The Race for La Liga: Why It's Not Just About FC Barcelona and Real Madrid
The Two-headed Beast
To the average football fan, the Spanish top-flight is one of the most monotone domestic leagues in Europe. It’s not the particular brand of football to which the consumer is averse; it’s the duopoly by Spain’s two marquee clubs, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid.
In this decade alone, these two clubs have won a total of eight titles and finished as No.1 and No. 2 on five occasions.
Bridging The Gap
While at the beginning of the new millennium, a Rafa Benitez-led Valencia looked like serious contenders to break the dominance of Spain’s top two, there haven’t been any legitimate challengers in recent times.
After laying claim to being one of Europe’s, and subsequently Spain’s, finest clubs with back-to-back appearances in the UEFA Champions League final, Valencia’s lofty ambitions ultimately led to its premature downfall.
The Nou Mestella proved to be an undertaking that exceeded the financial capabilities of the club. As of the 2010/2011 season, the new stadium has yet to be completed and has forced Valencia CF to sell two of its most prized assets, David Villa and David Silva in order to satisfy the creditors.
Another club that has appeared on the periphery of La Liga glory is/was Sevilla FC. Under the leadership of Juande Ramos, the Rojiblancos won back-to-back UEFA Cup titles (now Euro League) in 2005/2006 and 2006/2007.
Naturally, such achievements didn’t go unnoticed in Europe and Juande Ramos eventually followed the lure of Tottenham Hotspur FC and the EPL.
Money, Cash... Problems
But even before Juande Ramos's departure, the club had to fight an uphill battle in retaining their academy prodigies, like Jose Antonio Reyes or Sergio Ramos, who left for “bigger” clubs (Arsenal FC & Real Madrid, respectively) or foreign imports like Dani Alves, who became a hot commodity and was ultimately sold, too (with a massive profit).
Though Jose Maria del Nido is one of the toughest presidents in La Liga, even he could not avoid selling some of his best assets to his direct rivals.
In all fairness, it must be said that in most cases he received maximum value from his sales. Del Nido forced Real Madrid’s Florentino Perez and FC Barcelona’s Joan Laporta to pay Sevilla FC in excess of 25 million Euro for Sergio Ramos (27,000,000€) and Dani Alves (31,500,000€ + add-ons = 41,000,000€), right-backs no less.
It illustrates an underlying problem in La Liga, the unfair distribution of profits from TV deals. In Spain, each team is free to negotiate a TV deal. So naturally, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, being La Liga’s biggest draws, can negotiate the biggest and most lucrative deals.
But the Spanish top-flight is far from becoming the continental equivalent of the Scottish Premier League (SPL). Whereas Celtic Glasgow and Glasgow Rangers have imposed their dominance in the SPL for decades, it is an entirely different story in the UEFA Club competitions.
As has been highlighted earlier, Spanish teams usually perform well in Europe, thus validating the higher quality and competition in La Liga. In 2009/2010, Atletico Madrid won the Euro League, again ratifying the immense quality of the Spanish top-flight.
The 2010/2011 season confirms that massive amounts of money don’t guarantee immediate success. It all comes down to how the budget, large or small, is being used.
After selling the two David’s (Villa & Silva), most pundits declared that Valencia CF could not even mount a serious challenge for a place in next season’s Champions League, let alone the La Liga crown.
But after six rounds of domestic football, it’s Valencia CF who is leading the Primera Division unbeaten with 16 points from a possible 18. Coming in at No. 2 is Villareal CF with 15 points, only one recorded loss.
La Liga behemoths Real Madrid and FC Barcelona occupy the slots No. 3 and 4.
While it’s too early to ratify Valencia CF or Villareal CF as genuine title contenders, it is safe to assume that they are actually stronger than last season.
Unai Emery managed to do the unthinkable: He not only compensated for the loss of David Villa and David Silva, he also retained and reshaped Valencia CF’s attacking philosophy.
Meanwhile, Villareal CF’s Juan Carlos Garrido had the thankless task of re-engineering the yellow submarines after they had been abandoned by Manuel Pellegrini in favor of Real Madrid.
With both the Blaugrana and the Merengues still finding their rhythm, this season should become the most entertaining in years.
After the international break, FC Barcelona will host Valencia CF in what could prove to be a crucial title decider. A potential defeat to the Blaugrana could seriously blow their chances of a three-peat.
Should Real Madrid win their away match against Malaga, the gap between Madrid and Barcelona would increase to a four-point deficit. Simultaneously, the Blaugrana would trail Valencia by six points in October.
Though this is a possible scenario (a nightmare for all Culés, myself included), it perfectly exemplifies that this year’s championship is not a two-horse race.
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