A few weeks before the end of the transfer window, one major European club started to investigate whether they could challenge Real Madrid for the signature of Kylian Mbappe. There were discussions with his circle, and a point was made that at least caused them to sit up. It may even have prompted Madrid’s late flurry of bids.
“Spain has nothing now. Leo Messi has just left for Paris Saint-Germain. Why would any star go to Spain? It’s done.”
That may be an exaggeration, and may not change Mbappe’s thinking, but it does reflect a certain reality within the game.
La Liga has lost its supremacy. Its glory era is probably over. It has lost a lot of its appeal.
While that isn’t to say its clubs can’t still be competitive, their power has been greatly diluted. That power was admittedly at a level the game had arguably never seen before, not even from Serie A 1988-99.
Between 2013 and 2018, Spanish clubs won all of the Champions Leagues and all but one of the Europa Leagues. The semi-final places of both were regularly dominated by La Liga.
Now, the successes of Villarreal and Sevilla in the Europa League feel like mere muscle memories from stronger eras. Few in the game consider Barcelona, Madrid or even Atletico Madrid to be top-tier contenders for the Champions League. They are seen as vulnerable, and collectively at their weakest for decades.
This is key to the longer-term future of the Champions League as much as this season. The competition has so often been conditioned by the dominant domestic league. The history of European football – and particularly its premier club competition – has been measurable in dominant national eras that have broadly gone as follows, with some interludes: Spain 1955-64; Italy 1962-69; Netherlands 1969-73; West Germany 1973-80; England 1975-85; Italy 1988-99; Spain 2005-12; England 2004-13; Spain 2013-18.
The rise and fall of leagues has been European football’s equivalent to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s quote about how “families are always rising and falling in America”.
That was intended to reflect the dynamism of American society. Different league eras have reflected the dynamism of European football, as well as Continental competition’s glorious ability to spread ideas.
A trend would take hold in a country, its clubs would take command, and other leagues would seek to emulate them before the next evolution.
It is at least possible that cycle has been broken, because of the nature of the new trends. They are no longer primarily based on tactics or coaching infrastructures but broadcasting markets and commercial strategy.
Spain, like Serie A two decades before, may have lost its strength at precisely the wrong time. There are certainly parallels.
Like La Liga in the last few years, Serie A in the 1990s was undeniably the domestic competition that the dominant stars went to. Italy would eventually get everyone, from Diego Maradona and George Weah to Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo.
The problem was that the league itself didn’t have the same global outlook as the clubs’ sporting directors. Serie A was too provincial in its attitude, and failed to market itself sufficiently. Silvio Berlusconi’s broadcasting model, which itself changed football and would directly influence the Premier League’s rise, didn’t reach beyond Italy at that point.
For all the charming nostalgia of Serie A’s showcasing on Channel 4, the fact it was still on the station into the 2000s was itself almost an indictment of the league’s lack of strategy. One national free-to-air channel just wouldn’t be possible for the world’s marquee competitions now.
Of the substantial sums Serie A did bring in during that period, most of it was spent on more big signings, but very little on infrastructure. Commercial revenue streams weren’t constructed. Stadiums owned by municipalities couldn’t be refurbished. That meant there wasn’t a virtuous circle, and it all came to a halt just when other leagues ramped up.
Left to right: Dejan Savicevic, George Weah, Roberto Baggio and Marcel Desailly were global greats and AC Milan stars in 1995
There have been similarities in Spain, as the Covid crisis merely exacerbated existing financial problems. So much was hollowed out by the big two. They were too big to fail, until they became so big they couldn’t but fail. Barca and Madrid were so top-heavy in terms of player wages they were about to topple over. This reached a point of absurdity when the Camp Nou hierarchy were unable to register the greatest player in their history, as La Liga lost its biggest star. By that stage, Messi was one of its few stars. It is telling that the 34-year-old Iago Aspas was already appearing on La Liga publicity.
This is something that really illustrates the fall of the competition. In the space of five years, Spain has gone from having most of the 10 best players in the world to none. The only stars close are Karim Benzema, Antoine Griezmann, Luka Modric and Luis Suarez, but all are on the downslope of their careers in terms of age. This generation fosters that feeling of staleness, to go with what many top coaches feel is a slow style of football.
The competition has lost its unique selling point. It had been “the league of stars”, culminating in so many Clasicos between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. This was where the game’s true megastars went. This was the highest level of football.
“This was what it was exclusively sold on for so long,” one football industry source explains. “If you have megastars leaving, who can’t be replaced, what does that do for your product?”
At the other end, agents describe the Spanish market this summer as “brutal”. Most of the league could only pay €0-1m in transfer fees and salaries on a par with the Championship.
There’s another uncomfortable truth to this.
None of it would matter so much if it wasn’t for the immense strength, and wealth, of the Premier League.
Absolutely everything everywhere else is in relation to that.
There is a strong argument that the Premier League’s 2015 broadcasting deal – that brought in £5.14bn over three seasons – might be one of the most important moments in modern football history. It might be why Richard Scudamore ends up as one of the most influential figures in modern football history.
That is no exaggeration when you consider the profound effects of his broadcasting policy, which is a development of Berlusconi’s initial idea of the “television spectacular”. The manner in which the Premier League has marketed the image of competitive balance, and sold it to individual markets around the world, has created a huge financial disparity between its income and the rest.
No other competition gets close.
It has created a situation where the Premier League has had a net spend of £1.8bn more than all the other major leagues since the start of the pandemic, and 10 times more than any other league this summer.
That is an astonishing gap. The last broadcasting deal also kept it going, keeping it at that high level. That has fostered certainty, unlike anywhere else.
It has also exacerbated the issues in other leagues, because the finances have such a gravitational pull. They create a gradient and a talent drain. The better players naturally want to go where they’re better paid.
This has deeper consequences, too. Teams can’t retain talent or build, so they are always in a state of flux. That prevents true progress and evolution.
The big question in all of this is whether the Premier League is now unassailable, whether there is a gap that is impossible to close. Its clubs have probably even under-performed in Europe over the last decade, but that looks like it’s changing.
The world’s best players naturally want to go where they’re better paid, like Manchester City
As one source in the football industry says, “why would you invest in a club anywhere other than in England”? Even recently promoted sides can quickly become worth more than all but a handful of Spanish or Italian clubs.
The caveat is that many would have said the same at the peak of Serie A or La Liga. It was virtually impossible to imagine those competitions falling at their height, but there are always unanticipated situations or unintended consequences.
There is also an argument that Spain has already made the corrections required to get through the worst of it. The decisions that have been taken over the last decade to spread wealth and create cost control have finally made most clubs financially stable. Tax debt and administrations are way down. This has been the consequence of Liga Nacional de Fútbol Profesional president Javier Tebas actually going against Madrid and Barca, to the point he barely talks to them, and bringing everyone else onside. Even the circumstances that led to Messi’s departure are a roundabout illustration of that. He took the hard decision that was required.
The league is more egalitarian than it was when it was seen to be thriving and the biggest clubs were demolishing all in front of them.
Spanish player coaching also remains so strong. Brilliant talent is created, although the country’s football ideology could do with an evolution. Pedri could be Spain’s own next megastar.
The pandemic just came at precisely the wrong time, and has forced the clubs into a situation where they have agreed the CVC deal, selling off 10 per cent of the competition to private equity. Many in football feel this is “mortgaging your future”.
“Selling stakes of competitions to private equity is rarely the foundation for purely sporting decisions,” one connected source says. “It’s rarely a good thing for sport. Private equity firms don’t lose money. Someone else might. They won’t. If a payment is missed, the stake is raised. It’s uncomfortable. It’s hard to see what La Liga get out of it in the long term.”
In the short term, there’s some stability. There are also solid teams, like Villarreal, but no longer spectacular teams.
That is not to say they won’t challenge for European trophies. It’s just that bit tougher for them to do so.
Ageing stars such as Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema and Luka Modric give La Liga an ailing image
(AFP via Getty)
The same applies to major transfers. Mbappe still wants to go to Madrid. He still has the image of the club from the league’s peak and most of their history. That has a power in itself, even on the pitch. His signing will even restore glamour.
It just isn’t the power or glamour it used to have.
The eras when national leagues ruled Europe:
5 Champions Leagues wins, 2 losing finalists4 Europa LeaguesWon 90% of era’s trophiesHad 55% of era’s final places4 different clubs won trophies4 different clubs involved in finals
4 Champions Leagues, 5 finalists8 Uefa Cups, 6 finalists3 Cup Winners Cups, 2 finalistsWon 45% of era’s trophiesHad 42% of era’s final places9 different clubs involved in finals6 different clubs won trophies
7 European Cups, 1 finalist3 Uefa Cups1 Cup Winners Cup, 2 finalistsWon 37% of era’s trophiesHad 23% of era’s final places8 different clubs involved in finals6 different clubs won trophies
3 Champions Leagues4 Europa Leagues, 2 finalistsWon 50% of era’s trophiesHad 32% of era’s final places4 different clubs involved in finals3 different clubs won trophies
3 Champions Leagues, 5 finalists1 Europa League, 2 finalistsWon 22% of era’s trophiesHad 31% of era’s final places7 different clubs involved in finals3 different clubs won trophies
4 European Cups, 1 finalist1 Cup Winners Cup2 different clubs involved in finals2 different clubs won trophies
West Germany 1973-80
3 European Cups, 2 finalists3 Uefa Cups, 1 finalist1 Cup Winners Cup finalistWon 33% of era’s finalsHad 24% of era’s final places5 different clubs involved in finals4 different club won trophies
2 Champions Leagues, 2 finalists1 Europa League, 2 finalistsWon 50% of era’s trophies so farHad 58% of era’s final places so far6 different clubs involved in finals2 different clubs won trophies