La Liga looks to the US
La Liga president Javier Tebas is facing mounting opposition to his plan to play a league match in the USA
There are 106km between Camp Nou and Montilivi, but when Barcelona play their away game against Girona in January the journey could be a lot longer – for both teams. Instead of an hour’s drive north, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Philippe Coutinho and co will board a plane and fly 7,555km across the Atlantic – at least they will if Javier Tebas gets his way.
The president of La Liga wants to take one game per season to Miami, and this season the chosen match is Girona versus Barcelona.
The two clubs have formally written to request permission to do so, and the league is pushing hard, seeking to convince the various stakeholders who they had previously ignored. They have an agreement in place to stage the game at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium
“He has signed a deal that is not up to him to sign” Luis Rubiales on Javier Tebas
but whether that agreement will be upheld and permission granted – seemingly a foregone conclusion at first, with hardly any problems even contemplated by the league – is another matter. Tebas rates the chances at 90 per cent, but that may be optimistic.
Spanish Federation (RFEF) president Luis Rubiales, whose battles with Tebas are a central feature of Spanish football, says that the agreement means “nothing” without their say-so as it is the federation that has the power to authorise the game, not the league. And he’s not keen, arguing that Tebas “has signed a deal that is not up to him to sign”.
For the game to go ahead it would also need authorisation of the Spanish and US football federations, and then there are the legal doubts as to whether Spanish sports law, which governs all professional competition, would allow for a game to be taken out of the national territory and whether that law would still apply if it is. As for Gianni Infantino, the head of FIFA has expressed his discomfort with the idea of taking football into another FIFA territory, prompting Tebas to tweet: “I’ll remind him that there are Canadian teams playing in the US.”
La Liga has signed a deal with Relevent, a sports events company belonging to Stephen Ross, the owner of the Miami Dolphins and the Hard Rock Stadium. That 15-year deal outlines a programme designed to increase La Liga’s presence in the US market, which includes plans to stage at least one regular league game a season – in the first few seasons, at least.
And Relevent are determined that the game in question should involve Real Madrid or Barcelona.
“If the NFL and the NBA do it, why wouldn’t the league?” offers Tebas. But the NBA and NFL are not the same as a major European league – in terms of structure, fan base, culture or reach – and while the initiative was initially received as a fait accompli, it has encountered opposition; not least because of the way that it was handled.
“Tebas has spoken to everyone except the people he had to speak to,” Rubiales complains. “It’s a total lack of respect. I have not had a single call to say ‘this is what we’re doing’.”
In his defence, Tebas drew up an eight-point list. And perhaps the most startling point was that the agreement with Relevent did not oblige La Liga to play a game a season in the US – it only obliged them to try.
They are trying, that’s for sure, but there are a number of issues with the plan – beyond the doubts that exist over whether taking a single game to the US will make a significant difference to the league’s standing and brand in the US.
For example, does one game attended by, say 60,000 people, between two teams that won’t return for another 12 months, genuinely alter the landscape?
No evidence has been presented to show the benefits, beyond the deal itself, or the projected growth and impact. Are there not more pressing concerns to address first – including the unavailability of Spanish games on US TV and the frankly poor production values of the international product?
There are other concerns, of course, and some outright opposition.
Not only is there a determination for the game to be Real Madrid or Barcelona, it would also be one of their away games – in other words, it is unacceptable for them to lose a home game but not for another club to do so. This has only reinforced the idea that teams in Spain are not treated equally.
Tebas insists that the US game is just one of 380 played a season and suggests that those who raise questions about the integrity of the competition itself are overly puritanical. However, with the clubs chosen obliged to embark upon a 15,000km round trip, is it fair that Barcelona, in this case, should play an “away” game in a stadium likely to be packed with fans supporting them?
“Every team should play every team in the same stadiums,” says Real Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui.
The clubs themselves were already on board, but the players and supporters are a different issue.
The league, whose concern for matchgoing fans is conspicuous by its absence, and who insist that international fans – in reality, customers – have the same right to watch their teams as those in Spain, has sought to address some of the issues.
A series of meetings were held, aimed at convincing those affected, including with the players’ union, to whom they promised financial support and a trip to the US for a their bi-annual project to find clubs for out-of-work footballers.
The players’ union have threatened to strike over the issue and a handful of Barcelona players were vociferous in their objections, although that felt like largely empty posturing, maybe even opportunistic, and the offer certainly pacified, softening the tone, even if not
offering a definitive solution.
The league privately wrote to international – not domestic – fans asking them to make a public declaration of support for the plan, while a generous compensation package was proposed to Girona supporters.
Some 1,500 free tickets were offered to fly supporters out to Miami for the game. They would have to go there and back – a € 500 deposit was designed to make sure they returned – although if they wished to stay for two days they could pay € 450. Those who could not go to the USA could take one of 5,000 tickets for the Barcelona-Girona game at Camp Nou. For those that did neither, there was a refund on their season ticket of up to 40 per cent.
Progress was made, but still there are obstacles. A spokesman for the Barcelona board said that the players had come to understand it and accept it. Two days later, though, Jordi Alba said that no one had said anything to him.
Privately, many footballers are concerned. Fans still oppose it. Mostly, the media has been in favour.
And as debate continued, another issue emerged: politics.
Girona versus Barcelona was seen by many as likely to become a political platform for Catalan independence. Barcelona have often been seen as a flagship of Catalan identity and Girona, home of former president Carles Puigdemont, is one of the most determined pro-independence cities in Catalonia. By taking the game to the US any political display could be prevented – indeed, it may be worth asking if that was a deliberate ploy in the first place.
Tebas was a member of far-right political party Fuerza Nueva in his youth and is a man who has declared his desire to see a “Spanish Le Pen”. He is a vociferous opponent of Catalan independence and has said that he is determined to prevent this game becoming a political demonstration. Yet according to some reports, doing so involves a plan that appears somewhat political in itself. Any manifestation of Catalan identity, including colours, shirts and flags will be banned; 40,000 Spain flags will be handed out prior to the game; and the teams will stand for the Spanish and US national anthems.
That may be an issue for closer to the time. For now, the league has to get the go-ahead for the game – and that won’t be easy. The secretary of state for sport said that she was unsure about the proposal and asked for dialogue.
Had there been consultation, it might all have run more smoothly, with minimal confrontation. But it is too late for that now. For Rubiales, this may be an opportunity to short-circuit Tebas and to flex the federation’s muscles.
There are also, he insists, bigger issues and questions of principle – even if that does sound somewhat jarring just six weeks after he took the Spanish Super Cup to Morocco. The RFEF has a decision to make and they must do that by January 5 – although the promise is to do so sooner – and it is hard to see how they can back down without losing face.
“The FIFA president wants to protect domestic competitions and taking competition somewhere else is an invasion of that country,” says Rubiales. “A friendly is not the same as a game in the domestic league.
“This is what the FIFA president said and that has to be respected.”
“Every team should play every team in the same stadiums” Real Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui
the future...real Madrid and Barcelona met in a friendly at Miami’s Hard rock Stadium in 2017
Determined...Javier tebas says his plan is vital for the Spanish game
Home...Girona fans get behind their team
Opposition... Luis Rubiales