It is rightly said that success and fame are two different things. And one needs a fair share of luck to have the best of both worlds. Even the mightiest of players have been engulfed in the darkness of desolation. While some were outshone, others were simply forgotten. Anurag Shukla narrates one such tale of Barcelona’s forgotten hero.
The dream was broken.
In the battle of the footballing giants, a stage was set for Barcelona on May 18th 1994 to conquer the world. Up against a tattered AC Milan side, they were the ones with perfect balance in the team. Milan couldn’t have been in any worse shape before the final: suspended players, long term injuries to key figures, and UEFA’s quota for foreign players in a team all added up to give Fabio Capello a major headache. For a lot of critics and people alike, this was an event which was a mere formality, Barca was there only to collect the trophy.
But boy, did they get it all wrong?
“It was not that we played badly,” Cruyff said afterwards, “it was that we did not play at all.”
Barcelona had their chance to give the “dream team” a dream finish, but that night in Athens changed it all. Despite being forced to field a weakened team due to injuries, suspension and UEFA’s restriction on foreign-players, AC Milan ran out 4-0 winners, crowned as European Champions and above all, they made Barcelona eat their words.
Johan Cruyff whom the world hailed a genius in 1992, was labeled a fool, two years later.
Mad as a hatter, drunk as a sailor, Johan started wrecking his own machinery which took so long to build. Michael Laudrup left for Madrid, Andoni Zubizarreta was surprisingly told that his contract wouldn’t be renewed either; two vital members of the dream team, gone within the same window.
Amidst of all the tension surrounding the dressing room, the Dutch legend understood the team needed a change. While Gheorghe Hagi’s arrival added all the glitter to an already star-studded squad, it was Abelardo Fernandez who made the most impact.
Signed from Sporting Gijon after a solid campaign which saw Rojiblancos barely managing to survive in the top division, it looked like a solid purchase. And, why not? Abelardo had a beaming reputation as one of the best emerging center backs in the league. Already representing the Spanish national team, young “Pitu”, as he was affectionately called, scored in the 2-0 victory over Ghana in 1992 Olympics. He played a memorable part in the final match against Poland as he netted the equalizer in front of 95, 000 spectators in Camp Nou. Spain finally won 3-2 to bag the gold.
And two seasons later, he signed for Barcelona.
This Asturian was an old school defender: a no-nonsense bully who was more comfortable in clearing the danger rather keeping the ball and building the play. Despite being an antithesis of what Cruyff expected from his defenders, the Barcelona manager decided to take a gamble on this young man to add ruthlessness into a team that rode on sheer technical brilliance.
As difficult as it was for the 24-year-old to adapt to the new surroundings and challenge the elites, his task wasn’t made easier by all the venom inside the dressing room. Relationship between Romario and Cruyff snapped, and bitterness between the Brazilian and his strike partner Hristo Stoichkov was already making headlines, too. Talking about headlines, Hristo’s “It is Cruyff or me”1 statement for a radio station got people talking. Cruyff’s promotion of his son Jordy to the first team wasn’t being taken well either.2
With Carlos Busquets conceding soft goals regularly between the sticks, Barcelona were not even looking like a shadow of their former self, and the results were evident. Blaugrana finished fourth in the league in 94-95. The Spanish Super Cup was the only silverware they managed to win.
Once flying high, this team was crashing down to the ground rapidly. They did not finish on top of the league for even a single game-week that season, something which is unthinkable these days. Ronald Koeman and Txiki Begiristain also left the team next summer. But it was the bald-headed defender who made Los Cules believe that it was necessary to have someone with “character” to lead the team, once Koeman left.
Abelardo was excellent in his first season at Camp Nou, fitting easily in Cruyff’s plans and making his mark. He played an impressive 42 games, scoring 5 goals3 in 1994-95 and playing a key role in a lot of important games, both offensively and defensively. His much-discussed aerial ability was on display against Deportivo La Coruna, as he rose the highest to thump the ball in the back of the net to earn Barcelona a draw.5 Marking lethal Dwight Yorke out of the game, Barcelona crushed Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United at home 4-0 in the group stage, showing the world this team can still make opponents look like amateurs at their will.
But his best moment was yet to come.
Trailing against a really tough, battle hardened Real Betis at home, it was a game where chances were few and performance was hardly encouraging for the home side. And as the match was evidently slipping out of their hands, Barcelona fans knew they had a long season ahead. But Abelardo stepped up to score an 88th minute equalizer to send Camp Nou in raptures.
Abelardo truly arrived in the Catalan capital.
But as Cruyff woke up from his dream, he knew major changes were needed in order for the next season to restore the voyage that conquered “almost” every harbour in Europe. Luis Figo was brought to reignite the creative spark, Gheorghe Popescu signed from Tottenham Hotspurs to add defensive strength and young Ivan de la Pena was promoted from Barcelona B.
Abelardo, meanwhile, continued to go from strength to strength; but with the arrival of Gheroghe Popescu, Cruyff got a silky, technically sound defensive midfielder capable of playing centre back. As Barcelona kept chasing a brilliant Atletico Madrid side, Abelardo had two other center backs in Sergi Esclusa and Popescu to fight for the starting spot. Though the Romanian international mostly played in midfield, Abelardo was often compromised in favor of the former due to his superior technical ability.
But that didn’t last long.
Having made massive improvement when it came to picking up the right pass, the manager realized Abelardo’s efforts and started giving him regular starts in the lineup, and soon, he became a key player for the team again. So much so, he ended up beating his previous best of 41 appearance for Catalans he set in 1994-95.3 Abelardo was abandoning his former self who used brawn over brain and emerging as someone who is cunning enough to get the job done without much damage. Fans were already loving him for his metamorphosis — both mental and physical.
Sadly, his emergence was severely overshadowed by his boss’ downfall.
After having a great start in the league as well as in UEFA cup, it finally looked like the team was getting back into rhythm and it seemed like the nightmare season was history. But like a sand castle standing against high tide, Cruyff helplessly saw his team taking second spot to Valencia after a frustrating draw against Sevilla at home. Eleven days later, Bayern Munich overturned Los Cules’ two away goal cushion to advance to the final of UEFA Cup.
Despite a solid display throughout the campaign, the whole team received a lot of criticism for their collapse, and their weak performances in key fixtures at home.
Johan Cruyff knew it was time to go.
His tough luck continued as England eliminated Spain in a penalty shootout of Euro 96.Success in international stages was something that eluded Cruyff throughout his career.
While a new English coach in Sir Bobby Robson waited for him in the Camp Nou dugout, his initial influence in Robson’s starting eleven was fairly limited ; playing just 17 minutes in eight games. Despite being out of the team for a considerable time at the start of the season, Abelardo picked up brilliantly as he and his childhood friend Luis Enrique played a major role in completing cup treble in 95-96 as they went on to win Kings’ Cup, Cup Winners Cup and Supercup that season.
Abelardo added his first league winner’s medal in the next season under a certain hot shot named Louis van Gaal, who came to Spain after making headlines in Netherlands. And he didn’t disappoint either: club completed another treble in 96-97, winning League, UEFA Super Cup and Kings’ Cup. Another league victory followed in the next season, with Abelardo at its centre.
By this time, Pitu was already one of the best defenders in the league. He had been a key player in a very competitive Barcelona and Spanish national team over the years. Just like any ambitious player in his prime and part of any ambitious team in the world, he was rearing to make the next season even better.
Beginning of an end
Despite all the success that came with van Gaal in the first season, controversy always surrounded the mercurial Dutch. Just like Johan Cruyff, van Gaal too was suffering from a backroom fall out with the players. While a lot of players thrived under him, Brazilians in particular, were suffering. His treatment of Sonny Anderson and Giovanni was well documented. And media4, just like Rivaldo was going berserk on Louis’ persistence about letting him play on the left flank when the World Player of the Year was a nightmare up front.
The 1999-2000 transfer window alone was enough to undo whatever van Gaal built. Anderson, Giovanni, Nadal, Carlos Busquets all departed. This led to an infuriated media and ironically, Johan Cruyff had the loudest voice4.
But the team picked up where they left off from last season. Despite a shocking Super Cup loss to Valencia, they were excellent in the league, cruising through to the semifinals of the Champions League. Abelardo, too, was his excellent self in this campaign, continuing to be indispensable to the squad.
However, like so many times in his career as a player, his progress was overshadowed by something else.
Valencia were playing football like never before. Coached by Hector Cuper, Los Che became a team Barcelona just couldn’t beat. They played with an unmatched swagger with stars like Gaizka Mendieta , Miroslav Djukic, and Claudio Lopez in their side, Valencia always delivered a punch that managed to hurt Barcelona in more than just one way.
These two teams crossed each other’s paths several times over in the course of the season. And it was Hector Cuper’s side that came out on top almost every time. They stunned Blaugrana in the Super Cup, defeated them in the league which helped Deportivo to climb up to the top and managed to hold it till the end. But their victory in Mestalla was overshadowed by talks of why Abelardo sat out the match on the bench to witness his team getting thrashed 4-1. Even after that, despite winning 2-1 at home, Barcelona were eliminated from the Champions League. This was an irreparable loss and Louis Van Gaal wasn’t given a second chance to make amends.
Maybe it was a sign of things to come. This was one of the last few big games Abelardo played for Barcelona.
It would be horribly wrong to assume that it was the humiliation against Valencia that kickstarted his downfall. But that match was the first public display that too much football was taking a toll on Abelardo’s body. His positioning was poor, and he was being constantly outrun by far more athletic Valencia players in the second leg at home.
After a solid start of the season in 00-01, he suffered a serious knee injury in a friendly match against England, Abelardo missed 13 consecutive league games for the first time in his career. After being out for almost a year, he got injured again and couldn’t participate in a league game till gameweeek 28 in the 2001-02. And that, more or less, marked the end of his season.
Despite regaining his fitness and starting regularly for the remaining fixtures, Abelardo was aware that his playing days were numbered.
In the summer of 2002, Abelardo Fernandez left for Alaves after eight illustrious years in the Barcelona jersey.
Abelardo hung his boots after playing just one season with Alaves. He is certainly remembered as one of the best during his time in Barcelona, but his contributions have often gone unnoticed in the footballing community. For someone who has won and played so much at the highest level, he is criminally underrated. While circumstances have played their part, very often his abilities were challenged by new managers – enough to hurt the self-esteem of any modern day player of his stature. People questioned whether his rough, out-dated style would suit Barcelona’s philosophy. He gave them all the answers on the pitch.
Regardless of doubts people harboured about him, Abelardo not only stepped up and made his critics his biggest admirers, but always remained humble throughout his highs, and determined during his lows.
Abelardo earned just three red cards in the league throughout his time as a Barcelona player.3 This is quite an achievement for a defender who was often tagged as “technically deficient”!
Truth is, Abelardo was not technically poor, he just blended his bullish style of play with a lot of tidy, smart work. He was a great ball player, and one of the best in the league when it came to marking the striker out of the game. It was just that his style of play was perhaps not as eye candy as that of his peers. Even though his defensive contribution often went unnoticed, he wouldn’t mind. His first priority was to clear the danger and then start creating something. Carlos Puyol too picked some of his traits during their time together under Van Gaal, and went on to become one of the modern day greats.
While the team’s inconsistency, managerial instability, and injury denied him the height of fame and recognition that Abelardo deserved, he will always be remembered for his contribution to Los Cules.
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.
Spain 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
Tito Vilanova’s journey from the mortal life to that of immortality
Goalden Times pays tribute to Tito Vilanova — a ‘great football strategist’ but, above all, ‘a deeply honourable human being’.
Francesc ‘Tito’ Vilanova i Bayo bid farewell to this world on Friday, April 25, 2014 at the age of 45 after battling with throat cancer for more than 30 months. His passing has immersed the entire football fraternity in mourning. Tito has led an exemplary life of courage and integrity. Even in the most difficult times in his life, Tito said football was his best therapy. The man, who mostly preferred to stay behind the scene, significantly contributed to the making and shaping up of the footballer we know as Lionel Andrés Messi today.
Tito started his playing career at UnióEsportivaFigueres, football team based in Figueres, a town in the Girona province of the autonomous Catalonia. In 1984-85, at the age of 15, he came to FC Bercelona for a trial and joined La Masia where he stayed for five years. Some of his close associates in those early days included Pep Guardiola, Jordi Roura and Aureli Altimira. Who would have thought that they together would create the dream Barcelona team later!
He played his club football with Barcelona B and a number of other clubs including his native Figueres, Celta, Mallorca and Elche. Tito was a lanky midfielder and particularly known for his free-kicks. No wonder Messi started getting better with his free-kicks under Tito!
In 2002, Tito joined La Masia’s coaching staff and started working with the young Messi, Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas among others. After a spell as technical director at Terrassa FC, Tito joined Barcelona B as the assistant manager under Pep Guardiola and their coaching, promoted the team to Segunda Division B. Pep was given the charge of the senior team in the following season and he took Tito there along with him . Tito was a master tactician; it was his idea to play Messi in the false 9 role for the first time when Barcelona annihilated Madrid with a 2-6 win in the Spanish capital on May 2, 2009. Fourteen major titles in four years and playing some of the most breathtaking football that the universe has ever seen, the Pep-Tito tandem created the dream Barcelona team.
When Pep took a sabbatical in 2012, Tito was asked to be the main man in charge and, what a season he had at Barcelona! In spite of him missing four months of the season due to surgery, Barcelona won the 2012-13 La Liga with a record 100 points equalling Real Madrid’s record from the previous season. Upon their feat, Iain Macintosh, the UK- based sports journalist, tweeted: “Tito Vilanova orchestrated a title-winning campaign from his hospital bed even while desperately ill. The man’s a legend.”
Tito Vilanova was the first manager in Spain to field a team with 11 home grown players. His team won 32 of the 38 games (84.21% win rate) in La Liga, more than any other coach in this millennium. The team scored 115 goals in 38 games and set a new goal-scoring record.
Tito was first diagnosed with parotid gland cancer in November 2011 and got his tumour removed. But the cruel cancer relapsed in 2012 December and he went to New York for treatment where he was given chemotherapy and radiotherapy before he returned to Spain in March to see his Barcelona take the Spanish title.
Tito was set to continue as the manager of the team. But on July 21, 2013 Tito Vilanova sent an emotional letter to FC Barcelona explaining that he had to leave the Blaugrana bench to continue medical treatment. His health condition just did not allow him to continue his football therapy any more.
On April 18th, 2014, Tito was operated for a gastrointestinal complication and within a week he was rushed to Hospital Quirón’s emergency room where he quietly retired from football and life, forever.
With homage pouring in from all corners of the sporting world, ex-Bayern Munich manager Jupp Heynckes’s words echo the loudest: “…Tito is a great football strategist. He’s hard-working, reserved and valiant, and has a direct, fluid relation with his players. He has a positive sense of human values. He has not only set an example for the sporting world, but for the world in general with his outstanding elegance…”. Perhaps this world was never meant for one as beautiful as Tito.
Andy West, the Spanish football writer, has concluded aptly, “And more than that, he should also be recalled as a deeply honourable human being who met adversity and triumph alike with humility and dignity.”
Goalden Times extends their sincere condolences and prayers for the family — wife Montse and children Carlota and Adrià. With Tito up there, I know there’ll be no more tears in heaven.
Photo credits: Talk Sports
Spanish Corner | Looking beyond FC Barcelona and Real Madrid
In this feature we will bring in stories from Spain. In the first of its series, Indranath Mukherjee looks beyond Barça and Real Madrid and shows how Spanish football is more than the sum of the two giants
The 2012-13 La Liga season started earlier than usual and after five games, FC Barcelona is sitting at the top of the table with a perfect record while the defending champions, Real Madrid are 8 points behind. But we all know that by the end of the season the 7 teams that separate the two champion sides will fail to keep pace and the league will turn out to be a two-horse race. To quote José Mourinho, Barcelona and Real Madrid will make any football league in the world a two-horse race. On the basis of the last two-three years, there is merit in what José has said. Look at the nominees for the Ballon d’Or awards for the last few years and you will see that arguably the best players of the world today play for either of the two clubs. They have been playing incredible football weekend after weekend and it’s not easy to end the season with 99 or 100 points, however superior they may be, compared to rest of the clubs in the league. Barcelona and Real Madrid look like two sides from a different planet and we shall talk about their rivalry throughout the season. But for now let us turn our attention to the other clubs in Spain and see if there’s an interesting story somewhere.
Football is a way of life in Spain and it reflects the country’s regional cultures much more than any other country in Europe. Each region feels so special about their identity that many could even take offense to the term ‘Spanish’ in the title of the story. Many pundits call the Europa League the true test of a league’s depth and if there is any element of truth in it then La Liga would certainly claim to be one of the strongest leagues in the world. And this is despite the criminally discriminating television rights that are systematically destroying any possibility of the other clubs to be competitive in the league. Yet Spanish football cannot be about its two giants only.
Most recently, we saw Atlético Madrid completely destroying the Champions League winners, Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup final. Last year, in the UEFA Europa League we saw how Athletic Bilbao dominated Manchester United both home and away. Valencia was perhaps a relatively familiar name in Europe even before the beginning of the millennium. They, in fact, made it to consecutive UEFA Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001 but football historians perhaps remember them from the 1980 European Cup Winners’ Cup final when they beat Arsenal FC 5-4 on penalties. Celta de Vigo came from the wilds of Galicia to knock out Aston Villa and Liverpool, in the 1998-99 UEFA Cup. Deportivo de La Coruña, from the same region, won La Liga in 1999-2000 in some style finishing five points ahead of the runners-up Barcelona. In 1999, Real Mallorca from the Balearic Islands stormed into the final of the last Cup Winners’ Cup only to lose out 2-1 to Lazio at Villa Park in Birmingham. The rise of Alavés, in 2001, was brief but astonishing to say the least. In the 2001 UEFA Cup final at the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund they came from behind twice to finish the match 4-4 against Liverpool. Pool went on to win the final on the golden goal rule, thanks to a Delfí Geli header in his own net and thus completed a treble of Football League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup.
With the advent of the likes of ESPN, Sky Sports, Eurosports, Ten Sports and more importantly the World Wide Web, football fans across the world now know a lot more about Spanish football. For instance, they know that there exists another football club in Barcelona called Espanyol, but what they may not know is that the club have officially changed the spelling of their name in Catalan since 1994, using the ‘y’ in place of the previous Castilian ‘ñ’, as in Español, the provocative name given to them back in 1902.
Villarreal CF, the small town club in the province of Castellón within the Valencian Community won the Intertoto Cup in 2003-04, thus qualifying for the old UEFA Cup where they went on to reach the semi-finals only to lose out to the eventual champions, Valencia CF. But their dream season in Europe was 2005-06 when they qualified for the UEFA Champions League by defeating Everton in the play-off. In the group stage, they had drawn both their games with Manchester United and eliminated Internazionale on away goals in the quarter-finals. They went out in the semi-final against Arsenal after Jens Lehmann saved a Juan Román Riquelme penalty in the 89th minute of the second leg at Villarreal. But by then The Yellow Submarine had won the hearts of millions of football fans across the globe.
Miguel Pérez Cuesta, nicknamed Michu, has gained instant popularity in England for his display at Swansea City. Folks there know that he hails from Rayo Vallecano, a football club based in Madrid, in the neighbourhood of Vallecas. Another Madrid club, Getafe made it to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup in 2007-08 and gave a gutsy performance against Bayern Munich to draw 3-3 in Madrid but lost out on aggregate.
Three Spanish clubs have won five of the last nine UEFA Cup / Europa League competitions, and we are not talking about Barcelona or Real Madrid here. This in itself is ample testimony to the fact that Spanish football is more than the sum of the Madrid and Catalan giants.
The football rivalry within Spain also goes beyond Madrid and Barcelona and by some distance. The rivalry in Spain exists in two layers: one among clubs competing from different regions and the other among clubs competing from the same city. The atrocious animosity that exists between Sevilla and Betis, for instance, may make the British derbies, except the Glasgow one, look like friendly matches. The primary difference between the two clubs stems from a socio-economic divide – Betis representing the relatively poorer, working class in the city while Sevilla is more a club of the bourgeois. We know that there is no discrete charm in the coexistence of the working class and the prosperous ones anywhere in the world; the economic gap between the two classes in Spain is much less than it is in England. Probably because football is a way of life in Spain, they need it to allow class consciousness to manifest itself. In 1998, when Betis president Manuel Ruiz de Lopera announced the most expensive transfer of the season with the £22m acquisition of the over-hyped Brazilian Denílson, it was actually a statement made to the other side of the city.
Another derby in Spain which is among the bitterest is the Asturian one, when Real Oviedo visit Sporting de Gijón, supporters apparently wear blue helmets (symbol of workmen) to avoid the barrage of objects thrown at them as they approach the stadium. This ‘throwing of objects’ is symbolic too; the residents of Gijón throw coals (symbolic, or even literal at times) to accuse the visitors of having more to eat at the onset of the civil war. Although the Asturians in general were anti-Francisco Franco, and Real Oviedo’s own suffering was no less heroic – the local interpretation is somewhat ironical.
Similar class differences get manifested, although to a much lesser extent, between Barcelona and Espanyol, Deportivo and Celta, and Real Madrid and Atlético; in the capital though the actual working class is represented by Rayo Vallecano. According to Vicente del Bosque, putting regional tensions aside has helped Spain achieve international success. There is apparent merit in what he says but if one looks at the Spanish society in general, sense of nationalism is still strong in Catalonia and the Basque Country. It’s that Spain now has a golden generation of footballers and in players like Xavi Hernández and Iker Casillas, Spain have found leaders who understand the worth of defending the national side. Otherwise for the Spanish, ‘Provenance is Everything’ and it will remain that way. Football will always be among the key, if not the medium, through which the differences between the social classes will get manifested.
Coming back to 2012-13 La Liga season, it’s still very young and we will keep talking about what’s happening, in the course of the next nine months. But for now, it’s great to have Deportivo back in the top flight!
Most Competitive League in Europe
“Competitionis acontestbetween individuals, groups, animals, etc. for territory, a niche, or a location ofresources. It arises whenever two or more parties strive for a goal which cannot be shared.” Wikipedia defines competition this way. However, it is not so easy to define I guess. How do we classify competitiveness of a European football league? Surely, the most popular football league in the world need not necessarily be the most competitive one. Neither the Galacticos nor supposedly the best ever club team playing in the same league can ensure that.
English Premier League Spanish La LigaItalian Serie A
German Bundesliga French Ligue 1Dutch Eredivisie
Some may feel that the number of winners over the past few years is the best parameter to judge the ruthlessness of any league. But here’s a question. How many of us have heard of the Campionato Sammarinese di Calcio? Not many, in my opinion. It is the football league operated in San Marino. Since its inception in 1985, it has seen 10 different winners – 5 in the last decade. This league is ranked 53rd in Europe by UEFA. The Swedish Allsvenskan, top division football league in Sweden has seen the trophy taking a tour of as many as 7 different club locker rooms during the same period. There can be several leagues in Europe which do not feature highly in the UEFA league rankings, or are not watched by billions, but they are certainly competitive by this parameter. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that EPL or La Liga is the most predictable league in Europe. There are other contenders. Last time the Scottish League was won by a club other than Celtic or Rangers, was way back in 1984/85 – the club was Aberdeen, managed by a certain (not Sir yet) Alex Ferguson. So, let’s not complicate things – just get on with some hard core facts and statistics.
In this research, we have made certain assumptions and here is a quick snapshot to start off.
Select Leagues from Europe
For this analysis, top 3 leagues from Europe have been shortlisted – English Premier League, Italian Serie A and Spanish La Liga. For the German Bundesliga, French League 1, Dutch Eredivisie fans, I seek an apology. The 3 leagues chosen had the maximum number (4) of clubs appearing in the UEFA Champions League for the past few years. Germany has overtaken Italy this year and will be having 4 teams in the Champions League season 2012-13, but for the time period considered – more on that later – Italy used to have more participants than Germany. Under the parameters considered, the French or German League could have come up with the honours if included, but we have taken into consideration the pedigree of the league also.
Certain parameters have been shortlisted to take the analysis forward. They are:
No. of drawn games
No. of matches won with a victory margin of 3+
Difference in points across the league table
Point gap between the 1st and 5th placed teams
No. of Goals scored
No. of different winners
No. of different Teams featuring in the top 4
Points dropped by the top 4 teams against the Mid table opponents
Points dropped by the top 4 teams against the Bottom 5 teams
For the analysis, 5 years of recent data has been collected from the respective league’s official website. There is no need for normalization as the league structure is the same for all the 3 leagues – 20 teams play in the home and away basis, at the end of which 3 teams get relegated. So number of teams, matches played, and the number of survivors in the league – are well synchronized to help our analysis. For the analysis, point deductions or any penalties imposed (most notably in Serie A 2006-07 season for the match fixing fiasco) have been ignored. Subsequently, the league standings have also been altered and updated. For example, Fiorentina was deducted 15 points at the start of the season and hence finished 6th in the League. Had they not been penalized, they would have finished 3rd and that is the place they have been put in for this piece’s analysis. We are dissecting the competitiveness in the field, so any off-the-field implications are best kept away with.
It is very difficult to rank the parameters or to decide which factor is to be given how much weightage. So, let us just assess the parameters individually as far as possible and see if we reach a coherent conclusion from there.
1. Number of Drawn Games
A drawn game, more often than not, depicts the inability to win of either sides playing. Putting it in the colloquial lingo, “they have cancelled each other out… it’s a stalemate.”
La Liga has a lower number of drawn games historically and that too at a downward trend. EPL and Serie A seem to lock horns with each other with the former taking over the mantle from the latter in recent years. This is due to the fact that EPL has an upward trend in number of drawn games, whereas Serie A is quite the opposite. Overall the number of drawn games in these 3 leagues hover around the 25% mark, take one or two percent here and there. So, it means effectively 9-10 drawn games for each team in a season on an average basis. That is pretty high, show-casing the high level of competition in each of the leagues.
2. Number. of Matches with Winning Margin 3+
These score lines have been few and far between in EPL & Serie A
Fiercely competitive teams, when playing against each other, will have a very narrow winning margin. As a thumb rule, a margin of anything over 2-0 or 3-1 or likewise can be termed as a stroll in the park. Agreed, results can be misleading; but in a wide horizon, these anomalies are likely to be ironed out. So, let us see how many thrashing we have witnessed in the recent past.
As expected, Serie A teams have lived up to their reputation of having a tight defence and thus have had fewer experiences of these thrashings. The teams from Italy on an average experience this kind of humiliation only once in the entire season.For the other 2 leagues, the number almost doubles.The number of such matches has, more or less, remained constant over the years for each individual league. La Liga & EPL are neck and neck, although the former is slightly ahead.
3. Difference in points across the League
Let us now see by how much have the table toppers leapfrogged the last boys? To do that, we have categorized the 20 teams in any league under 3 broad subheads:
Top 4 teams – they are the Top teams as they go on to participate in the top tier of European Club Football, the Champions League.
Bottom 5 teams –3 of these teams were relegated eventually, whereas the rest are assumed to be involved in a dogfight for survival for the majority of the season. Hence, it makes perfect sense to categorize them in the same bracket.
The Mid tablers – rest 11 teams in the league.
Now average points earned by each of these 3 groups have been taken up for calculating standard deviation – a statistical parameter, to measure the proximity of variables under consideration – of points in the league. This gives us a fair idea of how closely the teams, or rather cluster of teams, are finishing the league.
EPL is showing steady decrease in this, meaning the teams are getting ever closer. The figures are more or less constant for Serie A, although with a decreasing trend. La Liga is just the opposite in this regard – the teams are finishing with some considerable point gap among them. This was the scenario in EPL a few years back, but they have become quite competitive over the years. The case of La Liga is simply opposite.
4. Point Gap between 1st & 5th placed teams
The team to finish 5th in these leagues are given a pat at the back with consolation. They nearly miss out to an elusive Champions League Football spot. So, let us see how the gap between the Champion and this unfortunate side has evolved over the years.
In sync with the previous stat, the gap seems to get more and more widened in La Liga. This is expected, as their champion team is a certain Barcelona. Also, the spread between the 2nd and the 3rd placed teams are widening quite alarmingly – 5, 10, 8, 21 and 25 points over the last 5 years. Just to put it into perspective, the 21 or 25 points gap is by far the biggest gap between any two consecutive placed teams for these 3 leagues over the last 5 years. In fact 25 point gap encompassed all the teams baring the top 5 in year 2010-11 in EPL. People do not call this league a 2-horse race just for fun. For Serie A and EPL, there is a downward trend in this regard. So it shows there is an increasing competition towards the business end of the league.
Udinese edging out Lazio for the last Champions League spot by goal difference in 2010-11
5. Points dropped by the Top 4 against Mid-tablers
Depth of any league is measured by the skill, tactics and determination applied on the field by the mid-tablers – teams finishing 6th to 15th in the final standing. More often than not, they fancy their chances against the big boys, especially playing at home, and are capable of getting a point, sometimes even 3. Teams like Sunderland, Mallorca and Palermo have often played a significant part in deciding the fate of the league winner. Stronger these teams, more cut-throat is guaranteed in the league.
In La Liga, the mid-tablers are losing the ground steadily to the front runners – there is a steady decline in the points dropped. EPL demonstrates just the reverse trend, the mid-table toddlers are going from strength to strength. However, Serie A has been the leader by far in this respect over the years. EPL, though, has a sharper trend and may overtake Serie A if the pattern continues. Overall, the top teams drop one-third of points against the mid-table opponents across these 3 leagues. This is quite a hefty proportion – 1 draw every 2 matches.
Mid Table teams look to set the scores straight
6. Points dropped by the Top 4 against Bottom 5 Teams
The relegation contenders often play a spoil sport. The top teams are expected to win against them, that too handsomely. However, they can sometime cause an upset to the joy of other title contenders. A Fulham can upset Arsenal’s plans of automatic qualification to the Champions League. A Livorno can snatch away the title from Roma. So, let us see how the stats stack up over the years.
Like the previous section, La Liga table toppers are improving year after year against the minnows. On the other hand, the other two leagues are finding it more and more difficult to walk away with the honours against the bottom clubs. EPL though, in spite of this trend, has a lower average points dropped – there the top 4 teams are doing fairly well against the less fancied opponents. Serie A teams have been the front runner in this stat – they are way ahead of the competition and are steadily increasing the gap. Overall, the top 4 teams are performing well enough against the lower clubs – they concede only 10% points in these encounters. However, the position of the league table, the time of the season when they are dropping points – these factors are more important. Like the bottom most team in the league table, Wolves were the first team in the EPL 2010-11 season to beat the eventual champions Manchester United. The defeat set the Red Devils on a poor run of form and Chelsea had the opportunity to cash in.
David v/s Goliath is not always a foregone conclusion
So many statistics and analysis! So where are we now? Can we reach any conclusion? Let us try to recapitulate the results in a nutshell.
In the above analysis, the most competitive league based on each parameter has been given rank 1. The arrow’s direction represents the trend, whereas its colour depicts the competitiveness – green for more cut-throat, red for the opposite and yellow for middle-of-the-road competitiveness. For example, a green downward arrow means that the league has a downward trend as far as the parameter (say, Point gap between the 1st & the 5th placed Teams) is concerned, and that fact (the arrow being green) will make the league more competitive in the coming years.
It is quite evident from our analysis that Serie A is by far the most competitive League. EPL may be just edging out La Liga for the period under consideration. So, what about the hue and cry about EPL being the most competitive league in Europe? What does their dominance in the Champions League (i.e. number of teams featuring in quarters or semis) mean?
One thing going in favour of EPL is the number of goals scored. Serie A, being a defence dominated league, logically has less number of goals. EPL, though not as competitive as Serie A, scores over in this aspect.
A definitive answer lies in the trend analysis of our findings. While La Liga is finding it difficult to remain competitive as per the parameters provided here, EPL is fast catching up with the Serie A. In recent 2-3 years, they have surely leapfrogged Serie A in every aspect of competitiveness. Moreover, number of goals scored in Seria A is shrinking. EPL is quite the opposite – far more goals are scored there and the rate is even better than La Liga. It is not surprising, since the top English clubs are now massive sports franchises which can lure the top players to the Premier league. So, EPL apart from being quite competitive is a fairly entertaining league (after all, a goal is what every football lover wants to see, isn’t it!). If the trend continues for the coming years, EPL fans’ claim will be hard to turn down.