Atlético Madrid are flying – but what about the money?

WITH Spain’s big two struggling to live up to their illustrious names, Real Sociedad and Atlético Madrid have emerged as title contenders in the early months of 2020-21. While Sociedad have been boosted by the arrival of David Silva, Diego Simeone’s side are going through something of a reinvention and their new look is winning friends and influencing people.

However, if there is a cloud, it is the early glance at the club’s financials for 2019-20, which should send a few alarm bells ringing. It has been reported the club has debt of € 999 million, an astonishing figure. While a lot of this is long-term commitments related to the Wanda Metropolitano stadium, such a high level of debt could prove to be a big obstacle if Simeone is to build a vibrant title-chasing line-up.

Atléti are unbeaten in LaLiga this season and are two games in hand to leaders Real Sociedad and just one point behind. They have beaten Barca at home – a Simeone landmark – and have a Madrid derby on the horizon. Less positively, Bayern Munich demonstrated why they are European champions when they thrashed them 4-0 in the group stage and the two teams meet again this week in the Spanish capital.

That game aside, they have looked solid this season and not only that, they have dispensed with the cautious, defensive approach that has defined the Simeone era by playing a game relying on a very high press that forces mistakes. No longer do they defend so deep, a tactic that didn’t make them the most attractive side to watch.

Atléti are now seeing why they paid so much money for Portuguese wunderkind João Félix, who has scored five league goals already and has been consistent since the start of the campaign. This is partly due to Simeone’s tactical switch which has allowed Félix to be more expressive just behind the forward line. Furthermore, Félix has also benefitted from the arrival of veteran firebrand Luis Suárez, who has also netted five times. Atléti have scored twice as many goals this season than they did in 2019-20 after nine games. Suárez may not be a long-term acquisition, but he could provide the spark that was needed.

Other players, such as Kieran Tripper and Koke, are enjoying a renaissance in the club’s reboot. They also have arguably the best goalkeeper in the world in Jan Oblak, who was on Chelsea’s shopping list in the close season.

While Real Madrid labour on and struggle to get the best out of expensive players like Eden Hazard, and Barca emerge from their political summer, Atléti look well equipped to repeat their 2014 LaLiga triumph. They’ve certainly looked better than the big two, but the 2019-20 financial report, which is due in December, may wipe the smile off their faces, albeit temporarily.

Like most clubs, Atléti have suffered from the pandemic. Revenues declined by just 9%, though, which is far better than some European counterparts. The debt is a worry, but the club still managed to make a profit of € 1.8 million. Their wage bill is still over € 250 million, even after LaLiga’s salary cap – they do have high-earning Suárez in their ranks now – and Simeone is said to be the highest paid coach in the world.

This could be their year – they have stability, they are playing better football and their main rivals don’t looks equipped to come through on the outside. With Sociedad also buzzing, this all makes for an intriguing and very watchable LaLiga season. It will be nice to see a change at the top in this age of hegemonies.

Photo: PA

Football has become a global digital buffet

IF, like me, you grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you will be aware of how our access to the global game has changed so dramatically for the better. 

Recall those midweeks when British teams played in Europe and, occasionally, photographs would appear in the daily newspapers implying the Fairs’ Cup tie involving your favourite team had been played in the near darkness of Zaragoza or Rome. 

And how about trying to find out a football result if you missed Grandstand or World of Sport? How would we have coped with the pandemic if it had arrived in the 1970s or before CEEFAX arrived? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

My own early football education came from Goal, Shoot, numerous football annuals and reading the daily newspapers. We really had very limited resources. Football in other countries was treated a little like a trip to outer space, so much so that some English clubs, when travelling to continental Europe, would take tea, sausages, baked beans and other “essentials” which sometimes included a chef.

How different it is today. Football is currently in an age of global expansion, with clubs and leagues attempting to develop their audiences in Asia, Africa and the Americas. LaLiga, for example, has opened an office in London and is trying to make their product the most popular foreign sporting competition in the UK. The Bundesliga is also spreading its wings and clubs like Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have long identified the opportunities of reaching out to fans outside of their backyard. Every major club has a commitment to building its international franchise, as evidenced by their multi-language websites and the number of tourists at top football grounds. Commercialisation is at the root of this drive.

Younger fans have seen their interest in the game enhanced by their enthusiasm for online offerings like Football Manager, FIFA and others. Older folk like myself find it hard to tap into the fascination of these games, but there’s no doubt they broaden awareness of players from outside of the Premier League. LaLiga’s UK representatives recently told me the online world has created a global buffet that young people graze upon, developing their knowledgeand allegiance to football in other countries. 

If this appears strange, let’s wind the time clock back and remember how many of us came across footballers from other clubs – the ubiquitous trade cards that we pored over, absorbed and swapped in the playgrounds of our youth. I recall “trading” doubles of West Bromwich Albion centre forward Jeff Astle and West Ham’s Geoff Hurst for a much coveted George Best bubble gum card. 

We didn’t have the tools to bring the likes of Astle, Hurst and Best into our football games, the best we could hope for was the tiny shirt numbers offered by Subbuteo that we could place on our fragile plastic figures, but in our minds, we had our own little football worlds.

Fans of computer gaming have the ability to really feel they are part of the football experience, selecting teams, signing players and “running” clubs. With the rise of eSports, reality and fantasy are almost converging and along with the mass coverage of the game on TV, enabling the enthusiast to watch French, German, Spanish, Italian, English, Dutch, Polish and MLS football. Today’s young football fans will no longer be restricted to following a club from their own country, it is perfectly feasible they will become what I call “portfolio supporters”. Just take a look around London and note how many shirts of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich you catch sight of – to name but three overseas clubs.

As we head to the end of 2020, the year in which euro-hoppers have been stymied by travel restrictions and behind-closed-doors fixtures, the digital world has, in many different ways, been our salvation. Regardless, we hanker for the opportunity to take a weekend city break and watch a game or two in a foreign country. But we can take consolation in knowing we are not as isolated as we might have been 20 or 30 years ago. We are, at least, watching football again on TV, albeit in empty stadiums, but nobody should want to get too used to that. And we actually have all the information we need at our fingertips and we have the great global game waiting for us when we finally emerge from the darkness. Let’s hope the financial turmoil caused by the pandemic doesn’t leave too many shipwrecks for we all want our buffet back!


Photo: PA Images

This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine, reproduced by permission.

Bartomeu’s bad exit and the debris left behind

JOSEP Maria Bartomeu left some scorched earth behind at Barcelona, a strategic move by the former president that does him little credit. Indeed, as the celebrations among Barca fans circled the globe, Bartomeu’s departing salvo, confirming Barca had agreed to join a European Super League, was a little like a sulking child taking his ball away. In doing so, Bartomeu positioned his club as part of the scheming gang of elitists who have little regard for the overall health of the great game. This was not a graceful exit by any means.

Bartomeu was due to step down in March 2021, but the tide had turned against him to such an extent that he was expected to be voted out of office – a humiliating experience in itself. 

The consensus says he should have gone earlier. He stubbornly held on with the walls closing in on him, perhaps influenced by his counterpart at Real Madrid. Ironically, it all happened in the days following the Clásico, a 3-1 defeat for Barca at their Camp Nou home – a meek surrender if ever there was one.

Javier Tebas, the head of LaLiga, was understandably angry about Bartomeu’s declaration of mutiny, saying it was a “regrettable mistake” and a sad end for a club president who showed “serious ignorance of the football industry”.

Under Bartomeu’s presidency, Barca won four league titles, four Copa Del Reys and the Champions League. At the same time, the Barca team lost influential figures like Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol, key players who have never really been replaced. 

After Pep Guardiola departed in 2012, Barca have also laboured through a series of coaches that have delivered trophies but have lacked the charisma of their ground-breaking old boy. AS newspaper said that with the loss of Xavi and Iniesta, the basic functionality of the team was diminished. 

Barca, meanwhile, went close to their target of generating € 1 billion in revenues, but the club finds itself in a precarious financial position during the pandemic. “Financially, the club is a disaster,” said Spanish football expert Guillem Balague in his BBC column.

Certainly, the club’s record in the transfer market over the past couple of years doesn’t look good, even though the wage bill has become rather swollen. Huge outlays on players like Coutinho, Griezmann and Dembele have yet to live up to expectation and there are others that do not appear to be good investments. When Lionel Messi said he was thinking of leaving, it must have shaken the club to the core. The little Argentinian has repeatedly said there has been “no clear project” during Bartomeu’s reign. 

Barcelona’s problem is living up to the extraordinary high standards that have been established in the Messi era. As Gabriele Marcotti said for ESPN, the club won 10 titles in 61 years but lifted 16 in the past 30 – expectations are stratospheric. In the back of the Barca board’s mind – interim or otherwise – must be the fear that the club’s financial condition could spark a sharp decline and seriously compromise their position as one of Europe’s premier clubs. Barca would not be the first club to fall from the pedestal – AC Milan provide a very good comparison. 

Football Espana reported that a number of Barcelona’s players feel liberated by Bartomeu’s resignation. They have started their UEFA Champions League very well, a 5-1 win against Ferencvaros and a comfortable 2-0 victory in Turin against a Ronaldo-less Juve. In LaLiga, they have already lost twice, against Real and Getafe. Messi has yet to score a goal in open play, his three goals this season have all been penalties. 

Where, then, does the European Super League idea fit in? Tebas suggested that Bartomeu is merely echoing the heartfelt ambition of Real Madrid’s Florentino Pérez, who has always cherished the idea of a continental league led by his club. “Barcelona had its own voice when dealing with the league, but for the past three years, it only repeats what Real Madrid says,” remarked Tebas. 

It could also be simply self-interest on the part of Barcelona, who may see the concept of a US$ 6 billion-backed league as a solution to their own current economic situation. If that is the case, then Barca’s accounts may be more worrying than we are led to believe. 

Others are as concerned as Tebas. Fernando Gomes, the president of the Portuguese League, said: “The world is currently experiencing its greatest challenge, at least for the last century, and the last thing it needs is the exacerbation of selfishness and greed.”

Bartomeu’s statement could have been the start of a civil war among European football. Not only has he angered officials from various leagues, but he has also let the cat out of the bag and nailed his [former] club’s colours to the mast. Most of the football world had its suspicions about the motives of the “big picture” and the European Super League, Bartomeu effectively confirmed what we already knew. 


Photos: PA