The view from Spain

La Liga is losing its edge

August 1, 2013
By Duncan McMath

In recent years La Liga has produced an exceptional crop of players and since 2008, Spain has become one of the greatest national teams in history, with an unprecedented World Cup victory sandwiched between two European Cups.

Roberto Soldado woe Valencia v Barcelona
APRoberto Soldado is poised to sign for Tottenham from Valencia, subject to a medical.

Fans of La Liga have been treated to entertaining and high quality football and many have argued there is no better domestic league on earth. But that argument is losing weight, as this summer there have been almost as many Spaniards leaving Spain as imports arriving, with most clubs losing home-grown players to foreign leagues - even Barcelona couldn't stop Thiago Alcantara joining Bayern Munich. More worrying still is the calibre of players deserting La Primera.

Roberto Soldado has become the latest to jump ship and now every team that has given Real Madrid and Barca a run for their money in recent years has lost their best player. Not an easily replaceable full-back, or a promising youngster but their goalscorer, the first name on the team sheet.

Atletico Madrid sold Radamel Falcao to Monaco, Fernando Llorente left Athletic Bilbao for Juventus, Sevilla's devastating duo of Jesus Navas and Alvaro Negredo joined Man City and now Valencia have agreed to sell Soldado to Spurs. Furthermore, the league lost one of its great managers when Manuel Pellegrini swapped Malaga for Manchester City.

Add names like David Silva, Santi Cazorla, Juan Mata and Javi Martinez, who have all left Spain in recent years, and it's impossible to argue that La Liga is still the force it once was.

Sadly, the money raised from selling these big names won't be invested in the transfer market. Diego Simeone wasn't handed €60 million when Falcao joined Monaco, instead 'el Cholo' replaced him with David Villa, who cost €2.1 million, and the remains of the Colombian's fee was handed over to the bank manager.

Spain is a victim of its own success with the country's players now a delicacy the world's richest clubs are desperate to sample. La Liga's debt-ridden teams are powerless to stop them, which is hardly surprising considering between them they owe more than €4 billion.

Until that debt is at least under control, the majority of Spanish clubs will be impotent in the transfer market and defenceless against the financial muscle of foreign sides coming in for their players. But while most sides are punching new holes in their belts to yank them even tighter, Real Madrid and Barcelona continue to splash the cash.

Between them they've already spent €129.5 million this summer, which is €35.8 million more than the rest of the division put together. And that's before Madrid's potential €100m outlay for Gareth Bale or the arrival of Barca's centre-back, which they've identified as a vital addition to the squad.

Luckily, La Liga can still claim to have the two best players and the two biggest sides in football. And El Clasico - the ultimate derby. It is a testament to Barca and La Liga, too, that Neymar, who wasn't short of offers, chose the Camp Nou. And it came as huge relief to fans of Spanish football that Isco rejected Man City's advances to sign for Los Blancos.

The rivalry between Spain's top two will, as ever, provide great entertainment. The curtain might have come down on Mourinho's three-year pantomime but now Neymar, Isco and maybe Bale will be next season's headline acts, alongside the world's two greatest players. There won't be a shortage of excitement when Madrid and Barca are in town, but that will only exaggerate the gulf between them and the rest.

Before Rangers' demise, people warned that La Liga was becoming Scottish - a league made up of two separate divisions where third place is as good as a league win for the chasing pack. A year ago the difference between second-placed Barca and Valencia in third was a scandalous 30 points, three more than basement side Racing Santander managed all season.

But last term, with the lethal Falcao spearheading Atletico's attack and Mourinho contriving to lose the Bernabeu dressing room completely, the Rojiblancos were competitive in La Liga and beat Madrid in the Copa del Rey final. It was, however, the first time they'd got the better of their city rivals since 1999.

Radamel Falcao
GettyImagesRadamel Falcao swapped Atletico Madrid for Monaco this summer.

While it's hard to imagine another side genuinely competing for the league title, it was only back in 2008 - when Spain's reign over the footballing world first began that night in Vienna - that Villarreal put the cat amongst the pigeons and finished second, ten points ahead of Barca and eight points behind league champions Real Madrid.

Two years earlier, Valencia were just a point off second place and in 2004 it was Los Che who won the league, with Barca coming home in second, Depor - now down in La Segunda - in third and Los Blancos down in fourth. But that kind of competition for the title is a distant memory and the league standings have become a table for two. The financial crisis in Spain hasn't hit Madrid and Barca, whereas every other team in Spain has been forced to put their most valuable assets on the market.

You only have to look at La Roja to see how many of Spain's best players have left the country, and how Madrid and Barca have bought up all the remaining talent. In 2008 just five members of the Spain squad that went all the way in Austria and Switzerland had traded La Liga for foreign soil, with Cesc Fabregas, Pepe Reina, Alvaro Arbeloa, Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres all based in England. The other 18 played in Spain for a range of nine different sides: Valencia, Mallorca, Villarreal, Zaragoza, Getafe, Sevilla, Betis, Madrid and Barcelona. But just five years on and the current squad looks very different. Of the players that travelled to Brazil for the Confederations Cup there were more than twice as many - 11 - who now represent foreign sides, in Italy, Germany and England.

What's far more shocking is that of the other 12 squad members who are still based in Spain, all but one play for either Madrid or Barca. David Villa is the only exception and at the time of the Confederations Cup, before joining Atletico, he was a Barca player - almost as shocking as Sergio Ramos' new haircut.

Real Madrid and Barca will keep the entertainment flowing but after losing another batch of brilliant players this summer, La Liga is likely to be more of a two-horse race than ever before.

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