La Liga’s European worries – decline may be a strong word

THERE was a little introspection in Madrid, Barcelona and Seville after the first legs of the UEFA Champions League, with Spanish football officials fearing a series of setbacks had signalled the decline of the most successful nation in European club competitions.

Like most events big or small, disappointment was accompanied by social media-driven over-reaction and hysteria, with some keyboard experts interpreting the results as the onset of the apocalypse. 

In the past, underperformance would be brushed aside in the knowledge that players like Lionel Messi and the now departed Cristiano Ronaldo would soon produce a rabbit out of a top hat and restore normal service. Not so today, for time has painfully caught-up with Barca and Atlético Madrid were effectively hoisted by their own petard. Meanwhile, in the Europa League, early season leaders Real Sociedad – David Silva and all – were thrashed at “home” by Manchester United. Real scraped a win against Atalanta, but this is no classic campaign for the reigning La Liga champions.

The pandemic has hit Spanish football hard, exposing the high debt levels of the country’s major clubs. Before anyone had ever heard of covid-19, though, debt levels at Real, Barca and Atléti were already substantial. Debt is fine if you can service it and you keep it manageable, but the diminished levels of income have made people a little nervous and some are treating it as an existential threat. 

La Liga’s Javier Tebas has tried to brush aside the debt story, although it was the outspoken league president who predicted a financial crisis could break out in the aftermath of the pandemic. He revealed that a series of financial controls have helped clubs prepare for a major crisis and believes they will manage their way out of any difficulties. The league also plays an important part in determining how much a club can spend on salaries. Tebas added he is more concerned about Barcelona’s lack of leadership as their presidential election approaches.

The debt levels are intimidating by any standards, though, with the overall total debt of the big three clubs now heading towards a staggering € 3 billion. On a net debt basis, however, Barca’s figure is around € 300 million and Real’s € 118 million, still sizeable figures but not the “bankruptcy level” some newspapers are talking of. As Tebas said, the important thing about debt is its relationship to the ability to generate revenue. Obviously, the pandemic has compromised that ability, for the time being, although matchday revenues only account for just 18% and 15% of Real and Barca’s income respectively. 

One can safely assume that Barca will work their way through their problems and that nobody, be they bankers, politicians or creditors, will want to be responsible for pushing the club towards the wall. Nevertheless, debt may stymie clubs from competing on the European stage, especially as Real and Barca are in need of a squad rebuilding programme that would require hard cash. Not that transfer activity is frantic at the moment, it has fallen off a cliff in Spain thanks to the pandemic. Both Barca and Real are also undergoing major infrastructure projects, which will be a drag on capital. 

Has Spain become less attractive as a vibrant football market and has started to lose the battle with the Premier League and Bundesliga? There’s no doubt there are fewer world class players in their prime currently earning a living in La Liga. A glance at the Guardian’s top 100 players list, which was last issued in December 2020, provides some evidence. There were only eight Spanish players included and 21 playing for Spanish clubs. The top Spaniard is 34 year-old Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid. 

Compare that to the 2015 list when there were 16 Spaniards and 28 La Liga representatives. There has been a 50% decline in five years of Spanish players in the top 100. The elite clubs – Atléti (72%), Real (72%), Sevilla (66.5%), Barca (65.3%) and Valencia (57.8%) – are heavily staffed by foreign players. Equally concerning has to be the average age of La Liga squads, almost 28 years of age, which is one of the highest across Europe – only Turkey and Cyprus have older squads.

It may be that Spain is simply coming to the end of a golden age, one in which Spanish clubs won 17 out of 30 European competitions (eight Champions League, nine Europa League) including four years where the country won both major prizes. Nothing goes on forever, even though cyclical success is less accepted than at any time in the past.

Even so, four teams won through to the last 16 of the Champions League in 2020-21 which suggests Spain still has strength in depth. Real were the sole group winners, but Atléti, Sevilla and Barca lost only one game each. It is the results against clubs from the big five leagues that have worried Spain’s footballing community. Barca’s 4-1 home defeat at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain was devastating, especially as it came a few months after their 8-2 humiliation by Bayern Munich. Atléti looked very limited and lacking in invention against a Chelsea team still in transition.  

Spain’s record in the Champions League knockout phase over the past five years has produced a 58% win rate in big-five KO games, but in 2019-20, it was a rather lowly 38%. As well as Barca’s collapse, Real were beaten twice by Manchester City and Atléti slipped up against Leipzig. Go back five years and the win rate was an impressive 70%. It is not out of the question that there may not be a Spanish club in the last eight this season for the first time since 2005. 

A combination of lower performance levels, financial pressure, ageing star players and empty stadiums makes for a slightly downbeat environment, but Spain is not alone. Football across Europe has suffered but when life begins to return to normal, the hunger for the game will, if anything, result in something of a boom period. And Spain will be among the front-runners once more.

Photo: PA Images

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