Soccer returns to caste system

New league season gets underway with Real Madrid and Barcelona at each other's elite throats and a host of possible subplots further down the ranking

As the Liga season finally gets underway few observers will give any side other than Real Madrid or Barcelona even the slightest chance of lifting the trophy, leaving a handful of sides to contest the European places and the remainder to battle it out for mere survival - little investment is trickling down the Liga ladder and television revenue is still wildly skewed in favor of the big two. Newly rich Málaga may cause a small splash this season, but the big fish in the pond are, for the foreseeable future, too well-established to tolerate usurpers. The opening weekend's results for the big two - Real winning 0-6 at Zaragoza and Barcelona putting five past Villarreal - confirm the almost unanimous belief that this is the most-hyped two-horse race in the sporting world.

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The title fight

It really is impossible to see past the perennial top two, although comparisons to the Scottish Premier League or divisions similarly dominated by just two teams are still premature. Since the SPL was formed in 1998, only Rangers and Celtic have been crowned champion. Only once, in fact, has any other side impinged on the Old Firm's top-two dominance; Heart of Midlothian in 2005-06, when Celtic won the league and Rangers limped home in third.

The last team from outside Glasgow to win the Scottish top flight was Alex Ferguson's Aberdeen in 1985, the wily Scot also delivering a Cup Winners' Cup in 1983, defeating Real Madrid 2-1.

Only four clubs have won the Premier League since its inception in 1992; Manchester United has 12 titles, Arsenal three, Chelsea three and Blackburn Rovers one. Since the 1997-98 season, the two London clubs and United have exerted a stranglehold on first and second; only Liverpool has gatecrashed the exclusive party on two occasions.

Since the 1997-98 season in La Liga, Barcelona has won seven titles, Real four, Valencia two and Deportivo one, with Villarreal, Depor, Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao all finishing runners-up in the same period.

However, such is the chasm in income and resources between the Barça-Real duopoly and the rest that since Valencia lifted the title in 2004, only Villarreal has cracked the top two. In the new decade, with Florentino Pérez back behind the Bernabéu boardroom desk - with his check book open on the table - and José Mourinho pulling the team's strings, the chances of any side breaking the hegemony this season are as likely as Real picking up the Fair Play award.

Mourinho has become a poster boy for the anti-Barça section of Spanish society, launching increasingly paranoid and unfounded tirades north and incurring the wrath of both Uefa and Liga authorities in doing so. But Barcelona's employment of what the Portuguese (or more often than not, one of his lackeys) terms the "dark arts" is becoming increasingly difficult for the Catalans to gloss over. Dani Alves and Sergio Busquets, in particular, walk an increasingly fine line between sportsmanship and cheating; their deference to gravity will at some point tip them over the edge and into a ban.

However, Barcelona will be a very tough nut for Mourinho to crack with his vice-like tactics. Alumni of Barça's La Masia are so accustomed to the team's style of play and their teammates that Cesc Fàbregas, who left Catalonia for Arsenal eight years ago, has slotted back into the system as though he had merely popped out for a butifarra sandwich. Mourinho's second season at a club usually reaps greater reward than the first - and he has expressed satisfaction with the way Real is playing. But Barcelona remains the clear favorite. As Guardiola pointed out last week, the latest Spain squad contains nine Barça players - one of whom, Martín Montoya, has just 10 minutes of top-flight soccer under his belt - and were Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué not injured, Vicente del Bosque could field a Barcelona 11.

Guardiola's side has already won the European and Spanish Supercups this season. It will take a miracle, or a serious run of bad luck with injuries on a small squad, to stop Barcelona's marauding success. Real reinforced sensibly during the summer - a novelty under the guidance of Pérez - with Fabio Coentrão particularly showing signs of becoming a key player for Real. There will be no lack of creativity in the midfield either, with Nuri Sahin and Hamit Altintop becoming the latest Bundesliga stars to join the Real revolution. Barcelona needed little in incoming players - except a little more strength in numbers - and Alexis Sánchez and Cesc Fàbregas will make Guardiola's team considerably stronger this term.

"Something that does not change is that Barcelona wins when it plays well and wins when it plays badly," noted Mourinho. "I can't see this changing."

A question of perhaps more immediacy is whether Mourinho will last until the end of the season. A brash and abrasive figure in England and Italy, the self-styled Special One has increasingly become a man trapped within his own myth. A European touchline ban and a pending sanction for his part in the post-Supercup brawl have made it very plain that Mourinho is not above the regulatory bodies of the sport, and his subsequent paranoid diatribe about hypocrisy in soccer and people whispering darkly in tunnels suggest it will be a very long season indeed for the Real coach.

The middle class

The gulf in resources between the big two and the chasing pack was glaringly visible in the first round of action at the weekend - Atlético, Valencia, Sevilla and Villarreal all sported blank shirts. Sponsors have been fleeing La Liga in droves over the summer and even modest deals such as Villarreal's 4-million euro agreement with Castellón airport (which doesn't actually boast any air traffic) and Kia's 9-million euro per year sponsorship of Atlético have not been renewed or replaced. Real's deal with Bwin is worth around 20 million euros a year; Barça's cozying up to the Qatar Foundation a cool 30 million euros per season over five years.

Valencia, mired in the sort of debt that could bankrupt a small nation, has been forced to sell all its World Cup-winning Spain stars since La Roja's triumph in Johannesburg a little over a year ago. Following David Villa, David Silva and Carlos Marchena out of Mestalla last week was Juan Mata, the final jewel in Valencia's faded crown. Valencia coined 102 million euros through the sales.

A similar summer of coffer-boosting has seen Atlético significantly weakened. Although club president Enrique Cerezo went some way to calming fans' ire after the departures of David de Gea, Sergio Agüero and Tomas Ujfalusi by splashing much of the transfer fees received on Porto striker Radamel Falcao, Diego Forlán's subsequent departure to Inter Milan had an ominous end-of-era feel to it. The backbone of Atlético's 2010 Europa League triumph having left, the club has made a couple of astute signings in Arda Turan, the Turkey playmaker, and Adrián López, the former Deportivo La Coruña striker who led Spain under-21s to European glory in Denmark during the summer. Gregorio Manzano is a veteran coach and a wily tactician, and Atlético could reasonably aim for a top-four finish with Villarreal weakened by the loss of Santi Cazorla and Valencia again playing to a budget - although that has not prevented it from occupying third place in the past two campaigns.

However, Atlético's drab 0-0 tie with Osasuna on Sunday showed that the sooner Falcao's work permit is issued, the better. Filling the void left by Forlán and Agüero is a task Adrián is far from ready to assume on his own.

In contrast, Athletic Bilbao's best summer business was retaining World Cup-winners Fernando Llorente and Javi Martínez. Joining young Iker Muniain in the playmaker department is record signing Ander Herrera and Athletic is built on a very solid defense. New coach Marcelo Bielsa has a reputation for attacking soccer and he has the tools with which to implement it. If Bielsa can instill his methods swiftly, Athletic could go one better than its Europa League-qualifying finish to last season, when five points separated The Lions from Champions League soccer.

Málaga's millions

The Great Experiment. And the great unknown quantity in a league competition that, much like the Premier League, has a well-established pecking order. Málaga was purchased by Sheikh Abdullah Al-Thani in June, 2010 and the Qatari royal promised a sensible, well-run and solvent long-term plan to place Málaga among La Liga's elite - an exceptional statement in a league that has for some time been a stranger to financial reason. And the sheikh has made good on his word. Manuel Pellegrini was installed as manager, replacing the hapless Jesualdo Ferreira, and guided Málaga from the relegation zone to 11th last season.

The club's financial clout went some way to achieving safety, with solid performers such as Julio Baptista and Martín Demichelis brought in during the 2011 winter window. At one point during the summer market, Málaga had spent more than any other European club and still, at time of writing, has splashed more on players than either Real Madrid or Barcelona. More pertinent than the pure amount spent is the age demographic of Málaga's acquisitions; players of over 30 such as Dutch goal machine Ruud van Nistelrooy and his countryman Joris Mathijsen, as well as Joaquín, have been acquired for a short-term push on the European spots; Cazorla, the club record signing from Villarreal, is in his prime. One of the league's craftiest unlockers of opposition defenses, 27-year-old Cazorla was secured on a five-year contract and joins France international Jérémy Toulalan, also 27, in Málaga's midfield. Younger players like Diego Buananotte, 23, Isco, 19, and occasional Spain fullback Nacho Monreal, 25, represent the long-term of Málaga's scheme.

"The objective of the incorporations is to put Málaga on the map of the big clubs of Europe and to play in the Champions League," Al-Thani said this month. "Or at least the Europa League. The objective is already more than accomplished. has already paid dividends in that world class players want to come to Málaga. Eto'o, Sneijder and Raúl all showed an interest in coming to Málaga."

If Pellegrini can steer Málaga, as he did with fewer resources at Villarreal, into the Champions League, or as Al-Thani stated, at least the Europa League this season, the club will become a force to be reckoned with soon enough.

The cannon fodder

More than a two-way title race, if anything devalues La Liga in its current status quo it is that up to 12 teams are candidates for relegation already. Last season, an eight-way final day shoot-out settled the affair of the last place in the drop zone; just three points separated Málaga in 11th and Deportivo in 18th.

On Sunday night, Real stuck six past Zaragoza in what will become a familiar scoreline for a worrying majority of clubs when facing Guardiola and Mourinho's men. Levante retained its top-flight status last season largely courtesy of Felipe Caicedo, a loan signing from Manchester City; the coastal club's budget for the entire season was roughly the same amount as Cristiano Ronaldo's annual wage. Granada's unofficial status as Udinese B and Betis' pedigree should lend a little more interest to the question of which sides will descend - of the promoted clubs last season, only Real Sociedad avoided an immediate return to Segunda. Zaragoza, in debt to the tune of

130 million euros and a famous den of fiscal insanity, is a prime contender: Racing, reeling from a disastrous takeover by Ahsan Ali Syed, may also be playing its last Primera season for some time.

Real Madrid players celebrating a goal on sunday's match against Zaragoza.
Real Madrid players celebrating a goal on sunday's match against Zaragoza.JAVIER CEBOLLADA (EFE)

After players' strike comes battle for free airwaves

The first ball of the new Liga season was finally rolled off the center spot last Friday evening but although the strike called by the AFE players' union that cancelled all fixtures on the opening weekend has been resolved, the Professional Football League (LFP), which ceded to the AFE's demands at the final hour last week, has turned aggressor against the country's radio stations.

The sport's governing body refused to allow broadcasters into Spain's stadiums over the weekend to cover both Primera and Segunda División matches. The LFP in July demanded that radio stations pay a fee for the right to commentate on live games, setting a deadline of August 16 for the broadcasters to acquiesce. The estimated worth of the LFP's pretensions is 20 million euros.

"We are not going to pay and we are not going to negotiate," said Manu Carreño, the director of Carrusel Deportivo , SER's flagship soccer show, on Sunday.

"It is an attack against the right to information," Paco González, of COPE's Tiempo de Juego added. The radio broadcasters argue that sports programs foment the fan base and do not encourage supporters to stay at home rather than going to stadiums, as in the case of television.

The ban enforced, reporters were obliged to go to great lengths to cover matches: "I'm watching the game from a neighbor's balcony. I can only see three-quarters of the pitch and missed Villarreal B's second goal," said Carlos Vicente, a SER journalist. At other grounds, journalists joined fans in the stands to report on the matches via cellphone. Others simply watched on television and commentated as normal.

Valencia asked reporters to sign a document promising only to go on air when the game had finished, while at Granada, for example, journalists spotted among the crowd covering the match were prevented from continuing their broadcast.

Only four radio stations, with minority audiences, support the fee scheme and were allowed access to stadiums; two local Huelva broadcasters at Deportivo's Riazor stadium, Sportscartagena and Real Betis' in-house commentary team.

In spite of all the threats, impediments and obstacles, soccer was widely covered by radio over the weekend. "We produced good, exciting radio," said Alfonso Ruiz de Assín, president of the Spanish Association of Commercial Radio Stations. "We got close to the fans and demonstrated that radio and soccer should always be together." Even José Mourinho weighed into the debate: "Without radio, the sport will not be the same."

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