Pitchside Europe

Spanish football’s harsh reality check

Pitchside Europe

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Spanish football is a wounded beast.

The Champions League semi-final hammerings suffered by Barcelona and Real Madrid brought a predictable rash of ill-judged opinion about how the Spanish hegemony is over.

It’s not true. Both clubs will be among the strongest in world football next season.They’ll spend big in the summer because they can afford to.

Barça will be supplemented by a couple of players from their youth system. That hasn’t turned rotten just because the first team were beaten 7-0 on aggregate by Bayern Munich, but Spanish football is right to feel threatened – and not just at first team level.

Spain is losing some of its best talents to England. The headline stars may be Michu, Mata et al, but the migration continues at every level.

Barcelona have been agitated at losing their most promising young players since Arsenal took Cesc Fabregas and Manchester United Gerard Pique nearly a decade ago, though Barça ultimately reaped the rewards – not that their fans appeared to appreciate Fabregas last week after his lacklustre showing.

Legally, the English clubs did nothing wrong. Ethically, Barça claim they did everything wrong.

Their anger has not stopped the exodus. They lost Jon Miquel Toral Harper and Hector Bellerin to Arsenal last year, while under 17 stars Josimar and Pleguezuelo have been approached by Chelsea.

Money is a major reason. Even the best under 17 players in Spain earn €12,000 a year. Chelsea have offered Harper ten times that figure, plus a series of extras for his family.

Arsenal pay Toral a reported €300,000 a year – thirty times the standard wage Barca offer their contracted youth players. He’ll also receive free housing, education and flights for his family.

Barcelona don’t want to enter a bidding war in which they have everything to lose and the club’s vice president Josep Maria Bartomeu admitted: “We’re not able to compete.

"Our priority is to try and convince the player (Josimar) and his family that staying at Barcelona is the best possible option.”

Barca will get compensation, but it’s chicken feed compared with the ultimate likely value of the player.

Then again, the investment is not guaranteed: there is a high failure rate for prodigious 16-year-old prospects.

And can a working class family be blamed for cashing in while the iron is hot, especially when their youngsters would have a more realistic chance of getting into the first team than at Camp Nou?

Barcelona’s concern is understandable, but both they and Madrid have poached players from lesser clubs in the dog-eat-dog world of football in the past. Madrid offered the Brazilian Neymar a contract when he was 14, but details couldn’t be agreed.

The only way to prevent them leaving is to offer the young players and their families more money. Yes, even the 16-year-olds. That’s the unpalatable side of capitalism, which football has long eagerly embraced.

Money is likewise the issue at other age levels. Michu moved to England for £2 million because no Spanish club outside the big two could afford his terms, the shortfall in part caused by clubs not living within their means because of rampant overspending.

Since Spain’s Bankruptcy Law was introduced in 2004, 19 of the 42 clubs in Spain’s top two divisions have gone into receivership. That number would be even higher if it included the clubs who’ve been relegated out of the top two divisions.

Clubs owe the tax agency €690 million, despite receiving preferential treatment from regional and national tax agencies which would be denied normal citizens.

Pressure is mounting as government liquidators, many disinclined to be sympathetic, have been appointed. They’ve uncovered a litany of illegal payments, lax accounting and complacency that football had always been run this way.

Racing Santander made a payment of nearly a million Euros to a football school in Brazil – which doesn’t exist. At Betis, investigators unearthed commissions which were linked back to directors. Two former Betis presidents faces fines of €20 and €5 million. Rayo Vallecano are another who’ve been forced to clean up their act. They had a priest on commissions if they won matches. And debts of €60 million.

“It has turned into a diabolical, impossible business,” said Depor’s receiver. “Everybody buys expensive players to win, but by definition only four or five can achieve this.”

Under pressure from national and European authorities, Spanish football is being forced to see sense. And we haven’t even started about the rip off ticket prices and the unfair television deals. But their tardy response to financial crisis and fan exploitation doesn’t signal a forthcoming eclipse of Spanish football in Europe – not yet, at least.

Andy Mitten - @andymitten

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