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Spain’s economy is struggling so fewer fans are showing up for league matches. David Ramos / Getty Images
Spain’s economy is struggling so fewer fans are showing up for league matches. David Ramos / Getty Images

Big two in Primera Liga are healthy but the rest are falling apart

Barcelona and Real Madrid are rich and getting richer as they can still buy the best and win the biggest competitions. The problem lies with the rest, and it is not a new one, writes Andy Mitten.

Sadness. That has been the overriding emotion in Spanish football in the close season.

Not because the Spanish national side saw their 23-match unbeaten run come to an end in the final of the Confederations Cup. Spain's international sides look sublime at every level, with too many top-class talents to stuff into the available places. But sadness at the state of Spanish club football.

The mood mirrors that of the economy, which in 2008 entered a deeper recession than any of Europe's major economies and from which it has yet to emerge. Young Spaniards are leaving the country to find work, unemployment levels are around 26 per cent with youth unemployment at 50 per cent in some regions.

With cutbacks in health and other areas of social security, a sport played by millionaires at the top level hardly seems important, but football is the elixir of the masses in Spain, and it provides an escape to be consumed in the cafes and stadiums.

The Spanish league is one of the finest in the world. The Spanish football federation still claim that it is the finest and point to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the planet's two greatest players, excelling at Real Madrid and Barcelona, two of the planet's three biggest clubs.

The problem doesn't lie with the big two. They are rich and getting richer they can still buy the best and win the biggest competitions. The problem lies with the rest, and it is not a new one.

The money from a skewed television contract, of which the big two pick up 70 per cent, doesn't help, but subscription levels are falling and clubs are competing in difficult economic times. Fans will think twice about a season ticket if they don't have a job to be able to afford one.

The rest of the clubs are feeling the pressure acutely. Overly generous credit lines have dried up, the once-lax tax authorities are demanding back taxes and players have no option but to sell their finest talents. Spain does produce many fine talents, most of which are now exported.

England's Premier League has been the greatest recipient of the players, but no Spanish fan is going to stop supporting their team just because they have lost their centre-forward. They are sad about it, but they are sad about many things.

Barcelona or Real Madrid will win the title. It is sad that such a sentence can be written with such assuredness.

Valencia and Deportivo La Coruna have both won the league since the turn of the century, Real Sociedad and Sevilla both came within a game of the title and Villarreal finished second in 2008, but that was then.

The other teams are playing for third and almost all are weaker than they were last season, Atletico Madrid have sold Falcao, their best player, for €60 million (Dh293m), though David Villa looks like an excellent signing for just €2.1m.

Real Sociedad, who finished fourth, saw promising midfielder Asier Illarramendi bought by Real Madrid for €30m. They have spent just €3m of that on replacements.

Valencia, who finished fourth, continued to sell, with leading striker Roberto Soldado, Tino Costa and Fernando Gago all leaving.

Malaga, the Qatari-owned big-spending club of two years ago, sold Isco to Real Madrid for €30m and saw Javier Saviola, Martin Dimichelis, Joaquin, Jeremy Toulalan, Julio Baptsista, Ruben and others depart, plus their boss Manuel Pellegrini. They will be weaker.

Despite the pessimism, Spanish clubs tend to renew, recruit and reinvigorate better than those in any other country. It may look like most of the stars have gone except for at the big two, but hopefully, the vacancies will allow a new generation of players to flourish in what is still a technically excellent league.

That is, until they attract the attentions of bigger fish.


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