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

World Soccer - - Contents - WORDS: Side Lowe

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

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