Supreme Spain still in EPL’s shadow

Andy West

Andy West is a sports writer originally from the UK and now living in Barcelona. He has worked in professional football since 1998 and specialises in the Spanish Primera Division and the English Premier League. Follow him on Twitter at @andywest01.

JAN 8 — If last night’s FIFA Ballon d’Or awards ceremony is anything to go by, it’s pretty clear that Spain is easily the dominant force in world football at the moment.

The three players shortlisted for the prestigious player of the year award — Lionel Messi (winner for a record-breaking fourth consecutive year), Andres Iniesta and Cristiano Ronaldo — all play their club football in Spain.

Even more impressively, every single player named in the “world 11” plays their domestic football in Spain.

And finally, the nominees for the best coach are all (or were all) based in the same country — winner Vicente Del Bosque with the national team, Jose Mourinho with Real Madrid and Pep Guardiola with Barcelona.

Although the latter two managers may well be taking charge of English clubs next season as the Chelsea/Manchester United/Manchester City managerial riddle slowly unravels, the overall picture is pretty clear: when it comes to football, Spain is the undisputed world number one.

However, in commercial terms the Spanish game is still lagging well behind the English Premier League (EPL), which continues to dominate the global scene as by far the most-watched domestic league outside its own country.

As Malaysian readers of this column will verify — indeed, you know far better than I do — there’s nothing like the EPL to grab the international sporting spotlight on a week-by-week basis.

Real Madrid and particularly Barcelona might have closed the gap in the last few years, with European giants like AC Milan and Bayern Munich also attracting a few followers, but they are far outnumbered by fans of the big English clubs — Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham.

Even Liverpool, who haven’t won the English championship since 1990, remain an enormously popular club on the global scale.

Whether you’re in Kuala Lumpur, Sydney, Nairobi or New York, the picture is the same: the EPL remains, by a considerable distance, the most popular sporting league on the planet.

And that probably won’t change any time soon, even though the quality of Spanish football is considerably higher than the frantic fare on offer from England.

The reason for that is the significant cultural advantage enjoyed by the EPL over its competitors. 

Much of the large and lucrative Asian market — including Malaysia, of course — as well as the United States, Australasia and parts of Africa are former British colonies and therefore possess inherent indelible cultural ties with the “mother country”, even though independence was achieved many years ago.

Language is also significant — the populations of the former colonial nations all boast a strong understanding of English, and the proliferation of American popular culture means that English is far more prevalent than Spanish in other countries such as South Korea and Indonesia.

And although it’s by no means a pre-requisite to speak English to enjoy the EPL (or to speak Spanish to enjoy La Liga), it certainly helps in establishing a feeling of identity, which is essential in the creation of “fans” as opposed to simply “viewers”.

So Spain has some catching up to do in order to erase the inherent advantages enjoyed by the EPL in terms of a global viewing audience.

It’s by no means an easy process, but the quality of Spanish football certainly deserves a higher overseas audience than it currently enjoys and I believe three steps would significantly improve La Liga’s international status.

Firstly, and most easy to achieve, the league’s authorities could schedule more games to kick off early in the afternoon, rather than the late evening kick offs that are traditional in Spain but the worst time possible for the billions of potential viewers in Asia.

Secondly, television revenue should be distributed more evenly rather than vastly in favour of the big two — Barcelona and Real Madrid — as is currently the case. 

The inequality of the Spanish league compared to the more equal (but still unequal) English game means that last season third-placed Valencia received roughly the same amount of TV income as Wigan, who narrowly escaped relegation.

The rampant inequality in Spain between the big two and the rest is firstly creating an increasingly unbalanced league, with La Liga’s 18 remaining teams finding it impossible to compete with Barca and Real Madrid. 

It also means that Spanish clubs have little chance of holding onto the best players, who inevitably end up either joining one of the big two or leaving the country altogether. Michu and Santi Cazorla are two recent examples, Isco might be the next, and the consistent drain of “secondary” stars undoubtedly lessens the global appeal of La Liga.

And finally, Spanish clubs need to find a way of boosting their attendances. As canny AC Milan president (not to mention Italian Prime Minister) Silvio Berlusconi noted two decades ago, the primary purpose of fans inside the stadium in the modern age is to make the sport look good on television.

Even the dullest of games enjoy enhanced appeal when played in front of a raucous packed house, while end-to-end thrillers manage to lose an edge of excitement for the TV viewer when played in front of the backdrop of a half-empty stadium.

Many La Liga games attract poor attendances, partly because many clubs have stubbornly insisted on big ticket price increases in recent seasons despite the country’s dire economic situation. 

There’s also an unsophisticated approach to marketing, with most clubs simply putting the tickets on sale and waiting for people to turn up rather than the more proactive, focused approach employed by their English counterparts.

So Spain is lagging behind in its global appeal, even though its players are setting new standards for technical excellence. But empires are built to fall, so the EPL should not become complacent — if the Spanish authorities ever get their act together, they could take over the sporting world.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.