Low crowds and chaotic La Liga fixture list cannot deter from guarantee of drama

Marcelo celebrates with team mates after scoring a goal for Real Madrid

Spain’s football stadiums will be full this season – and that’s an order. Well, they’ll look full, anyway. The Spanish league will fine clubs whose grounds aren’t at 75% capacity, double for those who don’t reach 50%. The part of their grounds that are visible on TV screens, that is.

There will be someone there whose job it is to count and sanctions will apply to the stand and the corners opposite the master camera – the televisual U, it’s called. The bit that can be seen. As for the bit that can’t be seen, well, that bit can’t be seen.

For those clubs who are worried that they might not be able to fill their stadiums, fear not: the league will help. By subsidising tickets? By laying on travel? By scheduling games at fan-friendly times? Don’t be daft. This weekend Deportivo Alavés return to the first division: they play at 10.30pm on a Sunday night, three and a half hours away. No, the league will help by providing tarpaulin to cover empty stands behind the cameras. So that’s alright, then.

If you can’t fill it, fake it. Perhaps they shouldn’t have to, but last season 43.7% of seats sat empty across the first and second divisions – the latter now comically known as the Liga 1, 2, 3. Of the first division teams, according to La Liga figures collated by Roberto Bayón, only Real Madrid and Eibar occupied over 80% and only eight would be above the 75% threshold – if it applied to the whole stadium.

Spain is a big country with a smaller population than the UK; two teams account for 60% of fans; there is less of a culture of away travel; some smaller clubs with fewer fans have overachieved and some bigger clubs with big fan bases have underachieved (the league won’t admit it, but they were delighted that Sporting survived and Getafe didn’t); some clubs have unrealistically large stadiums; and despite claims to the contrary kick of times, dates and prices don’t help.

There are many reasons for Spain’s inabilty to fill stadiums but the football is not really one of them. And nor, it should be added, is the situation always as bad as it is sometimes assumed to be: among first division clubs only Getafe and Espanyol, two special cases, were below 40% last season, while a trip to the Pizjuán, Heliópolis, the Molinón, Málaga or Bilbao can be a superb experience. If the structural problems are a realty, things are improving, and they have not left the football itself in tatters: it is the football that saves Spanish football.

The last three Champions League winners and the last three Europa League winners are all Spanish. This is genuinely a three-team league now, Atlético Madrid’s rebellion providing a huge service. And although there was a recognition that Leicester couldn’t happen here – in terms of resources at least, Atlético winning the title wasn’t as far off as it looks – the top three did lose 15 games between them last season.

Those things that ‘only happen’ elsewhere happen in Spain, too. There were 11 3-2s last season, countless last-minute goals, comebacks and turnarounds. Competition. Real Madrid’s title challenge needed them to come from 2-0 down to defeat Rayo 3-2 in the rain. Rayo were relegated. Levante finished bottom last season. Already down, they were the team that ended Atlético’s title on the penultimate week of the season. “That is what makes football great,” Diego Simeone said. That and much else besides.

This season promises, too. The attendance measures underline the obsession with the Premier League; the desire to build a TV product that looks good, even if the reality is rather different behind the lens. They reveal the importance of television – last year, 81.69% of Getafe’s income came from TV, while Atlético were the club that least depended on it, at 25.89% – and how far behind Spain is. La Liga can’t compete with the Premier League’s £8.5bn international deal and economics are at least one of the reasons why Paul Pogba went to Old Trafford not the Bernabéu.

Even here, interest in English football has never been higher. There’s a slightly facile, but not entirely misplaced sense that English football does it better. The rights for the Spanish league changed hands this summer, yet again; having the Premier League is a significant, if insufficient consolation for Movistar Plus, the channel that lost them.

Players continue to leave. But the contradiction here, as Sevilla’s sporting director, Monchi, admits, is that the Premier League has provided an (inflated) market that has been vital for Spanish clubs - more than 30 Spaniards now play in England. And then there’s the fact that an export market has to produce, and Spanish clubs continue to do just that. They seek more creative ways to bridge the financial gap, and keep bringing footballers through. Put bluntly, development and coaching is better. The threat to Spain is real, though. And then there’s Jürgen Klopp, José Mourinho, and Pep Guardiola. Spain has nothing to match them.

Actually, yes it does. Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suárez and Gareth Bale, for a start. And it is a start, not the end. Spanish clubs are doing a lot right. The ‘it’ that England does better is still largely seen here as packaging not play. If they can’t compete economically, in footballing terms they still can. According to Sporting Intelligence, when it comes to two-legged European ties against non-Spanish clubs, Spain is winning 45-4. And there’s something special about one of those being Athletic Bilbao; there is no one like them, anywhere in Europe.

Structurally, things are improving. Financial control has reduced debts, the league actually kicks off on time this season, no strikes, no lockouts, and a collective TV deal, enshrined in law is the first step towards deals increasing and the gap in earnings between top and bottom clubs reducing. It has to in a league where the top two were taking over €160m and the team in third wasn’t reaching €50m.

Spain keeps on going, though. “Hay Liga”, the headlines run when the title race
opens up. There is a league and plenty to be excited about as a new season begins.

There have been signings - Álvaro Morata and André Gomes the most notable – but not many stars. Not yet, anyway. But Marco Asensio might yet be, or perhaps Arda Turan will be back. The early signs are good for both. Anyway, if this has been a summer bereft of cracks at Real and Barcelona that is at least in part because there is an essential reality here: how to do you improve on Messi, Neymar and Suárez, Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo? Presidents love a presentation, something new, but familiarity can hardly breed contempt if the players you are familiar with are the best in the world.

This year’s Ballón d’Or winner will be a La Liga player, just as he has been for the last seven years. The Golden boot winner has been a La Liga player for the last eight. The World Cup’s top scorer, James Rodríguez, is in Spain (for now: he could yet be on his way out of the Real) and so is the top scorer from Euro 2016, Antoine Griezmann. Player of the tournament, too.

Keeping Griezmann would have been a success for Atlético, giving him a new deal that takes his buy-out clause to €100m is even more so. And he’s so good that might prove not so much a deterrent so much as a price tag. More importantly, despite saying that he had “to think” after the Champions league final, Simeone now claims he was never going to go. He could have told the fans pleading with him to stay, but at least he levered more investment from the club.

Adding Kévin Gameiro strengthens them, giving them a forward line that will be almost absurdly quick, and those two things – Simeone’s silence, a striker’s arrival – are not unrelated. Atlético have Gaitán now too; they’ve spent €81m to compete.

Gameiro left Sevilla; their top scorer, gone. Grzegorz Krychowiak left too. And Ever Banega. And their captain, Coke. Their manager went to Paris Saint-Germain. Their sporting director was about to go, too. Instead he was forced to stay and rebuild yet another team. Because he has done so before, there’s a certain optimism: there may be no other club where their three most important players leave and supporters still think things are going to be OK.

Few rebuilding jobs have been as complete as this though; this time Sevilla look totally different under César Sampaoli, the man who wants to face Real and Barcelona as equals, pressing high, competing for the ball, chasing all over the pitch and losing to both over the last week; two Super Cups, two defeats. It may yet work, it may not; it’s going to be fun finding out. It will be fun hearing him and his assistant Juanma Lillo explain it all, too.

It’s going to be fun, full stop. Fascinating too. Despite the flaws, it always is. Because of them, in fact, with its presidents, players and fans. With all that stuff. And with its football too, of course. The season hasn’t even started and there’s been a sacking. It’s happening already.

Days before their season started in Europe, Villarreal fired Marcelino García Toral, the man who brought them up from the second division, qualified for Europe, reached a semi-final and took them back to the Champions league. Meanwhile, down the coast, Valencia started the summer signing Nani but look like finishing it selling the rest: there are days to go and some way to go before they comply with Financial Fair Play criteria. There may be trouble ahead.

Granada are under new ownership, and new management too, and a club where entertainment and goals are guaranteed: Paco Jemez’s Rayo were relegated, but he’s back, with his suits and his rants and his wide, wide open football. Lucas Pérez is still around, the kind of player who carries you along with him at breakneck, almost desperate speed, and although Juan Carlos Valerón has departed, taking his slow-motion genius with him, Las Palmas are still there too, just like Brazil. Oh, and they have Kevin-Prince Boateng now.

Sporting Gijón have signed eight players, a year later, a little less revolutionary but a little more reliable. There’s something about Espanyol, where the excitement comes as a pleasant surprise and where there’s also new ownership and new management: Quique Sánchez Flores is in the house, and so are Leo Baptistao, Pablo Piatti, Roberto and José Antonio Reyes. And what could be more fun than watching him play? (When he plays). Ernesto Valverde is still at Athletic, ready to gently put it all into context like no one else can.

Alavés are back in the first division, 15 years after that Uefa Cup final. That shirt, too. Osasuna are up as well, making it five Basque teams in the first division for the first time. (Even if Osasuna aren’t officially Basque). Juande Ramos is at Malaga, where wingers will be back in fashion: Keko one side, Jony the other. And then there’s Leganés, from the satellite town south of Madrid, up for their first ever season in primera, one in which they’re promising a cucumber for every team that visits them.

That should pack them in. And if not, they can always fake it.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Sid Lowe, for theguardian.com on Friday 19th August 2016 14.55 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


Register for HITC Sport - Daily Dispatch