LA LIGA

Challenging for the bronze medal

All the teams that might have given Real Madrid or Barcelona a run for their money have sold their star players this summer. As things stand, the “big two” have spent the same on transfers as the rest of the league put together

Atlético de Madrid's David Villa pepares for his official debut with the club.
Atlético de Madrid's David Villa pepares for his official debut with the club. Emilio Naranjo / EFE

There is a definitive turning point in recent Liga history: 2004. Rafa Benítez’s Valencia won the league title with 72 points, five more than Barcelona, six more than Deportivo La Coruña, and seven ahead of Real Madrid as four teams with title aspirations dueled right until the end. In the decade before there had been five different champions: Real, Barcelona, Atlético, Deportivo and Valencia.

This plurality ended in the 2004-05 season when Barcelona won the title with a four-point advantage over Real, but 19 points clear of Villarreal in third. Since then, Barcelona has been crowned Liga champion six times and Real three, with the other finishing in second every season except 2007-08, when Manuel Pellegrini’s Villarreal beat the Bernabéu club into the runner-up spot.

In May 2006, Mediapro offered Barcelona 120 million euros for the television rights to its matches. The following year, Real Madrid received the same offer from the same company. Today, both clubs receive around 160 million for the broadcast rights to its games. The individual negotiation of television deals opened a chasm between the perennial top two and the rest of the clubs in La Liga. The lesser lights receive around 18 million euros each.

Every other major league in Europe has an equitable system of distributing television money. La Liga no longer even has control over kick-off times or the international sale of image rights.

Big two start on home turf

EL PAÍS

The endless Gareth Bale saga keeping the capital’s sports dailies ticking over for the summer may not yet be over, but the wait for La Liga to start is. Champions League contestant Real Sociedad and Getafe will share the honor of getting the ball rolling at Anoeta on Saturday night but the bulk of Spanish soccer fans will focus their attention more keenly on Sunday’s proceedings, when Real Madrid and Barcelona roll out their heavy artillery.

Real, at home to Betis, will present its new made-in-Spain signings (Isco and Asier Illarramendi) to the faithful and Barcelona, hosting Levante at Camp Nou, will unveil Brazilian wunderkind Neymar in the probable absence of Leo Messi, who is struggling to overcome a slight tweak in his leg. Both of the big two have new coaches on the bench, with Carlo Ancelotti having replaced José Mourinho at Real and Tata Martino taking over the reins of the champion from cancer-stricken Tito Vilanova.

Elsewhere, the biannual grudge match between Atlético and Sevilla should provide a few fireworks in the Andalusian capital, where David Villa will aim to get off the mark in his first competitive game for the rojiblancos. It will also be a chance for coach Unai Emery to assess how Sevilla is going to manage after the loss of so many key players over the summer.

Last season, a Valencia-Málaga at Mestalla would have been prefixed “Champions League-challenging,” but there will be little optimism of a return to Europe’s top table this year on the south coast, while the home side will have to find goals in the absence of departed Spain striker Roberto Soldado. The club’s net debt was reported to be 275.5 million euros following an audit this week, so even the slowest of starts will not be ameliorated by a splurge in January.

Newcomers Almería and Villarreal face off in an east-coast derby that both clubs will welcome as a soft introduction to the rigors of Primera.

Only Barcelona and Real Madrid are candidates for the title. The rest of the division is playing for the bronze medal before a ball has even been kicked. The teams placed third to 10th at the end of last season have all sold their star player: Radamel Falcao (Atlético), Asier Illarramendi (Real Sociedad), Roberto Soldado (Valencia), Isco (Málaga), Beñat (Betis), Leo Baptistão (Rayo), Álvaro Negredo (Sevilla) and Abdelaziz Barrada (Getafe). Elsewhere, Levante has lost striker Obafemi Martins and Athletic Bilbao sold Spain forward Fernando Llorente to Italian giant Juventus.

Should Real Madrid eventually sign Gareth Bale for a fee in the region of 100 million euros, it will have spent the same on one player as the other 18 clubs in the league, excluding Barcelona, have spent in total. Thus far this summer Real and Barça have already outlaid 75.5 million and 60 million euros, respectively, and there may be more to come with the latter in desperate need of a center half.

In the 1997-98 season, when the Bosman ruling came into effect, making the transfer of playing easier across Europe, the two clásico contestants spent 70 million between them and the rest of the league 240 million.

This summer there has also been an exodus of Spanish goalscorers from La Liga: Soldado, Negredo, Llorente and Iago Aspas (to Liverpool from Celta Vigo) netted 65 between them last season. “Their departures are down to two factors,” says Manu Sarabia, a former Athletic and Spain striker. “Spanish soccer is a reference point globally, and the economic situation of the clubs has deteriorated greatly.” Sarabia notes there have always been “great goalscorers” in Spain, but the difference now is that the country is an exporter, not an importer.

Only a few Spanish hitmen who were courted from afar remained in La Liga during the transfer window: David Villa (Atlético), Rubén Castro and Jorge Molina (Betis), and youngsters Álvaro Morata and Jesé (Real Madrid) and Paco Alcácer (Valencia).

Atlético signed the Spanish national side’s top scorer from Barça to maintain its momentum (third place and the King’s Cup) from last season, while Real Sociedad has bet on a youth product, Rubén Pardo, to replace Asier Illarramendi. Valencia spent three million euros on Portugal international forward Hélder Postiga to replace Soldado; Málaga has raided the international bargain bucket to bring in Panamanian defender Roberto Chen, midfielder Bobley Anderson and Polish striker Bartlomiej Pawlowski to replace Isco, Joaquín, Jérémy Toulalan, Martín Demichelis and Javier Saviola. Betis has spent practically nothing on acquiring 12 new players but has lost the cream of the squad that led it to fifth last season — many to the Premier League. Sevilla will have to do without Navas, Negredo and Gary Medel, but have signed well in PSG forward Kévin Gameiro to at least pick up scoring duties. Athletic has added Beñat and Kike Sola to a good squad that underachieved spectacularly last season under the erratic reign of Marcelo Bielsa and in the absence of Spain internationals Javi Martínez and the largely unused Llorente.

“I think it’s disastrous that Barça and Real Madrid are starting with a 100-million-euro difference,” says former Real midfielder Míchel, currently coach of Olympiacos. “The share [of television revenue] is not balanced, it’s abusive. In the past three seasons the champion has finished the season with 100 points or more. In the 1980s and 1990s, a point in Mestalla or the Calderón was a good result. Now, Real and Barcelona’s B teams would get into the Europa League.”

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