Week 17 in La Liga ended and here's the news: Real Madrid and FC Barcelona almost didn't win. In the end, they did win but, hey, they almost didn't. Barcelona struggled to break down an ultra-defensive Levante side, eventually winning 2-1. Real Madrid cruised and almost got caught against a Getafe side that used the ball nicely, eventually winning 3-2. And everyone got kind of excited about it. Wow! Those were games!
Yes, it really has come to this. Such is the dominance of Madrid and Barcelona that it often feels as if draws have become the new defeats and narrow victories the new draws. Everybody hangs on Madrid and Barcelona's every move, just in case this is the game they don't win -- but pretty sure that it won't be. The risk now for Spain is that they no longer even bother, that a 38-week season gets decided in just two fixtures; the two clásicos. It is an even greater risk because neither Madrid nor Barcelona seem to see it as a risk at all.
Things change, eras shift, cycles come to a close, but it is hard to imagine any team other than Real Madrid and Barcelona winning the league. Ever again.
Now that might sound melodramatic. It may also sound a bit ahistoric: after all, Deportivo de La Coruña won the title in 1999-2000, Valencia won it in 2001-2002 and 2003-2004. Real Sociedad could have won it in 2002-2003, Sevilla in 2006-2007. Could have? Should have. That they didn't looks more like a tragedy with every passing year. Besides, Madrid and Barça winning the league is not a new phenomenon -- between 1948 and 1999 they failed to win just twelve of 51 titles -- so why moan now?
Because the fear is not that Madrid and Barcelona win the league. It's that only Madrid and Barcelona can win the league. It is not that they always win the league, it is that they almost always win their games. All of their games. And this is a relatively new phenomenon -- one that looks like becoming more extreme and more entrenched, not less. Last year, Real Madrid broke a points record in La Liga but still didn't win the title. Barcelona had broken it too. they finished on 99 points. This season, they are on course to break the 100-point barrier.
Pep Guardiola called the number of points being racked up by the two sides as "f-----g barbaric."
He was right. And it was not a one-off. The season before, Madrid went into the clásico having won 17 and drawn one of the 18 previous games. They had played every side in Spain bar Barcelona and only once failed to win. They hadn't lost at all. This season, both sides went into the clásico having won six on the trot. In the weekend before the clásico alone, Barcelona and Madrid's aggregate score against their opponents was 13-1 -- 13-1 across just two matches.
Barcelona have won 14 of the last 15, Madrid 13 of the last 15 (and the one they lost was against Barça). Leaders Barcelona and second-placed Madrid have a ten- and 8-point lead over third place and have scored 53 and 42 respectively. The next best has 32, then 28. Cristiano Ronaldo alone has scored more goals than 10 teams. Yes, teams. Last season, the team in third was closer to the relegation zone than winning the title.
A little more maths: Removing irrelevant results (after the clásico defeat confirmed that they would not win the league two seasons ago, for example, Madrid gave up and lost five on the trot -- games not included here), the stats are stunning. Not counting the clásicos -- after all, they can't both win that match -- Madrid and Barcelona win an absurd proportion of their games. 119 of their last 140, in fact. They have lost just six.
The fact that they almost always win means that digesting defeat becomes even harder. There has been a perversion of one of the basic rules of football as a sport: it is a game, you can lose. Losing is normal. Only it's not, not any more. The biggest clubs, their fans, the media, the famous "entorno" -- the environment, the entourage, the milieu around clubs -- will not accept anything less than victory. Any defeat is met as if it was some kind of moral aberration to be destroyed. Referees are blamed and immediate solutions sought. That signing didn't work, let's sign someone else.
Winning is the minimum, no longer enough on its own. The more thumping that victory the better: the challenge between Madrid and Barcelona can feel like it is not to match each other's results, to win or draw, but to match each other's score line. To hit three or four or five ... or eight. Week 17 in La Liga, with its single-goal successes, felt wrong somehow. The abnormal has become normal, the normal abnormal.
Dominance becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, self-perpetuating. Anything less is a failure and hegemony is protected and extended zealously. For Madrid and Barcelona, success attracts success. For other clubs, success (now inescapably fleeting) attracts destruction. It proceeds the dismantling of the team: good players don't want to play for anyone else but the big two. What's the point? They're paid less and win nothing. Barcelona and Madrid have taken different routes to their current domination -- and the extraordinary work of La Masía is to be lauded -- but the roots of this current destruction of other teams are, in part, similar.
Dominance is perpetuated largely because it can be. It is not that the rest of La Liga is desperately weak -- although some teams are -- or that they are not trying. It is not that they are going through bad moments or have bad coaches. At least, it is not only that. It is that Madrid and Barcelona are ridiculously strong. Competing against them becomes impossible, even for very good sides. Their power of acquisition and retention is unmatched. Even Barcelona, who have been hugely successful at developing their own players, spend heavily. David Villa, Dani Alves, Javier Mascherano and Zlatan Ibrahimovic hardly came cheap. The salary that keeps Leo Messi is beyond the reach of everyone else in the league too, Madrid apart.
The voracity can on occasion be frightening. At Euro2008, Real Madrid had just two members of the Spain squad. So they bought Raúl Albiol and Xabi Alonso and Álvaro Arbeloa. They have also bought Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká -- two of the last three Balón d'Or winners. If you put together a list of the three best players in the world in each position it is hard to believe that there wouldn't be a least one, probably two, Madrid or Barcelona player(s) in every position. Except maybe left back (and even there, it's debatable). And, guess what, both clubs are looking to strengthen exactly that slot.
While they strengthen, other teams are destined to lose their best players. All the talent gets sucked up. David Villa and Dani Alves were in Sports Illustrated's La Liga team of the decade -- Barcelona bought them both. Fernando Llorente is lighting up the league for Athletic Bilbao this season -- next season, he will probably be at Real Madrid. How long with Sergio Aguero stay at Atlético? David Silva departed from Valencia.
Look at Madrid over the last decade: players are bought because they can be, signed with a complacency and a lightness of touch that can be staggering. And yet there is a desperation too; a must-have mentality. He's good, let's sign him. We'll worry about where he plays later. And if he fails, we'll get someone else. If he's in our squad, he can't play for anyone else.
What is brilliant elsewhere is normal at the big two: they buy your best players -- and sometimes, it feels, just for the sake of it. Esteban Granero and Sergio Canales are almost irrelevant at Madrid; at their last clubs they were stars. Dani Parejo might leave Getafe, where is playing brilliantly, to go to Madrid. Where, let's face it, he might not play at all. Royston Drenthe left Madrid a laughing stock to join Hércules on loan. And it turns out he's actually quite good. Seydou Keita was central to Sevilla and a substitute at Barcelona.
The big clubs stockpile players, with the consequent damage to that player's development and the competition. 25 man squads with 25 internationals. And, in Madrid's case, even if they do loan them out, it comes with a catch: he can't play against us. Sales have a clause: if it turns out he is any good, we want him back. Other clubs cannot compete. The economic reality is a depressing one for 18 teams that can often feel like they do not even exist.
At the heart of that are television rights. They reflect an inescapable reality and are not the only source of income -- Madrid and Barcelona dwarf everyone else in ticket sales, merchandising and sponsorship too, dominating the media agenda and people's footballing preferences -- but they are the single most significant.
Negotiated club by club rather than as a collective, Real Madrid and Barcelona earn in the region of €125 million ($161 million) a year in domestic rights (plus the money, guaranteed to them but not to anyone else, from the Champions League). The next highest is Valencia on €42 million ($54 million). That's less than Middlesbrough got in England last season -- and Middlesbrough was relegated. Meanwhile, Madrid and Barcelona got almost treble what the Premier League champions Manchester United got.
In one season, the difference between Madrid, Barcelona and the rest may not be felt. The gap may not matter. Over two or three or four, it is huge. Do the maths: over five years Valencia, third last season, make €415 million less than Barcelona or Madrid. A team like Racing de Santander will be closer to €525 million less. How can they compete?
The answer of course is that they can't.
Editor's note: This is Part 1 of a three-part look at the competitiveness of Spain's La Liga. Part 2 will be on Friday.