Rebels in Spain have the best hands for football’s biggest game of poker

Sid Lowe
·10-min read

Poor Roberto Carlos. It was his first and hopefully his last day in the job, and he had to deal with that. At the end of every game, former Real Madrid striker Emilio Butragueño faces the cameras. Impeccably polite, instantly likeable, part of Butragueño’s role as director of institutional affairs is to gently, expertly navigate match-day interviews; essentially to say not very much but do it nicely. Although there is the occasional leading question and sometimes a message to deliver, an idea to implant, it’s rarely a big deal.

This time though it was the biggest deal of all, maybe ever – even if you soon wondered whether it was really that much of a thing at all. Of all the days for Butragueño to be absent, leaving the Brazilian to step in. Madrid had just dropped two points at Getafe. Atlético Madrid had reopened a lead at the top. Sevilla might have put themselves into the title race. But none of it felt so pressing now. Less than an hour after the game at the Coliseum, Thibaut Courtois saving Madrid from defeat against the kind of team they would do without, the statement finally landed.

Related: European Super League faces scorn in Italy, Spain and France

What, Roberto Carlos was asked, did he make of the Super League news? The statement was still around 40 minutes away although it was an open secret, everybody aware it was already late, but the Brazilian hadn’t been briefed. At least, it didn’t look like it. Nor does he have a natural feel for the role or the party line. He is not a politician. “Madrid will play in the competition they tell us to play in,” he said, smiling and shifting slightly. “It doesn’t just depend on us. We’ll play where they tell us to play.”

They? Your president, you mean. Their president now, too: all of theirs. Florentino Pérez, promotor of this project – one he has pursued for a long time and pushed harder than his partners, some more reluctant than many realise – leads this breakaway. Now we know why he hurried through elections recently, at which he was again unopposed. But that was that, which felt significant: Roberto Carlos was asked, thanked and finished. In the press conference soon after, Zinedine Zidane wasn’t even asked.

Madrid, like most clubs involved, did not speak publicly but released a statement which carried carefully calculated words from Pérez. It took Barcelona 10 hours to do the same, drawing the line at actually including a direct quote from their rival’s president and the man they had followed here.

Barcelona’s outgoing president Josep Maria Bartomeu had revealed the plotting when he was forced out of the club, casually tossing in a grenade as he closed the door. Joan Laporta, who replaced him, had described Bartomeu’s act as a product of “desperation”, a desire to evade responsibility for their financial crisis by “try[ing] to make it look like there was [business streams] that could still be exploited”.

Laporta had said he would study every option, but also that football had to “bring people together,” expressing reservations about the plans his predecessor had revealed. He said: “Things like this have been tried lots of times and it has never happened … we’re of the opinion that [with the Super League] you destroy football, the essence of it. I think that proposal is being rethought, reconsidered.” Now, though, they are in line, [Andrea] Agnelli assembling an army from which no club wants to be left out, isolated and alone, not even one that’s more than a club. Especially not one with crippling debts. Pérez has led, Laporta has arrived late, perhaps with little choice but to follow.

Atlético Madrid, the third Spanish team to be included, still have not released a statement. Their CEO, Miguel-Ángel Gil Marín, son of the infamous Jesús Gil, the crook who stole the club in the first place, is also the vice-president of La Liga.

The league’s president, Javier Tebas, who has been fighting this for months, fearful of the threat, described this as the kind of plan that you come up with standing at the bar at 5am. On Sunday he said the clubs had at last emerged from their clandestine sessions, “drunk on selfishness and a lack of solidarity”. They would, he said, get the response they deserved. When, where and how remains to be seen; there is little so far in terms of real actions. This is a game of poker. And, in Spain at least, the rebels have the best hands.

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An editorial in the sports daily Marca foresaw an “incalculable damage for clubs and fans of the immense majority of teams”. On the back page, Roberto Palomar described it as “those above shitting on those below”, a plan that aimed at “mixing with the scum as little as possible” and “has the stench of vicious capitalism, a rich man’s neo-football, even if some clubs are self-proclaimed teams of the people”. It would, he wrote, be an “an error” with “terrible consequences” all the way down to kids’ football. “Why take care to build and maintain a youth system? To feed the super elite and remain forever in an eternal second division?”

But this is no tsunami, and there is not some irresistible momentum building. The Super League has not been welcomed, but nor has there been a furious backlash. Yes, there is anger from some, perhaps many, perhaps even most, but there is no unanimous outcry. It has been a huge story but not a morality tale like elsewhere. Read reaction here and you may read what you have read before; there has been a kind of curiosity at how much of a campaign there is in England, many of the quotes and comments coming from there.

Related: Super League players face World Cup and Euros ban, warns furious Uefa chief

That is not to say there has been silence. Valencia, who would have been third in line a decade ago, delivered a statement that condemned a project which “destroys that dream” that any team can climb to the top. Plenty of others joined them. A timely technological error meant Betis published a league table that no longer included the three breakaway clubs – and put rivals Sevilla top. La Liga defended a “proud, 90-year history as an open merit-based competition”, and described the new league as “nothing more than a selfish, egotistical proposal designed to further enrich the already super rich”.

And yet there has been no Neville, no Carragher. No Spanish players, except Ander Herrera – who plays in France for PSG, the indispensable potential founder member that stands aside, at least for now. This doesn’t feel like a crusade launching, nor momentum gathering in the media and among the fans.

Palomar is a columnist and one with a conscience, a rare taste for poking Madrid and Barcelona, but there has been no concerted campaign. Few consistently critical voices even occur, Axel Torres perhaps alone in repeatedly warning against the Super League. Roberto Carlos wasn’t worked into the kind of corner that Butragueño is adept at dribbling out of. It was discussed, of course, criticised too, but it lacked fire or fury. Put simply, they don’t seem to care that much. Maybe it is not real enough yet.

That is partly about the footballing divide here, the culture that comes with it. This is a country of rich footballing tradition, a keen sense of the identity of its clubs and many stories to tell. They mean something. And yet many of them mean less than they should, used to being ignored, to the ubiquitous status of Madrid and Barcelona, which account for over 60% of supporters according to government stats.

Madrid faced Getafe with 11 players out and their starting XI still cost €301.5m; Getafe’s cost less than a 10th of that.
Madrid faced Getafe with 11 players out and their starting XI still cost more than 10 times that of their opponents. Photograph: Pressinphoto/Shutterstock

Spain’s big two dominate media and the money, even with the league centralising TV rights – a move they had to enshrine in law to force through – and reducing the gaps. Which played its part in all this, those big clubs acutely aware of their significance and not desperate to share. On Sunday night, Madrid faced Getafe with 11 players out, only one typical starter. Their XI still cost €301.5m; Getafe’s cost less than a 10th of that.

For some Madrid and Barcelona fans, this is even a natural step, a reflection or a reassertion of their predominance, which is their right. A sense that, well, the games might be better, more fitting, more competitive. They have never been relegated. It worked with the basketball, some say. Madrid’s own club media have built towards this for a while, portraying it as a breakaway from some kind of shadowy cabal conspiring against them. An offside that went against them was packaged as further proof that this is needed. In the press, the usual servile suspects have run to Pérez’s aid.

Osasuna 2-0 Elche, Real Sociedad 1-2 Sevilla, Atlético Madrid 5-0 Eibar, Álaves 1-0 Huesca, Cádiz 0-0 Celta Vigo, Real Betis 2-2 Valencia, Getafe 0-0 Real Madrid, Levante 1-5 Villarreal

There isn’t a great concern with the base of the pyramid. And that is the supporters in Spain; the millions around the world may be expected to care less. Few are actively happy. And as democratic institutions, in theory these decisions must be passed by members at Madrid and Barcelona – Bartomeu had said exactly that – but few are anticipating problems, particularly not in Madrid, where there is little popular power or desire to exercise it. There have been critical words, sure, but don’t expect fans to mobilise in huge numbers against their own clubs, not like Liverpool and Manchester United supporters’ groups. If they are kicked out of the league, which most consider unlikely anyway, they will likely side with their clubs.

From fans of other teams there is rejection but also resignation, a kind of weary acceptance, an inevitability about it all, maybe even a sense that this is just how it is, was and will be. Fans of smaller clubs may even welcome their departure, a chance to compete, even though they are under no illusions as to the damage it would do. Besides, there isn’t really a collective concept of “the fans” or “the game” and nor are supporters inclined to see saviours in Luis Rubiales or Tebas: the league tried to take games to Miami, the Federation to Saudi Arabia. There is not a unified voice, a culture of fans together, although FASFE will fight. There is no March on Madrid, or Milan, or Manchester. There is criticism, concern too, but not much of a cause.

Pos

Team

P

GD

Pts

1

Atletico Madrid

31

37

70

2

Real Madrid

31

29

67

3

Barcelona

30

43

65

4

Sevilla

31

21

64

5

Villarreal

31

14

49

6

Real Betis

31

-3

48

7

Real Sociedad

31

15

47

8

Granada

30

-14

39

9

Levante

31

-6

38

10

Celta Vigo

31

-7

38

11

Athletic Bilbao

30

6

37

12

Osasuna

31

-9

37

13

Cadiz

31

-18

36

14

Valencia

31

-5

35

15

Getafe

31

-12

31

16

Alaves

31

-22

27

17

Huesca

31

-15

27

18

Valladolid

30

-14

27

19

Elche

31

-21

26

20

Eibar

31

-19

23