Special report: Spain's golden age is losing its lustre in the credit crunch

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In 20 years since the Barcelona Olympics the achievements of the Spanish elite have amazed the world but the recession is putting all that success on the line

Madrid

For Alberto Salas, one of Spain's star volleyball players, a typical day has comparatively little to do with the supposedly automatic perks of top-flight professional sport – fast cars, plush apartments and the like – and a lot to do with tractors. In fact it consists of getting up at 6.30am, ploughing his father's fields until 4.30pm and then heading to his club, Numancia, for three hours of hard training.

"I take my lunch in a Tupperware box and eat it out in the fields before training," says Salas, 70 times an international. And his story is more typical than you might expect at the fag end of the two-decade-long Edad de Oro del Deporte – their "golden age of sport", as the Spanish call it – that kicked off with the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

Since then, the country has racked up 104 of its 130 all-time Olympic medals, two European Championship titles and a World Cup in football, numerous Tours de France and goodness knows how many tennis, motorcycling and Formula One titles. As the Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, said earlier this month, "Sport is one of the great assets of our country and a fundamental ingredient when giving meaning to Spain's brand name". Or as one T-shirt on sale last summer put it rather more crudely: "I'm Spanish, what do you want me to beat you at?"

However, the signs that, thanks to the recession, much of the shine is coming off Spain's sporting golden age are ever more unmistakeable. One such indication came last November, when Salas was just one of a string of minority sports stars in the country who revealed their – and their sports' – bleak economic predicaments to the newspaper Marca.

"I'm a sportsman by vocation but I have to help in the family business. There's my future to consider," Salas said. Which means he is only let off seven or eight hours of daily ploughing by his dad when there's a very important game the next day – or an exceptionally heavy frost.

It is perhaps to be expected that minority disciplines such as volleyball or fencing have a reduced chance of prospering in these troubled times for Spain. But even football, the king of sports in Spain, is not guaranteed to escape the cull, as a leading Spanish sports economist, Professor Jose Maria Gay de Liebana of Barcelona University, pointed out in the autumn. In his fifth yearly review of Spanish football's finances, Gay predicted that the top-flight Primera Liga "will last for five years more at most" – down from his previous estimate of 10 years. "If this goes on, Spanish football will die," he cheerfully concluded.

In some ways this sounds bizarre. In the latest Deloitte Money League profile of football's highest-earning clubs, published early last year, Real Madrid topped the table for the seventh straight year, with Barcelona at No 2.

According to Deloitte, Madrid recorded ¤41m (£33m) growth in revenue, up to ¤480m (£366m), while Barça's was up 13 per cent to over ¤450m. Each club's annual revenues have grown by almost €200m in the past five years, which is "a remarkable achievement".

Other sources indicate that Real Madrid and Barcelona's debts are shrinking steadily too: Real said last year that their debt load decreased from €169.7m to €124.7m and Barcelona's debt has, the club say, dropped from €420m to €320m in the past two years.

However, there the good news ends. Just one other Spanish side, Valencia, make it into the Money League, in 19th spot with barely a quarter of Madrid's income – €116m. Their commercial revenue dropped by five per cent to €22.9m, the lowest of all the clubs in the Money League.

As Deloitte put it, Valencia's presence "serves to highlight firstly the importance of Champions' League participation but also the polarisation in revenue generation within Spanish football" before warning: "The difficulties the club experienced in securing sponsorship revenues were common amongst a number of Spanish clubs below the big two."

That is putting it mildly. One of Spain's most experienced sports reporters confirms that all bar the "big two" of the 20 La Liga clubs are said to be in financial difficulties, with total debts estimated at up to €3.4bn and bankruptcy proceedings a regular occurrence. The latest in trouble are the former Liga winners Deportivo la Coruna, who owe £34m in tax.

The abolition of the so-called "Beckham Law", which gave generous tax breaks to top-flight sports stars in Spain, will hardly help matters from 2015 onwards, when the country's standard upper tax bracket rate of 52 per cent, rather than the reduced 24 per cent rate, will apply across the board.

It will not just add to the overheads for the financially beleaguered clubs: should the footballers take refuge in the most economically secure clubs that will further encourage the disproportionate domination of Barcelona and – this year's rather more irregular performance notwithstanding – Real Madrid in Spain's football scene.

Another big threat to La Liga's mid- to long-term existence is the decreasing numbers of bums on seats. Although yet to be officially confirmed, the average crowd for league games in 2012 is estimated to have fallen to around 70 per cent of stadium capacity. That is 20 per cent lower than in two other leading footballing nations, England and Germany.

Prices are at least partly to blame: in April, La Liga were accused of having the most expensive average ticket prices of the four top European leagues, around €53 a game, which is now simply unaffordable for many cash-strapped Spaniards.

Further down the pecking order of Spanish sport the financial omens are arguably more serious. Soon Spain's sports federations will find out exactly where 2013's round of austerity cuts of more than a third in their state-funded subsidies will be made.

They have already had to handle a reduction of €49m since 2009 and Spain's Sports Minister, Miguel Cardenal, has also confirmed that the country's high-performance training centres for elite athletes will have budgets cut by 28 per cent.

"It's a national problem," Spain's Cycling Federation president, Jose Luis Lopez Cerron, whose subsidy is set to be slashed by 50 per cent, told The Independent on Sunday. "We know what the situation is across the board in Spain. How can you try and cajole public institutions into giving you money when you see there are so many cuts in everything, like hospitals and schools?"

Vital layers for athletes to develop in any healthy sport, he explained, are now missing from cycling. "We still have cycling 'schools' for young kids in many places. But when they start growing up, because of the economic situation we don't have [intermediate-level] teams or races for them: if you don't have those lower levels, then there is no future."

"I was expecting 'my' Olympics to be in 2016, but I don't think it'll be possible for me to get there," said the Spanish fencing champion, Marius Alvarado, in November. "Elite sport is going to be for rich people, only for those who can afford it."

In other more well-heeled sports such as golf, the grass-roots cushion of finances is stronger – but only up to a point. The journalist David Duran of the www.ten-golf.es website said that just a handful of the country's 500 courses have actually closed since the recession began in 2008. But then he pinpointed a worrying trend: five out of seven of Spain's top golf tournaments on the European Tour, including ones as prestigious as the Andalusia and Madrid Masters, have disappeared from the calendar since 2011.

"They were heavily dependent on state and regional funding," he said. "But now the regional governments' economic situation is so bad, the first thing they've done is cut out the golf tournaments.

"If you go to the clubs right now, they are still there," he added, although the number of registered golfers in Spain's federation has dropped for the first time since 1990, by 16,000 in the past year. "But they're increasing their special offers. In my club in Seville, the green fee from Monday to Wednesday is €10 – almost nothing. Give it another one or two years and I think we'll start seeing closures."

The increasingly large holes in the sporting fabric are perhaps more worrying for a country such as Spain, traditionally so sports-mad that it has four daily newspapers dedicated to the subject. This huge grass-roots interest stretches right up to Prime Minister Rajoy, who was slated in the media for having scooted off to Poland to watch Spain play their first Euro 2012 match last June just hours after the country's banks had received a bail-out.

However, Rajoy appears convinced that sport has a role to play in keeping up the country's morale. Speaking at the centenary celebrations for Spain's Olympic Committee last week he argued, in a clear reference to the recession, that "sport shows everybody how to overcome challenges, however great they may be". The question today, though, is how long the once-flourishing Spanish sports scene will be fit enough to do that.

Catalan football goes it alone

Catalonia's separatist movement could represent another significant threat to Spain's position as a European sporting superpower. The Catalonia football team who faced Nigeria last Thursday included five players who were in Spain's winning World Cup side and seven who took part in one or both European Championship successes – a very high proportion for a region which has just 16 per cent of Spain's population.

The recession is partly to blame for the gross sporting imbalance. During Spain's boom years there were 10 such regional squads, from Andalusia in the south to Aragon in the north.

They were partly designed to give local talent a chance to shine in front of the TV cameras, but the only two to survive Spain's economic cull are Catalonia and the Basque Country – the areas with the strongest separatist traditions in the country.

Catalans have been central to Spain's winning football formula of recent years, including Cesc Fabregas, Carles Puyol, Jordi Alba and Xavi. To lose them from the national team would be disastrous.

That is not going to happen immediately. Catalan independence – a subject universally avoided by these top players – has a huge number of hurdles ahead of it, starting with a referendum in 2014, continuing with ferocious opposition from Madrid (which argues the referendum would be illegal) and finishing with a lengthy process of international recognition.

Should the Catalans finally get independence, it will be a problem for the 2020s and beyond. But it is not showing any sign of going away.

Alasdair Fotheringham

Spanish success since 1992

Tour de France winners

Oscar Pereiro 2006 (after Floyd Landis stripped of title)

Alberto Contador 2007 (later stripped of title for doping offences)

Carlos Sastre 2008

Tennis Grand Slam winners

Rafael Nadal: Australian Open (1), French Open (7), Wimbledon (2), US Open (1)

Arantxa Sanchez Vicario: French Open (2), US Open (1)

Sergi Bruguera: French Open (2)

Conchita Martinez: Wimbledon (1)

Juan Carlos Ferrero: French Open (1)

Carlos Moya: French Open (1)

Albert Costa: French Open (1)

Formula One titles

Fernando Alonso: 2005, 2006

Football

World Cup 2010, Euro 2008, 2012

Champions' League: Barcelona (3); Real Madrid (3)

MotoGP

Jorge Lorenzo (2)

Alex Criville (1)

Golf major winners

Jose Maria Olazabal: Masters (2)

Ewen Lyall

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