Prima facie, no. Because the template for that kind of excellence is unattainable by the other clubs. Sure, Xerez could say “We’re going to buy Ribery, give us a 100m loan.” But what bank would?
But let’s look at the other stuff, the away stadium sellouts when either side comes to town, the increased level of international interest, the new TV deal with ESPN, putting the Liga in high-definition on a real channel (no offense, GolTV). And then there’s the international prominence that keeps the top two clubs in the eyes of the world. And yet if the Liga were, say, Ligue Un, which is a much more competitive league from top to bottom, some say (though Bourdeaux and Lyon have been playing ping-pong with dominating the league since the early 1980s), wouldn’t it be more fun?
It might, but the Liga wouldn’t be anywhere. Put it this way: Has anyone who doesn’t have TV5/Monde or a very good Web stream, watched a Ligue Un match recently? And when you watched, how was the football? Exactly.
So the EE, with Kaka, Ronaldo, Benzema, Raul, et al rolls into town. Or us, with Messi, Ibrahimovic, Henry, Xavi, et al roll into town. What’s the ultimate effect? Do we throw down a gauntlet of excellence that says “You have to be this good to roll with the big dogs,” or is it just a hopeless cause that gives the home fans something to cheer for as long as the home side holds the 0-0 scoreline?
As a Barca fan, I think it’s just fine and dandy. As someone who loves competition, I’m of a mixed bag. The attention is good, the ESPN thing is awesome, but if I tuned in to see what this soccer business thing was about, and watched one club keep the ball all the time, until they decided to sashay forward and score another goal, how down would I be with wanting to sample that thing ever again? “At least when an NFL team scores, they have to give the ball to the other team for a while. Jeez.”
And yet, in a league in which every club is competitive (an impossibility, given the relegation/promotion system), can there be a club with sufficient excellence to have a real shot in Europe? Until this past season, Lyon didn’t even bother moving the Ligue Un trophy from its stadium, so secure was is its grip. And yet, they weren’t going anywhere in Champions League. Same for the other Ligue Un sides. The Bundesliga is a roiling cauldron of upsets, yet Bayern isn’t going to win Europe any time soon.
We could do the NFL thing, with a salary cap that is linked to a percentage of the league’s projected revenues, but that would mean making the Liga business model much more of a collective. But even within that salary cap world, small-market teams just don’t have the same access to marketing and other dollars that makes buying a big-money player a viable option for them. Ribery still isn’t going to Tenerife, even if they have the money.
So for now, lots of questions, not many answers. Which is where you all come in. What say ye?