Sun, Aug 21, 2011 - Page 18 News List

Strike delays start of Spanish soccer

The Guardian, MADRID

Fans of Spanish soccer from Madrid to Manchester looking forward to a weekend watching the silky skills of Barcelona’s Lionel Messi or Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo will be disappointed after the decision was taken to go on strike for the first time in nearly three decades.

Spanish soccer ought to be on a high, with the national team world and European champions, and Barcelona heralded as one of the finest teams ever to have played the game.

However, the extent of the impact of the economic crisis on soccer was revealed on Friday when it was confirmed that the top two divisions will go on strike over more than 50 million euros (US$72 million) in unpaid wages, ahead of the first weekend of the season.

Although there have long been strikes threatened in a sport that is struggling, this is the first one to get the go-ahead for 27 years.

With hundreds of millions of viewers across the world, the financial cost to the league is one thing, but the damage to its reputation is incalculable.

Former Spain captain Fernando Hierro warned that it would be “bad for our image.”

Analysts say the financial problems of the league are in part due to the great wealth of Real Madrid and Barcelona, the two richest club teams in the world.

They earned 120 million euros each in domestic TV rights last year, while Valencia, who finished third, took only one-third of that.

When the president of the players’ union, Jose Luis Rubiales, announced the strike, he sat before a “team photo” of almost 100 soccer players which included the Spain captain Iker Casillas and World Cup winners Carles Puyol, David Villa and Xabi Alonso.

The league president, Jose Luis Astiazaran, accused the union of blackmail.

The league and the players’ union have been negotiating over an agreement to cover labor relations between the players, the clubs and the league.

Stumbling blocks include image rights, commercial marketing and international breaks, but the key issue is the union’s demand for a central fund to protect members when clubs fail to pay them.

Rubiales demanded a fund big enough to protect all players’ unpaid wages. The league offered 10 million euros a year.

That, responded Rubiales, would not be enough to cover the debts already accumulated last season.

“This is not about making more money,” he said.

“We are not demanding more, we are demanding only that players get paid what it says in their contracts,” Rubiales added.

Rubiales said more than 200 players have experienced salaries being paid late or not at all in the last two years. Last season 52.8 million euros in wages went unpaid.

A number of leading clubs, including Betis, Zaragoza and Racing Santander, are in administration. Over the past few years, 22 of the 42 clubs in Spain’s top two divisions have passed through administration.

There is no sporting penalty: Administration becomes an opportunity for some club owners — the chance not to pay players, or other clubs for transfers.

Meanwhile, the economic crisis in a country with more than 20 percent unemployment continues to grip the game and attendances are down.

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