Wednesday, December 25, 2019

La Liga USA faces Spanish Inquisition

SPANISH PLAYERS COULD WRECK THEIR LEAGUE'S AMERICAN DREAM

Half a millennium since the conquistadors landed on American shores, the Spanish are back in search of more gold.

La Liga's unexpected announcement that it had signed a deal to host a Primera match each season in the USA for the next fifteen years has been met with hostility by Spain's players' union.

At a meeting in Madrid of the 20 captains of the top flight clubs, there was ubiquitous opposition to the league's agreement with a U.S.media company. An intriguing battle between Spain's administrators and players awaits therefore, which could even entail strike action.

SPANISH PLAYERS COULD WRECK THEIR LEAGUE'S AMERICAN DREAM
A Strike at the Camp Nou?
David Aganzo, the 37 year-old president of the players' union the AFE, explained their unhappiness,

"Taking a match out of Spain makes no sense beyond making money and doing business", he told El Pais.

"As a footballer you want to share a goal with your loyal supporters and play in stadia which are emblematic of Spain."

Taken at face value, this looks like an outbreak of traditional footballing values among the moneyed elite of La Primera, which is cheerful.

True supporters everywhere possess a reflex which rejects taking games overseas, renaming old home grounds with commercial monikers or changing the traditional club colours. We could call it fan fundamentalism.

However, the forces of globalism are so strong they are hard to resist utterly, which entails in practice some form of accommodation with them. We might not like capitalism, but we find a way to work within it.

The Victorian founders of association football would have been aghast at their Corinthian ideal being sullied by professional players, shirt sponsorship and kick-offs being altered for television, but the modern die-hard supporter has learnt to live with these and numerous other changes to the original formula; evolve or die is a basic rule of nature.

The Spanish league's desire not to be left in the shade of England's Premier League must be acknowledged at the same time as decrying any move to replicate its '39th game' plan of a few years back, subsequently aborted.

Jealous of the English top flight's global reach and established popularity in English-speaking North America, La Liga acted boldly in penning a deal with US company Relevent, who already organise the pre-season International Champions Cup, in which Barcelona and Real Madrid have become regulars.

The flaw with summer friendly tournaments is that despite the marketing men doing their utmost to bill them as competitive, it does not take long for fans to twig that the stars they paid to see will be absent, especially in World Cup years or those involving Copa Americas or European Championships.

A competitive game demands the best players show up however, and we can be fairly sure that the one Primera game per season planned for America means at least one of Atletico Madrid, Barcelona or Real will be involved.

American soccer fans are more knowledgeable than popularly supposed but will not turn out in their thousands for Alaves and Eibar.

Indeed, a rumour has claimed the first American-based match will be a Catalan derby between Barça and Girona as early as January 2019.

But the market for Spain's big two or three to perform in the U.S. is certainly there, so moving competitive matches across the pond seems a logical step from a purely commercial perspective.

Despite ever-increasing paydays from selling TV and internet rights, there is an acknowledgment of the importance of bums on seats and not just for the cameras: More fans overseas equals more merchandise sales, more website hits and live TV viewers which translates into fatter contracts and sponsorship deals.

Real and Barça enjoy global recognition on a par with the planet's most popular consumer brands and as globalisation itself has accelerated in parallel with the rise in internet connectivity and high-speed broadband, the idea that a brand should stand still and not want to grow bigger is just not capitalism.

Yet in purely footballing terms, La Liga has a right to feel aggrieved that the world won't listen.

Spanish clubs have won the last five Champions League finals and four of the last five Europa League finals. On paper they are clearly the best right now yet inferior English sides remain more popular around the world.

The English language's dominance in North America and Asia, football's last two unconquered kingdoms, is the short explanation for this anomaly.

American fans are more likely to cleave to the big English sides than the big Spanish ones because of smoother cultural translations.

Just as Spanish sides usually have first dibs on landing South American talent because of old colonial connections, Americans tend to follow Premier League teams rather than one from La Liga.

Englishmen have spread the sport at school and college level across the USA, Irish pubs have played a big role in promoting the game via television, David Beckham moved to the States and so far many more Americans have played professionally in England than in Spain.

Although MLS supporters take some inspiration from Latino fans, their predominant inspiration, as well as for the so-called Eurosnobs (American soccer fans who ignore MLS), remains English.

For a couple of centuries the Caribbean and southern United States were battlegrounds between English and Spanish explorers and their descendants; now the two language groups are battling it out for the new world of football, and once again the English are coming out on top.

Against this backdrop, La Liga's audacious foray into the heart of the American market is understandable. One game a season played overseas would not ruin the domestic league but constitute an important challenge towards the EPL's global dominance, which sounds healthy.

On the other hand, there are so many things about this move which seem wrong and ineptly handled.

The first black mark is that the whole deal was done and dusted so secretively, leaving the players and supporters to hear the news via the media.

There apparently has been no consultation with UEFA or CONCACAF either, which looks shoddy.

It may sound quaint in the age of mega-salaried stars to ask why fans' views were not canvassed first but it is important that sport keeps its soul.

Bypassing the folk who built the clubs up through their weekly devotion and undying faith is football biting the hand which has fed it for so long.

As for the players, it may seem hard to feel sympathy for millionaires like Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique or Diego Costa being remunerated handsomely and flown first class to New York to be put up in five star hotels.

But extra money means little to multi-millionaire footballers, who would most likely be reluctant employees shipped across the Atlantic by their bosses.

Unlike the summer tours, when they stay a couple of weeks in America and acclimatise, this one-off game would entail jet lag from a shorter trip.

Madrid to New York entails a seven-hour flight crossing six time zones while Barcelona to Los Angeles means thirteen hours in the air and nine changes of the clock.

With the internet accelerating the global village and the US finally getting soccer fever - MLS gets bigger each year and the World Cup will return stateside in 2026, making a physical footprint of top-drawer football in America remains tempting.

La Liga's leap across the pond should also be compared with America's big sports going in the other direction.

An annual NFL friendly in London (the English language connection working once more) has evolved into four annual competitive games involving six different clubs, with the end game a permanent NFL franchise based in England's capital.

It might have been an anathema a few years ago, but earlier this year England's Football Association admitted they were negotiating to sell Wembley, hallowed turf and all, to the Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan.

Tottenham Hotspur have also penned a deal to host two NFL games at their new 62,000-seat stadium but any permanent London team will surely move to the more affable surroundings of Wembley before long.

Perhaps this is all inevitable and only the beginning. In the future when supersonic airliners return and may even be hypersonic, the arguments about jet lag and journey times will be redundant.

Spain has gone where England tried and failed and La Liga is serious about America. It already has a web page in place to demonstrate its intentions https://www.laliga.es/en/usa

But the Spanish League faces a fight with its players. Barcelona captain Sergio Busquets said they are not about to take this one lying down:

"We are all united," he confirmed this week.

The coming battle will illuminate soccer's soul or light the way to the sport's near future.

Spanish soccer's audacious venture into American waters will strike gold or be holed before it even sets sail.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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