Football Features

Is La Liga’s European empire in decline? The possible causes of Spanish football’s recent continental struggles

By Euan McTear, from La Liga Lowdown

Published: 13:05, 31 March 2021

All empires fall. If the Mongol Empire, British Empire, Russian Empire and Palpatine’s Galactic Empire all eventually retreated, then La Liga’s dominance of European football was never going to continue on forever either.

In the decade between 2011 and 2020, La Liga clubs won the Champions League six times, the Europa League six times and seven UEFA Super Cups too. From 2012 to 2020, La Liga permanently remained top of the UEFA country coefficient rankings for club football, so strong were Spanish sides’ performances on the continent.

However, La Liga teams have had their struggles of late. No Spanish side has reached a Champions League final since Real Madrid completed their three-peat in 2018, and this year it’s only Los Blancos who have made it to the quarters. Although they love the European Cup like a dog loves your favourite slipper, it’s going to be a tough ask for Zinedine Zidane’s side to go all the way in 2020/21.

As it stands, Real Madrid are the sixth-favourites to lift the Champions League for the 14th time, priced at 10/1 by Sky Bet behind PSG (7/1), Liverpool (11/2), Chelsea (5/1), Bayern Munich (7/2) and Manchester City (2/1).

Last year, Barcelona famously suffered their 8-2 humiliation in the one-legged Champions League quarter-finals in Lisbon, while Atlético Madrid also fell to German opposition with a 2-1 defeat to RB Leipzig. No other Spanish outfit even made it to the final eight.

In the Europa League, Sevilla went all the way in 2019/20 to lift that chunky trophy for the sixth time and they gave Bayern Munich a run for their money in the subsequent UEFA Super Cup, but their 2020/21 Champions League last-16 exit means they won’t be brushing any continental confetti off their shoulders at end of this season. Atlético Madrid, Barcelona and Real Sociedad were all thoroughly demolished in knockout ties this season, too, leaving only Real Madrid in the Champions League and Villarreal and Granada in the Europa League still flying the Spanish flag.

So, why are La Liga clubs no longer dominating in quite the same way? Here’s a look at a few contributing factors.

Messi got older and Ronaldo left

There’s no doubt that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the best players to have ever played in the Champions League. Messi has 120 goals from 149 Champions League appearances and Ronaldo has 134 from 176, highlighting how consistently brilliant they have been.

But Messi is now approaching his 34th birthday and his scoring rate has logically slowed, especially in Europe. Over the five seasons between 2010/11 and 2014/15, he netted 10.4 goals on average each Champions League season and had 3.6 assists. The averages for the next five seasons were down to 7.6 and 2.4 respectively. That makes sense. His record-breaking year of 91 goals was in 2012, almost a full decade ago now.

As for Real Madrid, their own superhero footballer departed in 2018. Ronaldo’s move to Juventus hasn’t worked out for any of the three parties — at least in a European sense for Ronaldo and Juve — and is one of the reasons why Los Blancos went out at the last-16 stage in the subsequent two seasons.

Other clubs have caught up financially

In 2015, Spain’s government created a law that brought about the centralised sale of audiovisual rights for Spanish professional football. Beforehand, clubs had sold their games directly to the broadcasters, but now La Liga would take charge. There were two main changes when this happened. One was that the overall pie got bigger. The other was that the pie got cut up more evenly.

This benefitted Barcelona and Real Madrid relatively less than the rest. In 2014, they were the joint-top earners in terms of domestic TV money of all clubs in Europe’s top five leagues, taking in an estimated €140m each. By 2018, Barcelona only had the seventh-highest earnings in Europe with an estimated €143m and Real Madrid had the tenth highest with €138m.

Because growth from this source of income basically froze for these two Spanish giants, while the numbers kept going up in other countries, especially England, they were soon overtaken. Overall, this was good for smaller Spanish sides and has brought a much more competitive balance to La Liga, but the big two felt an initial relative squeeze.

This was at the same time as the emergence of Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, two clubs who got rich quick. Even half a decade ago, PSG and Manchester City weren’t at the level they’re at now. But they have become serious contenders and, as a result, there are now at least eight teams who could win the Champions League in any given season without it being a shock. That’s more than ever before and it used to be much easier to be the best out of half a dozen contenders than to be the best out of eight.

Big investments that didn’t work out

Even though Barcelona and Real Madrid’s TV money dominance had been eroded, these two clubs continued to bring in big bucks and did grow in other areas. It’s not as if their cupboards were bare. Yet their spending in the transfer market hasn’t always gone to plan – for a number of reasons.

At Barcelona, they’ve had three transfers worth more than €100m in the past four years and none of them have worked out. Antoine Griezmann hasn’t fit in positionally, Ousmane Dembélé has been injured and Philippe Coutinho has suffered a mix of these two problems. Real Madrid, meanwhile, signed Eden Hazard to be the replacement for Ronaldo, but he too has spent more time on the medical report than on the scoresheet.

Even Atlético Madrid have made a huge investment of their own, taking the €120m they received for Griezmann and spending all of it plus €7m more on João Félix. Time will tell if this pays off, as the Portuguese winger is still only 21, but so far he hasn’t come close to the impact Griezmann had at the Wanda Metropolitano.

Last summer’s sensible spending

Although La Liga’s decline in UEFA competition can be traced back to 2018/19, the coronavirus pandemic has had an impact too and partly explains the current season’s struggles.

With the aim of ensuring the long-term sustainability of its clubs, La Liga has its own set of financial fair play rules, something none of the other major leagues have implemented. Even though some adjustments were made to these, La Liga clubs still couldn’t spend big last summer. For 2020/21, not one La Liga club features Europe’s top 10 in terms of transfer market net spend.

Looking at league-wide spending, La Liga clubs actually made a combined net gain of €114m over the 2020/21 summer and winter markets, whereas there was a net spend of €1,037m in the Premier League, of €102m in Serie A, of €39m in Ligue 1 and of €30m in Bundesliga.

There may not be too many rainy days in Spain, but the clubs are saving for one as they wait to see what the long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic will be. In the future, when Spanish spending goes back up and when the next Ballon d’Or-calibre stars arrive at Barcelona and Real Madrid, European silverware could return to La Liga. The Spanish sides’ recent European problems could prove to be a blip, rather than a trend.

Article produced by Euan McTear in partnership with La Liga Lowdown, your home for Spanish football in English with reporters based in Spain. Find them on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown