People always like to moan about the Champions League, UEFA’s favourite cash cow, but the reason varies from year to year. This season, we’ve seen some fantastic displays from outsiders at the expense of big clubs, and have a terrific spread of eight quarter-finalists from seven different countries, with Spain’s big two providing the only exception to the rule.
The rich clubs’ dominance of the European Cup is the usual cause for complaint, but now we have to find something new, and the inevitable issue this year is the ‘standard of competition’. Football is a sport ripe for nostalgia, especially considering the huge changes the game have seen over the past couple of decades, and the result is almost every fan looks back on the past with rose-tinted spectacles. It’s difficult to remember competitions from a couple of decades ago in greater depth than the finalists, so people tend to remember the entire competition based upon the standard of the winner. The standard of competition now is no worse than five years ago, or ten years ago. In fact, because of the evolution of the game over the years, it’s almost certainly stronger.
So why would anyone feel the opposite? The truth is that our expectations have been distorted by Barcelona and Real Madrid. The duo may or may not make the final—that depends partly on the draw—but they are by far the strongest teams in this competition. The Premier League’s best two clubs couldn’t get past the group stage, neither could Germany’s champions and league leaders, Borussia Dortmund. France’s top two, Montpellier and PSG, didn’t qualify for the tournament in the first place, while Milan are a decent side but a shadow of the team that was so strong throughout the last decade. If the Champions League was just that—a league—then from this final eight, Barcelona and Real’s dominance wouldn’t be too different from the ludicrous superiority they enjoy in La Liga.
Things have changed in the last few years in Spain. It seems like the two-horse race has been a feature for years, but as recently as 2008 Villarreal finished ten points ahead of Barcelona, and at the start of the century Deportivo La Coruna and Valencia were the teams to beat.
Real and Barca’s earning capacity has always been greater, though, and it’s only in the last few years that they’ve really taken advantage of this to its maximum potential. Both clubs were run shambolically in recent years; between Louis van Gaal and Frank Riijkaard, Barcelona’s strategy of appointing mangers was a joke, while at Real the novelty circus act known as the Galacticos was not a policy befitting one of the greatest clubs in Europe.
But the two are always directly competing, and both clubs’ woes were only permissible while the other was being equally silly. When one got their house in order, the other had to respond. Now both clubs have highly intelligent coaches and a slick backroom team too, and finally, they’re making the most of their obscene television deals.
The disparity in television revenue for La Liga clubs is nothing new, but it’s worth outlining again. According to the Guardian, the top club in La Liga earns 12.5 times as much as the bottom club. That’s compared to 1.54 in the Premier League, 2 in the Bundesliga and 3.51 in Ligue 1, although Serie A’s figure of 10 also deserves criticism.
Of course, this means a huge gap between the top two and every other club in Spain. While perennial third-placed Valencia earn just €48m, Barca and Real bring in around €135m from television revenue. Everyone knows it’s an issue, both within Spain and abroad. But until now it’s been a problem consigned to that country.
Now, Real and Barca look like dominating the Champions League this season, and perhaps for years to come.
Is it any wonder those two clubs are so much stronger than everyone else when Spain’s poorly-structured television deal earns them more money than other clubs can dream of? Is it any wonder they are so much stronger when they can take Xabi Alonso, Cristiano Ronaldo and Cesc Fabregas from England’s top clubs, Kaka, Alexis Sanchez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (briefly) from Italy, and Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and Nuri Sahin from Germany? Those moves have weakened significant rivals in the Champions League. This isn’t an issue in Spain any longer, it’s an issue across Europe.
Of course, the Premier League is hardly at the bottom of the food chain, and its dominance of the Champions League in recent years was tedious, but at least it ended. There are no signs that Spain’s current television deal will become more balanced—quite the opposite, in fact.
There have been hints that clubs from other countries will start to protest. “In Spain, their issues, particularly in this economic climate, are exacerbated by the fact they do not have solidarity,” said Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis. “I think it is placing owners of Spanish clubs under tremendous pressure and damaging the game there,” he continued.
But it is damaging the game in Europe, too, and causing Liverpool’s Managing Director Ian Ayre to think out loud; “Personally I think the game-changer is going out and recognising our brand globally,” he said last year. “Maybe the path will be individual TV rights like they do in Spain, there are so many things moving in that particular area,” he continued, neatly wrapping a terrifying prospect with meaningless corporate fluff, perhaps hoping we wouldn’t notice the seriousness of his suggestion. The Premier League’s disastrous season in the Champions League will fuel similar thoughts.
For now, we have two excellent teams to celebrate, but their dominance comes from selfishness as much as style. Such dominance doesn’t even benefit Barcelona and Real in the long run. If they rule the next few years, their triumphs will be mentally asterisked by the knowledge that their competitors are comparatively poor, in more ways than one.