By Brendan Timmons
And so, they gathered round, the air crackling with anticipation at the Mestalla stadium whilst club and captain awaited in Málaga to hold aloft the club’s first league trophy in no less than 31 years. Given Rafa Benitez’s subsequently elevated eligibility and the fact that Real Madrid and Barcelona placed third and fourth respectively in this season, you’d be forgiven for erroneously assuming that such a scenario is from a different era, a different world even. Some 8 years later, La Liga is plagued by its characteristic disparity and the notion of any other club triumphing in the league is about as ludicrous as Ronaldo requesting a wage reduction due an attack of conscience. Spain’s top flight has long concealed its predicament under the guise of competitive prosperity but this week the growing deficits and prolonged incongruity of the Primera Division culminated in a prospective strike in La Liga whereby teams hoped to address and resolve certain regulations which they believe to be aggravating the dilemma. However, in a welcome departure from the norm everywhere else in the world, the strike won’t materialise which is bound to pique many an observer’s interest. Doesn’t something seem very much amiss here? Certainly acts of protest aren’t always the most viable solution in such circumstances but we must wonder what measures are now afoot with regard to Spanish football’s seemingly perpetual monotony.
First and foremost, it is perhaps imperative to address a technicality that exists somewhere in the midst of all this. Since any halt of work would have been primarily commissioned by the club owners rather than an independent contingent of players or staff, the proposed action wouldn’t have been a strike as such but rather a ‘lockout’, which is against Spanish law. It is this distinction that will be cited by many a pundit when accounting for the cancellation of the strike action but, in truth, the explanation may be somewhat more complex. Regardless of the term used, the planned protest would have been in aid of opposing a government imposed regulation which obligates the Spanish Professional Football League (LFP) to televise at least one La Liga encounter each match-day on a free Spanish terrestrial channel. Okay, its hardly a revelation worthy of gasps and gulps and it does indeed seem something of an arbitrary point to protest over given the other notable discrepancies in the league, but it’s the first time in a long time that the LFP, helmed by one José Luis Astiazarán, has overtly opposed the norm of its flagship league. The trouble is, they may be picking the wrong fights at the wrong time.
The current status quo of La Liga is akin to placing some pet goldfish into a pond with a couple of sharks. You can’t be certain of the outcome but you’re pretty sure that another visit to the pet shop is imminent. And each year, the goldfish grow more timid whilst the sharks become bigger and more aggressive. So, compelling as the Primera Division can be, it is undermined by its chronic repetition. Moreover, for the most part the league is populated by also-rans whose credentials as title candidates can be dismissed before Christmas, a scenario which is unlikely to be remedied by an alteration to a solitary broadcasting law. In fact, it is conceivable that certain changes would be more detrimental than beneficial to the less prosperous teams. Eradication of said regulation may indeed afford certain clubs more leverage with regard to procuring some lucrative private television contracts. But, would the recoupment of the £200 million that LFP claims clubs lose each season as a result of the 1997 Law of Football really resolve anything? Well, based on the cancellation of the ‘lockout’, the answer from the parties involved is a resounding no.
As it transpires, support for the protest was far from unanimous in the league as Sevilla, Villareal, Real Zaragoza, Real Sociedad, Athletic Bilbao, and Espanyol all objected on the basis that a disruption of the league at present would serve only to further damage the league and numerous clubs. Sevilla president, Jose Maria del Nido was particularly vocal in his opposition, asserting that ‘It’s not the right moment, politically speaking, to make these demands and, what’s more, it should not be the fans who pay the price’. And, perhaps he is right. It seems that the protest would have merely been in pursuit of some quick profit without thoroughly evaluating the deeply embedded issues which plague Spanish football’s top flight. (A proverb about teaching a man to fish might have been appropriate here but it seems the marine metaphor quota has already been met in this article.) As such, the crucial question is: what is the long term solution for the Primera Division? Well, the most viable avenue might indeed be in assessing the television contracts, but in a more fundamental way. For some time now Spanish clubs have negotiated their own television rights but the league would perhaps be better advised to subscribe to the English Premier League system whereby the rights are sold collectively thus ensuring a more uniform distribution of the revenue. However, the implementation of such a change may just prompt some protests of its own, namely from Madrid and Barcelona who won’t be eager to lose any portion of their profits.
Living in Madrid has a way of acquainting you with the numerous ways in which politics can manifest itself in football. This week, whilst certain managers were exchanging juvenile jibes and pundits dwelt on the seemingly very important England captaincy, Spanish football teetered on the verge of temporary meltdown. And then, all of a sudden, it didn’t. The general consensus among many fans and observers is that this outcome was ultimately for the best. The league will continue on schedule and the summertime, with its absence of football, may offer a more appropriate environment for the LFP and the government to dialogue. However, it is difficult to envisage either party allowing the drastic changes necessary to resolve the dilemma of La Liga. The disparity of Spain’s top flight has been a contentious issue for some time, but this season has proven to be something of a showcase for such a predicament. Real Madrid and Barcelona have routinely brushed aside almost every team in the league with a conspicuous ease and swagger which renders it difficult to regard such teams as anything other than cannon fodder. As such, the LFP must venture beyond its current demands and delve into the core of the league’s financial regulations in an endeavour that would certainly appease the many goldfish in the pond. Now, if only those sharks could be reasoned with…