The casual observer might think this summer’s headline signings of Gareth Bale and Neymar by the Primera Division’s big two showed Spanish football was in rude financial health.
That casual observer could not be more wrong.
As Real Madrid spent €101 million ($133.5m) on Welsh winger Gareth Bale, and Barcelona bought Brazilian attacker Neymar for €57 million, most of Spain's 'other 18' clubs were selling their best players - with most leaving the Primera Division for more money and better challenges elsewhere.
The final figures for the summer transfer window (compiled by Prime Time Sport) show that across Europe’s top five leagues combined investment grew by 40 per cent to a record €2.2 billion this summer.
However more worrying records were being broken in Spain. The Primera Division's 20 top flight sides took in half a billion euros in player sales, the highest amount by any league, in any transfer window, ever. Even with Neymar and Bale arriving for huge money the top flight’s net spend was minus €92 million, the highest ‘negative investment’ ever in any of Europe’s top five leagues.
One hundred and thirty nine footballers left Spain for clubs elsewhere.
Fifteen of the Primera Division's 20 sides have fewer players on their payroll than 12 months ago. Especially affected were those with aims of challenging the big two – during the summer Atlético Madrid (Radamel Falcao), Real Sociedad (Asier Illarramendi), Valencia (Roberto Soldado), Málaga (Isco), Real Betis (Beñat) and Sevilla (Jésus Navas) all sold their best performers from last term.
This is just further evidence of the deepening financial chasm between the big two and the rest, according to Esteve Calzada, former marketing director of FC Barcelona and now Prime Time Sport's founder and CEO.
In La Liga we now have two different speeds. Barcelona and Real Madrid keep growing and growing and becoming stronger and stronger. Then you have the other teams who have to sell players, even their best players
"In La Liga we now have two different speeds," Calzada told Al Jazeera.
"Barcelona and Real Madrid keep growing and growing and becoming stronger and stronger. Then you have the other teams who have to sell players, even their best players."
It is not that there is no money in Spanish football - far from it.
In early September Real Madrid announced annual revenues of €520.9 million last year making the Bernabeu club the biggest earning sports outfit in the world. Barcelona followed this week by projecting record revenues for the 2013/14 season of €509 million.
But, for the ‘other 18’, such figures are the stuff of fantasy. The annual budget at well run Villarreal - who drew 2-2 with Real last weekend - is just €50 million. Minnows Rayo Vallecano – who take on Barcelona this Saturday - have just €7m to spend on players each year, or about 1 per cent of the big two's total.
An unfair distribution of TV money (€650 million a year) is the most commonly cited reason for this imbalance. Under the current arrangement Madrid and Barca receive almost half of this figure.
"TV rights are sold by individual teams," said Calzada.
"So teams like Sevilla or Atletico or Valencia make less money than the bottom team in the [English] Premier League."
But this is far from the only driver for the financial chasm.
The ‘big two’ also generate 69 per cent of the Primera Division’s total commercial revenue, and 56 per cent of all its matchday takings, according to Deloitte. Income at other clubs stagnated or worse in recent seasons, but still Sevilla and Atlético continued to spend big on new players, while Valencia made an ill-advised property bet just as Spain's construction bubble burst.
Between them the 20 top flight clubs between them now owe an incredible amount of €4.1 billion to various creditors, including the Spanish taxman (about €600 million), their banks, investment funds, other clubs, players, agents and local businesses big and small.
Economic reality has finally caught up, according to Rubén Uría of Spanish radio station Cadena Cope:
The people running clubs in Spain, for many years, have been throwing money out the window. They spent much more than they had. Now they have huge debts that they cannot pay.
"The people running clubs in Spain, for many years, have been throwing money out the window," Uría told Al Jazeera.
"They spent much more than they had. Now they have huge debts that they cannot pay. So they have no choice - players must be sold, there is no other solution."
Hence you get a situation where Moroccan international Abdel Barrera joined UAE club Al-Jazira for €10 million this summer - a sum none of the ‘other 18’ could afford to pay. Monaco quadrupled the salary Falcao earned at Atlético. Newly promoted Premier League side Cardiff City took Chilean midfielder Gary Medel from 2006 and 2007 UEFA Cup champions Sevilla.
Such sights are hard for Spanish fans to take.
"The fans are hurting a lot," said Uría.
"They are not to blame for presidents having spent money badly. For example Sevilla had a very powerful team, but in two or three years all the stars have been taken away."
Despite this summer’s exodus, observers of the Spanish scene are actually relatively optimistic, feeling that the Primera Division hit rock bottom this summer. Calzada reckons a new TV deal mooted for 2015 will help to level the playing field.
"Even Barcelona and Real realise that the more competition in the tournament, the more value in every game," he said.
"We all believe that the La Liga is under exploited commercially. There can be more revenues from international sales."
Uría is also relatively positive about the moves by Spain's secretary of state for sport, Miguel Cardenal and Primera Division president Javier Tebas to force the clubs to live within their means - something he says is behind this summer’s tightening of the purse strings at the other 18.
"Cardenal and Tebas are, finally, taking this seriously."
"The first step, a good one, is new financial regulations for the clubs. From there you can sell TV rights together, and share them out well. Then maybe – in 10 or 15 years – Spanish football will have its financial house in order."
Dermot Corrigan is an Irish writer who lives in Madrid and writes about Spanish football for a variety of international and local media including ESPNfc.com, FOXsoccer.com, When Saturday Comes and the Irish Examiner. You can follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.
Source: Al Jazeera