No one likes a cheater. This is even more prominent in the context of sports, where the competition is meant to be a fair test of merit and skill. Seeing Luis Suarez prevent a clear goal with a hand ball in the 2010 World Cup to send Ghana home irked neutral fans around the world. Why? Because he broke the rules. From a fan’s perspective, the team that deserved to win went home, not because they were inferior in quality of play, but because a member of the other team cheated to gain an advantage. Would this be an issue if the Ghanaian player had converted the penalty kick? Probably not. But because he did not, and Ghana lost, this has been, and will continue to be, a major talking point in sports. However, from a player’s or team’s perspective, the top priority is victory. Shouldn’t players be allowed to do everything in their power to win the game? Admittedly, Suarez’s hand ball was a very intelligent play. No one can dispute that this decision is the sole reason Uruguay was able to advance. But somehow, it just doesn’t feel right.
If one action made by one player in one game is such a big talking point on fairness and sportsmanship, how have we turned a blind eye to the inequity that seems to be inherent in the structure of many European soccer leagues? The top soccer leagues in Europe, such as the English Premier League and La Liga, do not enforce a strict and equal salary cap for all teams. Instead, the amount of money a team can spend on its players is dependent on its income. While this structure does not violate any rules of the game, it does not promote competitive balance and equity throughout a league. For the 2019-20 season in La Liga, Barcelona was given the highest spending limit of all teams at $738 million, followed by Real Madrid at $705 million (McMahon 2019). This comes as no surprise as these are the two biggest, most notable, clubs in the league.
What is surprising is the drop in spending limit from these two giants to the team in third. Atletico Madrid, the next team on the list, had a cap of $423 million (McMahon 2019). Now that doesn’t seem quite fair to me. Maybe that’s why Barcelona and Real Madrid have combined for 59 La Liga titles, while the rest of the clubs have only accounted for a total of 29, with 10 from Atletico Madrid and 8 from Atletico Bilbao (Coggin 2019). While neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid violated the rules as Suarez did in 2010, they are given an unfair advantage in not just one, but every game. So why don’t people talk about it? Suarez made a play in a desperate, heat of the moment, attempt to help his team advance and is ridiculed for years. When clubs and leagues make calculated decisions to do the same, well, that’s just how it works.
If you’re thinking to yourself something along the lines of: “Shouldn’t a team be allowed to spend the money they make? I mean, after all, they earned it,” then I’d ask you to reconsider the question I pose above. Shouldn’t Suarez have had the right to prevent the goal in any way he could? In my opinion, neither action is in the spirit of the game. The only difference is that what Suarez did has a very clear punishment. Without a salary cap, teams are well within their right to do anything in their power to give themselves an advantage. I would not argue that teams are doing anything wrong within the current structure of leagues. However, I would argue that this structure is inherently flawed, giving some teams a distinct, insurmountable advantage, over others.
In 2011, UEFA established its first restrictions on how much a team can spend with the introduction of financial fair play (Uefa.com 2015). At its core, financial fair play states that no team can spend more in a year than they make. The intent of this rule was not to create more fair competition, but to improve “the overall financial health of European football,” (Uefa.com 2015). Financial fair play was not created to ensure “fairness” as the name suggests, it was created to protect clubs from themselves by preventing overspending. If we look to financial fair play to promote equity in a league, we will not succeed. If you, as a fan, are satisfied with Barcelona and Real Madrid winning 14 of the last 15 La Liga titles, PSG winning 6 of the last 7 Ligue 1 titles, Bayern Munich winning the last 7 Bundesliga titles, and Juventus winning the last 8 Serie A titles, then nothing needs to change. However, if you would like to see more variety and excitement in title races, then something must be done to even out the financial inequity that currently exists in leagues across Europe.
Coggin, Stewart. “Who Has Won Spain’s La Liga The Most Times?” La Liga Winners List, LiveAbout, 4 Nov. 2019, www.liveabout.com/spanish-league-winners-and-runners-up-3557342.
McMahon, Bobby. “Barcelona’s Salary Limit For This Season Set At $738 Million, $33M More Than Real Madrid.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 10 Sept. 2019, www.forbes.com/sites/bobbymcmahon/2019/09/10/barcelonas-salary-limit-for-this-season-set-at-738m-33m-more-than-real-madrid/#12e616a05b49.
Uefa.com. “Financial Fair Play: All You Need to Know.” UEFA.com, UEFA, 30 June 2015, www.uefa.com/community/news/newsid=2064391.html.