As the new season gets underway, the future looks bright for Spanish football

By Sid Lowe in Madrid
Even the proudest of Spaniards had to accept defeat; even the most enthusiastic La Liga cheerleaders were forced to pack away their pompoms. The warm glow of the European Championship success still endured – but the national team was one thing, the nation’s teams quite another. The line-up for the 2008-09 Champions League semi-finals brought Spain crashing back down to earth.

For the third successive year, three of the four teams competing for a place in the Final were English. In three years, Spanish teams had occupied just two semi-final slots, compared to the Premier League’s nine.

Atletico Madrid had been knocked out by Porto and Arsenal had dispatched Villarreal 4-1. Real Madrid president Vicente Boluda then boasted that his side would “dick on” Liverpool – only for the opposite to happen. There were no complaints, no buts, no what-ifs. There was just sad resignation. It was the fifth consecutive year that Real Madrid had failed to win a knockout tie.

And yet the same Madrid side that had been hammered 5-0 on aggregate by Liverpool had won nine successive games in La Liga – a run that would become 17 wins and a single draw in 18 matches. So what did that say about La Liga?

Only Barcelona remained, and the optimism their wonderful football sparked was overshadowed by a creeping pessimism. Or, some insisted, realism.

It was one thing performing brilliantly in Spain but, as El Pais newspaper put it, “Europe is something completely different”. The fear was that dazzling domestically was a little too easy. Barcelona had not faced an English club yet. Now they would, their adventure would draw to a close as Chelsea awaited.

Even after Barca squeezed past Chelsea and into the Final, most believed Spanish football would end up empty-handed. After all, they had been fortunate to scrape through the semi-final. It wasn’t just Britain’s myopic media, salivating in jingoistic indignation, saying that Manchester United would win a second European title. The Premier League’s superiority was incontrovertible. No wonder everyone was tuning into English football and turning off La Liga. No wonder there was depression in Spain.

But not any more.

Comprehensive victory
Barcelona’s cool and comprehensive victory over United was the first step. Now, under new president Florentino Perez, Real Madrid have taken up the challenge. The 2009 World Player will be Barcelona’s Leo Messi, the 2008 World Player has left England for Real Madrid, and the 2007 World Player has departed Italy for the same destination. Suddenly, Spanish football appears to be in rude health.

The media in the Spanish capital is fond of claiming that Real Madrid have done a huge service for Spanish football, as if Perez is some kind of benevolent benefactor looking out for everyone else’s clubs, not just his own. Over in the Catalan capital, they claim Real Madrid are on course to sink Spanish football by sending transfer fees spiralling out of control.

They are, of course, both right. And both wrong.

Spanish football faces crippling debt, and could yet be confronted with a major crisis, but this season the world’s best three players will play in La Liga. Treble-winning Barcelona, the finest side on the planet, are now up against the most exciting players on the planet. Only in Spain can you see Messi, Kaka and Ronaldo. This summer, Spanish clubs have spent more than English or Italian ones.

For the first time there have (as yet) been no high-profile departures from La Liga, some of the Spanish diaspora looks set to return, and even the smaller clubs – aided by a generous tax regime – have a huge advantage over clubs in other countries.

While it is true that no English club wanted Jermaine Pennant, it is also true that Benitez and Wenger once did; just as it’s true that for a club like Zaragoza to be able to offer him wages equivalent to £80,000-a-week in England is an extraordinary turnaround.

Meanwhile, despite his own desire to leave, Valencia have – somehow – resisted bids close to £40million for arguably the best striker in European football, David Villa. And Atletico have held onto Sergio Aguero.

Trouble is, at some levels at least, the illusion is just that: an illusion.

As usual, it is all about Barcelona and, especially, Real Madrid – and the gap between those two and the other clubs is bigger than ever. Virtually 80 per cent of all the transfer spending can be attributed to Real Madrid. At the time of writing, only five clubs have spent more than £7.5m and Barcelona have had to give up on David Villa and Franck Ribery – though it does look like Zlatan Ibrahimovic is about to arrive.

Yet, much as many clubs struggle to get players and make ends meet, there is no escaping the excitement, the expectation, the sheer glee at the prospect of the new season in Spain.
If only because Barcelona have real challengers at last; if only because the world’s greatest football rivalry looks set to be bigger and more bitter than ever before. And more glamorous.

Beneath the skin, La Liga may be struggling – the economic situation remains deeply concerning and organisationally it is still shambolic – but just look at those legs, the fluttering eyelashes, the brilliant smile.

La Liga has become the most attractive league in Europe. And try as you might, you just can’t take your eyes off of it.