x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Big two still drive game in Spain

Barcelona and Real Madrid dominated last year and their ability to buy the best means they will stay out front, writes Andy Mitten.

Real Madrid, in white, and Barcelona are such dominant forces in Spain, they are in a position to negotiate bigger television contracts worth more than any English club receives.
Real Madrid, in white, and Barcelona are such dominant forces in Spain, they are in a position to negotiate bigger television contracts worth more than any English club receives.

When Real Madrid signed Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka last summer and Barcelona signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it was the evidence that supporters of the Primera Liga needed to prove that Spain had the best domestic league in the world. The Spanish national team's dominance also emphasised that the league had the right balance between home-grown stars and premium exports. The English Premier League was criticised by some for being full of foreign players.

But one of the strengths of the Premier League is the competition. Chelsea, the champions, counted a loss to lowly Wigan Athletic among their six league defeats last season. And Manchester United lost to teams like Fulham and Burnley. Despite finishing 10 points ahead of the chasing pack, the leading two in England lost 13 league games between them. In Spain, Barcelona and Real lost just five times. The gap between second-placed Real and third-placed Valencia was a massive 25 points and did not do much for the credibility of the league. The historical gulf between the top two in Spain and the rest has grown into a chasm. The likelihood of Deportivo La Coruna, who won the league in 2000, or Valencia, who won it in 2002 and 2004, topping the Primera Liga again appears remote. The duopoly becomes ever more dominant because their 80,000 average crowds are twice that of the third and fourth best supported clubs, Valencia and Atletico Madrid. In the Premier League, a collective television agreement is in place and the champions receive just 30 per cent more from domestic television money than the bottom-placed team. In Spain, the big two use their enormous pulling power to negotiate bigger television contracts which are worth more than any English club receives - and the bottom clubs scrape around for anything they can get, which is sometimes nothing. Media rights is a boom area, one that was virtually non-existent 15 years ago. Lesser "big" clubs used to be able to keep hold of their players, but now Spain's economic woes mean that Valencia had to sell David Villa and David Silva in the summer, while Deportivo's playing budget has been slashed by a third in the last two seasons to a level which is one-tenth of Real Madrid's. Such cut backs are common throughout the league. Real and Barca have always bought the best Spanish talent. Sevilla were long regarded as Real's feeder club - now they just feed Barca Brazilian full-backs. The two giants have overstocked pools of talent - home-grown and otherwise - but has the pendulum swung too far? Racing Santander's Sergio Canales, 19, was one of the most exciting young players to emerge in recent seasons, but would he have been better off staying and playing in Cantabria rather than occupying Real's bench? There are still shocks and set-backs. Sevilla beat Barca away in the Copa del Rey last season and a full-strength Real lost 4-0 at third division Alcorcon, but these are rare, freak results. It will be Real and Barca or Barca and Real for the title. And then the rest, with Sevilla, Valencia, Atletico and Villarreal trailing by a distance. Little wonder than many fans in Spain support both their local club and Barca or Real. If they didn't they'd never taste football's richest fruits. sports@thenational.ae