If the era of Spanish clubs' profligacy draws to a close, Barça and Real will struggle to find decent competition at home
It's human nature to see a morality play in the jumble of daily events: as the Spanish economy is tumbling from one crisis to the next, Barça and Real Madrid are beaten in the Champions League. Today's final in the competition will be held by their more austere north European competitors. Never mind that the Spanish giants were just unlucky (but for a few inches in the trajectory of Messi's penalty and the clumsy concession of a penalty by Real in the 27th minute, there would be four Spanish teams contesting the two Uefa finals).
The state of the national economy does influence football, but not in the short run. When it comes to national teams, there may seem to be little effect even over relatively long periods of time: Brazil and Argentina have been as successful when their economies have been struggling as when their economies are growing, and Spanish teams have dominated international football for the past five years despite the nation's economic troubles. But the two economic facts about long-term football success are that national teams from richer countries tend to win more often, as do football clubs with more money to spend on players. You don't need a PhD see why: rich countries have the resources to develop their talent, while rich clubs can buy the best players. International football has been dominated by developed countries (Brazil's huge population has compensated for the lack of resources), but in the longer term economic convergence (the tendency for poorer nations to catch up) should make more national teams competitive.
Club football is more susceptible to the national economic climate in the medium term. This year may represent the high watermark for the Spanish clubs for reasons that are connected to austerity. Most Spanish clubs have been running deficits ever since they were last bailed out by the government in 1991. These are now reaching unmanageable proportions, and according to Angel Barajas, an accounting professor who studies the financial reports of Spanish clubs, only five clubs in La Liga have "clean" accounts. Using standard ratio tests, most clubs border on bankruptcy.
A few weeks ago, the Spanish government announced a plan for settling football club tax debts and immediately generated a complaint to the European commission concerning illegal state aids. Real Madrid narrowly escaped sanction back in 2004 when the city government was involved in the sale of its training ground, enabling the club to write off debt and fund the salaries of the galácticos. But now that Uefa and the commission have reached agreement about the need to enforce economic regulation through the financial fair play initiative, it would be bizarre if Spanish clubs were allowed to maintain their profligate ways at the expense of taxpayers' and the fans of foreign teams.
Barça and Real are probably not affected by this directly, since they have the largest incomes in world football. The problem is that they already dominate their domestic competition by such a large margin (Barça finished nine points behind Real, but 30 points ahead of the team in third place), that if the rest of the teams fielded teams that reflected their economic resources there would be almost no point in playing. If they want to compete in Europe for silverware and globally for fans, they need some realistic competition at home. To do this they will need to share some of their wealth with the other teams in La Liga, but this will end up making them look more like the big clubs in Germany and England.
English teams have prospered in Europe over the last decade thanks to the immense value of their broadcasting rights. After a difficult decade there is an economic resurgence in German club football. Bayern Munich v Chelsea might be the shape of things to come.
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