Andy Mitten

Spanish success comes at a price

Andy Mitten

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"Scotland in the sun" was the dismissive sobriquet given to Spain's Primera Liga by those who saw a predictable two-horse race and little else to get excited about.

With five Spanish clubs occupying the final eight berths in the Champions League and Europa League this week, you hear less mocking. Spain could provide all four European finalists.

There's a whole lot happening below Spain's big two — who meet in a vital league game on Saturday at Camp Nou after Barca have faced Chelsea and Real Madrid have met Bayern Munich.

Nobody is pretending the Barca-Madrid duopoly is healthy. Atletico Madrid, Deportivo La Coruna and Valencia all won the league either side of the millennium, while Athletic Club and Real Sociedad dominated in the early 80s, both enjoying successive back-to-back titles.

Nowadays, a title for anyone but the big two seems implausible and the gap between them and the rest does the image of the league no good at a time when the top brass are trying to sell it as the best in the world.

They do so by playing up the key selling points — the best players on the globe, the best teams. Of FIFA's best XI team from 2011, only Nemanja Vidic and Wayne Rooney don't play for Barca or Madrid.

What the advertisers who hope the Primera Liga will rival the Premier League in Asia and Africa don't highlight is the 25-point gap between Madrid and third placed Valencia in 2010, 21 last season. This time there's a yawning chasm of 29 points between second and third so far — in part because Valencia are falling apart in the league and their coach Unai Emery seems resigned to departing after over four years in charge.

With five games to play, Madrid already have 85 points, a total which would have won the league in every single season from 1997 to 2008 — the last season before the complete dominance of the big two.

With distorted distribution of television revenues in Spain, the rich get richer and the poor poorer.

There is more to Spanish football, though — the race below the big two, the so-called slow race, for one. With five games still to play, there are still 14 clubs in contention for the four remaining European places up for grabs.

Just three points separate Levante in fifth from Espanyol in ninth. A further three separate Atletico in 10th from 15th-placed Real Sociedad. No major European league comes close to being as close between third and 17th and such is the strength of those teams, the likelihood is that those who make it into Europe will be reach the latter stages.

There are nerves and excitement around the relegation battle too. The teams going down have only been decided on the last day of matches in each of the last eight seasons. It may appear set this year with a five-point gap between Zaragoza in 18th and a 17th-placed Granada whom they beat on Sunday, but Zaragoza have been stirred by that victory and they know all about staying up. Their win on the final day last term lifted them from a relegation placed 18th to 13th.

There's genuine competition below the big two which keeps fans interested and genuine quality.

Athletic Club showed their level with a group of homegrown players recruited from a population the same size as Greater Manchester. I started this paragraph with the assumption that Greater Manchester couldn't raise a current XI to match Athletic, but the following isn't bad: Wes Brown, Phil Neville, Phil Jagielka, Paul Scholes, Phil Bardsley, Ryan Giggs (born in Cardiff but moved to Salford as a kid and would be allowed to play for Athletic under similar circumstances), Danny Welbeck, Simone Perrota, Nedum Onuha (similar deal to Giggs), Ravel Morrison and Danny Webber.

There is a darker side and not everyone is celebrating the success of Spanish clubs in European competition this season. Of the five Spanish clubs still in Europe, only Athletic Club don't owe Spain's public purse back taxes. Atletico, on the other hand, owe a staggering 155 million euros.

The combined debts of English clubs are higher, but not to the public purse. Spanish clubs owe 550m euros in unpaid taxes, with over 300m euros of that due from 14 of the 20 top flight clubs.

In the past, clubs have got away with lax deadlines because no government wanted to make itself unpopular by closing down popular football teams because of unpaid bills. Not now. Crisis-hit Spain needs every penny it can get and the government has described the situation as "intolerable."

Spain also needs financial support from other European countries who are quite rightly asking why they should help bail out a country whose own football teams gain an unfair advantage by not paying taxes. There are further social security debts.

Bayern Munich's outspoken president Uli Hoeness — who has been a critic of the debts which the Glazer family loaded onto Manchester United — correctly asked why German public money should be used to bail out Spain, when Spanish football clubs aren't putting their own hands in their pockets.

With the continent intertwined economically, this is now a European and not merely a domestic issue. Why should a German tax payer, for instance, fund a Spanish football club who then spend money they can't afford to buy superior players and potentially defeat a well run German club, as Atletico did with Hanover 96 in the quarter finals?

Spanish clubs have long enjoyed favourable credit lines with banks and unfairly favourable terms with authorities. UEFA's financial fair play rules can't come in soon enough to end this financial doping.

Spain is enjoying a golden age both at club and country levels. It is producing more world class footballers than any nation in Europe at present, but that success is sullied by lax financial controls.

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