Easy on the La Liga hype!

The La Liga is termed as the best in the world, and the players playing there adjudged the greatest among all. But it’s been more than a decade since a name other than Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo has won the world’s best player award. And apart from these two players challenging each other, there seems to be nothing in Spain.

Cristiano Ronaldo won a record-equalling fifth Ballon d’Or on December 7. The win put the Real Madrid and Portuguese star level with Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, who too has five Ballon d’Or awards in his kitty.   -  AFP

In early September of 2011, the then president of Sevilla, Jose Maria Del Nido, in a moment of utter desperation, described the Spanish league as “rubbish — the greatest pile of junk in Europe.” It was after an opening weekend of fixtures during which Real Madrid thrashed Real Zaragoza 6-0 and Barcelona beat Villarreal 5-0. It was perhaps the harbinger of things to come — the 50 goals that Lionel Messi scored and the 121 goals Real Madrid scored in 2011-12 are La Liga records. In fact the goal difference between second-placed Barcelona and third-placed Valencia was a whopping 70. Across the four other top leagues in Europe — England, Germany, France and Italy — this was 31, 25, 1 and 24 respectively.

Neither have numbers from any other year pointed to something different. Ever since Cristiano Ronaldo made his move from Manchester United to Real Madrid in 2009, the least number of goals the top-three in Spain have collectively accounted for in a single season is 259 (2009-10). In contrast only twice has any team gone past this ‘lowly’ number across the four elite leagues — the Premier League saw 272 goals in 2009-10 and 274 in 2013-14. While the eight-season average in Spain is 281, the next highest is England with 239.

La Liga: Five things to look out for this weekend

Isn’t it then a paradox that the La Liga is termed the best in the world, and the players playing there adjudged the greatest among all? It’s been more than a decade since a name other than Messi or Ronaldo has won the world’s best player award. Brilliance, it is said, requires a proper measuring stick wherein a counter-balancing force routinely challenges it. But apart from Messi and Ronaldo challenging each other, there seems to be nothing in Spain. So much so that in that same September of 2011, former Real Madrid general manager Jorge Valdano said, “there will come a time when this (situation) does not suit the big two either. In the future Madrid and Barcelona will have to look at teams that travel at the same speed as them and that will lead to a European league.”

Things in 2017 haven’t come to such a passe. There is still no breakaway in sight though the machinations of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) in France and Bayern Munich in Germany do give cause for concern. From a number of also-rans in Spain, Atletico Madrid has emerged the strongest of the rest and has even managed to break the Real Madrid-Barcelona duopoly by winning the title in 2013-14. Madrid and Barcelona have accounted for the last four Champions League crowns, proving that regions beyond their national boundaries are their stomping grounds too.

Ronaldo proud to compete with Messi

Yet, the lingering feeling is of an uncompetitive league. Prior to the start of the current Premier League season, no less than six sides had genuine title-winning ambitions. It will take a brave man to hedge a sum on a team other than Madrid and Barcelona in Spain. As Spanish striker David Villa said following his transfer to Atletico from Barcelona, “We are at a great disadvantage in contending for La Liga. On paper, we are at a disadvantage to the top two. We just have to think of going game by game and trying to earn wins in a row and we shall see what happens.”

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This isn’t to take anything away from the achievements of Ronaldo and Messi. When challenged by the world’s best, the two have come up trumps more often than not. But the two clubs seem to have rather inspired a disturbing trend across Europe where one or two outfits want to dominate the rest. After Borussia Dortmund won back-to-back German championships in 2011 and 2012, Bayern Munich has raced to the last four Bundesliga titles and along the way tried to empty Dortmund of its riches by routinely snapping up its best players like Mario Gotze, Robert Lewandowski and Mats Hummels. When Monaco broke PSG’s four-season winning run, the latter arranged for two of the costliest transfers in football history. One of these was the ‘loan deal’ of French sensation Kylian Mbappe from Monaco with an option to make the deal permanent for €180m (£165.7m), clearly designed to subvert the Financial Fair Play rules.

In a class of his own... Lionel Messi’s 50 goals from 37 games for FC Barcelona in 2011-12 is a La Liga record.   -  Getty Images

 

As one can see, it is money which is the main perpetrator. Unlike in England, revenue from television broadcast deals is not equitably distributed among the clubs, with the gulf in Spain the widest. The vagaries of the free-market are often cited as explanations. If more than 60% of the people profess to be fans of either Madrid or Barcelona, why should they share the bounty equally? However, more than economic theory, it is sinister design. The non-adherence to redistribution leaves the other clubs perennially short-changed in relative terms even when revenues keep growing. These are clubs with some of the best youth development structures and are known to produce an assembly line of gifted footballers. But the system demands that they sell such players to keep their balance sheets intact and this in turn enables the big fish to constantly stay ahead.

It appears to be lost that even in the hot-bed of world capitalism, the United States of America, profit sharing, salary caps and luxury taxes have largely kept the country’s sports scene balanced. It is then no surprise that in the season just gone by, the bottom three in La Liga conceded 248 goals. The numbers in England, Germany, France and Italy were 202, 172, 176 and 221 respectively. In each of the last nine years, a player playing in Spain has claimed the European Golden Shoe. The most telling of numbers is perhaps this — in 196 league appearances for Manchester United, Ronaldo scored 84 goals. In La Liga, as on the day he won his fifth Ballon d’Or (best player award), he had 287 from 275 matches.

This, however, shouldn’t be construed as a complete takedown of Spain. The nature of football there allows enough time for sophisticated tactical ideas to take root which the Premier League “rat race” — according to former Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal — doesn’t. These involve extended training ground sessions, which the relentlessness of the English game has no time for. The most sought-after style of play is still the Barcelona way and this is why Manchester City courted Pep Guardiola for so long before landing him as manager ahead of the 2016-17 campaign.

But it can only go so far. Unlike in the past, England now has some of the best footballing minds. The competitive nature of the league means that these coaches are required to constantly evolve. This was evident in the group stages of the 2017-18 Champions League when Antonio Conte-led Chelsea and Mauricio Pochettino-led Tottenham Hotspur outwitted Atletico Madrid and reigning champion Real Madrid respectively. It may not be long before this extends to more clubs.