Club Deportivo Leganés, a small team from a quiet suburb in southern Madrid, will this autumn become the 61st club to contest a La Liga season, just two years after even tinier Sociedad Deportiva Eibar became the 60th. When Eibar won their promotion it was immediately labelled as a one-off. Nothing like that could ever happen again, they said. Yet we only had to spool forward two years to witness an Eibar version 2.0.
In the decade before the Basque side’s La Liga debut, only one other club – Xerez in 2009-10 – had earned a first promotion to the Spanish top flight, but in the subsequent two years we’ve had one more and, had Girona won the promotion play-off final against Osasuna, we’d have had another.
The fact that the 2016-17 season will be the first in a full decade in which there are four clubs with stadiums under 20,000 capacity sums up the overall shifting dynamic of Spanish football. Stadium capacity may not be a thoroughly scientific measure of a club’s size, but it’s nevertheless a pretty good one.
La Liga seems to agree, as it has regulations which require all top division clubs to have, or be working towards, a minimum capacity of 15,000. This will, therefore, be the first season in which two teams break that rule, given that Eibar – who are increasing the capacity of their valley-squashed Ipurua Stadium as much physically as possible – has just 6,000 and counting, while Leganés’ Butarque Stadium can hold just over 8,000 fans. Had Girona brought their 9,000 capacity Montilivi Stadium to the party then it would have been three teams breaking these rules next campaign.
The other two teams with sub-20,000 capacity grounds are the newly-promoted Alavés and Osasuna, who actually replace Rayo Vallecano and Getafe, two further clubs with similarly small sub-20,000 capacity grounds.
Quite simply, there is an increasing trend of tiny clubs breaking through the Segunda ceiling and into La Liga or, as in the case of Girona – who have been one match away from promotion in three of the past four seasons – there are small clubs getting close enough to that ceiling to at least consistently bump their heads.
So where are these tiny clubs coming from? Why, all of a sudden, do teams fancy a crack at La Liga after decades of pottering around the lower divisions? And why are the bigger clubs that they’re replacing going the other way?
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By the beginning of 2012, Spanish football’s debt problem had spiralled out of control. At the turn of the century, professional clubs in Spain – i.e. all those in the first and second tiers – owed just under a billion euros in debt. That was bad enough, but the total soon rose even further, breaking the two billion mark around 2006 and the three billion mark around 2009. With the country in recession and with a large proportion of that debt owed to the Spanish state, the government’s long-established leniency towards football clubs had to stop. And it did.
The Ministry for Education, Culture and Sports, the National Sports Council and La Liga signed a protocol in April 2012 that finally included some serious penalties for teams that continued to rack up debt. The government would no longer give clubs favourable interest rates and relaxed repayment terms on debt, and the government would legally require clubs to sell players if they increased their debt. The government would withhold a club’s TV income if the debt kept rising. Basically, if you were a football club and you kept piling up the D-word, especially any owed to the taxman, then the government was going to make your life hell.
With such severe threats in place, a step or two up from the previous tactic of asking nicely, the government was finally able to coerce clubs into some serious soul-searching and into reconsidering their financial planning. It worked; in the 18 months from January 2012 to June 2013, debt owed by football clubs to the country’s tax authorities fell by €156.8 million, which was 20.8 percent of the total.
Obviously this was great news for the Spanish taxman, but not so great for the clubs obliged to make severe cuts at the same time as Barcelona and Real Madrid were growing ever richer. Atlético Madrid – who owed approximately €120 million in January 2012 – were the worst offenders, but they managed to cope largely by selling players, by using the now-illegal third-party ownership system to replace those players, and by hiring a manager who could turn water into wine, defeats into wins, and Juanfran into a world-class right-back.
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The next three worst offenders, however, struggled far more from their attempts to stop haemorrhaging red ink. Deportivo La Coruña, Real Betis and Real Zaragoza owed €90 million, €35 million and €32 million respectively, making it even more difficult to remain competitive on the field.
In the case of Deportivo and Zaragoza, they didn’t, and in the 2012-13 campaign they finished second-bottom and bottom, booking them two tickets to the Segunda. Real Betis may have held on initially, but one year later they too slipped into trouble, through the La Liga trap door and into the tier below.
Deportivo and Betis were both able to bounce straight back up at their first attempt, but Real Zaragoza continues to flounder around in the Segunda to this day. Their current predicament can be traced back to that spring 2012 ruling as the Aragon-based club immediately cut their investment in the first team squad, spending just €1.3 million that summer versus the €11.5 million of 2011.
Just a little further down the food chain, matters are even worse. Deportivo, Betis and Zaragoza are all medium-to-big sized clubs in Spain and were never going to fall that far, but for some clubs in the medium-to-small range the situation has become perilous.
Real Mallorca, Real Valladolid and Almería were the Hull Citys of the Spanish leagues, in the sense that over the past decades they routinely won promotion to La Liga, then suffered relegation, then won promotion again. Last season, however, they did not find themselves on the border between the first and second tiers; rather, all three only just survived relegation from the second to the third tier.
They were relegated from La Liga in 2013, 2014 and 2015 respectively, but because of the new legislation they were unable to simply throw cash at a bounce-back promotion attempt, as they may have done in the past. As a result, they have fallen to the back of the Segunda grid, while more sensibly-managed and patient clubs such as Leganés and Girona put themselves in pole position.
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It is not just that stricter financial rules are having an indirect effect on clubs by forcing them to reduce spending on first team squads; there have also been instances of direct demotion in recent years for those that decided to continue overspending. This rarely happened in the past and even when such punishments were handed out, they were sometimes reversed – as in the famous 1995 case in which Celta Vigo and Sevilla were demoted but later reinstated when the authorities bowed to the pressure of angry fans.
In the midst of recession, however, many fans now support the fact that the authorities want to curb reckless spending from clubs. As Spanish football journalist Sid Lowe explains: “Fans are much less inclined to support their club’s ability to screw over the taxman or the rest of us than they once were. A Seville fan, for example, if he sees that Seville hasn’t paid the taxman, thinks ‘But I pay the taxman. They chase me if I owe them money, so why should the club get away with it?’”
As such, the league has recently dished out administrative relegations to the likes of Murcia and Guadalajara – both relegated from the Segunda to the Segunda B – and to Elche, who were relegated from the top flight to the second flight in the summer of 2015. Having failed to pay the taxman and their players, the league took the decision to demote the Valencian community side from La Liga at the end of the 2014-15 season, in which the club finished 13th, according to the country’s ‘Sports Law’.
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Read | The brave rise of small town, fan-owned SD Eibar
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There was poetic justice in the relegation as Elche’s place in the 2015-16 La Liga season was inherited by the poster child of sound financial management, Eibar. The fact that Elche could fit Eibar’s entire population of 27,000 people into their 36,000 capacity Martínez Valero Stadium highlighted the disparity in size of these two clubs, yet the fact that Eibar had zero debt, whereas Elche owed €15 million – €9 million to the taxman and €6 million to the players – demonstrated that it was the Basque side which held more financial power. In this new meritocratic age of Spanish football, the well-run and debt-free David was judged by the authorities to have knocked out the financially irresponsible Goliath.
The Elche-Eibar example demonstrates in microcosm two things about the shifting landscape of La Liga. Firstly, that good things come to those wait and, secondly, that making La Liga status the goal actually makes it less likely to come about.
Elche lost their La Liga place because they tried too hard to retain it. They spent money that they did not have in assembling and paying a squad of players that they could not afford, which they were ultimately punished for. It was a case of self-fulfilling prophecy, in that by trying so hard to avoid being relegated, they themselves brought that exact circumstance about.
Think of Elche as Spanish football’s Macbeth, who in his attempts to avoid losing his throne, ends up bringing about his death and the loss of the throne himself. Or for those of you who never much liked Shakespeare, think of Elche as Anakin Skywalker, who in his attempt to save his wife actually brings about his murder of her and begins a path to the dark side – a.k.a. the Segunda División.
Conversely, Eibar won their La Liga place precisely because they did not make the securing of it their priority. When Los Armeros won promotion from the third to the second tier in 2012-13 they did not go all out in pursuit of La Liga glory, yet ended up winning exactly that. Similarly, once in the top-tier they did not overspend in an unaffordable attempt to avoid relegation and, as a result, they benefited at Elche’s expense.
“We don’t even contemplate making significant cash payments to sign the big stars, like other clubs do,” Eibar’s finance manager Patricia Rodriguez Barrios told me upon the club’s promotion to the top flight. “In Eibar we work like we’re a private company, whose objective is profitability. That means that the sporting arm of the club knows it has a certain budget to make up the team and it’s simply not possible to exceed that figure.”
With that strictly-followed guideline, the minnows from the damp part of Iberia assembled a team that was only good enough on the pitch to earn them 18th place – the last relegation zone spot – in the 2014-15 season, but they reaped rewards from that because Elche had unfairly assembled a squad able to achieve 13th place on the pitch.
In days gone by, on-field performance was all that mattered and Eibar would simply have been thanked for their time and discarded to the second tier, but nowadays, with the authorities taking finances seriously, these smartly-run smaller clubs are able to rise to the top at the expense of badly-run bigger clubs.
It is not that bigger clubs are all of a sudden managing their finances poorly, as that has always been the case. It is that this is finally being punished.
Leganés are another perfect example of how promotion comes to those who plan sensibly, rather than to those who make its securement the sole objective. Before last month’s promotion to La Liga, the little Madrid team had won promotion into the second tier and survived in their first season. They did not spend a single cent in transfer fees in the summer of 2015, instead preferring to focus on smart and sustainable free agent and loan acquisitions. As a result, they finished second and won their first ever promotion to the big time, providing Spanish football with yet another fairytale story.
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Leganés fans celebrate their promotion to La Liga
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So will this trend continue and will we see more small teams enter the La Liga landscape? Well, there are two contrasting outlooks here, one which suggests that the current trend can continue and one which suggests it cannot.
The first would argue that with the fairer distribution of La Liga TV money, which comes into force this season, the playing field has been levelled and a club’s size of fanbase and its history no longer matters as much when it comes to finances, given that the value of matchday revenue becomes increasingly diminished with increases in TV money.
The other theory, however, is that this is simply a blip and that the status-quo will soon return and, sadly, this is the one I tend to agree with.
Already debt is beginning to rise again. The total debt owed by professional clubs fell to below three billion euros by 2013, but has jumped back over that milestone over the past season. Although the protocol introduced by the Spanish authorities remains in place, the fact that UEFA has eased up on its Financial Fair Play requirements has commenced a trickle-down effect in which overspending once again carries less severe sanctions, or at least it gives the impressions that this is the case. This will obviously benefit larger clubs as they are the ones with the extra capacity to overspend.
The other reason I have to doubt that this trend will continue is that I believe it will only be a matter of time before the smaller clubs become overly greedy. Power is itself a very powerful thing and no person or institution likes to lose it. Once these smaller teams have tasted the La Liga experience, seen their stadium beamed out to TV sets across the world, welcomed Messi and Ronaldo to their dressing rooms, and dined with the presidents of Barcelona and Real Madrid, it becomes very difficult to become once again content with life as a second tier club.
The reason these small teams like Eibar and Leganés got this high in the first place is that they did not spend out of their means to get there, yet the temptation to spend a little more in order to hold on to their prized La Liga status will surely begin to creep in and as soon as these clubs throw cash that they don’t have at an attempt to avoid relegation or to achieve a bounce-back promotion they will be – like a cowboy who fires first in a duel but misses – doomed.
The viewpoint of people like Patricia Rodriguez Barrios is reassuring and if teams like Eibar can stick to that then they will be just fine and will surely enjoy the occasional season in La Liga, but if new directors come in with a more short-term view then it cannot work.
The case of Xerez – the 59th team to win promotion to La Liga, remember – serves as an important cautionary tale. The Andalusian club suffered relegation one year after its maiden La Liga season, which was not surprising for a club that small. However, Xerez tried too hard to return to the top flight and to enjoy one more taste of that glory. They overspent, were subsequently administratively demoted and have since fallen all the way to the Primera Andalusia local league, the fifth tier of Spanish football.
Spend out with your means in modern-day Spanish football and you will lose your seat at the top table. For the time being at least, those places have been inherited by the little teams.
By Euan McTear. Follow @emctear