La Liga's ambition to be bigger than the Premier League
Real have the stars, Barça have the Champions League trophy, and between them they may win over Asia's huge television markets. In Madrid, Pete Jenson reports on the Spanish league's rise to power
Saturday 18 July 2009
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez will watch his new galacticos' debut on Monday against Shamrock Rovers – a gentle loosener before the real battle with Barcelona starts at the end of August. But Perez is already planning a turf war of another kind, one he is convinced he can win, at the Premier League's expense.
The Real Madrid president wants to switch La Liga matches from their traditional 9pm and 10pm slots to afternoon kick-offs, thus going head-to-head with the Premier League's weekend programme and trying to break into the Asian television market – until now dominated by top-flight English football.
Not content with buying up the best merchandise, the Real Madrid president wants to sell it on the same high street and open up the shop at exactly the same time.
He believes Spanish clubs could grab the lion's share of an estimated 1 billion viewers in China and Japan. The Premier League's dominance of global TV audiences, and the subsequent revenues, are under threat.
Perez's "super-production", as his expensively assembled new team is constantly described in the Spanish capital, kicks off in the Tallaght Stadium on Monday night. If all goes according to plan, the curtain will come down on the blockbuster campaign on 27 May next year when inside Real's Bernabeu stadium, history's most expensive team will contest the European Cup final.
It's a tall order for a club that has not even reached the competition's quarter-finals since 2004 but Madrid's summer spending has created such expectation in Spain that the game with Shamrock Rovers will be shown live on national television. And it is with TV revenues that Perez wants to accumulate 10-fold what he has speculated this summer.
A domestic TV deal with Mediapro worth £132m per year was already in place when he came to power this year and that looks set to be increased substantially when it is next renegotiated. But it is the Asian market that Perez wants to tap into.
His plans for changing kick-off times are radical in a country that traditionally eats and naps through the mid-afternoon, but Perez has already received support from some of Spain's smaller clubs who would also benefit from increased TV revenues from abroad.
"This is something that we should have done a long time ago," said mid-table side Getafe's president Angel Torres. "The English league has stolen a march on us because they play games at a time of the day when there is a clear demand."
Perez wants one game each weekend played at 3pm to see how the market responds, and Jose Maria Gay of Barcelona University, author of a report into how La Liga can compete with the Premier League, is in no doubt the results will lead to changes in the timetable of Spanish football.
"The change is vital if the Spanish league is to compete with the English," he says. "The revenue figures for our clubs this year will be around the €1.55bn [£1.34bn] mark, in England the figure is closer to €2.4bn [£2.09bn]. It is not just the TV deals themselves but the potential repercussions that being shown prime time in Japan can have on marketing revenues."
The Spanish league has given the provisional thumbs up to the change, providing the benefits are shared by all clubs. There seems no better time to market abroad a product that has never been in such good shape. Real have spent €219m (£190m), breaking the transfer record twice, first with Kaka and then with Cristiano Ronaldo, who became the biggest earner in football history when he signed a deal worth €13m(£11.4m) a year.
Barcelona's response to their big-spending rivals looks like being the €40m (£34.7m) acquisition of Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Internazionale. All of which contrasts sharply with Manchester United's decision to hand Ronaldo's shirt to free-transfer Michael Owen.
Barcelona remain the team to beat despite all of Real Madrid's spending. Lionel Messi won the battle of the "best players in the world" in the European Cup final in Rome last season – now he has the chance to extend that dominance over an entire season.
The first Spanish team ever to win the treble, Barcelona can pick up six trophies this campaign with the Spanish Super Cup, European Super Cup and the Club World Cup all on their agenda. The big question will be what weighs heavier – their increased work-load or Madrid's need to gel quickly? Chief football writer for Barcelona-based national daily La Vanguardia, Filip Vivanco believes Real will have the bigger problem. He said: "For Barça, it will be just another five games on top of what they played last season. But Madrid have the absolutely brutal pressure that they have put themselves under by spending so much money. With the team that they have assembled it will be completely unacceptable to lose even one game."
In Madrid, the talk is of a team needing time to come together as a unit but of a president who has not always shown much patience, sacking six managers in his first spell at the helm. Another problem for Perez's brave new world could be a lack of competition outside of the top two. If La Liga is to match the Premier League it cannot afford to be a two-team procession.
But Valencia's miraculous ability to cling on to David Villa and David Silva mean they could still join the party and Atletico Madrid have added excellent young goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo and solid defender Juanito to a side already full of attacking talent.
And like Valencia and Atletico, Seville also look likely to hold on to their attacking riches with the Brazilian star of this summer's Confederations Cup, Luis Fabiano, staying for another season. Even if it's a two-horse race for the title, those three will make the scrap for the remaining Champions League spots interesting.
Talking of the Champions League, Perez has set his sights on changing that too. "What we need to work out with Uefa is a European Super League that guarantees that all the top teams play each other all the time," he said recently.
Taking Europe's top clubs out of their domestic leagues to form a new elite division could be a change too far, even for Perez. But if over the course of the coming season he helps turn La Liga into the most watched and most highly paid-for competition in football then there will be no shortage of people ready to listen.
First Dublin, next the world! Perez takes Ireland
Having spent €219m (£190m) this summer it is perhaps strange that Florentino Perez did not whisk his Real Madrid stars off to Japan where he once claimed to have earned €15m for two friendlies. The decision was partly taken out of his hands, with plans for a training camp in Ireland, and a friendly with Shamrock Rovers at the 3,500-capacity Tallaght Stadium on Monday, made before he won the presidential elections. He was also heavily criticised for dragging players around the globe at the expense of a proper pre-season during his last spell in charge. The club may well return to Ireland next summer for the serious business of pre-season but a 10-day period after the World Cup finals and before pre-season training is seen as the best time for a tour that would take in Asia and the US.
Real Madrid will play one game Stateside this pre-season as well as a match in Toronto but for figures negotiated before they signed Ronaldo and Kaka. Next summer it will be a whole new numbers game
Familiar faces in La Liga
The 26-year-old is now at his eighth club as newly promoted Zaragoza's star summer signing.
Jose Antonio Reyes
Still only 25, he remains an Atletico Madrid player after Benfica, where he spent last season on loan, said they were unwilling to stump up €6m (£5.15m) for him.
Around 7,000 Espanyol fans turned up to welcome the former Celtic midfielder last week.
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