Could Catalan independence could spell the end of one of soccer’s great rivalries? And might Messi and the rest of the blaugrana soon be playing domestic matches against Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique de Marseille and Girondins de Bordeaux instead of Real Madrid and Valencia and Atletico Madrid? With the Spanish region getting ready once again to vote on breaking free from Spain, the question becomes more than just an academic exercise. According to Spanish Football League president Javier Tebas:
Barcelona and Espanyol could not play in La Liga if Catalunya becomes independent. And the reasons are: our country’s law for sports only allows one non-Spanish country to play in Spain, and that is Andorra. The only way Catalan teams could play is if the Parliament itself decides to change the laws, and we can’t control politics. It would be in their hands.
The legendary club has already entered discussions with the leagues in Italy, England, and France about possible admission should they be removed from La Liga. Only the French seem receptive to the idea, both Serie A and the English Premier League reticent about taking a foreign club into their respective folds. While one can fairly safely assume that the Spanish Parliament would jump into action immediately to enact legislation that would keep the Catalan teams in the La Liga fold. But what if they do decide to pass on the opportunity?
It would mark the end of over a century of history for Barcelona in the Spanish first division, a period that has included a haul of 22 league championships and 26 Copas del Rey. Spain’s loss would instantly be France’s gain, as the world’s second-richest club raised the bar for every other team in the loop.
France has precedent for such an action. After all, AS Monaco plays in Ligue 1 despite being headquartered outside of French sovereign borders. The club, owned by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, has been a stopping point for such world-class talent as James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao. But it has never been able to provide the sort of consistent challenge to stalwarts such as Marseille, PSG, and Bordeaux.
Given the fact that clubs at the top of the sport have become cosmopolitan in their composition, at the business end of the global talent funnel, the notion that domestic leagues truly represent the domestic sporting character of a nation has become obsolete. And it isn’t just the players — look at guys like Rybolovlev and Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansoor, oil dollars allowing each man to purchase clubs far from their roots.
When a team is owned by foreigners and the starting 11 on the pitch is hardly representative of the local community, is it really representative of the domestic league in which it plays weekly? When the marketing department is as attuned to the desires of fans in Shanghai and Seoul as they are to the municipal area where the club actually plays, how much can a given club identify with its city and the people within it? Ultimately the only thing linking any team to an area are the name, the crest, and the colors that fans have pulled for over the generations.
Barcelona is interesting in that regard. Trumpeting themselves as “more than a club” has endeared them with generations of Catalan fans, serving as the totemic unifier for the region. They have embraced the role, with Catalan players trained at iconic La Masia going on to play starring roles for the club. Yet they have also grown into a worldwide enterprise, one who courts an international fan base and readily signs the world’s best players. Messi is an anomaly in that regard; more apt is their purchase of Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Ronaldo, Neymar, Luis Suarez, and a steady line of other foreign-born maestros of the pitch.
Whatever might happen with next month’s referendum on independence in Catalunya, one thing is certain: Barcelona will land in one home or another, be it La Liga or Ligue 1, but they will not fade into obscurity solely on the basis of geopolitical shifts in governance. In the end the main importance of being attached to one league or another is not the right to claim domestic preeminence but merely to land in the far more lucrative UEFA Champions League. Money speaks in the modern game, far more than nostalgia.
Catching Up Around the Globe
The domestic calendars all around the continent are taking time off as national teams start the qualification process for Euro 2016 in France. While even casual soccer fans know about the FIFA World Cup, UEFA’s continental version of the concept might be an even more exclusive and difficult tournament to win. With six of the top 10 teams in FIFA’s current world rankings and 14 of the top 25, the field is inevitably stacked every four years and good teams are always left home after the qualifying campaign winnows the finalists down to the 15 teams that will contest the championship alongside the hosts.
It is early in the qualification process, but some interesting dynamics have developed heading into the second set of matches. Were the tournament to start today, world champions Germany would be watching on television from home. So too would World Cup participants Belgium, Greece, Switzerland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Netherlands. With over half of the world’s top 50 sides represented on the continent, strong national squads are bound to be left out of the mix. These six teams will try to reverse their fortunes this weekend, though the road to qualification is as tough as any quest for the World Cup.
There has already been plenty of furor over FIFA’s decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. The selection of the wealthy Persian Gulf nation has stirred up allegations of bribery, a choice made not on the merits of the location but rather on the size of the handouts given to FIFA members. FIFA president Sepp Blatter has publicly admitted that the choice of Qatar was a mistake. The selection, however, could have wider ramifications for the sport of soccer than merely a shift from a summer World Cup to one played in the more mild Arab climate of wintertime.
European leagues have already come out against a move to November and December 2022, as it would conflict with domestic fixtures as well as the lucrative UEFA Champions League. Clubs could potentially refuse to release players for international play in the tournament, which would either dilute the field of talent or force individuals to make decisions about breaking contracts. FIFA would be foolish to bite the hand that has more influence in the sport than any other continental federation, especially given that the best players from around the world are found playing in European leagues regardless of their continent of origin.
And a move to January and February, while it would coincide better with the winter breaks of European leagues, would overlap with the 2022 Winter Olympics and could potentially jeopardize soccer’s inclusion in the Olympic program. The IOC, of which Blatter is a member, has not made a public proclamation either way on the matter. But given the ramifications of continued global climate change and its impact on snow and ice conditions at the past two Winter Games in Vancouver and Sochi, a shift in the two tournaments could be detrimental to both.
Brazil might have missed out on the chance to win a World Cup on home soil, but the country is still the leading exporter of soccer talent to emerging markets. Last week’s discussion about the duties of clubs and this week’s look at the composition of national leagues both help illuminate a recent trend — that of Brazilian players flocking en masse to Chinese clubs.
Since the formation of the Chinese Super League in 2004, the numbers are quite revealing as to how desired Brazilian players have been in China. Over the decade, 569 foreign players have suited up for Chinese clubs — and nearly one out of every four (137, or 24.1% of all foreign players) have hailed from the land of the five-time world champions, just three fewer than the next four countries (Serbia, South Korea, Australia, and Argentina) on the list combined.
What does this all mean? We often think about South America as the pipeline of stars to the global behemoths, teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid and the Manchester clubs. But a major yet overlooked part of the decline of professional soccer leagues in places like Argentina and Brazil is less the loss of the once-in-a-generation superstars like Lionel Messi or Neymar and rather the loss of the next layers of talent that would otherwise rise up to take those stars’ places. Every league wants to strike gold with a yet-undiscovered gem, and the nets that get cast into traditional hotbeds of the sport catch not only the legends but the journeymen that define the true strength of any league.
Matches of the Week (all times Eastern)
- THURSDAY/9 October 2014
- Spain at Slovakia (UEFA Euro 2016 qualifier, 2:45 pm)
- Atletico Mineiro at Fluminense (Futebol Brasileiro, 6:30 pm)
- Rosario Central at River Plate (Copa Argentina quarterfinal, 7:10 pm)
- Honduras at Mexico (friendly, 9:00 pm)
- FRIDAY/10 October 2014
- Czech Republic at Turkey (UEFA Euro 2016 qualifier, 2:45 pm)
- Croatia at Bulgaria (UEFA Euro 2016 qualifier, 2:45 pm)
- Ecuador at United States (friendly, 7:00 pm)
- Vancouver Whitecaps at Seattle Sounders (MLS, 10:00 pm)
- SATURDAY/11 October 2014
- Brazil at Argentina (friendly, 8:05 am)
- Portugal at France (friendly, 2:45 pm)
- Germany at Poland (UEFA Euro 2016 qualifier, 2:45 pm)
- Toronto FC at New York Red Bulls (MLS, 7:00 pm)
- Racing Club at Estudiantes La Plata (Primera Division de Argentina, 7:40 pm)
- SUNDAY/12 October 2014
- Panathinaikos at Olympiakos (Greek Super League, 1:00 pm)
- Sao Paulo at Atletico Mineiro (Futebol Brasileiro, 3:00 pm)
- Racing (U) at Nacional (Primera Division de Uruguay, 3:00 pm)
- River Plate at Newell’s Old Boys (Primera Division de Argentina, 8:30 pm)
- MONDAY/13 October 2014
- Belgium at Bosnia-Herzegovina (UEFA Euro 2016 qualifier, 2:45 pm)
- Netherlands at Iceland (UEFA Euro 2016 qualifier, 2:45 pm)
- TUESDAY/14 October 2014
- Portugal at Denmark (UEFA Euro 2016 qualifier, 2:45 pm)
- Scotland at Poland (UEFA Euro 2016 qualifier, 2:45 pm)
- Republic of Ireland at Germany (UEFA Euro 2016 qualifier, 2:45 pm)
- Peñarol at Estudiantes La Plata (Copa Sudamericana, 6:15 pm)
- Honduras at United States (friendly, 8:00 pm)
- WEDNESDAY/15 October 2014
- Deportivo Capiata at Boca Juniors (Copa Sudamericana, 8:15 pm)
- Corinthians at Atletico Mineiro (Copa do Brasil, 9:00 pm)