Having the most participants in the Champions League has only added to the sense of malaise for Spanish football.
From their opening 10 games in the group stage, the five La Liga teams have only registered two wins. Or 10 points collected from a possible 30.
And the only Spanish team on zero points? Barcelona.
It’s the Catalan institution that preached to the world on sporting morality — on being “More than a club” — before trying to split European football with the launch of a breakaway Super League in April. Now the hubris has been exposed by losses to Bayern Munich and Benfica — the first time Barcelona has opened with successive losses in Europe since the UEFA Cup in 1972 — while the club’s finances are in a mess.
So much so that perhaps the most humbling moment for the five-time European champions this week wasn’t the 3-0 collapse at Benfica, whose latest continental trophy was lifted in 1962. There was also the announcement from the Spanish league that Barca’s salary cap had to be slashed by 285 million euros ($334 million) to 97 million euros ($113 million) this season — about a quarter of the wage bill on players for Liverpool and Manchester City.
Barcelona has already been forced to offload Lionel Messi to cut the wage bill and had to endure seeing him scoring his first goal this week for Paris Saint-Germain as the Qatari-bankrolled club brushed aside Man City 2-0.
The result in Paris between a new generation of footballing superpowers will have proved even more galling for Javier Tebas. The president of La Liga has been stepping up his public complaints about PSG distorting competition by benefiting from sovereign wealth and effectively dismissing the 34-year-old Messi as a player past his prime.
Of course, Real Madrid has long been scrutinized for benefiting from state aid financing in Spain. Madrid has weathered some of the worst financial impact of the pandemic, if their allowable La Liga wage bill is anything to go by. It can jump from 470 million euros ($550 million) to 739 million euros ($863 million) this season.
Such spending didn’t prevent the 13-time European champions from being on the end of one of the most humiliating results in Champions League history this week. The 2-1 defeat to Sheriff Tiraspol came in just the type of fixture that Madrid doesn’t want to be playing in Europe.
The Moldovan champions have gatecrashed the elite to qualify for the group stage for the first time. It is a questionable fairytale given the role of ex-KGB agents in the team from Transnistria, the breakaway region of Transnistria which is disputed territory unrecognized by the international community.
But Sheriff has more than earned their place after negotiating eight matches in four qualifying rounds. It produced a highlight of the week in the Champions League, a stunning result that grabbed the attention of more than just the fans reveling in Madrid’s downfall.
It also highlighted why Madrid president Florentino Pérez spearheaded the launch of the Super League in April, with the intention to split from the Champions League with 15 founder clubs to contest a 20-team breakaway competition which teams like Sheriff would undoubtedly struggle to break into.
Madrid remains wedded to trying to launch the Super League along with Barcelona and Juventus even as UEFA pursues legal avenues — thwarted for now by a Spanish capital court — to punish the mutineers. Madrid did at least win its opening game of the group stage at Inter Milan.
Spain received an extra Champions League place this season thanks to Villarreal winning the Europa League while not finishing in the top four in Spain. Like Barcelona, Villarreal is last in its group — although at least with a single point from its opening draw at Atalanta. It looked set to collect another one at Manchester United until Cristiano Ronaldo struck a winner on Wednesday deep into injury time at Old Trafford.
Sevilla, hardly expected to be a contender, is also without a win after draws with Salzburg and Wolfsburg. Atletico Madrid is Spain’s best performing team with four points. The Spanish champions were the only La Liga representatives to win this week, although that took Luis Suarez converting a penalty in the seventh minute of stoppage time against an AC Milan side that played more than an hour with 10 men.
Like Barcelona, Milan is on zero points as the seven-time European champions have been beaten by two sides who were part of the Super League rebellion, having also fallen to Liverpool on matchday one.
There will be much glee across Europe that half of the group leaders are teams snubbed, or never even considered, for admission by the Super League plotters: Ajax, Atalanta, Salzburg and Sheriff.
While many rival fans will draw gratification from the misfortune of Barcelona, UEFA can’t always see them as kindred spirits despite crushing the Super League in a united mission.
Just look at the banners held by supporters of Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich this week.
“Stop UCL reforms!” they read. “Football for millions of fans — not billions of euro!”
It might be too late for them to prevent the group stage jumping from 32 to 36 teams from 2024 with 10 rather than six games for each participant in a more complex format.
It could also prove less appealing.
However bad the two losses are for Barcelona, the team’s adversity is providing an intriguing subplot in the competition. It’s adding to the jeopardy that attracts viewers as Barcelona has four games to avoid missing out on advancing from the group stage for the first time in 21 years. La Liga has ensured Barca can’t even spend its way out of trouble.
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