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
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
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
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,
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
Meanwhile, despite his own desire to leave, Valencia has -- somehow -- resisted bids close to $67 million for arguably the best striker in European football,
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
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.