Sam Wallace: Trouble in Paradise as Spanish league turns into two-horse race, just like the Old Firm

The Last Word

Sam Wallace
Saturday 30 July 2011 00:00

It might not be a universally popular view that Miguel Guillen, the president of Real Betis, expounds, but in Spain where no one can see beyond two clubs as the likely winners of La Liga this coming season, it is one that the country cannot ignore.

"The gap between Barcelona and Real Madrid and the rest is going to get bigger and bigger," Guillen told Reuters this week. "This is doing great damage not only to the other clubs that are not Real Madrid and Barcelona but also to our league. In the long term we are hurting our league, because there will be less interest and it will generate less TV revenue."

Spain go into the 2014 World Cup draw tonight in Rio de Janeiro as defending champions and the current pre-eminent football nation in the world. Top of the Fifa rankings in senior international football, Spain's Under-21s won the European Championship this summer and their Under-19s played in the semi-finals of their equivalent tournament last night.

At the top of Spain's domestic game is Barcelona, the club side that are so good they embarrassed Manchester United in the Champions League final in May. Spain should be the happiest football nation on earth but Guillen articulates the fears of many in his country when he says that there is trouble in paradise. The nation's football is in danger of falling under a cabal as potentially damaging to the rest of the field as the Old Firm is in Scotland.

In terms of global reach, La Liga is cited as the English Premier League's greatest rival when it comes to competing for the hearts and minds – and most importantly the money – of sport's emerging markets in China and the Far East. The other great sporting competition that has ambitions of taking over the planet is American basketball's NBA. And there are problems there too.

The NBA is currently in the midst of a "lockout", over a major disagreement between players and the franchise owners over the split of the league's £2.6bn annual revenue. Currently, the players are not being paid and the start of the season in November is under threat. Deron Williams, the star of the New Jersey Nets, has already signed to play for Besiktas in Turkey (the basketball team, not the football team) and the rumours are Kobe Bryant may yet be joining him.

Choosing between the NBA players and their agents on one side and the owners on the other – a feud described as the millionaires against the billionaires – is no easy task. The owners want to make the league, where 22 out of 30 franchises lose money, as profitable as the NFL. To do so, the owners say, the players will have to take a smaller slice of the pie. They have refused and say the owners should share revenue more effectively to cut losses.

The one thing everyone agrees on is that the NBA dispute has turned nasty. The most powerful agents, growing tired of what they perceive as the ineffectiveness of the players' union, are now said to be considering breaking away from it, which will enable their clients to bring personal lawsuits against the NBA.

Back in England, the television trailers will soon hit our screens heralding a new Premier League season and the return of a familiar cast of characters gesticulating, preening, arguing, striving and diving through the next nine months. The great beast of English football has been fattened over the last 20 years to the point that few who play in it, manage in it or run it these days are not millionaires.

Two weeks from the start of the season, no one is claiming the English have created the perfect competition: too much debt, too little accountability taken by club owners and a desperate situation currently unfolding at Birmingham City, who were sold to Carson Yeung on the Premier League's watch.

But the likes of Real Betis, Seville and Valencia would give anything for a league that negotiates as a collective for television rights. In payments from the Premier League last season, the highest earners were Manchester United with just more than £60m. Blackpool, the lowest, earned around £40m.

Over the 2009-10 Spanish season, Barcelona earned £139m and Real Madrid £119m from TV deals that they negotiated individually. Getafe, who finished 16th, earned £5m from their deal. In November, a group of clubs put a proposal to Barcelona and Madrid that instead of taking 48 per cent of TV revenues, they accept 34 per cent. It was rejected. No agreement has since been reached.

The difference between Real Madrid in second place last season and Valencia in third was 21 points. Since Valencia won the title in 2004, the last team outside of the two elite clubs to do so, the gap has twice been 25 points between second and third, and only once – in 2007-08 – have the big two not occupied the first two places. In the Premier League over the same period, the Manchester United-Chelsea hold on the top two places has been broken twice but the margins to third place are considerably smaller.

With Valencia preparing to sell Juan Mata and Villarreal having done likewise with Santi Corzola, last season's third and fourth-placed teams are weakened. As for the NBA, it could be said to be trying to address its loss-making problems – something the Premier League needs to do – but that is mainly for the benefit of wealthy owners.

When the hype starts cranking up this week and the countdown begins, bear in mind that the Premier League is not alone in its imperfections and elsewhere others are proving the case that maintaining an egalitarian, solvent, competitive championship is no easy task.

Sam Wallace's Talking Football column returns on Monday 15 August

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in