La Liga 2010-11 season preview
Barcelona and Madrid remain far and way the two superior Spanish clubs
Teams below the two superpowers have lost more talent than they've bought
Atletico Madrid and Villarreal are teams to watch in the Champions League hunt
Every summer, football clubs all over the world throw their money away. In Granada CF's case, quite literally. One morning in July, the Spanish second-division team awoke to find that the money earned from season-ticket sales -- which it had handily "stored" in bin bags -- had been thrown out by the cleaner. Already racked by debt and in administration, Granada had lost an estimated $500,000 thanks to a woman with a mop and bucket. Luckily, in the end most the cash was found in a recycling box.
But the strangest thing of all was that Granada stood virtually alone. Not just in the garbage as it rooted around, recovering its money, trying to fend off the media and light-fingered kids who had gathered to watch, and profit from, the recovery operation, but in Spain as a whole.
With five days to go until the close of the transfer window, it turns out that this year very few Spanish clubs have thrown their money away after all. Surprisingly few. Maybe even worryingly few. After all, it is not so much a case of clubs being careful with their cash and deciding not to just stuff it in plastic sacks or the pocket of some giggling president who has sold them a dud; it is not so much a case of the sudden emergence of talented kids, leaping freely from youth team to first team. It is more a case of them being broke.
This has been a summer of caution and frugality, not fantasy. Financial reality bites; Spain's debts are huge, calculated to be in excess of $4 billion. Even Real Madrid sporting director Jorge Valdano's explanation for why the club did not ultimately sign Douglas Maicon spoke of "austerity." That is myth, of course. It cost Madrid almost $125 million to bring in Jose Mourinho, putting together the expense of terminating Manuel Pellegrini's contract, compensating Inter Milan and paying for the new coaching staff. They have also spent more than $100 million on six players, with Mourinho demanding more. But elsewhere it is a reality.
Of Spain's 20 first-division clubs, only six have spent more than $6 million. And two of them are Valencia and Sevilla, third and fourth last season, respectively. Worse, while they have spent $33.4 million and $13.7 million, respectively, they have recovered $99.6 million and $18.4 million. In other words, their net spend is zero; they have sold more than they have signed. If Luis Fabiano departs from Sevilla -- and with the club having been eliminated from the Champions League this week, someone is probably going to have to go -- that figure will be even starker. And before you say, "Well, they've got cash, at least. Valencia did brilliantly, as now it has $66 million burning a hole in its pocket," it hasn't. That money is burning a hole in the bank's pocket.
Only four sides in Spain have a net spend in excess of $6 million this season: Málaga, which is under intriguing new ownership and new management and has brought in almost $19 million worth of new players; Atletico Madrid; and, inevitably, Madrid and Barcelona.
Barcelona is struggling. Former president Joan Laporta signed David Villa; new president Sandro Rosell immediately had to take a bank loan to pay his players, sold Dimitro Chygrynskiy, sold Yaya Toure and admitted defeat on Cesc Fabregas. Coach Pep Guardiola rightly insisted that Barcelona could not compete with "Madrid's zeros." But the club still bought Villa for $50 million.
No one else can compete at all. Predictions might be a mug's game, but one that can be made with certainty is that Madrid and Barcelona will be far too good for the rest. As Sevilla sporting director Monchi put it during a conference in Jaén, the concern is that Spain could end up like Scotland. It is not just that Madrid or Barcelona will win the league; it is that Madrid and Barcelona will win virtually all their games. In 2009-2010, Madrid broke the points record and still didn't win the title. The league, which begins its 2010-11 season Saturday, is supposed to be hugely exciting; the risk is that it becomes tedious.
Last season, second-place Madrid finished 25 points ahead of Valencia in third and 33 points ahead of Sevilla in fourth. In terms of points, those two sides, supposed challengers, were closer to relegation zone than the title. Even the World Cup reinforces the imbalance: Of the Spanish starting XI in the final, only one player did not play for Madrid or Barcelona, left back Joan Capdevila, from Villarreal.
Nor does it look like a freak season. It is reinforcing, self-fulfilling. With TV contracts signed individually, club by club, Madrid and Barcelona can make three times as much in a season as their nearest competitors.
This year, the gap is likely to be maintained, maybe even widened. Look at those figures above. Both Sevilla and Valencia have sold more than they have bought. They are the third- and fourth-best sides in the country and yet they cannot build. Valencia has lost Villa and David Silva. Sevilla has lost Adriano. Similarly, fifth-place Mallorca has lost its coach, both central midfielders and its main striker. Sixth-place Getafe has lost its best player, Pedro Leon. He has gone to Madrid, just as Villa and Adriano have gone to Barcelona.
Two sides' strengthening is, yet again, everyone else's weakening.
The fact that no one can compete with Madrid and Barcelona suggests that even some of the problems that appear to present themselves for Madrid are not problems at all. Mourinho complained this week that he needs time to build his side, that it is "still not ready." He insisted that Barcelona has an entrenched identity, unlike Madrid. "They can come back from the summer holidays and after three days they're already playing well. They could play blind," he said. "We can't do that. We still need to build an identity."
He is right but it may not matter. Whoever wins the league this season will probably need a huge amount of points and can't afford to drop any. But even a half-ready Madrid should be too strong for the rest. Madrid can improve on the job. This preseason might even provide the paradigm: Madrid did not play particularly well but it did -- as the newspaper Marca comically reminded everyone, splashing "Invictus: Madrid, preseason champions" across its cover -- go unbeaten. Madrid does not travel to Barcelona until late November; there is plenty of time. And in that match, few will demand sparkling football. Just a result.