Every time they say goodbye, La Liga dies a little. Now Juan Mata has signed for Chelsea from Valencia, just as Sergio Aguero signed for Manchester City from Atlético Madrid. For fans of City and Chelsea, the transfers are fantastically exciting, two great additions to two teams aspiring to win the Premier League. For the Spanish league, they are frightening. Despite the injection of around 75 million euros, the transfers are confirmation of a worrisome trend.
In truth, Aguero wanted to go to Real Madrid. In the end, he signed for City. Mata had hoped for the chance to join Barcelona. He signed for Chelsea. Together their moves are symbolic of an inescapable reality: Spain's best players now aspire to join one of the big two or leave the country altogether. When they do, the gap widens in Spain and the opportunity to close it fades. The super strong get stronger, while the others cannot compete. La Liga is a two-horse race but not because the rest are a bunch of donkeys. And yet bit by bit they get weakened, the inequality becomes more entrenched.
It has always been this way, and not just in Spain. It's only natural: big fish eats little fish. The standout players at other clubs have long since gravitated to Madrid or Barcelona and it would be wise not to overreact; departures do not necessarily signal impending doom.
Valencia sold their best two players last summer and returned to the Champions League positions, rebuilding cleverly. They have history too: When they won the league in 2003, it was after selling Gaizka Mendieta, Claudio López and Gerard. They constructed a fantastically competitive squad last summer and have moved astutely this year, signing Parejo, Piatti and Canales.
Julio Baptista left Sevilla for Real Madrid in 2005, having scored 50 goals in the previous two seasons. The following season, with the Beast no longer on their team, Sevilla won the UEFA Cup. The year after they won another UEFA Cup, the Copa del Rey, and the European Super Cup, and went into the final day of the season with a chance of winning the league. Fernando Torres walked out of Atlético Madrid in 2007. He had always refused to join Madrid and Barcelona wasn't interested so he went to Liverpool. The following season, Atlético returned to the Champions League for the first time in 11 years.
None of that means the problem is not real, though. Though they were able to finish third last season, Valencia ended 21 points behind second-place Real Madrid. And when Atlético finally returned to the Champions League in 2008, they were led by Sergio Aguero. For the last three or four years Aguero could make a convincing case to be the best player in Spain, not at Madrid or Barcelona. So, inevitably, he tried to go to Madrid. He was, though, at the wrong club: Atlético's visceral refusal to sell to their rivals forced him to go abroad.
He was hardly going to stay. Why would the best players stay? How could they? A tipping point has been reached and players know that: Unless they are at one of the big two, they cannot seriously expect to compete for trophies. And, unlike before, the social, political historical and economic differences -- dealt with in parts
Madrid and Barcelona, whose stranglehold on the league and other clubs is absolute, have no intention of redistributing talent, wealth or opportunity. There is no concept of the league as the product; the LFP is a loose, disparate collection of clubs with wildly different interests, each looking out for their own in which two clubs beat the rest every time.
Look at that three-year league table again: Each of the 'other' four has lost their best players in the last three years. Their destination: The big two or a different country, a different league. Aguero is just another example. Dani Alves left Sevilla for Barcelona. Valencia has lost David Silva, David Villa (to Barcelona) and, now, Juan Mata. Atlético has lost Aguero and Forlán is about to go too (although the signing of Falcao is tremendously exciting). Villarreal has just lost Santi Cazorla. Last season's outstanding performer beyond the big two was striker Giuseppe Rossi (he wanted a move to Barcelona but, in the end, wasn't able to get it).
Over the last five years, if you had to compile a list of the five best players in Spain outside Real Madrid and Barcelona, it would almost certainly read: David Villa, David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Dani Alves and Diego Forlán. Only Forlán is where he was -- and not for much longer. It goes deeper too. When Sergio Canales burst onto the scene with Racing Santander, it was electrifying. Here was a genuinely special player, destined for great things. Within a year, Madrid had swept him up. A year after that, having had little genuine use for him, they tossed him out on loan -- so long as he does not
Mata's departure means that every one of Valencia's World Cup winners have gone. When Spain won the 2008 European Championships, Valencia had four players in the squad, Villarreal three, Barcelona three and Real Madrid two. Two years later, when Spain won the World Cup, that list had changed, largely because of signings. It read: Barcelona seven, Real Madrid five, Valencia two, Villarreal one. The two Valencia players, Villa and Silva, had completed moves before the tournament was even finished.
In 2010-2011, the soccer statisticians Opta put together an objective stats-based team of the season. Of the outfield players, only Juan Mata (Valencia) and Santi Cazorla (Villarreal) did not play for Madrid and Barcelona. Now, they have both left. Cazorla, who would have been Villarreal's second player in South Africa but for injury, has moved for possibly £19 million ($31M) -- a move that helps to explain Villarreal's ability to resist bids for Rossi and keep him at the Madrigal. For now.
There was interest from England -- Liverpool and Chelsea both contemplated moves -- but the truth is neither Barcelona nor Madrid wanted Cazorla. There is a glimmer of hope, a shout of ambition, about his signing. He has moved to Málaga but he hasn't moved on from Spain.