When 18 of Spain's 20 First Division clubs agreed to a collective TV deal that enshrined inequality, giving Madrid and Barcelona more than a third of the money all to themselves, it appeared to be definitive proof that they had finally given up. They might as well offer their congratulations to Madrid and Barcelona for winning the next 50 league titles.
That, at least, was the reaction of the two clubs that did not sign the deal: Villarreal and Sevilla. Both clubs have been extremely vociferous in their complaints. Villarreal president Fernando Roig complained that if the deal went ahead there would be "no league," while Sevilla president José María Del Nido snapped that Valencia and Atlético had demonstrated a lack of ambition by signing up for third and fourth places, leaving the top two slots the preserve of the same teams forever more.
"If I was an Atlético or Valencia fan, I would be furious," Espanyol director Joan Collet said, "because by signing this, they have admitted that they are fighting for third at best. By signing this, they have made it absolutely impossible for there to be a league again."
Atlético and Valencia had, Del Nido said, "sold themselves"; they had been "mugs." He vowed not to agree to the proposal: "I will not sell out."
Del Nido's words hide an inescapable reality. It is not just that Atlético and Valencia agreed to the proposal that annoyed him but that they could agree to the proposal; not that they gave up on the chance of competing with Madrid and Barcelona but denied Sevilla and Villarreal the chance to compete with them. Had the offer been Madrid and Barcelona 35 percent, Sevilla and Villarreal 11 percent, then 45 percent split among the rest, the reaction would surely have been rather different.
When talk of a collective deal first began, one high-placed source at Sevilla admitted that every club would act on self-interest. And, strikingly, that self-interest did not mean a desire to win the league. Only two clubs could aspire to that. He also admitted that Sevilla was not sure whether to push to get closer to Madrid and Barcelona -- a push that would almost certainly be rebuffed -- or consolidate its lead over Spain's other clubs.
In the end, that decision was taken away from Sevilla. Atlético's and Valencia's thought process was similar: If we can't compete with the big two -- and let's face it, we know we can't -- why not at least make sure the rest can't compete with us? The difference was that while Sevilla and Villarreal have designs on being Spain's best club, they do not have the fan base, or history, or TV profitability of Valencia and Atlético.
That is the reality that underlines the whole issue. Spain's league has little or no coercive power. It is simply a confederation of clubs. And those clubs do not all have the same objectives. For some, the Madrid-Barça issue is irrelevant. It is not their war. As the Villarreal president said: "It's not normal to have two clubs earning 15 times more, but it's very hard to get the clubs to agree [to anything else]. There's no unity. The LFP has a very difficult role."
Every club has an equal vote, but equality is a myth. Everybody knows that Madrid and Barcelona are the most powerful -- especially Madrid and Barcelona themselves. No deal can survive, much less prosper, without Madrid and Barcelona. The league would not be the same without them -- and that is a point about which the big two are quick to remind the others clubs. The threat of losing them always hangs in the air.
That is quite a threat. Madrid and Barcelona are well aware of their significance; maybe too aware. They simply could not care about the other clubs and there is logic in their intransigence. According to statistics from the Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, Madrid have 13.2m fans while Barcelona have 10.4m. Valencia are third with 2.1m. 60 percent of all football fans in Spain support one of the big two.
One of the most striking features of Spanish football -- the fact that every fan, even if he supports Sporting Gijón or Deportivo or Almería, has a built-in, immovable preference for one of the big two and really cares who wins the clásico, so he has a vested interest in the title race even if his first team is not involved -- only reinforces that dominance. Madrid and Barcelona matter even where they don't matter.
That gets translated into a commercial reality. The editor of one newspaper admits that "every Madrid win is 10,000 more in sales," and the director of one TV channel insists it would be a "disaster" if anyone other than Madrid or Barça won the league. Officially, statistics for PPV hits are unknown, but industry insiders reveal one year's figures in which Madrid had an estimated €6.1 million ($8.1 million) worth of hits, while Barcelona had €4.2 million ($5.6M), Atlético Madrid had €2.8 million ($3.7M) and Athletic Bilbao and Valencia did not reach €1 million ($1.3M). According to a source at the Spanish Football Federation, a recent First Division game not involving either of the big two was bought by 47 viewers. Yes, 47. Some teams fill their stadiums only twice a season -- when Madrid and Barcelona come to town.
Madrid and Barcelona know that and use it to their advantage. They can hold the rest to ransom: We generate the money, we should make it. I'd like to see you try to get people excited about a league without us. There is an inescapable reality there. There are other pressures, too, other deals being brokered. A refusal to loan or sell players can be used as leverage, for instance. Madrid's and Barcelona's attitude is that the rest of the league should be grateful to play on the same pitch as them, even if it is not a level playing field: Don't go asking to compete on top of that. If you don't like it, tough. What would your league be without us?
They are right, of course. But that question can be turned on its head. In fact, it has been turned on its head. Again, it is Roig and Del Nido doing so: What would you be without a league to play in?
"We need to recognize that the smaller clubs are necessary for the competition," Roig said. "After all, 15 clásicos at the Bernabéu and 15 at the Camp Nou would be a bit boring, wouldn't it?"
Del Nido suggested that the rest of the league send Madrid and Barcelona off to play "in Portugal or France or somewhere."
That is the crux of the issue: This is a business, sure, but it is also a sport. And sport rests at least in part on being a competition. You can win, lose or draw. Madrid or Barcelona do not accept that. Not only do they have huge financial advantages, but they also wield massive political power and have huge media backing, which whinges incessantly on their behalf when the slightest decision goes against them. Despite their dominance, Madrid even adulterates the competition further by not allowing its on-loan (and in some cases, sold) players to play against it.
Clubs swallow it because they have no choice, because making a competitive league is no longer their battle. They are being forced to accept Madrid's and Barcelona's agenda. Deportivo fans applauded their team's loss to Barcelona last weekend because they were resigned to their fate, with the thing all teams should aspire to do -- to win -- no longer an aspiration. And for how long will they do so before they give up completely? How long will Madrid's fans? How long will their players?
As for Madrid and Barcelona, they may be creating problems for themselves. The psychological pressure of knowing you absolutely must win every week, and preferably by lots of goals, is gigantic. It is only balanced by the knowledge that unless you get it wrong, you will win. But if players always win, what will the effect be on them? Will they stay at the same level? Will they improve? If the league becomes permanently uncompetitive, if Madrid and Barça are not pushed each week, what becomes of them in Europe? What becomes of them in the long term?
In the short term, you can see their argument. You can share it, even. It is a reality: They generate the money. But this is a sport, as the architects of a draft pick system have understood. And long term, it may even prove counterproductive -- the hubris that leads to nemesis.
If there is no competition, it might stop becoming a business too. Would you rather watch the Harlem Globetrotters or the Los Angeles Lakers? Knowing that a 36-game season is likely to be decided in just two games becomes kind of depressing, a little tedious -- removing the value of those 36 games. In Scotland, they increased the number of Old Firm matches (between Rangers and Celtics). The result was to remove the value even of the Old Firm.
Earlier this season, José Mourinho accused Sporting Gijón of deliberately losing at the Camp Nou, sending out a B team and resting its best players for a forthcoming game it thought it could win. Sporting Gijón lost 1-0. And it was the third-best result against Barcelona all season. Better even than Madrid, which went there and lost 5-0. And with no collateral damage.
Soon, other teams might follow Sporting's lead -- not just against Barcelona but against Madrid too. "Ésta no es nuestra liga" is a leitmotif of resignation that's already in currency: This is not our league. Yes, we play in the same league as Madrid and Barcelona, but we don't play for the same league as them. Why risk injuries and suspensions in a game you're not going to win?
"Maybe we should play our youth team against Madrid and Barcelona," Espanyol's Collet said. "That way we wouldn't run the risk of cards or injuries."
Why try to climb Everest in flip-flops and Bermuda shorts? As Homer Simpson tells Bart: "Can't win, don't try."
And who's going to want to watch then?
Editor's note: This is Part 3 of a three-part look at the competitiveness of Spain's La Liga.