Impact Of Foreign Players In European Leagues: La Liga
Football has truly become a global game. With its spread across the world—never so prominent than in this millennium—every major European league has been able to attract hidden talent from every corner of the planet. Subsequently, it has changed the demographics of the best leagues in terms of its first XI as well as the full squad. Debojyoti Chakraborty brings you a whole new series on these foreign imports. Sit back, relax, and let Goalden Times take you on an incredible trip. The fourth instalment of this series features La Liga.
PrologueSpain has been on the top of UEFA’s associations’ club coefficients rankings for the past five years. Moreover, since the inception of the system in 1979, Spain has topped the rankings for a total of 18 years—more than any other European association. This is understandable if we take stock of the following achievements:
• Most number of UEFA Champions Leagues, the topmost continental glory – 15
• Most successful club in the top-tier continental tournament – Real Madrid (10)
• Most successful club in the second-tier continental tournament – Sevilla (4)
• La Liga is the first and only league to be represented by both finalists in a UEFA Champions League final on two occasions, the last time as recently as in 2013–14
• Most number of UEFA Best Player in Europe awards (3)
• Highest representation in FIFPro World XI and UEFA Team of the Year
All the above facts point to the strong performance of the Spanish club in continental competitions. It is no wonder that with the participation of all these clubs, La Liga has turned out to be one of the best domestic league in the world. Surprisingly, the average attendance in La Liga, a little over 10 million in 2013–14, lags behind that of Germany’s Bundesliga and England’s Premier League. While that has something to do with average stadium capacities, no one can deny the fact that the best of talents are unleashed in La Liga week in, week out.
So let us try to see how the game has changed in La Liga under the influence of foreign signings, and how the top teams have performed. Our sample size is five—the top five clubs since the 2010–11 season.
People often claim that La Liga is the best in business based upon its teams’ success in the UEFA Champions League. Well, they can augment their assertion by having a look at the second-tier continental tournament, the Europa League. And no one does a better job of cementing the claim of Spanish dominance than Los Nervionenses, the winner of the competition two years running. This is a sure shot upgrade from their dismal seasons earlier in the decade when they barely managed to hang on to a top-half finish and did not progress much in the continental front as well. What is even more praiseworthy is that Sevilla have been able to hold onto their own despite selling their star players throughout this period. And the replacements, who have either been a young Spanish footballer or a foreign untested player, have almost always gone on to become stars. So, the departure of Alberto Moreno, Álvaro Negredo, and Jesús Navas did not pinch that much as Aleix Vidal, Carlos Bacca, and Kévin Gameiro stepped up to the game. Over all, Sevilla have been able to keep a close-knit group of core players, a decent spread of domestics vs. foreign players, and would look to do the same next season. The Champions League might be a bit too much for them, but then again, they would most likely have the fall back option of the Europa League.
Valencia, once a dominant force in Europe, have regressed a bit over the years. Too much tinkering with the squad, inability to hold on to star players, and a disastrous transfer strategy resulting in none of their buys living up to the promise have caused their demise. More often than not Els Taronges have looked beyond Spain to bolster their squad. To their bad luck, they have lost to the eventual winners—Sevilla and Atlético Madrid, both from Spain—in the Europa League semi-finals in the last five years. However, it never was going to be easy to find able replacements for the likes of David Villa, David Silva, Juan Mata, Jordi Alba, Jérémy Mathieu, and Juan Bernat. Sure, they made some good business over the sale of Villa, Roberto Soldado, and (possibly) Nicolás Otamendi, but that does not win you trophies. In the coming season, they have splashed a huge amount of money—more than €100 million, which surpasses their last three seasons’ combined transfer cash outflow—but it is doubtful how much dividend a fairly new squad can provide.
Change of psychology, a desire to break the stereotype, and a board willing to back the team all the way has transformed Atlético Madrid dramatically over the last half a decade. It is no coincidence that it was the same period when a certain Diego Simeone took charge of the club. Rojiblancos have stuck to their game plan throughout—maintain a core group of players, keep an optimal squad size for better team bonding, and don’t hesitate to sign marquee players even if they are not cheap. The results are there for everyone to see—one La Liga title, a couple of podium finishes, one domestic runner-up crown, one continental glory (Europa League) to go with an unbeaten run in the Champions League 2013-14, where they cruelly lost out to Real Madrid in the extra time. Atlético’s transfer policy has to be applauded for finding the right replacements all the time. Sergio Agüero’s departure was compensated by the recruitment of Falcao, David de Gea’s by Thibaut Courtois, and Martín Demichelis’ by Toby Alderweireld. Money has never been a problem for Atlético—they utilized the money earned from the sale of Diego Costa and Mario Mandzukic by scooping up Antoine Griezmann and Jackson Martinez. No wonder they are on the right track.
Now comes the giant of Europe—Real Madrid. Famous for breaking the bank every now and then, Madrid has definitely trimmed its squad size over the years. That is very surprising as Los Blancos are always contesting deep into three, or even four competitions. The axe has come down hard on the domestic players, to be precise, as their percentage share in the squad has gone down alarmingly. True, Real won the much-coveted La Decima a couple of seasons back and have featured in every semi-final stage of Champions League since 2010–11. They have also shown decent form in the domestic cup competition, winning it twice in the interim period. However, their foreign contingent has found it tough in La Liga, with Madrid lifting the trophy only once in the same period and even finishing third once in a league often ridiculed as a two-horse show. There must be some very good reasons for letting go of players like Sergio Canales, José Callejón, and Álvaro Morata, but the results have failed to justify them.
We wrap up our Spanish investigation with Barcelona, the best modern club around. Well, with two Champions League crowns, three La Liga titles, and a couple of domestic cups, they are actually making a strong case for themselves to be termed the best club team of all time. Fresh from the transfer ban imposed by FIFA and a certain Luis Suarez ineligible to play for the first half of the season, Blaugrana overcame some mid-season mild hiccups and completed the treble in 2014-15. Barcelona always had a very strong Spanish influence in their team, but recently they had to curb that instinct and give the team a more cosmopolitan look. The deadly Latin American trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar Jr., and Suarez is a prime example of that. The dip in the form of Villa and Bojan Krkic, coupled with Thiago’s urge to depart have not helped either. Still, Barcelona have a strong foundation, they are continuously promoting youth from their own academy (case in point, Cristian Tello, Marc Bartra, Martin Montoya, Sergi Roberto, to name a few), and there is no reason why they cannot continue to rewrite history in the coming days.
In 2010, Jose Luis Astiazaran, the then La Liga president, proudly claimed that more than three-fourths of players in the league are eligible to play for the national team, whereas the number stands as low as one-third for the English Premier League. And how times have changed since then! In March 2015, the Spanish national team coach Vicente del Bosque expressed his concern on the increasing number of foreign players in the top flight. This came in the backdrop of the lack of Spanish forwards in the league, as most top teams are currently reliant on foreigners to score the goals. And the story does not end there. Football clubs from Spain have brought in 352 foreign players under the age of 18 in 2014, according to data released by the ruling body’s Transfer Matching System AG, also mentioning that 48 more transfers were turned down. Investing on minors go a long way not only in their development but also towards saving on transfer fees later. While this has had legitimate implications and bans have been imposed by FIFA later on, needless to say, this restricts the opportunity for the local talent. So, ironically enough, Spain has recently been falling into the same trap they had ridiculed others for before.
Football clubs from Spain have brought in 352 foreign players under the age of 18 in 2014, according to data released by the ruling body’s Transfer Matching System AG, also mentioning that 48 more transfers were turned down.
Club Correlation between Percentage of Foreign Players and League Standing
As is evident from the above table, success is not always guaranteed by foreign invasion. The Big Two might have done better had they persisted with their home-grown talent. The story is different for Atlético and Sevilla, who have reaped the rewards by bringing in quality foreign players and climbed up the ladder. Valencia’s negative correlation clearly demonstrates their selling club mentality—they have found it really tough to replenish the stock of quality players, even if they have imported a few from outside Spain.
A special mention here for Athletic Bilbao—Los Leones is world famous for their transfer policy of bringing young Basque players through their ranks, and hence, do not feature in our analysis. Even then, they have done considerably well in La Liga as well as domestic cup competitions.
That is it, then, for the Spanish Armada. Keep watching this space for more in our next installment!
Feature Image Credit – GOAL.com