On Sunday, 5th-ranked Villarreal CF will travel 300 kilometers north from the small city of Vila-real to take on top-of-the-table FC Barcelona. It will be a very high-profile match, all the more given that 2 and a half hours after its conclusion, joint leaders Real Madrid will be in Andalucia to face Sevilla. The orgy of football that will make up this weekend before the international break and buildup to El Clasico isn’t, however, the focus of this piece. When The Yellow Submarine meets Barça, a city of just over 51,000 will play be represented in a stadium that can hold nearly twice that many spectators and that is what’s interesting. We’ve heard these stats before, of course, but they’re worth repeating within the context of a few conversations that I’ve had recently.
The gist of these conversations is whether or not La Liga is a healthy league and, indeed, what it even means to talk about healthy leagues. First, take a moment to read Diana Uzum’s breakdown of Barça’s finances over on Grup14 and then take a sip of water. Then read those numbers again because they’re outlandish. Villarreal’s managing director, Fernando Roig Negueroles (the son of owner and chairman Fernando Roig Alfonso), recently gave an interview (here in Spanish and discussed here in English) in which he put Villarreal’s first team budget at somewhere between €56 and €60 million out of a total operating budget of €80 million. Compared with Barça’s numbers, they are piddling, but, obviously, comparing Barça to basically any other club’s revenue is going to make that other club seem a podunk outfit lucky to play in the same league as the Catalans.
Yet that’s kind of the whole point: when Atleti won the league in 2013-14, the third largest budget in La Liga pulled off a truly shocking result. And Villarreal, for all of its (deserved) reputation as solid outfit capable of deep runs into the Champions League, is not even close to Atleti’s standards. Barça will make €140 million off of TV rights alone in the coming year—that’s more than double Villarreal’s entire first team budget, a team which is absolutely giddy about receiving an extra €10 million from TV rights once the more equitable distribution deal takes effect. Here’s another way of looking at it, from The Daily Mail: “In the 2013-14 season Cardiff earned less than any other Premier League club, £64m and yet still made more than twice as much as La Liga winners Atletico Madrid in Spain who earned £31m from television revenue.”
Besides simple monetary realities, there’s a sporting aspect to consider as well: the league winners over the last 15 years have included just 4 teams, with Valencia winning twice (but none since 2004) and Atleti managing a solitary title. Not since 2001-02 have the top 2 teams not included either Barcelona or Real Madrid (and not since 1969-70 have both been out of the top 3). Narrow the scope to the last 10 years and only 3 teams have won the title. This is hardly a competitive league, at the very least.
So there’s incredibly unequal economic realities in La Liga, but what of the five teams that made the Champions League group stage? Doesn’t that count for something? Spain’s UEFA coefficient is through the freakin’ roof compared to other nations, more than 19 points better than the next ranked national association (Germany), which represents 27% of that nation’s total points. It’s a beatdown of epic proportions, so doesn’t that mean Spain may be economically unequal, but still sportingly very strong relative to its neighbors?
Well, in a word, yes. Because the coefficients are basically an average of an association’s teams’ results over the last 5 years, deep runs into the Champions League by a single team can bolster an association’s overall coefficient, such as what Germany has seen recently through Bayern Munich, but Spain has done one better. Qualification for the group stages is a big deal for the national associations, but that’s not nearly enough to maintain a high coefficient (just ask England). Last season, Barcelona’s club coefficient (which differs slightly from the score used for the overall coefficient, but not sufficiently for us to worry about it too much for our limited purposes) was 38.042, exactly 5 points higher than Real Madrid’s 33.042 (bolstered as it was by a 6-0-0 group stage) and more than 5 points higher than Champions League runner up Juventus. Obviously the bullies of Spain’s big 2 made up a huge portion of the overall coefficient, but 4th and 7th ranked teams in the coefficient list were also Spanish: Sevilla and Atleti.
The year before, RM and Atleti finished 1st and 2nd in the Champions League as well as the club coefficient. Barcelona were 5th, Valencia 8th and Sevilla 9th. Obviously, the Europa League is a big factor in this, but the health of a league cannot be measured simply by the Champions League alone. Incidentally, in 2011-12, a year in which Chelsea won and Bayern Munich were runners up, the top 3 clubs in terms of coefficient were RM, Barça, and Atleti. Maybe that shock at Atleti’s title win was a bit off. Comparing Spain to Scotland, as various commenters have attempted over the years in order to belittle La Liga, is merely a lazy argument. Look no further than Sevilla’s habit of winning Europa Leagues and you’ll find quite a few fans of great leagues around the world grimacing silently in envy. I may not be a personal fan of the Europa League (I’ve compared it many times to the NIT of football), but it is certainly an important barometer for the depth of a league.
And what about the championship results compared to other leagues? 4 in 15 years, you said. Well, England, often touted as a parity-driven league, has had exactly that as well: 4 in 15 years. They even have nearly identical titles per team: Manchester United and Barça have 7, RM has 5, Chelsea 4, Manchester City and Arsenal and Valencia have 2, and Atleti has 1. Swap just one of those victories from RM to Atleti and you have exactly the same results.
- Germany, then: 5 teams have won since 2000-01 and that doesn’t look likely to change given Bayern Munich’s lead at the top already.
- Italy: 4 teams have won in the last 15 years.
- The Netherlands: 4 teams (and only 5 since 1964-65!).
- Scotland: 2, but you knew that (what you might not have known is that no one other than Celtic or Rangers has won since Aberdeen in 1984-85 when they were managed by Alex Ferguson).
- France: 7 teams have topped Ligue 1 on the final day in the last 15 years and that includes a stretch where Lyon won 7 titles in a row. PSG has won 3 on the trot and doesn’t look like relinquishing its hold on the trophy this year, but between 2007-08 and 2012-13, 6 teams won a title over those 6 seasons. PSG’s financial power has turned that league from a space where Montpellier, Lille, and Bordeaux can win into a new Bundesliga: exciting once you overlook the points monopoly going on at the top.
Most people compare leagues to the Bundesliga, where tickets are hard to come by due to massive attendance rates (the local first division club here where I’m based, Eintracht Frankfurt, routinely sells out, as does the second division team, FSV), but there’s hardly any sporting difference between Spain and Germany. They are dominated by massive clubs that have put together winning tactics off the field and which translate into on-the-field capabilities. The difference is financial: the German Football Association, according to this article, hands down transfer limits to clubs with financial difficulties in order to maintain the solvency of the clubs and the league as a whole; there are no such safeguards in Spain and spending is what the owners are willing to invest. Malaga came and went, their sudden blaze of wealth adding a wrinkle to one season and a lot of FIFA video games (such and such has been purchased by a wealthy owner, look out!), but the league just kind of shrugged.
Furthermore, there are suggestions that the Bundesliga is hardly the beautiful oasis of proper football and finance that it is held up to be. There is a lot of grumbling from Bundesliga clubs themselves about the financial restrictions and Hannover has apparently threatened to take legal action over it. Still, the idea that the Bundesliga doesn’t offer enough in European competition save for Bayern Munich forgets that as recently as 2012-13, the Champions League final was a match between 2 German teams. Yes, this year has included a rather quick exit from the group stage for Borussia Monchengladbach and threatens to dump both Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen (notably these last 2 teams were called out by the Bleacher Report article linked above as the only Bundesliga teams able to circumvent fan ownership requirements), but it would not be shocking to see all 3 remaining German teams make it to the knockout stage. Beyond that, probably just Bayern Munich, but that is a testament to the depth of the Champions League, not necessarily the strength or weakness of the Bundesliga. Sevilla, for instance, is virtually eliminated from the same group as Monchengladbach because it’s a really tough group. Leverkusen sits with Barcelona and Roma, so that can help explain that as well (incidentally, I should learn on Monday if I get tickets to the Leverkusen match on December 9). The other Spanish teams, though, are in 2nd or better in their groups after 4 matches and we could very well see 4 Spanish teams qualify for the Round of 16 (RM has already qualified, Barça are nearly assured of it, Atleti are 3 points above 3rd and Valencia are 2 points above 3rd).
All of this, these words, is to suggest that despite its financial troubles, La Liga is a very deep and talented league. Teams are going bust in Spain and that is not a good thing for the long-term future of the league or the association as a whole, but it is not an immediate problem that requires sudden, radical shifts or financial controls. I remain a fierce advocate for equitable distribution of TV money, but also recognize that such financial changes can be neither instant fixes nor considered panaceas. Spanish football’s financial woes are no doubt outgrowths of its greater economic problems and as that Euro Area slowly recovers from its recession (or depression, as it may be), there should be greater and greater sets of funds available for improving the infrastructure that once put the Spanish national team at the top of the world. The Bundesliga’s popularity and the German national team’s current success is part of that infrastructure here in Germany and it is something that Spain would do well to learn lessons from. The popular movements to save clubs such as Real Oviedo are beautiful outpourings of local pride and global solidarity and the continued contributions of such “smaller” clubs to the greater footballing community are essential parts of a healthy league.
One final note: when Villarreal comes calling on Sunday, their owner, the aforementioned Fernando Roig Alfonso, will come to town with his millions, earned as the minority stakeholder in the Mercadona supermarket company. His brother is the majority shareholder and CEO. There is, it turns out, money to invest in Spanish football and the health of Villarreal CF is a further good sign for the league. But they’re still in a 2-horse race. Or maybe 3.
[Update: After completing this and publishing, @DianaKristinne pointed me towards an article outlining La Liga’s salary controls for the coming year. It’s worth a look and should be noted that it only reinforces my view that La Liga, while seemingly an asylum run by its inmates, is also putting in place measures to maintain its long-term health.
Naturally, this being a league that can’t even put fixtures in place more than a few weeks out from kickoff, this doesn’t mean all measures have been accomplished in a smooth, orderly fashion, but certainly it’s worth noting that there’s a sliding scale that seems to be measured on a case-by-case basis. Whether these will be adequate measures to deal with the large amount of debt in the league isn’t quite clear to me at this point, but it should become clearer over the coming years.
If Spain slides in the coefficients, it will be worth looking at these numbers compared to quality in the Europa League sides and the 4th placed Champions League side. Large squads are difficult to maintain without large budgets, of course, and coupled with deep runs into the Copa del Rey (a tournament that has 2 legs in each tie rather than 1 leg like many other domestic cups), this can be very taxing on small market teams with lower salary thresholds. It could, of course, temper managerial expectations and force teams to basically ditch certain competitions in order to maintain some sort of squad depth (a triplete is basically a triathlon where your opponents in one event don’t have to compete with you the rest of the events), but that is only speculation.]