So, Sergio Canales will play for Valencia for the whole of the next two seasons. Well, not the whole of them exactly. Canales has moved to Mestalla for two years. According to the agreement reached, Valencia will pay his wages for the two seasons and, at the end of each campaign, it will have a €12 million ($17M) option-to-buy. The other thing the agreement stipulates is that Canales will not be able to play against the club that owns him, Real Madrid. The crapping-yourself-clause strikes again.
It was Pablo García who named the clause. The Uruguayan midfielder signed for Real Madrid in 2005 and never quite made it. Put bluntly, he wasn't really good enough. Looking for a way out, a solution to the problem of a player they simply didn't rate any more, Madrid loaned him to struggling Celta de Vigo. When Celta faced Madrid, García was not allowed to play.
This is the cláusula del cagazo [the crapping-yourself-clause]," García snapped. "I went from Real Madrid to Celta because they didn't want me to play and now they won't let me play either. I asked the [sporting director Pedja] Mijatovic why and he said that if I played well against them, they [the fans] would kill all the directors."
For Real Madrid, the policy is not unusual and has been used by different administrations under different presidents. In fact, it has become standard. Last season, Hércules faced a penalty of €2 million ($2.8M) if the on-loan Royston Drenthe played against Real Madrid. Naturally, management decided against exercising it. Others, from Javi García at Osasuna to Esteban Granero at Getafe, have simply had to sit out all together when the biggest game of the season (for them at least) rolled round.
Not everyone does it -- last season, for example, the on-loan defender Martín Cáceres did play against his owners Barcelona for Sevilla -- but Madrid are far from the only club that use the policy. Éver Banega was not allowed to face Valencia when on loan at Atlético and when Mallorca played José Manuel Jurado against Atlético it had to pay a penalty of €120,000 ($169,000). It turned out to be money well spent. Madrid is, though, the most high profile and the club for whom the decision is the most striking -- and also best serves to reveal why this is a problem for Spanish soccer.
García nailed it. There is something a little grubby and more than a little cowardly about a club telling a player he's not very good but not letting him play against them anyway. A kind of: you're rubbish, but still I'm scared. There is also something a bit absurd about sending a player out on loan to get minutes -- not always, but often the reason -- and then denying him those minutes. And yet at the same time it is understandable. After all, the reason Madrid adopt the policy can be summed up in two words: "Fernando" and "Morientes."
In 2004, Fernando Morientes was on loan at Monaco. As it turned out, Monaco unexpectedly faced Madrid in the Champions League and it was Morientes' goal that even more unexpectedly knocked Madrid out. He was not the only on-loan player who had come back to haunt them -- Pedro Munitis had done the same for Racing Santander.
Besides, the argument goes, why should any club let a player who is on its wage bill damage its interests; why would you go on paying a player only for him to score goals against you? They also argue the reason players go on loan rather than being sold is that the "buying" club either can't or won't pay a transfer fee. Then there's the argument that says that practice can be ended easily enough: all the buying clubs have to do is refuse to accept a clause that leaves them without a player for two games a season.
All of which is true. Sort of. Clubs' insistence on protecting themselves is understandable, even when the argument does not quite stack up -- and those arguments do not always stack up.
Valencia will pay all of Canales's wages and give Real Madrid €1 million ($1.4M) a year, so the why-pay-him-to-bite-my-hand argument. Just as often it is the "selling" club that imposes a loan not a sale: while it does not want the player to play for it because the team does not think he is good enough, the selling club wants to maintain control over him just in case. And when he played at Almería, Álvaro Negredo was not allowed to play at the Bernabéu; nor was José Callejón for Espanyol; or Ruben de la Red for Getafe. Madrid had buyback options on them but they had been sold. Not loaned.
As for simply refusing to insert the clause; Villarreal's reluctance to do so was a key reason why Valencia leapt ahead of it in the pursuit of Canales. The power is always with the powerful; the rest live on hand outs offered on someone else's terms and are then treated as if they should be eternally grateful. As the Getafe president Ángel Torres put it simply: "[the clauses] are like a plate of lentils -- they're on offer and you can take it or leave it." Meanwhile, as Madrid and Barcelona escape the rest, it becomes even harder for players to resist the call to them in the first place.
Clubs will always try to protect themselves and the adoption of the policy is understandable if ethically questionable. What is less understandable is that the footballing authorities allow it. This does matter. It is perverse that the league permits a practice that serves to adulterate the competition. It is no exaggeration to say that when Hércules faced Madrid last season, its best player was forcibly absent; the same was true when Almería traveled to the Bernabéu. That's Almería and Hercules. Likewise, when Getafe faced Madrid a couple of seasons ago, it was missing two of its midfield three and its best two players. the impact is huge: Almería without Negredo was a completely different team with a completely different approach.
Let's exaggerate a little to make the point: isn't that effectively forfeiting the match against a players' owners? Isn't that to bastardize the competition, tipping the balance even further against the smaller clubs? After all it is worth noting that it is not just that a player cannot play against, say, Real Madrid that matters especially, it is that they can play against everyone else.
Let's exaggerate a little more (OK, OK, a lot more) for the sake of making the essential point more stark: a big club could stockpile players, taking the very best from every club in the country just not against themselves.
That can't happen? On a smaller level it already can: given the extremely fine margins that separate a team from the title or first division survival, can the absence of a team's best player for two games a season, six points, against a specific opponent really be dismissed as irrelevant? In 2007, a single goal in any one of 35 of the 36 games not against Madrid would have seen Barcelona win the league rather than Madrid. The margins really can be that fine. At the bottom, relegation invariably shifts by the minute on the final day.
In effect, allowing the clause allows the biggest clubs, whose advantages are already colossal, to reinforce their position even further, flexing their muscles. It gives a safety net to those clubs that least need one. They can sign a player safe in the knowledge that they can then loan him out or even sell him and never have him damage them. Clubs can, in short, buy players not to play but to not play.
Canales is the perfect example: he joined Madrid last summer only for them to then buy Mesut Ozil -- a year later, a year wasted, and he is moving on. Villarreal wanted him last summer but missed out; now it has missed out again because it did not want to take him on anti-competitive terms. Villarreal's attitude is: if he is our player, he is our player in every game. As for Madrid it knows that Canales won't score against it. Spain's third best side has just been strengthened -- except when it faces Madrid and on that day it will be weakened. It is not good for the competition and it is not good for players' development.
It is no surprise that the clubs consent to the situation: as you go up and down through the footballing and economic hierarchy, it suits some while others are powerless to stop it, their already secondary status confirmed. The bigger clubs have little interest in making the league more competitive or redistributing the footballing wealth. As long as those clubs can protect themselves, stockpiling players and watching their careers stagnate means nothing. It is the league and the Federation that should step in to protect basic sporting principles, the purity of competition and the competitiveness of the league.
But then that would mean them taking on those who truly hold the balance of power. It would also mean them caring. And they are way past that.