The headline in El País said it all: “The strike of champions.”
As of Friday, August 12, the AFE (Spanish Footballers’ Association) union resolved to strike for at least the first two matchdays of the Spanish professional football season.
Their reason is a crisis in Spanish football related to the credit bust that, thus far, has left at least 200 players in First and Second Divisions owed €50 million in wages.
Furthermore, the players are standing against the increasing incidence of their colleagues’ wage payments being delayed, sometimes for months. What’s more, they are demanding stricter oversight from Spanish football governing bodies to prevent such situations from occurring.
The way they see it, Spanish football should be looking more in the way of countries such as Holland or Germany, where club team spending is much more controlled. They even point to the Premier League, where a team like Portsmouth, declared insolvent, is punished with relegation.
In contrast, in Spain football teams have been juridically ignored regarding their spending and labor practices. To highlight the situation: Zaragoza owes its players millions from last season, yet have already signed eight new players, one of whom cost €8.6 million. Players, bound to contracts, are unable to escape the situation, and, furthermore, since there are no legal provisions to punish the nonpaying clubs, are forced to stay on since they haven’t been paid and their only hopes of getting payed are by staying put.
While many have mocked the idea of football players being slaves, one can also understand the bad positions that teams often put players in. Imagine, a young man gives up his schooling with the idea of being a professional footballer. He does so with the idea of building a career, and focusing every bit of energy on it. Yet the shelf life of an average player is shorter every season; the reality is that football is only a solid career until one’s early thirties, when the body gives out.
At this point, the situation for Spanish players is such that there is no guarantee that they will even get the financial benefits of that career. What’s more, the boom in the Spanish football industry, parallel to the boom in the economy firmly tied to real estate speculation and excessive spending, has seen teams spending exorbitant sums on players–many of them quite bad–from all over the world. The past 15-20 years have seen a global expansion in the game–via TV rights and merchandising–that has favored cosmopolitan teams with universal appeal.
Now, with the burst of the bubble and the drastic slashing of banking credit (not to mention the possibility of increased regulation), many teams are beginning to look like sinking ships. Very expensive ships with no life rafts.
What’s more, since credit has dried, very few teams are able to get any, and we could have guessed that those with that luxury are Real Madrid and Barcelona. Both teams continue to sign players left and right, paying high wages and enjoying the profits of their all-encompassing appeal in every corner of the world.
In many ways, it’s becoming a two-horse race; a look at revenues in Spain, compared to similar charts for league titles in the last ten years, shows that there is one Real Madrid, one Barcelona, and a field full of also-rans.
In a Spain (and a Europe) in which the common people are being forced to swallow “austerity measures” (cuts to social spending and increased taxes), that makes the idea of the football business somewhat more ridiculous. While small and medium businesses in Spain, still a strong economic force, are finding their credit to be cut, they see a sector of the Spanish economy not bound to the same basic rules. Solvency, spending what one can afford to pay, paying one’s employees.
And yet, the press, while highlighting the strike (though not so much its financial implications), still warms up to the idea of the start of the new season, not to mention the Fabregas saga. The nationalistic Madrid-based papers (especially AS and Marca), as well as the Catalan dailies (such as Sport), have also given these lastly mentioned stories much more prominent attention.
At the same time, as the 15-m movement against the austerity measures continues to be vociferous in Spain, El Pais also featured an article about former Sporting Gijón footballer Javi Poves, who quit the sport for “ethical reasons,” motivated by his anarchist political beliefs.
The 15-m, short for “15th of May,” protestors have been staging nonviolent protests since May against what they view as governmental and corporate irresponsibility in the economic crisis. They demand, among other things, accountability and the upholding of workers’ rights.
And interesting bedfellows the two groups, footballers and protestors make, at least in terms of our discussion here. As the football season approaches once again, so do we get closer to finding more about the true depths and consequences of the global economic crisis. Football, more than ever, parades the fantasy that all is well, that the world is in order, and that the best team wins, again and again.