La Liga’s American Dream; the Beginning of the End of National League Soccer?

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In a move that could fundamentally alter the European soccer landscape, La Liga, Spain’s top league, recently announced its plan to play one game per season in the United States.

The announcement of the deal between La Liga and Relevent, the organizers of the annual International Champions Cup of preseason friendlies between Europe’s elite clubs, has been met with significant opposition from Spanish players and fans.

However, the move fits into a wider question in European soccer: whether the biggest European leagues and major clubs may soon push for drastic changes that alter the over 100-year league systems of single nation-based soccer leagues.

Players from each club met to discuss the plan and issued a statement opposing the move, while the players’ union is “united” against the proposal. The athletes are wary of travelling across the Atlantic for a simple league fixture that would add to the strain of a nine-monthlong season.

Players and clubs have also discussed potential issues regarding fairness. All the major European leagues operate under a system in which each club plays one home and away fixture against every other team.

In the Spanish league, clubs play 19 home and 19 away league fixtures, providing each team an equal chance of success — financial disparities notwithstanding. If, however, a team has a “home” fixture taken from it to be played abroad, this fundamental principle of the procedural fairness of a league is undermined.

The league has already confirmed that the first match will not be “El Clásico,” the name given to the fixture between Real Madrid and Barcelona that is watched by hundreds of millions worldwide.

Given that any American game is likely to need the involvement one of these two clubs, or at the very least the 2014 champions Atlético Madrid to appeal to foreign fans, La Liga will most likely choose the home match of a smaller Spanish club against one of these three large opponents.

La Liga’s smaller clubs would thus face the prospect of forfeiting one of their home games to cater to American fans who are more likely to support the globally established team, turning a crucial home fixture into a de facto away game.

When we consider that the larger clubs in Spain already receive a much higher proportion of TV revenue — unlike in England where the revenue is equally shared — the deal would represent a further undermining of the idea of fairness in a league long dominated by Real Madrid and Barcelona.

More important, however, is the significant effect Spain’s decision could have on other leagues.

Nearly a decade ago the English Premier League, long at the vanguard of European soccer’s globalization, sought to play games abroad. Termed the “39th game,” the league was meant to play a full round of additional fixtures abroad. In the face of overwhelming media and fan protest, the plan was abandoned in 2010.

So far the 39th game proposal has not been revived, but if the Spanish model proves a success, it may be reopened, especially if the Premier League decides its commercial primacy is being jeopardized by playing games solely in the U.K.

The decision marks another risky step toward the end of the historic network of national soccer leagues anchored in one country. It has long been projected that the elite clubs of Europe’s five or six biggest leagues will one day seek to break away from their domestic leagues.

The rumored plan would involve the formation a European Super League of 16 or so elite clubs, creating a closed, American-style league without relegation in which games can be played abroad, owners’ profits are guaranteed and the primacy of the national leagues is lost.

Arsène Wenger, the former Arsenal manager, mused last spring that it was simply a matter of time before this Super League was created. He added that he believed it would take place on weekends with the national leagues relegated to midweek with a similar prestige to that currently enjoyed by the domestic cup competitions.

In this context, La Liga’s decision could mark a decisive moment of the European game unmooring itself from the confines of its homeland. However, as the vocal opposition from Spanish fans and previously their English counterparts shows, these clubs should be careful not to pursue profits and global brand enhancement at the expense of the very fans who have enabled them to become what they are today.

Part of European soccer’s global appeal comes from its rich history and fan tradition. The sacrifice of this, in the pursuit of transient and fickle global audiences, should be approached only with the utmost caution.

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