A tale of two La Ligas
Spain's La Liga brands itself as 'The League of the Stars' and, in fact, the celebrity summer signings fit the term perfectly. But those star names might not have the hoped effect of making the domestic league the best competition in the world.
It is no secret that the Spanish league has two clear dominant clubs with the rest following a touch below them. Sometimes, there is a pleasant surprise when the silverware is lifted by new faces. The Liga started up in February 1929 and in 78 editions, 50 titles have been won by Real Madrid or Barcelona (31 for the Merengues and 19 for the Culés), leaving 28 of them to be shared amongst Atlético Madrid (9), Athletic Bilbao (8), Valencia (6), Real Sociedad (2) and Betis, Sevilla and Deportivo with one each.
There have always been two different leagues running in Spain: one between Barcelona and Real Madrid and maybe a couple of daring challengers, and another competition with the rest of the sides jostling for European positions, but mainly fighting for survival. Nothing new so far. But the question now is: has the Spanish league turned into a mediocre championship?
After four matchdays we have Barcelona and Real Madrid with four straight wins each, earning them first and second spot. All the talk is about the amazing results the pair have achieved and, of course, two of the stars.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the first ever Barcelona debutant to have scored in each one of the first four games of the season. The €66 million the Blaugranas spent seem to be paying off as the Swede has been doing the job. It is the same at Real Madrid; €94 million set a new transfer record and Cristiano Ronaldo has celebrated five goals in the opening four games, making him the first ever Madrid player to have scored in every one of the first four matches.
Press and public alike are as amazed by both Ibrahimovic and Ronaldo as they are excited about what is to come. Barcelona have scored 14 goals so far, while Madrid follow with 13, which is four more than their count in the first month of the competition last season when they went on to win the title. The positivity surrounding the giants is undoubted, but where does that leave the rest?
Twelve months ago, Guardiola's side struggled to even draw against Racing Santander in the first month, while Madrid crashed against Deportivo in the league opener. So either Barcelona and Madrid have improved a lot, or their rivals are not as strong as they used to be. At the other end of the table we have two lesser giants, Villarreal and Atlético, in the Europa League and the Champions League respectively, who are now in the relegation zone with two points in four games and still waiting for their first wins this term.
A few voices have been heard complaining that the Spanish league is turning into a weak league, like the Scottish or Belgian one (apologies to any offended) in that there will soon be a huge gap between the top two clubs and the rest. Maybe now UEFA's proposition to set a spending and wage limit makes more sense. Michel Platini is busy designing his new 'Financial Fair Play' project to set some kind of ethics and logic in the business of buying, selling and paying players.
At the moment we have the two big spenders at the top of the table and the rest follow with better or worse luck. Florentino Pérez, on his return to football presidency, set out to 'restore Spanish football as the best in the world', taking the English Premier League's place at the top. He first set out to change Spanish kick-off times to 15.00 or 16.00, which would mean TV broadcasters, if they wanted to show the Spanish league, would have to give up on the Premier League, but that fell through. He then went to buy the best players in the Premier League to strengthen Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo arrived, along with Xabi Alonso.
But clearly, making one team strong with very attractive players, ensuring world entertainment, doesn't lift the whole of the league. The remaining 18 clubs below Barça and Madrid are struggling financially and competitively in a season that indicates it will have high levels of boredom and predictable results.