How La Liga plans to revive the infamous 39th game idea and eventually catch up with the Premier League

Executives at top Premier League clubs now believe that La Liga will soon go ahead with the notorious 39th game, in the latest move in what is effectively a media arms race

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Friday 22 December 2017 19:28 GMT
La Liga is hoping to catch up with the Premier League
La Liga is hoping to catch up with the Premier League

It was the Premier League idea that was supposed to push the competition to a new level of international popularity, only to prove hugely unpopular at home – and ironically completely unnecessary.

The English competition has become a global broadcasting superpower, hoovering up broadcasting deals to the extent their main competitors now have no choice but to look at that discarded idea as a distinctive weapon. Executives at top Premier League clubs now believe that La Liga will soon go ahead with the notorious 39th game - an extra match played on foreign soil - in the latest move in what is effectively a media arms race.

This is the game beyond the game and the backdrop to a big weekend of televised football. The clasico will already controversially take place at 1pm Spanish time on Saturday so as to cater for Asian markets, just before the Premier League’s famous Christmas schedule properly revs up.

The latter has been a source of debate for many managers complaining about the physical effect on their squads, but is curiously one aspect of the game that has united both the traditionalists and the reformers. The traditionalists want to preserve a core custom of the English game, while the modernists see the broadcasting money it makes, especially at a time of year when so many other leagues are taking a break. That is why any break is unlikely to happen.

As it stands, a Premier League 39th game is unlikely to happen any time soon either, since it is not in the Invitation to Tender document sent out to broadcasters bidding for TV rights for 2019-22 and the competition’s official line is that Scudamore’s summer comments still stand true.

“I've got the scars all the way up my back [from the last time],” the Premier League chief said in July. “Look, I may be at the Premier League for five, 10, 15 or 20 years. There is no plan to do it.”

La Liga’s plans have nevertheless had executives at some top English clubs shifting a little more uneasily, as they stress the need to constantly look to innovation to stay ahead of the pack. The example of Serie A is often cited, given how the Italian domestic competition so quickly lost its status as the globe’s elite mid-90s league through mere stagnation and a refusal to move with the times.

There was a similar irony to that since it was Silvio Berlusconi’s revolutionary broadcasting ideas - and the rise of satellite TV in European football - in the late 80s that helped launch Serie A to a new level, but also so influenced the foundation of the Premier League in 1992. England just took it to even higher levels over the next 25 years.

The Premier League wants to go higher still, of course. Some club executives have openly talked about making it “the NBA of football”, the kind of competition where you are either there or you are nowhere.

The concentration of top managers in England has already led to fears on the continent - and especially in Spain - that is already becoming the case, and that is why they may have to do something drastically different to try and catch up.

La Liga is open to the idea of a 39th game

“La Liga is global entertainment and we want to grow the international appeal of La Liga,” its president Javier Tebas said recently. “As part of that effort we are discussing the option of playing some of the league matches outside of Spain. These discussions are still in early stages, but as La Liga, we support the idea.”

Spain has lost ground in that regard, even though they still probably have the two biggest and most marketable clubs on the planet in Barcelona and Real Madrid.

The weekend's fixtures might well reinforce that, as well as plans to finally and properly maximise it.

The Premier League will be watching what happens next - but maybe for different reasons than most of that international audience.

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