When stood atop a mountain surveying all below, Iker Casillas’ assessment makes perfect sense. “We're living the golden years of Spanish football,” the Real Madrid goalkeeper said this week. Who can argue with him?
Already an icon in his own time, Casillas has watched on from the comfort of his own often vacant penalty area as Spain ripped up the record book and claimed an unprecedented three consecutive major tournament wins with success at Euro 2012 this summer. When it didn’t quite go the way of the tiki-taka technicians , ‘San Iker’ was always on hand to save the day.
At club level Casillas, his Real Madrid team-mates and their rivals Barcelona have it all pretty much their own way. Los Blancos smashed Barca’s three-year grasp on La Liga by claiming the crown for themselves last season, accumulating 100 points in the process.
As Pep Guardiola stepped down from his role as Barcelona coach he would be starved of a record fourth consecutive league title but would have found comfort in having crafted and shaped a team most believe are the greatest of all time, spearheaded by the most precocious talent the world has ever seen.
Lionel Messi obliterated the record for most goals in a single season in 2011/12, bagging 73 in total while also netting the most goals in a single Champions League season as well. Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo wasn’t exactly a slouch in front of goal either, scoring 46 league goals to become the second quickest player ever to 100 La Liga goals, breaking the great Ference Puskas’ record in the process.
For the past three years, both men and players from either of Spain’s big two have contested the Ballon D’or in splendid isolation from all other players on the face of the earth. UEFA’s big prize, the Best Player in Europe award, will be tussled over by the usual suspects; Ronaldo, Messi and Andres Iniesta.
If the Europa League is the litmus test for strength in depth then La Liga wins out there too; last season’s final was an all Spanish affair between Athletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid, the former beating Manchester United en route to the final. Over the last seven years, four winners have come from Spain.
It seems a golden sunshine beams down on Spanish football at the moment. But while the league most believe to be best in terms of quality in the world flourishes at the top, further down there is no doubt that a real problem is developing further down.
Yet another season has passed where the gap between the top two and the rest; last season 39 points separated 3rd place Valencia from champions Madrid, a gap that has grown from 25 the previous two years.
La Liga’s problems were exposed in earnest with revelations about how TV money is distributed amongst the 20 teams in the league. The Premier League’s lesser clubs are protected from falling too far behind the ‘big six’ by a deal that is centrally negotiated by the league and distributed relatively evenly, something that is not the case in Spain where deals are done on an individual basis.
Of the €640 million pot up for grabs Barcelona and Real Madrid took home roughly half, leaving the remaining 18 teams to fight for the scraps left behind. 3rd place Valencia for example, secured a deal worth around €40 million. Only talks this week avoided the start of the new La Liga season from being postponed because of the smaller club's feeling of injustice over the TV deal.
While not the only revenue stream for these two giants (Madrid generated around €400 million in 2010/11) TV accounts for a large portion of their income and the knock on affect of this balance can be seen dramatically elsewhere, particularly in the transfer activity of other clubs.
Both Barca and Real Madrid offer on average a highly weekly salary than any other sports club in the world (£101,160 and £90,859 respectively) and can snap up the best talent from further down the league as and when they please because of it – perhaps the biggest problem that currently faces Spanish football.
The saddest aspect of the hegemony of the big two is perhaps the damaging legacy it leaves on the clubs from which they take their players and the impact it has on players hoping to win silverware - Those lucky enough to see Bilbao in action last season will know the damage that can potentially be done.
The Basque outfit demonstrated just why so many people love the game with their exhilarating performances against Mancester United in the Europe League, winning legions of fans in the process. Now two key players in Fernando Llorente and Javi Martinez want to leave the club, with Barca interested in both (although they could head abroad) and all that Marcelo Biesla has been building is in danger of collapsing.
Guardiola called Bilbao ‘beasts’ the first time they met in La Liga last season and expressed his giddy delight at seeing a brand of football for the purists. A team, it would seem, that could challenge the big boys. Well, not any longer if their key players leave.
Another team that could have challenged Madrid and Barca was Malaga but having spent £60 million on players to propel them into the Champions League their squad is being dismantled and sold up as their financial dealings are bought to light.
In this summer’s transfer market Jordi Alba made the move from Valencia to Barcelona in a move worth around €14 million, following in the footsteps of David Villa before him. Outside the big two, the biggest transfer has been the £6 million Valencia paid Madrid for Sergio Canales, and even then Jose Mourinho’s men have a buy-back option on the talented youngster.
Of course it is not the fault of Barcelona nor Real Madrid that such a divide exists. Their dominance is perpetuated by interest in them and them only from overseas; Sky will show 100 games live next season, of which 74 will involve Madrid or Barcelona - but it is this upwards spiral that is driven by the interest and money flowing into these two clubs that keep them apart from all others.
The new La Liga season begins this weekend and with it fans will be treated to the presence of Ronaldo and Messi once more and all the magic they can weave.
There is quality further down the league for those who seek it and there is no doubt Spanish football teams can boast to be among the best in Europe, it’s just the gap is exacerbated by the presence of two teams that can rightly claim to be amongst the best in history.
Even if the issue if TV money is readdressed it may be too late to stop the ball from rolling, such is the size and dominance of these two great teams. For the near future at least, a two team La Liga will exist at the very top.
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