SEVILLA, SPAIN – Sevilla president Jose Maria del Nido vocalized fears of many about La Liga's direction back in September when he described the competition as "the biggest load of rubbish in the world." Barcelona and Real Madrid's joint domination of world soccer is coming at a potentially ruinous cost for the rest of Spain's clubs.
Del Nido's comments were a lead-in to an attempted "French Revolution", as he put it. His aim was to end the lack of collective bargaining for TV rights (as is the model for the English Premier League), with the current every-man-for-himself strategy unsurprisingly benefiting the big two above the rest.
At the current rate, Sevilla earns less than a quarter of the figure garnered in TV rights by Barcelona or Real Madrid - €31m ($40.7m) compared to €135m ($177m). As well as being a contributory factor to the pair's current success, it is a self-perpetuating imbalance, to which it is difficult to see an end.
Del Nido invited the other 17 La Liga clubs outside the Barça-Real Madrid axis to a September 8 meeting at Sevilla's Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuan, and he appeared confident afterwards that the seeds of change had been sown. It was a false dawn. In the real thing, the LFP (Liga de Fútbol Profisional) meeting with the big two present in Madrid a week later, del Nido's support base disappeared. Clubs shrank into their seats and the status quo prevailed.
Today, any potential uprising is even further away. Del Nido was recently sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison for fraud, a legacy of his time working as a lawyer for the infamous (and now deceased) former president of Atletico Madrid, Jesús Gil. Del Nido is in the process of preparing an appeal, which one assumes will take up plenty of his time.
So how will credible challengers to Barça and El Real emerge now? So omnipresent is the pair's rivalry in our consciousness that it is easy to forget that the duopoly is quite a new concept. Valencia was champion in 2002 and 2004, while Sevilla pushed even more recently, landing a top four place in four out of five campaigns between 2006-10 - and finishing just five points behind champion Real Madrid in 2007.
It's not just TV money that is accentuating the gap between the current top two and their erstwhile rivals. Under the presidency of former Nike marketing chief Sandro Rosell (who brokered the sports giant's deal for Brazil's national team), Barcelona inked a paid shirt sponsorship deal for the first time, a €30m ($39.4m)-per-year agreement with the Qatar Foundation.
Meanwhile, Sevilla, Valencia and Villarreal are among six La Liga sides without shirt advertising deals. Blank spaces have been filled arbitrarily by promotional messages for the club shop (in the case of Valencia) and the address of the club's social network in China (as Villarreal had on its shirts for Saturday's game against Barcelona), in a take-me-I'm-yours-plea to the Far East market.
In keeping with other aspirational clubs in Europe, there is a growing feeling among the chasing pack that cracking developing economies in Asia could be key to competing domestically. Villarreal played an exhibition match in Hong Kong at the end of last season to foster ties and subsequently inked a kit manufacturing deal with Chinese sports company Xtep.
Sevilla has taken a similar approach, with its kit produced by Li-Ning (also used by Espanyol and Celta Vigo), the Chinese sportswear giant founded by the Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast of the same name. Li-Ning already had a significant deal in place with Spain's national basketball team, having earlier recruited Shaquille O'Neal in a 2006 agreement when he was with Miami Heat. Li-Ning is ambitious to make inroads in Europe and the US, and opened an American base on Nike's doorstep in Portland, Oregon, in 2010.
Despite these speculative measures, Sevilla and Valencia accept that the lost ingredients that made them powerful in the first place need to be recovered in order to make up lost ground. In Del Nido's case, this has been acknowledged by the news of sporting director Monchi's new contract, announced on January 19. It will keep the former Sevilla goalkeeper at the club until 2017.
He is widely recognized as the architect of Sevilla's years of plenty, overseeing the first-team baptism of Sergio Ramos, Jose Antonio Reyes and Jesus Navas while plucking bargains from the international market such as Dani Alves, Julio Baptista and Seydou Keita.
Monchi's value to Del Nido and the club over the years has been no secret. The sporting director rejected a colossal offer to join Valencia in 2007, which would have reportedly given him six times the salary he enjoyed at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuan at the time. He also turned down the role of technical director at RFEF (Real Federación Española de Fútbol) last year.
Success has, however, made his job so much harder. With a greater quality of squad comes the extra difficulty of finding bargains that will hit the required standards; and creates an environment in which there is less patience for those new additions to develop. Monchi has had a couple of less successful years after the bounty of Alves and company, encompassing the failures of Javier Chevantón, Tom de Mul and Mahamadou Dabo, but there remains faith that he can begin a new cycle.
Arguably this has already started to bear fruit, with the signing in this window of Senegalese forward Babá and old favorite Reyes at a combined €6.5m ($8.5m). Yet the pressure is there. There is a bottom line for Sevilla - and that is the Champions League. The size of the club demands it.
"For this (fact), we have to play Champions League," midfielder Ivan Rakitic told FOXSoccer.com. "It's the only way our president will be happy." The success of recent years, in the shape of previous Champions League qualification and the successive UEFA Cup triumphs in 2006 and 2007, has increased expectation to a level that is proving difficult to manage. "The Europa League is also good, of course," says Rakitic, "but the big games and the big players are in the Champions League."
The Croatia international is no stranger to the weight of expectation having played at Schalke - the club with the sixth-biggest support in Europe, according to a survey published by Stadionwelt Fans in April 2011. "This club is a big one," Rakitic insists. "I played twice in the Champions League with Schalke, and I want to do it again here."
Champions League revenue has been key in Valencia's step back from the edge of the cliff after the financial disasters of recent years, and nobody at the club needs to be told that maintaining that presence in Europe's premier competition is key in continuing that recovery.
"Economically, it's all about qualifying for the Champions League," French left-back Jeremy Mathieu emphasized to FOXSoccer.com. "That earns the money. Valencia is looking higher than that, but for now, we have to do our job and qualify for the next Champions League."
"Higher" is significantly increasing revenue streams and really eating up the commercial chasm that exists between Valencia and the top two. December 12's announcement that work on Nou Mestalla, the club's planned 70,000-capacity, five-star stadium, would resume almost three years after tools were downed due to lack of funds, has been a huge boost.
"The future?" Mathieu raises his eyebrows. "Everybody's talking about it already."
Atletico is doing likewise, with its own announcement the week before of its plans to leave the Vicente Calderón for a newly-built 70,000 super-stadium in Madrid's eastern district of San Blas. The ambitious project didn't, however, present any details of cost or a date by which it might be completed.
So could this up-scaling help close the gap? "I don't know," admits Mathieu. "That's something that's still pretty complicated. We don't have the same budget for now, so it's difficult. We've shown we know how to take them on in individual matches, like against Barcelona at our place. Over the course of a season it's harder, because we don't have the same group of players that they do."
In November, Barcelona president Sandro Rosell - elected to the post on the back of a mandate of tidying up the club's finances - extended an olive branch to the rest of the league, saying that "in the next four or five years, we'll have to put them all (La Liga's clubs) in the same boat and distribute (TV rights money) in the same way as Serie A or the Premier League."
It is to be hoped that this will be the case, but Valencia, Sevilla and Atletico can't afford to wait that long. Nor can La Liga as a whole.