World Soccer
Friday August 28th, 2009

Even the proudest of Spaniards had to accept defeat; even the most enthusiastic La Liga cheerleaders were forced to pack away their pompoms. The warm glow of the European Championship success still endured -- but the national team was one thing, the nation's teams quite another. The lineup for the 2008-09 Champions League semifinals brought Spain crashing back down to earth.

For the third successive year, three of the four teams competing for a place in the final were English. In three years, Spanish teams had occupied just two semifinal slots, compared to the Premier League's nine.

Atlético Madrid had been knocked out by FC Porto and Arsenal had dispatched Villarreal 4-1. Real Madrid president Vicente Boluda then boasted that his side would take advantage of Liverpool -- only for the opposite to happen. There were no complaints, no buts, no what-ifs. There was just sad resignation. It was the fifth consecutive year that Real Madrid had failed to win a knockout tie.

And yet the same Madrid side that had been hammered 5-0 on aggregate by Liverpool had won nine successive games in La Liga -- a run that would become 17 wins and a single draw in 18 matches. So what did that say about La Liga? Only Barcelona remained, and the optimism its wonderful football sparked was overshadowed by a creeping pessimism. Or, some insisted, realism.

It was one thing performing brilliantly in Spain but, as Spanish daily El País put it, "Europe is something completely different." The fear was that dazzling domestically was a little too easy. Barcelona had not faced an English club yet. Now it would, its adventure would draw to a close as Chelsea awaited.

Even after Barça squeezed past Chelsea and into the final, most believed Spanish football would end up empty-handed. After all, the Catalans had been fortunate to scrape through the semifinals. It wasn't just Britain's myopic media, salivating in jingoistic indignation, saying that Manchester United would win a second European title. The Premier League's superiority was incontrovertible. No wonder everyone was tuning into English football and turning off La Liga. No wonder there was depression in Spain.

But not anymore.

Barcelona's cool and comprehensive victory over United was the first step. Now, under new president Florentino Pérez, Real Madrid has taken up the challenge. The '09 World Player will be Barcelona's Lionel Messi, the '08 World Player has left England for Real Madrid and the '07 World Player has departed Italy for the same destination. Suddenly, Spanish football appears to be in rude health.

The media in the Spanish capital is fond of claiming that Real Madrid has done a huge service for Spanish football, as if Pérez is some kind of benevolent benefactor looking out for everyone else's clubs, not just his own. Over in the Catalan capital, they claim Real Madrid is on course to sink Spanish football by sending transfer fees spiraling out of control.

They are, of course, both right. And both wrong. Spanish football faces crippling debt, and yet could be confronted with a major crisis, but this season, the world's best three players will play in La Liga. Treble-winning Barcelona, the finest side on the planet, is now up against the most exciting players on the planet. Only in Spain can you see Messi, Kaká and Cristiano Ronaldo. This summer, Spanish clubs have spent more than English or Italian ones.

For the first time there have (as yet) been no high-profile departures from La Liga, some of the Spanish Diaspora looks set to return, and even the smaller clubs -- aided by a generous tax regime -- have a huge advantage over clubs in other countries.

While it is true that no English club wanted Jermaine Pennant, it is also true that Rafa Benítez and Arsène Wenger once did; just as it's true that for a club like Real Zaragoza to be able to offer him wages equivalent to $130,000 a week in England is an extraordinary turnaround.

Meanwhile, despite his own desire to leave, Valencia has -- somehow -- resisted bids close to $67 million for arguably the best striker in European football, David Villa. And Atlético has held onto Sergio Agüero.

Trouble is, at some levels, at least, the illusion is just that: an illusion. As usual, it is all about Barcelona and, especially, Real Madrid -- and the gap between those two and the other clubs is bigger than ever. Virtually 80 percent of all the transfer spending can be attributed to Real Madrid. Only five clubs have spent more than $12.3 million and Barcelona had to give up on Villa and Franck Ribéry -- even though Zlatan Ibrahimovic has arrived.

Yet, much as many clubs struggle to get players and make ends meet, there is no escaping the excitement, the expectation, the sheer glee at the prospect of the new season in Spain. If only because Barcelona has real challengers at last; if only because the world's greatest football rivalry looks set to be bigger and bitterer than ever before -- and more glamorous.

Beneath the skin, La Liga may be struggling -- the economic situation remains deeply concerning and organizationally it is still in shambles -- but just look at those legs, the fluttering eyelashes, the brilliant smile.

La Liga has become the most attractive league in Europe. And try as you might, you just can't take your eyes off of it.

Jermaine Pennant (Real Zaragoza): A shock signing for Zaragoza. Could this be the fresh start that Pennant needs, away from the pressure and spotlight of a really big club? Has the talent -- if not always the temperament -- to make a real impact.

Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid): It is stating the obvious, but it is going to be impossible not to be drawn to Ronaldo and Real Madrid this season. And the things that irritated English commentators about him -- the posing, diving and the flicks -- will not be frowned upon at the Bernabéu.

Karim Benzema (Real Madrid): While all eyes were on Ronaldo, it was Benzema that really shone as Real Madrid made its bow against Irish side Shamrock Rovers in preseason. Hit the post and also scored the winner with a cool finish.

David Villa (Valencia): Arguably the continent's best striker, this is the player who has it all. Except, of course, the high-profile move that he wanted. The big question now is how will his frustration at being denied the chance to play for Real Madrid or Barcelona this season affect his performance as he builds towards the World Cup with Spain this summer?

Diego Perotti (Sevilla): The reason that Diego Capel got so few games for Sevilla last season. Only just 21, the Argentine winger could be a real revelation this season. Quick, skillful and with an eye for goal.

This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of World Soccer magazine. To subscribe, click here.

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