Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan. As the bandwagon passed this summer, it felt like the whole of Spanish soccer -- the whole of Spanish society, in fact -- sought to jump on board. When Spain paraded through a celebrating Madrid, people were queuing up to demand a paternity suit to prove that they had fathered the World Cup winners. And now, as La Liga takes its traditional and frustrating break for international football a single week into the season, the arguments have been revisited. The child is mine. No, mine. Mine. Mine!
During the World Cup, in Madrid they were far from slow to note the identity of Spain's captain: Real Madrid's Iker Casillas. In Barcelona, they were declaring the trophy all theirs, the Catalan daily Sport declaring: "Red [Spain] is blue and purple [Barça]", while splashing "BARCASPAÑA" across its cover. And at the headquarters of the Royal Spanish Football Federation or Real Federación Española de Fútbol in Las Rozas this week, where the Spain squad trained and stayed before traveling to Liechtenstein, you could hardly avoid it.
Which is fair enough: the RFEF is, after all, directly responsible for the Spanish national team -- and the country's astonishingly successful international youth setup, which boasts over 60 World or European titles since Ángel Maria Villar became president in 1988; nine of Spain's World Champions this summer had already won the title at youth level. More odd was that over at the HQ of the Spanish league, the Liga de Fútbol Profesional or LFP, they have been proudly puffing out their chests and claiming responsibility too.
The league's president José Luis Astiazarán -- who presided over the collapse into bankruptcy of Real Sociedad before taking over at the LFP -- claimed that Spain's World Cup success was due to "hard work with youth setups" all over Spain. He insisted that the LFP had worked to protect and promote homegrown talent; the results, he said, had been seen in South Africa. The league deserved the credit; it gave Spanish players the chance to play at the highest level, preparing them for success with the selección.
The man who had previously insisted that Spanish football was "objectively the best in the world" because Spain had won Euro2008, Barcelona had won the Champions League and the LFP was "superior to England," Astiazarán pointed out that less foreigners played in Spain than in England.
He didn't note that the man who scored the winning goal at Euro08, Fernando Torres, plays in England or that until Xabi Alonso and Álvaro Arbeloa returned to Spain last season, Liverpool were often the side providing the highest numbers of Spain squad members. And yet he was right: around 35 percent of Spain's top flight players are foreigners; in England that figure can be turned on its head: only 35 percent are English (although other British players bump that figure up).
A BBC report showed that on the final weekend of 2008, English players made up an average of 3.9 of the starting XI at Premier League clubs. In Spain, 6.9 percent were Spaniards. Germany (4.9) and Italy (7.3) were also higher.
But what's the LFP got to do with it? The answer is very little. The LFP, which is essentially a confederation of clubs theoretically run in the collective interest, can claim no responsibility for the strength of club's academies. The academies do not come under the LFP's jurisdiction, except where a B team makes it into the country's national Second Division, as is the case with Barcelona B this season. Instead they fall under the auspices of the RFEF. The LFP does not lay down any criteria for youth development. It does not earmark money or support for it either.
What it does is organize a league in which the best players play (apart from those playing in England). It is tempting to conclude that all it does do is organize a league in which the best players play -- and organize it badly. A league in which you don't even know what day games are on until a week before.
If the LFP has more Spanish players than the Premier League has English ones, that is a consequence of a financial reality. There is not a policy to protect local players. Until this season, there has been no quota on European players (a consequence of the Bosman Ruling, itself an extension of the Treaty of Rome) and the Cotonon Agreement also means no limitations on African players. Unlike the United Kingdom, Spain does not demand a work permit for players either.
The number of foreign players is not a consequence of policy, it is a consequence of economy: Spanish clubs cannot afford to buy more or to attract more; a year ago (the last available full stats), Spain's annual wage bill was in the region of $1.1 billion; the Premier League's was $2 billion.
The LFP's aim -- as indeed is natural; desirable, even -- is simply to protect the interests of the clubs, not the national team. When it comes to disputes between club and country, the LFP -- again, naturally -- takes the clubs' side.
But the reality is that even the concept of "the clubs" is a misnomer; since not all of them are protected. Outside of Madrid and Barcelona, Spain's teams can still less afford to bring in foreign players. Powerless to convince Madrid or Barcelona (or indeed a handful of other clubs, like Atlético Madrid and Seville) to negotiate TV contracts collectively to the benefit of the whole league, the LFP has presided over a huge imbalance in Spain.
Between them this summer, Madrid and Barcelona have spent more than the rest of the league put together. Last summer, Madrid accounted for 58 percent of transfers, Barcelona 24 percent, leaving 18 other teams only 28 percent between them. The happy consequence of that may well have been stress getting placed on bringing youth through and limiting spending on foreigners -- but that is a side effect not a stated aim. That much is shown very clearly by another factor. It's not just that the LFP has not built policy to protect Spanish players; it is that it has done exactly the reverse.
According to article 93 of law 35, originally introduced by the Partido Popular in 2004, foreign "executives" earning more than $772,000 a year are taxed at 23 percent, rather than 43 percent in Spain. In theory, the aim was to encourage talent -- doctors, scientists, etc. - to come to Spain. In practice, it gave Spanish football clubs a huge advantage in attracting foreigners. Of the 60 people who qualify for the lower rate of tax, 43 are soccer players.
That's foreigners. Not Spaniards.
As players earn net wages, if a club had a choice between two players demanding the same amount, one Spanish and one foreign, they would naturally go for the foreigner. They would be mad not to. An example: Real Zaragoza paid Jermaine Pennant almost $77,000 a week; to pay a Spaniard that much would have cost them an extra $15,00 a week -- $780,000 more a year.
When the PSOE government closed that loop hole this year -- but, buckling under pressure, maintained the special rate for players already under contract -- what did the LFP do? Crack open the Champagne and applaud the fact that Spanish players would now have equal opportunities? Congratulate the government on giving the national team a boost? Foresee a World Cup winning summer? Express its satisfaction that fewer foreigners would play in Spain so that it could continue "protecting" and "promoting" Spanish players?
Of course not. Astiazarán complained, quite correctly, that "lots of foreigners won't want to come here any more -- this will provoke an exodus from our league." He threatened to get the teams to go on strike, insisting that: "football is in danger." His vice-president Javier Tebas warned: "if the government want a substandard league ..." Tebas publicly foresaw "the end." They nodded agreement as the country's best-selling newspaper -- which just happens to support the current opposition, the Partido Popular -- screamed: "The government is trying to kill Spanish football."
Again, the LFP's position is only natural; it is their job to protect the interests of its members. That's the clubs. Not the players. Not Spanish players. Not "Spanish football." And not the Spanish national team. What is not natural is fighting that fight and then claiming to fight the selección's corner too. The LFP has things to be proud of, but Spain's World Cup success is not one of them. What is not natural is claiming that the kid is yours when you've never so much as bought the mother a drink, still less ... well, you get the point.
This summer, Spain's players weren't the only ones hanging medals on themselves; everyone else was trying to do so too. But while the players deserved it, other people did not. People like the president of the LFP.