2011/12 La Liga Preview
You can tell the season is about to start in Spain when it's not actually starting at all. A week after the campaign should have begun, clubs are still on strike over more than €50m of unpaid wages. According to the AFE (players' union) president, Jose Luis Rubiales, more than 200 players have been affected over the past two years by the non-payment of wages.
Of course, strikes are nothing new in the giddy world of Spanish football. There have been opening weekends when, just days before, no one knew who was playing when. A few years ago, Sevilla were the only team in the league that didn't have a TV deal so they retaliated by banning all cameras from all their games. Real Sociedad got round the problem of their fans not knowing the score when they played Sevilla by recovering the old tradition of letting off fireworks over the Bay of Biscay every time a goal was scored. Trouble was, no one knew which goal had been scored.
Last season there were two proposed strikes; there was even one led by the clubs themselves in a clumsy and frankly baseless protest at the law that protects one game a week on free to air. On both occasions the show went on. This one, however, is different: a photo of 100 players, with Iker Casillas and Carles Puyol at the helm, shows how serious they are.
There is huge uncertainty. But then again the only certainty in the Spanish league is uncertainty. The strike has happened but the threat of it is nothing new and it is a consequence of deep, structural problems that have been growing by the year – much like the gap between Madrid and Barcelona and the rest. This season there will be games at 6, 8, and 10 on Saturdays, 12, 4, 6, 8, and 10 (yes, 10 at night) on Sundays, and 9 on Mondays. But don't bother asking when they will be and certainly don't bother trying to arrange a trip to see them … no one will know that until eight days before.
There is one certainty though: Barcelona and Real Madrid will be the top two. What, though, about the other 18 teams? Well here's what:
Athletic Bilbao: So much for loyalty. Athletic coach Joaquín Caparros was criticised for talking to other clubs in the summer rather than committing to Athletic. Then he did, but president Fernando Macua lost the elections and Caparros was out of a job. His replacement is Marcelo Bielsa and Athletic's style is about to undergo a dramatic change; more technical, more complex, shorter. They have the players, too, with Ander Herrera joining Iker Muniaín, Javi Martínez, Fernando Llorente and Andoni Iraola. A European place is likely; maybe even more.
Do say: "Marcelo Bielsa worked wonders with Chile last summer at the World Cup. I hope he employs that infamous 3-5-2 here too."
Don't say: "What they need is a few more foreign imports."
Athletico Madrid: Sergio Aguero has gone, David de Gea has gone and Diego Forlan is going. At Atletico Madrid people are always leaving – except the two men that really should leave. They have though made some interesting signings led by Falcao and Arda Turan.
Do say: "Falcao was one of the top strikers in Europe last season, and is a more than adequate replacement for Forlan."
Don't say: "That Cerezo is doing a cracking job as president."
Real Betis: At last they're back. Arguably, the funnest team in La Liga return to the top flight. And the league kicks off with the Seville derby, which should be fantastic and has been missed. Unlike Manuel Ruiz de Lopera, the president who has finally gone. Stuck in administration, they're likely to struggle though.
Do say: "King Juan Carlos of Spain is honorary president, don't you know?"
Don't say: "What they need is Javier Clemente to take over again. He'd keep them in the top flight."
Espanyol: Callejón, De La Peña, David García, and Chica have all gone and it looks like Osvaldo will be going, Kameni too. The president Daniel Sanchez Llibre has also departed after almost 15 years. Didac, who left last winter, is back though – on loan from Milan. Last year's eighth place may be possible again but looks unlikely.
Do say: "Haven't they just become a parent club to Swansea City?"
Don't say: "Aren't they Barcelona's 'other' club?"
Getafe: Hang on a minute. Weren't these supposed to be golden days for Getafe? Taken over by Dubai-based owners Royal Emirates, the promise was of €30m a year – enough to establish Getafe as regular challengers for a European place. There were going to be big signings galore. So, Manu, Parejo, Boateng, Víctor Sánchez, Albín, Marcano and a handful of others have … erm, gone?
Do say: "Think Man City under Thaksin Shinawatra: it's just not going to end well."
Don't say: "They should never have sacked Michael Laudrup in my opinion."
Granada: Udinese's Spanish branch. Granada, propped up by the Italian club where their president and ubiquitous club administrator Quique Pena worked, had 12 Udinese players on loan last season. That was enough to come up via the play-offs. Will that support be enough to stay up? Probably not.
Do say: "Former Oxford City striker Ikechi Anya is on their books."
Don't say: "Noe Pamarot plays for them? I remember him at Spurs. Decent."
Levante: Last year's miracle. Probably the first team down this time around. They have the lowest budget in the division and have lost Luis Garcia, the motivational genius who brought them together.
Do say: "They've lost their top goalscorer from last season, Felipe Caicedo.
Don't say: "Well at least they've replaced him with a quality centre-forward like Nabil El Zhar."
Malaga: Money, money, money. Sheik Abdullah bin Naser al Thani took over last summer and brought in a new manager and new players. Halfway through the season, it wasn't working: they were going down. So they sacked the coach and brought some new players. This time it did work, with Julio Baptista leading the way. Now they have signed a load more players, from Van Nistelrooy to Monreal, from Toulalan to Joaquín and Isco to Cazorla. Cazorla cost €19m: more than Málaga's entire budget a couple of seasons ago. Suddenly their budget has shot to €150m, making it the league's third biggest, and they have spent more than €50m. But it is not just about money: there is solidity to this project that suggests that this might even work.
Do say: "They've overhauled their squad, but the players they've brought in are of a quality which says it could just work."
Don't say: "I guarantee they'll be in next year's Champions League"
Mallorca: "Having looked safe all season, the project seemingly secure on and off the pitch, suddenly Mallorca found themselves within a goal of going down on the final day. Michael Laudrup's team should not suffer the same fate this season but if Jonathan de Guzman gets his wish of a move to Villarreal, it will be an almighty blow.
Do say: "Michael Laudrup is the Gary Megson of Spanish football: how does he continue to get work?"
Don't say: "For a season in the 70's Vic Reeves managed Mallorca. No wonder he turned his back on the game for a career in comedy."
Osasuna: Osasuna were in relegation trouble right to the end of the season and finished ninth. Which kind of says it all about top-flight football in Spain. They're used to suffering, which is a good job really. Josetxo has gone but, somehow, Patxi Puñal – the man who used to cycle to training after his morning shift at the factory - is still around. Osasuna have signed Nino from Tenerife, which sounds like a good idea when you consider the 17 and 14 goals he has score in the least two years, but then it hits you: he was relegated both times.
Do say: "Osasuna means 'health' in Basque. Let's hope it's not an 'ill-fated' campaign then!"
Don't say: "Sammy Lee played for Osasuna between 1987-1990. He did well."
Racing Santander: Remember Ali Syed? No? Really? Arriving at Racing as the saviour, going bonkers in the directors' box and promising big things? Well, now he has disappeared and refuses to answer the phone. Racing are in administration, their coach has gone and so have a load of their players – most of them a little worse off after going unpaid. The new coach is Hector Cuper, the man who if there was a competition for coming second would still come second. Sadly, it wouldn't be a huge surprise if he did it again. Second bottom.
Do say: "I hope Cuper plays that high intensity pressing game he's become famed for."
Don't say: "Santander? My bank have branched out into football? I hope my 5% ISA isn't going to be affected."
Rayo Vallecano: Madrid's self-consciously left-wing club from the neighbourhood of Vallecas. Rayo's players went on strike last season. Their owners - the, erm, 'controversial' Ruiz-Mateos family - were finally kicked out after 20 years. And they ended up in administration. Still they came up, eight years later. Great fun in their three-sided ground (the fourth is just a huge board covered with adverts), the thing is they are almost certain to go straight back down again. Half the team have gone and there are rumours that the coach may yet walk with four more players after administrators tried to enforce a 70% pay cut upon them.
Do say: "The club's inner-turmoil may prove to be the monkey on its back; but this young, attacking side should be fun to watch."
Don't say: "Bloody lefties. I hope they get what's coming to them."
Real Sociedad: The departure of coach Martín Lasarte came as a surprise – not only had he brought la Real up but for much of last season they over-performed. But his relationship with the club's directors had long been difficult. The new man in charge is Philippe Montanier from Valenciennes and the man who achieved three promotions in a row with Boulogne. His ability to bring through young players is a key reason for la Real turning to him – 19 of the first team squad have come up from Real Sociedad B.
Do say: "They finished second in La Liga as recently as the 02/03 season. It won't happen this season."
Don't say: "Sociedad abandoned their policy of signing only Basque players in 1989 when they bought John Aldridge from Liverpool. WHAT THE FUCK?"
Sevilla: Fredi is staying. The legs are creaking and he's slower than ever but Sevilla could not be happier. Kanouté is, some fans insist, the best signing the club has ever made. This summer he talked about finally walking away, six seasons two Copa del Reys and two Uefa Cups later. Such is their respect for him, Sevilla said they would let him decide and simply wait for him. One day, he announced he was staying. In a team that has desperately lacked a touch of quality of late, he may be important too. Under new management – Marcelino has joined from Racing – and with Rakitic giving a degree of control, the aim will be Champions League football.
Do say: "Sevilla's style of play: width and plenty of crosses into the box, is entirely dependant on Jesus Navas. He needs to have a good season for Los Rojiblancos to return to the Champions League."
Don't say: "Kanoute needs to stop freeing bloody Palestine and start scoring."
Sporting Gijon: They've been arguing all summer about the new kit at Sporting. And in the end the fans got their way, too. The team is a different matter: José Ángel has gone to Roma, Javi Poves decided to ditch football all together for moral and political reasons and by far their best player Diego Castro has gone to Getafe. Not one of their current players got more than 10 goals last season. It won't be easy to do so this campaign either.
Do say: "Manager Manuel Preciado has the world's greatest moustache."
Don't say: "Manager Manuel Preciado has the world's greatest moustache."
Valencia: Amidst all the talk of Madrid, Barcelona and Málaga, few have noticed Valencia slowly adding to an already impressive squad – and last season they were the only team that consistently caused Barcelona problems. Joaquín and Isco have gone, but Parejo, Piatti and Canales have all joined (even though Canales won't be able to play against Real Madrid). Lille's Adil Rami, at centre-back, is a vital addition too. Coach Unai Emery never seems especially well liked at the club, but he's starting his fourth successive season.
Do say: "Sergio Canales found opportunities hard to come by at Madrid last season, but this campaign could prove to be the one where he proves to the world what he his capable of."
Don't say: "I wish they'd hurry up with that new stadium."
Villarreal: It has been a difficult summer for Villarreal. Joan Capdevila and Santi Cazorla both departed and the impact on the squad has been genuinely tough. Financially, Villarreal are struggling after years of being one of Spain's most stable clubs and departures were inevitable. Cazorla was Villarreal's key creative player last season. The good news is that Giuseppe Rossi didn't join Barcelona and Borja Valero is still around.
Do say: "Cristian Zapata is an astute signing from Udinese. He was one of Serie A's best centre-halves last season, and will hope to plug the holes in what was a leaky defence last season."
Don't say: "Marcos Senna is still captain? Jesus Christ."
Zaragoza: Zaragoza haven't got any money and are in voluntary administration having racked up debts in excess of €130m. In Spain, administration brings no footballing penalties. In fact, Zaragoza have been largely unaffected. They signed goalkeeper Roberto from Benfica for €8m. Only they paid 1% of that: the goalkeeper was instead bought by an investment fund in which Jorge Mendes and Peter Kenyon are involved. Other clubs were annoyed but suggested they would do the same, bringing the prospect of widespread third-party ownership (which is not illegal) to Spain. Five others have joined, including three from Madrid and Barcelona's B teams. Aguirre dragged them out of relegation trouble last season. It is likely to be much the same battle this time round.
Do say: "Peter Kenyon's involved? Do I not like that."
Don't say: "Nayim, from the halfway line. Nayim, from the halfway line."