Spanish league in financial crisis
If the key to great comedy really is great timing, Sepp Blatter is the funniest man in football. Or its greatest clown.
A few days ago he attacked the financial set-up of English football, complaining about the debt that threatens to destroy the Premier League. He welcomed the British government's plans - or its cheap pre-election stunt, depending on your point of view - to introduce fan ownership of clubs.
We can't directly intervene because it's a financial question, he said, but it is a move in the right direction.
Adopting the Spanish model
He might (or might not) have been right. But his evidence was a laugh. Blatter's proof came from Spain. England should, Blatter insisted, adopt the "Spanish model" as the way ahead. A model where, he said, "most clubs are owned by their supporters."
Blatter's timing was impeccable. Almost immediately Luis Manuel Rubiales, the new president of the Spanish players union, the AFE, came riding onto the stage ready to deliver the punch line for him: We're going on strike!
The reason was simple. Rubiales explained that 85 per cent of footballers in Spain's top three divisions either get paid late or not at all. Then there's the fact that the Spanish Football Federation, the RFEF, still owes the AFE 8 million euros. According to Rubiales's predecessor, 100 million euros are still owed to footballers in unpaid wages.
The situation, Rubiales said, is the worst it has ever been.
Wages are just the tip of the iceberg. Despite the advantages of a tax law which is now set to be repealed that allowed foreign players to pay just 23 per cent tax (compared to 43 per cent for Spanish players and "normal" people), despite the collapse in the value of the pound against the Euro - a collapse that saw Spanish clubs' spending power against the Premier League increase by 40 per cent - Spanish football is in crisis.
The country's leading expert in footballing finance puts it bluntly: "La Liga is dying." The Osasuna president Patxi Izco admits: "I fear meltdown."
Valencia have two stadiums - one they can't sell and one they can't afford to finish building. They also have over 600 million euros in debts. So do Real Madrid. Atletico Madrid owe Inland Revenue 15 million euros and have their income from transfers embargoed. Mallorca is heading into administration. Malaga is already there. Only three clubs turned round an operating profit last season.
In total, Spanish First Division football clubs debts are in debt to the tune of 3.5 billion euros.
And getting out of debt is virtually impossible too, thanks to a system, underpinned by individual TV contracts, that tips the balance entirely in the favour of Real Madrid and Barcelona. If you're not one of the big two you can forget about generating revenue.
You can forget about competing on the pitch, too. The system has helped lead to a situation in which the top two have broken a points record this season, where the team in third is 21 points behind. Where the team in fourth is closer to the relegation zone than the top of the table.
This weekend, Madrid and Barcelona face each other. At last, someone who can stop Madrid; at last, someone who can stop Barcelona. Each other. No one else can - they have picked up 67 of the last 72 points available.
As the Almeria coach Juanma Lillo puts it: "the difference between Madrid and Barcelona and the rest is insuperable. How can Valencia ever hope to keep hold of Villa and Silva? The rest of us have been turned into mere suppliers of players for them."
La Liga vs. Premier League
This not a competition between England and Spain - if it was both would come last, if it was it'd be a slow bicycle race - and arguments that amount to little more than a pissing contest are pointless. But still ... Spain a model?
Some model, Sepp.
In the early 1990s, every club in Spain (bar four, who were granted special status) was forced to become a SAD - essentially, a private company. It was a way of wiping the slate clean and starting again, a way of ending the financial crisis of Spain's clubs.
And that is the other point. When the British government announced plans to hand control back to fans, Blatter jumped up all excited and announced it was a good idea. "In Spain," he said, "most of the clubs belong to the fans."
Most people's definition of "most" would be: greatest number, greatest amount, majority. You know, most.
Blatter's definition is clearly different. There are twenty clubs in Spain's first division, forty across the top two. Thanks to the SAD law - passed almost twenty years ago - only Real Madrid, Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna "belong" to their fans. (Whatever "belong" actually means).
That's Real Madrid, Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna. That's four.
Out of 40. Or 20, at best.
That's not most.
But let's not be too harsh on Blatter. Maybe he didn't know. And why should he? After all, he's only the president of FIFA.
About the Author
Sid Lowe lives in Madrid and writes a weekly column for guardian.co.uk. He also writes regularly for the Guardian, World Soccer, FourFourTwo, and the Telegraph. He works as a commentator and panellist for Spanish, Asian and U.S. television, and has acted as translator for David Beckham, Michael Owen, and Thomas Gravesen.