La Liga returns under a financial cloud and without Messi

Logo of La Liga

La Liga, just three years ago the undisputed monarch of European football, returns for a new season on Friday after a traumatic summer that ended with its crown jewel being given away.

The free transfer of Lionel Messi to Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday drove home the financial turmoil that is eroding the power of Spanish football.

While Messi is the biggest star to leave, and his former club Barcelona have been particularly cavalier in racking up debts estimated at 1.2bn euros, Spanish football has money worries

Lionel Messi waves from the balcony of the Royal Monceau Hotel in Paris, France on 10 August 2021

The pandemic has cost the top-flight clubs some 2bn euros (1.4bn dollars) and the desperation is showing.

The league is trying to enforce a tough salary cap, while searching for funds.

Its assembly on Thursday will vote on the sale of 10 per cent of commercial rights for 50 years to private equity firm CVC in exchange for 2.7 billion euros.

Real Madrid and Barcelona are fighting the deal saying it is selling their futures.

Yet the same two clubs are refusing to give up hope of a giant, and potentially toxic, carrot of their own, even though nine of the other Super League clubs have withdrawn and the source of the $4bn loot, bankers JP Morgan Chase, have apologised to fans.

The Euros and Olympics again displayed the depth of talent in Spanish football and this may be the season for youngsters to break out because, with 20 days left in the transfer window, Spanish clubs are not buying players.

Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos celebrates with the trophy after winning La Liga title at Alfredo Di Stefano Stadium, Madrid, Spain on 16 July 2020
Reuters file photo

Real and Barcelona, who between them won every Champions League final from 2014-18, are living, and dying by free transfers.

Like Barcelona, Real Madrid decided they could not afford a new contract for their talismanic captain. Like Messi, Sergio Ramos departed for a late-career jackpot at Paris Saint-Germain.

Such is the cachet of Real and Barca that they can still attract a high class of free agent.

Barcelona have picked up Memphis Depay, Eric Garcia and Sergio Aguero.

While Real are, once again, being linked to Kylian Mbappe of PSG, the biggest fee either club has spent is the 9m euros Barcelona gave Betis for Brazilian fullback Emerson Royal.

Real have replaced the hard edge of Ramos with the all-round defensive quality of another trophy magnet David Alaba.

Real are under new management, with Carlo Ancelotti returning to replace Zinedine Zidane who, for a second time, quit in frustration.

The Italian must cope with the consequences of the club's long shopping addiction and work out what to do with returning loan stars such as Gareth Bale, Martin Odegaard and Dani Ceballos.

Sensing weakness

In the financial gale, simply standing still might be an achievement.

Champions Atletico kick off with last season's stars and coach, Diego Simeone, still in place.

They have also made by far the biggest outlay of the Spanish summer, buying Argentine midfielder Rodrigo de Paul from Udinese for a reported 35m euros.

Real and Barcelona followed Atletico home last season, but other clubs could be sniffing weakness.

Sevilla, under Real reject Julen Lopetegui, finished just behind Barcelona.

They have turned local winger Suso's loan into a permanent move by paying AC Milan a pre-agreed 20m euros. They also acquired spikey Argentine midfielder Erik Lamela from Tottenham on a free transfer.

The club's wheeler-dealer director of football Monchi is dangling his most saleable asset, defender Jules Kounde, in front of English clubs. But if Monchi sells, he will then probably buy.

Real Sociedad who have shown potential but not top-four consistency, have been involved in a total of 500,000 euros of deals. That's the sum they paid Bournemouth for Spanish fullback Diego Rico.

If stability builds teams, then, after three-and-half years under coach Imanol Alguacil, the San Sebastian club could be ready to challenge the troubled giants.

Villarreal, fresh from another European exploit as they brought a trophy back to Spain by winning the Europa League, have seemed the most buoyant of Liga clubs this summer, making two of the four eight-figure signings so far.

They paid 15m for Juan Foyth, a price set the previous year when the Argentine defender joined on loan from Tottenham, and 12m euros for centre forward Boulaye Dia from Reims.