Even before Jose Mourinho's exploits on Wednesday, eye-catching to say the least, there was another arresting image from Spanish football last week. It was that of Jose Luis Rubiales, the head of the Spanish players' union, announcing that his members in the top two divisions were going on strike. Shoulder to shoulder behind him were, among others, Iker Casillas, Xabi Alonso and Carles Puyol.
That the two great warring families of Spain were positioned where the world could see them was no coincidence and, given the subsequent events of the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup, the significance of that act of rapprochement became even more remarkable: it was the 21st-century equivalent of the Montagues inviting the Capulets around for barbecue and drinks in the garden.
The players' strike in Spain meant that La Liga did not start as scheduled this weekend. No Barcelona league debut for Cesc Fabregas at Malaga. No more eye-poking opportunities for Mourinho against Athletic Bilbao. From the likes of Lionel Messi and Xabi Alonso down to the squad utility man at Xerez, they have all come out together.
It was an impressive show of strength. On one hand, the rich, famous World Cup winners; on the other, relative unknowns who have not received their modest wages for months. The strike is over unpaid wages of players at clubs whose finances are so haphazard, their owners so suspect, that they make Portsmouth in their dying Premier League days look like a branch of Coutts.
The most striking statistic from Rubiales was that 200 players are owed a total of €50m (£43.7m) in unpaid wages. A figure up from 100 players owed €12m last year. There is no fit and proper person test for club owners in Spain. No points penalties for financial mismanagement. If you thought ownership models in our four divisions were like the Wild West, then in Spanish football it must be the equivalent of Mogadishu on a lively night.
Yet, from many quarters, I keep hearing one criticism. How can the top players in Spain take part in a strike when their enormous wages are part of the problem? How can they call for the league to create a central fund to pay unpaid wages when they earn so much themselves? It is, of course, the classic strike-breaking tactic of divide and conquer. There is no reason why earning a high salary should preclude you from showing solidarity with those who earn less. There is no reason why being a successful footballer means you cannot also have principles about how your fellow professionals are treated.
It is admirable that the likes of Casillas and Puyol are prepared to put aside the hostility between their two clubs – and no doubt ignore the pressure being exerted on them by their clubs – to stand up for what they think is right. I would like to think our players in England, from Wayne Rooney to Accrington Stanley, would do exactly the same. As long as Gordon Taylor remains at the head of the Professional Footballers' Association, they probably will.
In a country where unemployment is running at 20 per cent, it is a brave move by Spain's top players. They know that their salaries insulate them from the hardships endured by others; yet, by the same token, they are taking a moral stance. Why should the richest players pay to create a hardship fund for the lower leagues? A safety net like that would only encourage reckless club owners to exploit their situation even more.
As much as I enjoy La Liga, I hope the strike holds, even though it will do well to survive huge pressure this week. Barcelona are going ahead with a friendly against Napoli tonight. Villarreal have been told by Uefa they must play their Champions League qualifier second leg against Odense tomorrow. As it stands, the players are not even supposed to be training but that is not being adhered to.
It is a vain hope but it must be wished that some of the solidarity shown by Spain's footballers might touch their biggest clubs. The greatest iniquity at the heart of the leading nation in world football is that Barcelona and Real Madrid negotiate their own television rights separately, leaving the rest of their league in relative poverty. By way of comparison, Barcelona earned £139m in television revenue from the 2009-10 season and Getafe, who finished 16th last season, £5m.
This relative impoverishment of rival clubs is not the only reason for Spain's financial problems – there are some nutters in charge of clubs there – but it is a major factor. It also sets a bad example to the rest: every man for himself and screw the financial and competitive health of the league. Sadly, in terms of the competitiveness of the league outside the top two, La Liga is starting to resemble the Scottish Premier League with better weather.
What Spain requires is a set of rules that will govern suitable owners (Racing Santander's owner Ali Syed turned out to be wanted for fraud in Australia), legislate against debt (Valencia's currently stands at €500m after a botched stadium move) and enforce payment of player wages (see Rayo Vallecano and Hercules for those who have missed salary payments). Most of all, they need to divide up the television revenue more equitably.
The English Premier League might behave like a spoilt child at times but, along with its little brother, the Football League, it is a lot further down the road on all these issues than Spain. And the 20-club bloc television negotiations are enshrined at the heart of the Premier League, ensuring much more equal distribution of funds. Long may that continue. As for Spain, good luck to Señor Rubiales and let's hope that the players can show their administrators the importance of looking out for one another.Reuse content