Falcao to AS Monaco. Negredo to Manchester City. Llorente to Juventus. Soldado to Tottenham Hotspurs. Higuain to Napoli. La Liga’s 5 best strikers after the two goal-scoring mammoths in Ronaldo and Messi, look to have collectively moved away for other leagues/teams/*cough* tax evasion *cough*. Most of us would remember Sergio Aguero’s similar stance a couple of years ago, when he signed for Manchester City. Diego Forlan followed him out of Atletico Madrid, when he signed for Inter Milan. Some other big names such as David Silva, Juan Mata, Santi Cazorla and Thiago Alcantara have all left Spanish shores in recent times.
So what is it that’s making genuinely good players leave Spain? Surely the Spanish league isn’t this bad! It’s so competitive. They’ve got Barcelona, Real Madrid, .. and .. wait, I’m forgetting.. umm.. ok fine, that’s all they’ve got.
As I write, Twitter tells me Alvaro Negredo had something to say about it in the recent press conference for his new club, Manchester City:
Negredo: “La Liga is only about Real Madrid and Barcelona”
— Espcore (@espcore) August 5, 2013
Looks like some of the players agree. Let’s check some stats from the last six seasons to drive the point home.
Real Madrid topped the league with 85 points. Villareal, yes, them, came second with 77 and Barcelona took up the third spot with 67. Atletico and Sevilla were tied on 64 points, but the Madrid team took 4th spot through better goal difference.
Inference: Considerable gap between 2nd and 3rd, but thereafter, it’s tight.
It was the year Pep Guardiola took charge of Barcelona and set upon building a monster. Barcelona 87, Real Madrid 78, Sevilla 70, Atletico 67, Villareal 65.
Inference: 13 points between 2nd and 5th. Getting there.
Barcelona 99, Real Madrid 96, Valencia 71. TWENTY-FIVE points between 2nd and third. Sevilla were a further 8 points behind on 4th.
Barcelona 96, Real Madrid 92, Valencia 71. Gap between second and third: 21.
I wouldn’t use the word ‘startling’ when I talk of these numbers. Most of us follow La Liga for the brazen splendor of the Messis and the Ronaldos, and are hence aware of the lack of competition those two face. Whatever little challenges their respective teams faced were from ones who had someone to consistently put the ball into the net. Sevilla in 2008-09 were powered by Negredo and Fabiano whereas David Villa (till 2010) and Roberto Soldado made sure Valencia made it to the Champions League with consistent showings.
Now that these luminaries have decided to flock towards seemingly greener pastures, what happens to the 18 teams in La Liga who don’t boast of freaks of nature donning their colors? Last we checked, it was 30 points, was it? Don’t be surprised if you see similar or bigger gaps between the top two and the rest. Yes, you might have the best players in the world playing in your league (five of the last eight Ballon d’Ors have gone to a player from the Spanish league), but these numbers cannot be encouraging for its overall health.
Whether the Spanish Football Federation is happy with this setup remains to be seen. Quality-wise, one can’t raise a finger at the Spanish giants as both of them have made it to the Champions’ League semis in all of the last three seasons. Atletico’s showing at the Europa League hasn’t been shabby at all either. This says a lot about the quality of the reserve talent pool Spain have, with Barcelona and Madrid’s dominance in the make-up of the national team in recent times more than well known. Case in point, Juan Mata’s unbelievable consistency in an otherwise stuttering last 2 years for Chelsea, made Del Bosque really sit up and take notice. While at Valencia, he was looked upon as a fringe player, much like how Jesus Navas has been for the national team. We all knew a player by the name Mata in the past, now we know exactly how good he is. The brazen, blinding brilliance of the Barcelona and Real Madrid players is bound to fog visions looking for talent. Santi Cazorla and David Silva realised the importance of winning things to make an impression on the national team gaffer, and moved to Arsenal (better chance of winning anything than Malaga, surely) and Manchester City respectively. Thiago Alcantara duly followed suit this season, when he moved to Bayern Munich.
When your national team has been as successful as Spain have been over the last half-a-decade, selecting players who make an indelible impact is imperative. The ‘winning’ talent pool Spain have across all age levels is downright obscene. Asier Illaramendi has caught the eye of Vicente Del Bosque while Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane decided to get him to Real Madrid. As a result, Mario Suarez, after three very good seasons with Atlético Madrid, will know that the spot for a backup defensive midfielder in the Spain national squad is gone. Why? Illaramendi was a huge factor in Spain’s U21 Euro triumph this year. Watch out for another transfer in a couple of years: Oliver Torres to Barcelona/Real Madrid. The kid was outstanding for Spain at the U20 World Cup this year, stealing umpteen headlines along the way. Currently plying his trade at Atlético, he’s bound to move away for reasons aforementioned. I’d call Barcelona because he’s an unbelievable passer, but they have an abundance of that kind already, so Madrid have their chance too.
So, how does the league get back to days when Valencia would be worthy Champions League runners-up or Real vs Atletico would be a mouth-watering derby? With the incredible amount of money being thrown around by heavyweights these days, it’ll only take large-scale investment in the ‘smaller’ clubs by some Czar or Shiekh for them to have any chances of changing their current fortunes. Malaga came close, but not enough. Their three biggest stars in Cazorla, Isco and Joaquin have left in successive seasons along with their very tactically astute manager Manuel Pellegrini, leaving them little ahead of square one. For now, it’s Barcelona and it’s Real Madrid. The others have been plummeted out of sight. Somewhat by the merchandise, attendance and broadcasting revenue these clubs generate, and somewhat by the sheer class of the two sets of players. You really can’t do much when the opposition has Modric and Kaka warming benches at £130k and £200k per week.
Let’s all be sensible and admit how big a role wage structure plays when it comes to players selecting their clubs. Do you think a club like Atlético would pay Modric as much? All of us have heard the phrase “he’s become too big for the club” for young players, yes? Do you really think it means anything other than “he wants more money than we can afford”? If yes, explain to yourself how Neymar became too big for a club where Pelé spent most of his life at. We live in a world where the rich are the most powerful and the poor are getting exponentially powerless. Spain has only two such rich clubs who have bulldozed their way across the country to the extent where others are pretty much resigned to the acceptance of their inability to compete against them.
Comparing leagues is a very common topic in football discussions of all intensities. Pro-tip to anyone who’s trying to place La Liga at a higher pedestal than its German, Italian and English counterparts: don’t. Just look at the tables and ask yourself what you see beyond Barcelona and Real Madrid in the league. For reference’s sake, I’d suggest you have a look at the league tables from Germany, Italy and England across similar time-frames. Basic arithmetic shall tell you how far ahead the others are in terms of competitiveness.
It’s a classic case of national supremacy over league competitiveness, the likes of which we saw in South American football back when it was ‘mainstream’. Santos and Sao Paulo would rule Liga do Brasil just as River Plate and Boca Juniors would dominate the Primera División in Argentina. I don’t think I need to talk about how good their respective national teams were.
Expecting the Spanish to notice this would be asking for too much given the way their national team has performed over the last half a decade. If you’re a fan, you’re probably going to have to move towards other avenues if Liga BBVA was of any interest to you. The clubs and the federation make enough money out of merchandising alone to not care too much about loss of viewership among neutrals.