When Vicente Del Bosque's side thrashed Italy 4-0 in Kiev on 1 July to retain the European Championship and become the first ever team to win three major international trophies in a row, football in Spain seemed to be experiencing its finest hour. It was a striking contrast with the rest of the country, which was (and still is) experiencing one of its worst ever economic crises. Barely a month later, however, and Spanish football now resembles the rest of the country: chaotic, divided, running out of money and staring at an uncertain future.
On the afternoon of Tuesday 7 August representatives from 13 of the 20 clubs in Spain's top division La Liga held a meeting in Madrid to discuss a plan of action after the league's organisational body, the LFP, announced that five games at the beginning of the 2012/13 league season would kick off at 23:00. It is no secret that things happen late in Spain but this was seen as a step too far.
The 13 clubs - Athletic Bilbao, Atlético Madrid, Real Betis, Celta Vigo, Espanyol, Getafe, Granada, Real Mallorca, Osasuna, Rayo Vallecano, Real Sociedad, Sevilla and Real Zaragoza - called for the league to organise a meeting next Tuesday 14 August where representatives from the 20 clubs would discuss with the league's management urgent changes to television revenue distribution and kick-off times. If the problems are not solved, the 13 clubs are threatening to go on strike.
The controversy surrounding the 11pm kick-off times is far from the only issue the clubs are angry about. Moreover, it is the last, particularly heavy, piece of straw that has been loaded onto the back of an already knackered camel. The majority of Spain's clubs have finally had enough of the league's governors, who they believe favour the interests of Real Madrid and Barcelona over the other 18 sides in the league, and are taking action.
The 13 clubs have four specific demands:
1) For the two television companies which own broadcasting rights - Mediapro and Prisa TV - to reach a deal to guarantee a fairer distribution of revenue among the clubs
2) For the league to appoint an independent, transparent panel to organise kick-off times and dates;
3) For Mediapro to pay four clubs - Athletic Bilbao, Real Zaragoza, Espanyol and Real Sociedad - the money it owes them
4) For Mediapro to drop pending legal action against Espanyol and Celta Vigo over contractual disagreements
The most crucial of these issues is television revenue distribution. Unlike other European leagues, in Spain broadcasting rights are sold individually, with the inevitable result that the biggest clubs receive the most money. Of the €755m the 20 clubs receive annually, Real Madrid and Barcelona each pocket €140m, almost triple the amount that the next biggest clubs Valencia and Atlético Madrid receive, and ten times what lowest ranked clubs like Rayo Vallecano earn.
Under this economic model, it is little wonder that nine of the last 10 league titles have been won by Madrid or Barcelona, or that last season there were more points separating second place Barcelona from third placed Valencia than separated Valencia and 18th placed Villarreal, who were relegated.
One club which looked like it might soon be able to challenge Madrid and Barça economically was Málaga, who last season qualified for the Champions League thanks to strong financial backing by the Qatari billionaire Abdullah Al Thani. Now Al Thani has gone AWOL, leaving the club in chaos. An estimated €16m of wages remain unpaid from last season and two of the clubs best players, Santi Cazorla and Salomón Rondón, have already left, with other high-profile departures expected to follow.
With the exception of Barcelona and Real Madrid, most Spanish football clubs are now mired in financial difficulties. According to El País, the La Liga clubs owe €752m to the Spanish government in unpaid tax and a total of €3.5bn to creditors, while a Daily Mail article last year claimed that 20 of the 42 clubs in the top two divisions were in administration. Atlético Madrid chief executive Miguel Ángel Gil Marín believes the current system "makes two clubs very rich while condemning the other 18 clubs into a cycle of debt", while Jokin Aperribay, president of Real Sociedad, spoke for many impoverished clubs when he said "there has to be a new deal in order to make the league economically sustainable".
Standing in the way of change is the league's vice-president Javier Tebas, who has repeatedly patronised the directors who have called for reform. Tebas, a lawyer, quickly became the subject of two directors' ire following the announcement of the 23:00 kick-off times, as they believe he has vested interests in Mediapro. Gil Marín said Tebas "benefits from this model because he represents the company [Mediapro] which wants to maintain the monopoly it currently enjoys", while Espanyol director Joan Collet added: "I don't know who Mr Tebas works for, but he's wrecking football."
It is difficult to predict if the league will reach a resolution with the clubs before the season starts. What is certain is that the feeling of euphoria surrounding football in Spain when Iker Casillas lifted the European Championship trophy last month is now a distant memory.
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