British newspaper The Independent pulled the best April Fool's Day hoax of 2011. "Portugal 'sells' Ronaldo to Spain on €160m deal on national debt," said the headline to an article by football editor Glenn Moore, claiming that Portugal had ceded its Madrid-dwelling soccer talisman to its Iberian neighbor at international level, in order to combat the country's dire economic problems.
Moore's mischievous story had all the aspects of a great wind-up; it preyed on people's worst fears, and was outrageous but reasoned. Most of all, the story retained a charitable side to it, in having one very knowing flaw. Where on earth would Spain get the money from?
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero hasn't had to go cap-in-hand to the European Union for bailout cash yet, but Spain is demonstrably in crisis. With the cajas (regional savings banks) crumbling, years of laissez-faire financial management is coming home to roost, and this is rarely more evident than in the fortunes of the country's national sport. A strike will wipe out this weekend's schedule of opening day fixtures , following the crescendo to an issue that has been bubbling for months. Earlier this year, the AFE ( Asociacion de Futbolistas Espanoles - the Spanish players' union) revealed that an unbelievable 85 percent of players in Spain's top three divisions receive its salaries late - or in some cases, not at all. An estimated €50 million of entitled wages went unpaid in the last campaign.
Meanwhile, many of the clubs continue about their business with their heads buried in the sand. If there's a sign of flagrant disregard for the morality of dealing with financial reality on La Liga's skid row, it should be the case of Real Zaragoza. Despite being in administration with eye-watering debts of over €130 million, coach Javier Aguirre has been able to sign nine new players, including the returning goalkeeper Roberto, for whom Benfica was paid €8.6 million ($12.4 million). Zaragoza claimed it only paid €86,000 of the fee, the cost of registering the transfer with the RFEF ( Real Federacion Espanola de Futbol - the Spanish FA), to claim the "sporting rights" of the player, while Quality Sports Investment - a mysterious investment fund based on the tax-haven of Jersey, off the southern British coast - paid the rest.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi, right, vies for the ball with Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo during their Super Cup final second leg at the Camp Nou Stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)
According to Spanish newspaper El Pais , Zaragoza will actually pay €300,000 ($432,000) more towards the deal in two installments and cough up Roberto's €800,000 ($1.15 million) annual wages in full, but clearly the Aragonese club has pulled something of a stroke here, and one that has gone down like a lead balloon in the current context. Deportivo La Coruna president Augusto Cesar Lendoiro was particularly outraged, given his own hard-up club is still owed €1.5 million ($2.16 million) for the 2009 transfer of Angel Lafita.
Zaragoza is not the only top-flight side in trouble. Real Betis, Racing Santander, and Rayo Vallecano are also in administration, which is an attractive option for struggling clubs. They get away with paying a mere portion of their debts, with the LFP ( La Liga de Futbol Profesional ) contributing to the shortfall. Unlike in the English professional leagues, there is no sporting sanction, such as a point deduction, for clubs that opt for this route.
Recently the AFE has decided enough is enough, and on Thursday, August 11 called a strike for the first two match days of La Liga , in protest at the current collective labor agreement for players, which it claims does not make sufficient guarantee for payment of players. Despite helping stricken clubs clear debts - however irresponsibly they may have been accumulated - the LFP has refused to approve the creation of a central fund to cover unpaid players.
All concerned parties were already resigned to there being no action on a first weekend that had included champion Barcelona's trip to moneybags Malaga and the Seville derby between newly-promoted Betis and Sevilla, but a meeting of almost four hours on Friday afternoon (CET) between the LFP and the AFE brought the two parties no nearer a solution.
An ugly struggle has erupted, with sports daily Marca claiming the LFP's Javier Tebas this week sent Luis Rubales, the AFE president, a letter damning the AFE's conduct.
"Luis, the LFP has a lot to improve upon," wrote Tebas, "but I don't know if you are conscious that the AFE has much to improve upon too."
Tebas went on to blame the union for limiting La Liga's earning power by not accepting changes to make the competition more like the EPL - including matches at Christmas, and the end of a limited number of free-to-air matches that are still available in Spain. Perhaps most contentiously, he blamed many unpaid players for being thoughtless enough to sign contracts they knew their clubs would be unable to fulfill.
Crucially though, the AFE has presented a united front and the strike has the public backing of the likes of Iker Casillas and Carles Puyol, megastars themselves unlikely to be stuck without the means to cover mortgage payments themselves, but aware of the implications for friends and former colleagues nationwide.
Not everybody acknowledges their contribution. Getafe president Angel Torres describes the 100 stars who posed for a photo with Rubales, as a show of strength at the strike's announcement, as having "no shame." Torres also criticized players at top clubs such as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia, who have continued training while officially on strike. He argues that it is the players who should help their colleagues, rather than the LFP.
"Solidarity is not attending press conferences, but contributing financially like the LFP has done," Torres said.
Yet even Torres agrees with them on one thing: The current financial chicanery cannot continue.
"If Rayo, Betis and Zaragoza players go three years without getting paid, then why are these clubs not relegated? It is a joke and a lack of respect for the fans."
The reaction of those fans may be the impetus for a much-needed cleansing operation. The labor agreement maybe only the tip of the iceberg as regards Spanish soccer's money problems, but the instant effects of the strike at least means the issue will not be swept away until some genuine progress has been made.