Oh, La Liga. I am a Bedouin, and you are my desert. I have seen no water for ninety-one days, but I do not lose hope. The rain will fall soon. I know this because it always falls, every season. So I think, this season should not be any different. My skin is empty but it will overrun soon. And I will drink the nectar of the spiny shrubs, and I will rejoice.
Three months without club football. I’ve grown accustomed to waiting, and, like all of you, I’ve found ways to bide my time. Major League Soccer. International friendlies. U21 tournaments. Or, God willing it’s the year for it, the Euros or World Cup. This summer we had the Copa Lib (a sampling platter of South American talent that never crossed the pond, anyway) and the Women’s World Cup (a template for dignified competition, minus the final minutes of Brazil-USA). In other words, the wait wasn’t all bad – something like Ramadan with a mid-afternoon snack. And now, our just desserts. At least in England, Germany, France, Holland, and most every other European league, save Italy, where the season traditionally starts late. But for us few who pledge allegiance to the Spanish flag, who scavenged the wasteland and tended our dromedaries with equal patience, the drought continues. The week passed with no resolution; the player strike continues.
And I’m going to say something that may surprise you: It should.
La Liga de Futbol Profesional (LFP), the association governing Spain’s top two footballing divisions, is in dire straits. Spanish clubs have amassed 3.5 billion euros in debt, owe more yet in taxes to the state, and continue to operate largely unregulated. Currently, six clubs in La Liga are under bankruptcy protection. Some, like Real Zaragoza, have financed costly transfers despite hundreds of millions of euros in mounting debt. Yet, this reckless spending is largely in response to a growing power gap whose cause has gone unaddressed by the LFP: revenue sharing. Nearly half of the league’s television revenue (which, incidentally, is already lower than the EPL’s, Serie A’s, and Ligue 1’s) goes to the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Tack on the massive sponsorships these two clubs control, and the onerous task of staying viable becomes evident. To survive, it would seem, the Zaragozas, Mallorcas, and Santanders must fight euros with euros, but without those broadcast privileges and sponsorships, it is money they simply do not have. And so they do one of two things: they borrow from lenders, or they ‘borrow’ from player contracts.
And that is where we stand today. 50 million euros worth of insolvency dumped on 200 players, many of whom have not been paid in months, some in over a year. If we believe the cliché that football begins on the field, we should all be grabbing our pitchforks and torches and airline tickets to Spain. Without the players, there is no foundation on which to build the game we admire, and so for their sakes, our weekend fixtures will have to wait. That is not a pill any fan wants to swallow, least of all a Liga fanatic like me, but the gravity of the situation is as such. It speaks volumes that Iker Casillas and Carles Puyol, whose excessive wages have never been threatened by league instability, stand in solidarity with the players’ union in support of the strike. Mallorca’s Michael Laudrup, too, is lending a voice – the first coach to do so: “What good is having a contract if you do not get paid? We have to solve the problems of Spanish football.”
Consider that the NFL forced a lockout for four and a half months over profit splitting between players and owners. There, it is taken for granted that wages are guaranteed. The sticking point is not whether club management will honor contracts, but what percentage of the $9 billion the league generates annually is allotted to whom. The NBA’s lockout predicament is no different. The players don’t want guaranteed salaries; they want mandatory pay raises.
I do not mean to say that NFL and NBA players have unjustified grievances, but rather this: if months pass in these leagues before owners and players compromise on the spoils of industry, should we not allow La Liga a fraction of the time to sort out an issue that is immeasurably more urgent?
Spanish footballers have made one significant demand, which has so far gone unmet: an adequate emergency fund to protect players who go unpaid due to club instability. That is no trifling matter, and I will forfeit my Saturday afternoon ritual for a few more weeks if it means the players who provide my entertainment are making a living doing so. Who wants to live in a world where Xabi Prieto can’t afford boots to spank in crosses against Madrid and humble Barcelona at the spot? Where Jonathan de Guzman misses wide because he was up late refinancing? Or where, God forbid, Royston Drenthe has to sell his dreadlocks for Red Bull and horse feed?
This season will be magnificent whether matchday one happens in August or December. That goes for Barcelona, Madrid, and every other club looking to sheikh up the hierarchy. A little patience is all that is required of the fans.