Are we good for La Liga?

Get me some more players! Now!
Get me some more players! Now!

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?

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Written by:

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.


  1. Necro Spaaw
    October 3, 2009

    i hate theese types of articles..
    personally, all i care about is excellence on the pitch, and even that excellence guarantees us nothing! we could lose to chelse, rm, and a whole bunch of other teams in the CL.. so it’s even hard as it is.
    if all the clubs had money to buy whoever they wanted, you’d be crying about how messi is flying to man city.
    but i dont even give a damn about transfer fees, all i wanna see is barca winning, dominating, destroying – this is the love of my life.
    i dont give a shit if we paid ibra 200 mill, as long as he is this glorious as he has been and will be even better.. so..

    • Alexinho
      October 3, 2009

      Practically, it doesn’t matter all that much to me the quality of La Liga, until it means we can’t compete with teams who DO compete in their league. It’s hard to take on giants when you practice on fleas…

    • JeffP
      October 3, 2009

      You’ve missed Kevin’s point. He too points out that from a Barca perspective, he’s fine with how it’s currently set up. But from a sporting standpoint the current situation is not good.

      La Liga is basically MLB with the Yankees and Red Sox on top followed by a bunch of Kansas Cities and Clevelands (with a sprinkling of Detroits and Atlantas). The only difference is that La Liga doesn’t lend itself to allowing low-budget teams to keep their young talent like the Florida Marlins do. Florida at least holds onto their talent for a couple of years and, therefore, remains competitive. But if Xerex, for example, has some amazing 16 year old, what chance do they have to keep him?

      I’m not sure what the answer is. Perhaps La Liga needs oil barons to come in and throw a bunch of money into teams like the EPL….

      • October 3, 2009

        Well, for one thing, nearly every professional sport in American would face a similar problem if it wasn’t for “THE DRAFT”s.

    • Eduard
      October 3, 2009

      I love articles like this, specially when my comments inspire them.

  2. SC
    October 3, 2009

    ah so much to think about!

    well, i will say that top heavy leagues are good for soccer/futbol. ee/barca as obvious case studies: yes, they dominate la liga each year. but each team has incredible diversity with players from amazing countries. so when the world cup comes around, the likes of messi, henry, benzema, marquez, kaka, alves, yaya, etc. and obviously— xavi, puyol, casillas, ramos, etc. suddenly turns our attention to: argentina, france, mexico, brazil, ivory coast, and spain on the global stage. not just for soccer purposes but personally speaking, i never really thought of argentina as a vacation destination. now i’m planning a trip in january 2010. would i have wanted to go without seeing messi, mascherano, higuain, play for top teams? maybe. but for me, the top teams of each league become almost like ambassadors for the sport and for their countries.

    the success (domination) of certain teams at the top of the league tables come from stacking your side with the best in the world— and the sport grows globally. is that bad for local teams in terms of stifling competition? yes. but i think that each league has their local teams (there will always be tenerife fans. there will ALWAYS be bilbao fans), and then they have global teams. those whose fans go beyond town history and transcend cultures and borders. so i guess, la liga and other leagues are actually balanced.

    i don’t know if i’m making sense. this is too much to digest before my morning coffee. but kxevin, you have given me a lot to think about and discuss with my friends during the game later. thanks for posting!

  3. Corrine
    October 3, 2009

    even with the unbalanced power in la liga, we should also note that la liga teams have performed well outside of spain, namely in the uefa cup/europa league. in the last 10 years, spanish teams have won it 3 times (valencia x 1, sevilla x 2) and even espanyol have gone to a final! the only english team that has won within that time was liverpool. just something to think about

  4. Mat
    October 3, 2009

    One of the biggest problems I think with a salary cap is that no one league would be able to do it.. or else their teams will just be slaughtered in Europe in the coming years.. it has to be done at the UEFA level to all leagues in Europe.. does UEFA has so much clout to get that passed?? I doubt it.. all the big teams need to say is that they will make a superEuropa league or something like that to counter Platini..
    but saying would be awesome to have parity based leagues.. the advertisement money will still be more for big teams.. but that is still the case.. in that case we will see the true effect of team management and coaching come to the fore… i just wish

  5. October 3, 2009

    Great article, Kevin.

    Basically, it breaks down like this, for me: No one has won the Champions League two years in a row in its current format, suggesting that there is competitive balance for the most part (you could argue that the same teams are competing for it, but there’s no Big 2 or Big 4, really, it’s more like a Big 8 that all have legitimate shots at the title). That, to me, makes the CL title more valuable because it’s more rarely achieved.

    If you’re a Lyon fan, you probably enjoy the Ligue 1 title no matter what, but winning 7 years in a row is ridiculous because it makes the trophy fairly valueless.

    Only because we don’t win every year does the Liga trophy come to mean anything at all. I’m a huge Kansas Jayhawks basketball fan and I’ve found myself recently sort of not caring about the Big 12 title because, well, we always win it. But the NCAA title? Holy christ did I freak out when we won a couple of years ago because it hadn’t happened since 1988. That made it more valuable.

    Naturally enough, I’m not arguing for Barcelona to lose so that things become more valuable, but rather that there be a way to make everyone else better so that we too have to be better to win the league.

    Now, if you think there isn’t enough talent to go around you’re probably right and so I can understand the Champions League being the focus of thoughts about parity. If that’s the case, fine–I don’t buy it, personally, but that’s an opinion on which is more important, not on the validity of the thought–then shouldn’t the argument be for salary caps in the CL so that the talent pool, which is already full, gets more evenly spread out.

    And, just cause that’s how the world works, Bayern Munich just drew 0-0 with Cologne in what was a fairly entertaining match despite the scoreline. Parity rocks.

    • Alexinho
      October 3, 2009

      That’s what I’m saying. I haven’t yet seen a boring Bundesliga match. They must be out there, but I don’t see them, 0-0 or 5-5. Always full of chances and highlights.

  6. Alexinho
    October 3, 2009

    On one end of the spectrum, you can have a few great and memorable teams, or on the other, you can have many mediocre teams. The NFL has some excellent games, but the constant player movements, the fact that the Dolphins can lose all but one game one season than 11 the next (and that sort of thing happening across the board)…these things have never sat right with me. Unless you want to talk about certain teams…like the Colts and my homeboy Peyton Manning…teams in the NFL have no tradition of great players for one team or even always-great teams, which makes the “Big” soccer teams much more alluring to me.

    It’s interesting that you bring up the Bundesliga, a “roiling cauldron of upsets,” a cleverly accurate description by the way. I’m always impressed by Bundesliga games I catch on GolTV, and frankly, THAT I wouldn’t mind. I think they have a great balance of real quality and real competition. Bayern/Wolfsburg won’t win CL, but they still are fully capable of putting on a great show, win or lose, domestically and in Europe.

  7. Larm
    October 3, 2009

    if la liga had a collective tv rights deal were money was distributed evenly across all the teams, that would really level things out.

    also perhaps have the money given to newly promoted teams at the start of the transfer window, so when they start the season they stand a fighting chance of not getting relegated at the end.

  8. Kari
    October 3, 2009

    “But you have to go back to 1969 to find a season in which us or EE weren’t in the Liga top two.”

    Actually, we finished 3rd 2 seasons ago. Villareal finished 2nd. (I don’t blame you if you don’t, was NOT a season to remember…)

    • Miguel
      October 3, 2009

      i think he meant its been that long since neither the death star nor barcelona have been in the top two.

  9. Kari
    October 3, 2009

    * I don’t blame you if you don’t REMEMBER *

    • Kxevin
      October 3, 2009

      I know Kari, but EE won that year.

      • Kxevin
        October 3, 2009

        And actually, it’s 01-02, when Valencia won, and Super Depor was second. Oh, my brain.

        • Miguel
          October 3, 2009

          speaking of which super depor is playing right now against super tenerife.

        • Kari
          October 3, 2009

          Oh yeah, EE won the title. I guess that’s why I forgot that little fact. Oh, my brain 😛

  10. Cesc Blanc
    October 3, 2009

    it would already work for Spain if the TV money was more evenly shared. That would be a huge step forward. The bigger problem is that some clubs are run in absolute shambles. There was this study by the University of Navarra that found out that the only clubs in Spain that are kind of well run and free of existential debt are those that have the socio structure while the rest are shambles. If you look at it, before Laporta came and with him professionals who were excellent in their work of field before and used the knowledge for the club(see Soriano, Ingla, Yuste or even Sala Martin), it was a mess too. So changing the board structure would be a step forward.

    I also don’t think that Salary Caps will really work because of the fact that you have relegation and promotion in Spain. In US Sports you might as well have 2-3 years of rebuilding because frankly who cares and then come back again. If you get relegated in Europe, you are kind of screwed to a degree.

  11. Kxevin
    October 3, 2009

    Good thoughts, everyone. Here’s another one: What about an expansion draft of some kind? Essentially in the NFL, when a new team comes into being, they have an expansion draft which is, simply put, teams putting their unwanted players into a pot, from which the new club can get a head start.

    T’would be pretty funny if instead of selling a Gudjohnsen, he would be sent to Xerez, to give them at least a shot with some Liga-quality players. As it now, most promoted sides had better purchase round-trip tickets, because you get into the Liga, and you’re competing against sides with Liga-quality talent with a Segunda side. So your options are to be brave and hope for the best (Gijon) or pack it back and get a lot of 0-0 draws in the hope that you’ll get enough points to stay up that way.

    The NFL’s system is flawed. And some say that their parity is more like parody. But it’s hard to argue with the fact that most teams in the league have been to, or won a Super Bowl.

    Complicating matters is that Europe is the “big picture,” right? That’s where you back up the money truck, so you almost see clubs building with Europe in mind, willing to sacrifice their national club competition for the big stage.

    Alexinho’s point about competition is also well-taken. Even when a Premiership side takes on a minnow, that minnow has some fight in it. Burnley will play hard and physical, which prepares United or Chelsea for the Champions League. Aside from Malaga kicking the crap out of everyone and the benches, it’s difficult to see what that match did for us, except pad the goals scored total and keep us unbeaten.

    • Kxevin
      October 3, 2009

      And man, would I love to have relegation in American sports. There’s too much money in it for such things to happen, but imagine if the 4 worst baseball teams were sent to AAA, while the 4 best AAA sides moved up to the majors. 😀

      • October 3, 2009

        I’ve had that conversation several times about baseball. It would make it watchable (maybe). Toledo Mudhens vs New York Yankees!!!

        And it would only work with MLB. Can’t really replace NBA teams with D League teams, to be honest.

        • October 3, 2009

          Similarly, a draft in European football would make it even more watchable. But that is an impossibility….right?

  12. October 3, 2009

    Two words. Super League. A club like Barcelona could field their reserve side in the domestic league and still be competitive.

  13. Kari
    October 3, 2009

    I guess what the question here would be, “What did Valencia and Super Depor have in the 2001-2002 season that they (and other teams) don’t have now?” Was it money? Was it stability in the club from the board to the dressing room? Was it finding a bunch of talented unknown players and suprising everyone? Or were the Big Two in a “crisis” of some sort?

    I don’t remember that far back, so I don’t really know. I know Super Depor had Roy Mckaay, Diego Tristan… and Valencia had Pablo Aimar, Roberto Ayala…

    Beats me.

    • October 3, 2009

      That’s a good question, Kari. I’ll see what I can do about coming up with a coherent answer.

      • Miguel
        October 3, 2009

        weird…my comment never popped up. my phantom comment said:

        “benitez & irureta respectively?”

    • Vj
      October 3, 2009

      Madrid were not in a crisis in 01/02, they had won the CL that year.. so they might have been distracted in la Liga.. We were in shambles despite reaching the semifinals of the CL where we were ‘silenced’ at the Camp Nou by the Galacticos..

      Valencia and Depor no doubt were very good back then in Europe too.. Valencia were back to back finalists in the CL and Depor would, a couple of seasons later knock out holders Milan in the same competition apart from doing well in La Liga.. and Valencia captured the UEFA Cup..

      Since then Valencia had Soler who became hellbent in destroying them and Depor were no longer Super.. They made one too many bad signings and blew their financial stability, while Sevilla (and Villareal maybe) drove a hard bargain for players and rose through the ranks (at the top of Liga B 😉 ).. That they are not title-contenders is partly their own fault..

  14. Alexis
    October 3, 2009

    I think that many factors come into play: let’s say that UEFA decides to set a salary cap. Fine for me. I consider what players earn to be unfair (even those of Barça). But then you have the national legislations, which means that a foreign player in Spain gets taxed 25% whereas he would be losing to the government 43% in the Italian league were he playing for Inter or Juve.
    Then you have small things that can make your day like food and weather. If you were offered the same salary, would you be playing in winter time for Bayern with icicles coming down your nose while trying to eat Leberkäse or you’d rather be playing in cities with mild temperatures by the Med and then head to a tapas bar or a pizza parlour after the match?
    You know…these guys have money and like enjoying life the same way as us!
    Then there is the language barrier: a top Argentinean goalscorer might choose a similar offer in Spain or Italy than those in Germany or England. I am not saying that all players are Hlebs, but it would get them quicker in their comfort zone.
    What do you reckon?

    • Kxevin
      October 3, 2009

      I think that’s right, Alexis. Arshavin was rather stunned at the taxation rate in England, in the wake of his Premiership move. And yes, there is the easy life. Eto’o is living in a hotel suite in Barcelona. If the money is the same, why wouldn’t a player also choose a more comfortable existence?

      • alexis
        October 4, 2009

        I guess that is the first thing he is going to ask if he gets a deal in another country! 🙂

  15. JMoynihan
    October 4, 2009

    sooo I’m just gonna come out and say it.

    SEVILLA beat Madrid!!

    2 – 1.

    Guess this article was a little premature. The fields not so unfair after all.

    Or perhaps it’s just Madrid doesn’t know how to operate without Ronaldo. Take your pick.

  16. Diane
    October 5, 2009

    I’m torn because I’d like to see a bit more parity. On the other hand the one thing that hasn’t been mentioned enough is simply how much fun it is to watch great players play together. Taking winning out of it (it will be the result anyway), how much fun is it to watch Barca, or to watch Sevilla yesterday…they were exquisite.

    Still, I hate to see some of the teams suffer the way they do. So maybe the wealth, TV, licensing, whatever, needs to be shared around a bit more.

    Comparing leagues, its clear that most teams, anywhere in the table, in La Liga, have players that can handle the ball in ways I don’t see in the premiership all weekend — they may give it away and sink their side, but what they do while they have it is still fun to watch. So, at least in attractive play, we still have more parity than other leagues.

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