La Liga gets it wrong with clásico

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And so at last it's official: Barcelona versus Real Madrid, Spain's clásico, will be played at 9 p.m. on Nov. 29. That's MONDAY, Nov. 29. It will be the last game of jornada, or Match Day, 13.

Before the decision was made, Real Madrid's director general Jorge Valdano pointedly described the possibility of the game being held on a Monday as "the best way to help football lose its prestige" and now that those fears have been confirmed Madrid's sporting Director Miguel Pardeza complained: "Monday is the day that no one wanted. There were problems [with playing at the weekend] but other solutions should have been sought."

Immediately after the announcement, the newspaper AS ran an online poll: 88 percent said they were against the game being played on Monday. In Marca, the figure was 85 percent. In Catalonia the figures were less clear-cut but still a majority said they didn't like the idea of the clásico on Monday. Seventy percent of those who voted on Sport's web page were against it, even though the following day the paper boasted that Pep Guardiola had got his way and that Barcelona "had scored the first" against Real Madrid. Almost 60 percent were against it in El Mundo Deportivo's poll. Everywhere, people were going crazy over it.

But while there have been howls of derision, in many ways they are the wrong howls of derision. The decision has been presented by the league as the best thing for fans. But fans have been shown little more than an extended middle finger, the contempt in which they are held revealed once again. Meanwhile, the way the decision was taken, when the decision was taken, again hinted at an incomfortable truth: Spain may have Messi and Ronaldo but until basic structural issues are resolved, it will not truly compete with the English Premier League.

The reason given for a Monday night match is that on Sunday Nov. 28, the date on which most anticipated the match being held, there are elections in Catalonia. As for Saturday, the other traditional match day, that would come just three days after Barcelona have traveled to Greece to face Panathinaikos in the Champions League.

The president of the company that owns Spain's television rights cited "the fact that the match coincides with the elections and the security problems that poses in Barcelona," as the key reason for the decision. He said: "Everyone involved has sought out the best solution and this was the most rational date from a sporting, civil, and fans' perspective. There are 80,000 people, many of them Barcelona fans, who will be working during the elections on Sunday. It could have been a real mess."

Some are not convinced; some think that the excuse is exactly that -- an excuse. Electoral colleges will close at 10, voters have all day to visit the ballot box. As for the "many" working on Sunday, many more will be working on Monday. Some question whether policing needs are so great as make the holding of two events logistically impossible. As Marca pointed out: only 500 Mossos d'Escadra (Barcelona police) are used for the clásico -- and the force has over 14,000 officers.

Regardless of the reasons given, many think that Monday night just isn't a night for the world's greatest football match. Barcelona and Real Madrid, the argument goes, are too big to be shifted onto what has, until recently, largely been La Liga's graveyard shift -- a forgotten afterthought to the weekend's games, populated mostly by teams that no one wants to watch. "Monday night is not a fitting time for a game of this magnitude," said Pardeza.

He might even be right but that alone is no reason not to play on a Monday night. If the Spanish league has decided that Monday nights are legitimate nights for football, there is no reason why Madrid and Barcelona -- in a week without European competition -- should be made exempt. To do so would be to reinforce the already alarming chasm that separates the Big Two from the rest. As the Villarreal president Fernando Roig put it: "if we terrestrials have to play on Monday, why shouldn't the celestials?"

Quite apart from being unfair, it would also serve undermine the very concept of Monday Night Football: what's the point of fighting for a TV slot only to fill it with games few want to watch?

Yet you have to be realistic and maximize the viewing potential, and not just inside Spain. There is also the international angle: when a Monday night kick-off was mooted, broadcasting sources both in the U.K. and the U.S. confirmed to that they were confident that the game would be played at the weekend. "There's no way it will be Monday," the message went, "the international rights are far too important." This decision has proved that not to be entirely true. Rhetoric and reality have been shown yet again to be different. To judge by their public message, it's a huge surprise; for those who find that the LFP and the RFEF are incapable of communicating with the international media, or each other, it comes as no surprise at all.

The Spanish league has talked constantly about its desire to strengthen its international appeal as the best way to increase revenue. It is the assumption that they can up the overall size of the TV deal from around €600m to €900m ($815 million to $1.2 billion) , based on international rights, that underpins negotiations over a new, collectively-signed deal. Clubs have even discussed moving matches to 3 p.m. in order to have a better share of the Far East: one of La Liga's obsessions has been the "unfair" timetable advantage that the Premier League has. Last week, Atlético formally asked to kick off at midday.

And yet here is the biggest game in the world -- in truth, the only game that really gets international broadcasters excited; the one that could be used as leverage in vital negotiations -- and it will be played at 9 p.m. on a Monday. In the middle of the night, between Monday and Tuesday, in the Far East. In the middle of the day -- a working day -- in North and South America.

Others have complained that the fixing of the game has destroyed people's plans. Again, it is a particular problem for international fans. But not only for them: Spain is a big country and Madrid and Barcelona have supporters all over the Iberian Peninsula. Many of Barcelona's fans travel from all over Catalonia. Flights, trains and buses have been bought, hotels booked, tickets paid for. Unsure as to whether the game was on Saturday or Sunday, most played safe and booked return trips on Monday morning -- ready for work. What are they supposed to do now?

This is the crux of the issue. In their complaints many have failed to see the wood for the trees. The date of this game is just one expression of a far bigger problem, one which is bigger still because of the apparent failure to even see it as a problem at all.

On Sunday Nov. 28 there are elections in Catalonia. That decision was taken on Sept. 7. It might have made civic sense to choose a different date. Politicians certainly know the significance of Barcelona-Madrid: they have used it to their advantage often enough. And if elections shouldn't fit around football -- and maybe they shouldn't -- once that decision was made why not immediately seek solutions?

The cynical yet true answer is simple: because that would require forward planning, maybe even a little bit of organization. Guts, too. And those are things the LFP simply does not have.

People who are missing the game because their tickets no longer coincide with it took a risk and paid for it. Maybe it's their own fault. But why not remove that risk for them? Why make every customer, every fan -- the people you claim to be protecting -- play Russian roulette whenever they want to go to a game? And as for the assumption that it's only foreigners getting messed around, not 'real' fans: first, that's the very foreigners the league is supposedly courting and, secondly, it's not true.

Every single weekended, people take the same risk: this is not the only game whose date and kick off time was not fixed. Quite the opposite. It is a miracle fans travel to games at all. It is no surprise that away support is so conspicuously absent in Spain.

The problem is not that the clásico is on Monday, although that does bring difficulties and it is not ideal for a huge game that is supposed to be the international showpiece for the league. The problem is that, until last Friday Nov. 12, the clásico could have been on Saturday, Sunday or Monday. In fact, until Friday much of the media had announced -- unofficially but "definitively" -- that it would be on Sunday 28 at 10 p.m.

The problem is not when it it is, but that no one knew when it is. The problem is that the decision over the date of the clásico was made on Nov. 11 -- just 18 days before, 16 days before the jornada begins.

And that's actually good. Really. Every weekend, Spain's 10 games are distributed over Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Which games are where and when is not normally announced until eight days before the jornada begins. This game was decided sooner. In fact, a decision was promised sooner for the sake of supporters. So the league announced the date of the biggest sporting event of the year 18 whole days in advance. And for that, it seems, we are supposed to be eternally grateful.