Every summer, football clubs all over the world throw their money away. In Granada CF's case, quite literally. One morning in July, the Spanish second-division team awoke to find that the money earned from season-ticket sales -- which it had handily "stored" in bin bags -- had been thrown out by the cleaner. Already racked by debt and in administration, Granada had lost an estimated $500,000 thanks to a woman with a mop and bucket. Luckily, in the end most the cash was found in a recycling box.
But the strangest thing of all was that Granada stood virtually alone. Not just in the garbage as it rooted around, recovering its money, trying to fend off the media and light-fingered kids who had gathered to watch, and profit from, the recovery operation, but in Spain as a whole.
With five days to go until the close of the transfer window, it turns out that this year very few Spanish clubs have thrown their money away after all. Surprisingly few. Maybe even worryingly few. After all, it is not so much a case of clubs being careful with their cash and deciding not to just stuff it in plastic sacks or the pocket of some giggling president who has sold them a dud; it is not so much a case of the sudden emergence of talented kids, leaping freely from youth team to first team. It is more a case of them being broke.
This has been a summer of caution and frugality, not fantasy. Financial reality bites; Spain's debts are huge, calculated to be in excess of $4 billion. Even Real Madrid sporting director
Of Spain's 20 first-division clubs, only six have spent more than $6 million. And two of them are Valencia and Sevilla, third and fourth last season, respectively. Worse, while they have spent $33.4 million and $13.7 million, respectively, they have recovered $99.6 million and $18.4 million. In other words, their net spend is zero; they have sold more than they have signed. If
Only four sides in Spain have a net spend in excess of $6 million this season: Málaga, which is under intriguing new ownership and new management and has brought in almost $19 million worth of new players; Atletico Madrid; and, inevitably, Madrid and Barcelona.
Barcelona is struggling. Former president
No one else can compete at all. Predictions might be a mug's game, but one that can be made with certainty is that Madrid and Barcelona will be far too good for the rest. As Sevilla sporting director
Last season, second-place Madrid finished 25 points ahead of Valencia in third and 33 points ahead of Sevilla in fourth. In terms of points, those two sides, supposed challengers, were closer to relegation zone than the title. Even the World Cup reinforces the imbalance: Of the Spanish starting XI in the final, only one player did not play for Madrid or Barcelona, left back
Nor does it look like a freak season. It is reinforcing, self-fulfilling. With TV contracts signed individually, club by club, Madrid and Barcelona can make three times as much in a season as their nearest competitors.
This year, the gap is likely to be maintained, maybe even widened. Look at those figures above. Both Sevilla and Valencia have sold more than they have bought. They are the third- and fourth-best sides in the country and yet they cannot build. Valencia has lost Villa and
Two sides' strengthening is, yet again, everyone else's weakening.
The fact that no one can compete with Madrid and Barcelona suggests that even some of the problems that appear to present themselves for Madrid are not problems at all. Mourinho complained this week that he needs time to build his side, that it is "still not ready." He insisted that Barcelona has an entrenched identity, unlike Madrid. "They can come back from the summer holidays and after three days they're already playing well. They could play blind," he said. "We can't do that. We still need to build an identity."
He is right but it may not matter. Whoever wins the league this season will probably need a huge amount of points and can't afford to drop any. But even a half-ready Madrid should be too strong for the rest. Madrid can improve on the job. This preseason might even provide the paradigm: Madrid did not play particularly well but it did -- as the newspaper
It is hard to avoid the uneasy conclusion that the title might be virtually decided over that match and the return game in Madrid. Two matches in 38. Or maybe by the occasional unexpected draw. Certainly, the margins are likely to be fine. That is why Madrid, even if it is essentially not as good a side as Barcelona, has every chance of winning the title. Especially as things are not perfect for Barcelona, even if the signing of Villa is about as close to a sure thing as you can possibly get.
Barca has the shortest squad in Europe -- if
Below Madrid and Barcelona, Sevilla and Valencia are not equipped to compete with the big two. In fact, they might not even maintain their current best-of-the-rest position. The teams best positioned to challenge for Champions League places alongside or even ahead of them should be Atletico Madrid and Villarreal. And perhaps Athletic Bilbao or Getafe.
Atletico's ninth-place finish last season was well below where it should be. The club has kept faith in
Villarreal announced new, austere times as president
And then there's Athletic. Eighth last season, they boast two World Cup winners -- both of whom, typically, have been pursued by Real Madrid; both of whom, rather less typically, have stayed put. Athletic won't be subtle, but it has genuinely good players.
That's an identity that could hardly be more different from Getafe's neat, tidy, occasionally delicate approach -- last year, its president moaned, "We're a bunch of mothers" -- but if the team from the south of Madrid, sixth last season, can get it right, it is wonderful to watch and effective too.
At the other end of the table, it's hard to see Malaga needing to wait until the final day to survive again. Sporting could use a striker but has signed well (
If you want an outside bet for a side to suddenly collapse and be unexpectedly dragged into it, how about Deportivo de La Coruna? It was fourth at the midway stage of last season and then won just three times in 17 matches without the injured
Then there are the three promoted teams, always considered likely to go straight back down again. Real Sociedad -- packed with homegrown players, including the returning
Still, at least no one can accuse them of throwing away their money. Levante has not spent a cent, while suspicions linger that Hercules spent its cash on just getting into the first division after recorded conversations allegedly revealed its owner speaking to its captain about buying off opponents. Those conversations also implied that match-buying in the second division is frighteningly common as teams fight for the chance to reach the Primera promised land.
Because the judge refused to release the tapes and the Spanish football authorities decided that they were going to ignore it, there has not been an investigation. There will not be one, either. Just as there was not when similar accusations were made against Malaga two years ago.
On Saturday night, Hercules faces Athletic Bilbao in its first game in the top flight in 13 years. The stadium will packed. TV cameras will be in attendance. It will be a special night. The sad conclusion for teams looking to make the same journey is simple. Such is the impunity and such are the rewards. So passive is the response that even in times of crisis, it's worth it. Far from throwing away your cash, a spot of cheating might just be money well spent.