Greed, Power, and Cowardice: My Thoughts on the Big Two (and Why I Love Being a Sevillista)

Here’s an absurdly long essay featuring some of my thoughts on what it means to follow a mega-club, feeling ambiguous about your club’s success and operations, and how I see Barcelona and Real Madrid. This is kind of a collection and summation of thoughts I’ve had over the last couple years of watching the ongoing TV revenue saga unfold, and in particular in response to the big two crushing the totally awesome RevoluciónDelNido with back-room politics and intimidation. It’s way too many words to put on the front page, so this post is going to need a jump.

…Cue the jump:

In June of 2003, Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea FC, then a mostly struggling mid-table side that occasionally won the odd League Cup or top four finish, and set forth on a project that would change the game. That transfer season Roman poured 171 million euros net into the club, bringing some stars and several pretty good players to the club. The next year, an additional 158 million was “invested”. People laughed at the brash and obvious attempt to buy silverware with mountains of money, but that season Chelsea won the Premier League. Then the Russian yacht enthusiast tossed another 58 million into the team, and another title came as a result. People stopped laughing, but the Blues had hardly won respect: it was almost as if it wasn’t the team that won the titles, but rather Abromovich’s petrodollars had lifted the trophy. As an outside observer, it seemed to me that as Chelsea achieved more success, they were afforded less admiration–in fact, they were mocked for the turnaround. Abramovic didn’t spend so much money every year, but in the time since he has purchased the club, he’s averaged a net expenditure of 70 million euros each year, and in the process has built (and, recently, rebuilt) a legitimate Champions League contending side. Consider this a proof of concept: given enough money, even a mediocre side can achieve success.

In the eight years leading up to the 2008-2009 season, Manchester City had finished 18th, [promotion to first division], 9th, 16th, 8th, 15th, 14th, and 9th, respectively. They were, by all accounts, a pretty crappy team, with basically no hope of winning any silverware in the near future, save a miracle. In the 2008 offseason, a miracle came in the form of the Abu Dhabi United Group, and the next major money-for-trophies project was born. Sheik Mansour spent 130 million, and then 118 million, and then 141 million, etc, averaging 114 million euros/year to date in converting an inarguably bad team into one that most people agree will challenge for the Premier League title this year (or next, or the year after). The proof of concept has thus been advanced: given even more money, an even worse team can find some measure of success. But, once again, most see City as having purchased this newfound strength: what they’ve achieved has been bought more than won in a sporting contest.

You doubtless already know this, and you’re wondering why I’m rehashing old information about EPL clubs on a website about a La Liga team. Or maybe you’re not–the connection is probably pretty obvious. These teams, in many ways the object of scorn for the way they’ve found success, are defined by the money they’ve used to buy success. It makes me think of a couple teams in Spain…

Every year, Barcelona and Real Madrid enjoy an institutionalized revenue advantage that would seem great to even those English sugardaddied clubs–while Abramovich’s patience or resources slowly lessened as the Abu Dhabi Group’s inevitably will one day, the big two in Spain enjoy 100 million euros more revenue in just TV money than their closest rival. That’s like having an oil sheik buy you trophies and success every year! Think about that–if after Abramovich’s first three or four seasons of insane spending, he just reloaded and kept going at that rate. Imagine what kind of team he might have assembled then; think of the spending! (You don’t have to imagine very hard, of course–presumably once he’d built the best team in the world, he’d sell a top striker for pennies, buy an absurdly expensive one to replace him, sell that one for pennies, then buy a new fantastically expensive striker, then another one, then reinforce the best midfield in the world with another ridiculously expensive midfielder, etc). A team like that would be virtually guaranteed victory. If that rich oil man could somehow do this at the expense of the rest of the league, if his riches could somehow come at the cost of other teams, meaning every dollar he used to strengthen his team somehow weakened the others, how much more so, right? The idea that that team wouldn’t win would be laughable. But their success would be equally laughable to most; we’re talking about having so much more money than the competition as to make the phrase “competitive advantage” a self-negating oxymoron.

In recent years, Del Nido has become increasingly vocal about negotiating a fairer sharing of La Liga’s TV revenue. He certainly may be working purely in self interest–to increase his own piece of the pie–but the fact is that his efforts are also in line with things like fairness and justice, as well as simply preserving the league in Spain, a league which I enjoy immensely, and a country whose culture and people I find maybe the most bewitching in the entire world. As a Sevillista, this gives me a lot of pride. Sevilla FC is bravely leading a revolution, fighting an enormous evil giant. I mean, it’s just a sport, but it’s also very much a revolution! Anyone watching the proceedings in Egypt this year could not help but be enthralled in part because on the one hand is the evil few in power, and on the other hand is the powerless and just many. And how can you not cheer for these guys?!? The same parts of my brain light up watching Del Nido behind his podium, speaking truth to power. Not only that, but my team’s president is emulating the ultimate and classic Spanish hero–Quixote goes for all the windmills–and he’s doing it as a classic Andalucían–bluster, swears and obstinacy oozing from every pore. I love fairness and justice. I love the game of soccer, and I love watching teams compete at it. I love Spain. I love Andalucía. And damn it all, I love this club.

Sometimes when I think about all this, and I start feeling that way, I wonder how Barcelona and Real Madrid fans feel about their clubs. Their clubs are standing for the opposite of all those things! They’re actively fighting those things! They don’t care about Spain or the Spanish League, they don’t care about fairness or justice or soccer or competition. Or at least, not nearly as much as they care about money and winning trophies. It’s sort of shameful, the way they intimidate other clubs and prevent them from even discussing how they might move forward in their own best interests, as they did last month and have probably done before, and will doubtless do again. If Del Nido and co are the inspiring, churning masses of the rebel uprising, aren’t RM and Barca the evil dictator? Again, this is just a sport so let’s not get carried away, but if you like revolutions for justice and you’re a big two fan, how do you process that? Don’t you want to cheer for the revolutioners and not the rebellion-quashing fat cats? Do you feel ashamed of your team? Does the ambivalence impact how you feel about every trophy, glamorous signing, and win? I’m sure I’d be giddy if my team was winning games by silly margins every week, too. But I think if my team had gotten there by dint of an enormous financial advantage that my team actively and spinelessly propagated, maybe less so? How much fun is talking about your team’s tactics when all discussions of formations, defensive strategy, and attacking philosophy can just be adequately replaced by saying “nobody–literally NOBODY–on their team would even have a chance of playing for my team”? I’m bored just thinking about it.

Anyway, this is a lot of words to say some relatively obvious things: just as Chelsea’s and Manchester City’s success is qualified by the external and “artificial” (relative to a contest that is supposed to concern 22 people and a ball and a field) advantages afforded them, so too is the success of the Big Two in Spain. This is not a discussion of whether that advantage is fair or what should be done about it (we’ll continue to debate that in the comments sections of future posts forever, I suspect). And I’m not lamenting those advantages, either, necessarily; frankly there are enough grumpy old men pointlessly waxing poetic about the romanticism of the old days of the game. I’m just thinking about what it means to support one of the teams that most represents (and has helped bring about) the current money-focused reality of international sports. I’ll personally never understand the appeal of cheering for a team whose off-field activities not only seem cowardly and greedy but also serve to undermine the team’s success on the field. No club is perfect–or can know it will be even a few years from now–but as a Sevillista, I’m very happy and proud that I don’t have to make distinctions between what I cheer for in real life and what I cheer for in sports: my team is struggling for justice off the field while not trying to stack the deck for the fight on the field.

Vamos, mi Sevilla.