Loss leader

wsc303Ángel María Villar could be the next UEFA president, but his influence over Spanisg football has been mixed at best, says Dermot Corrigan

The result would have made any autocrat proud. Of the 167 votes cast, 161 were in his favour, five were abstentions and one was void. There was loud applause and wide smiles all round in Madrid on February 16, as Ángel María Villar was re-elected for another four-year term as president of the Real Federación Española de Fútbol (RFEF), the Spanish football association.

This was a routine success for Villar, a former Athletic Bilbao player and Spain international, who founded Spain’s players’ union (AFE) in 1978 before ascending to the association’s top job in 1988. Now 62 years old, Villar is into his seventh successive term at the head of Spanish football. Outside observers would be forgiven for thinking that, given such an overwhelming result and the outstanding successes of the senior team during his reign, the Basque must be universally popular in Spain. He is not.

Many Real Madrid supporters say he leans towards Barcelona. Sports daily As even coined the term villarato for the way the Catalan club’s recent successes were aided by biased refereeing and fixture scheduling. Looked at rationally, this seems more a marketing ploy than serious analysis, but plenty of serious charges have been aimed at Villar.

The timing of February’s vote was controversial as it went against a Spanish law, which stipulates that sports holding elections in an Olympic year must wait until after the Games. Some observers claim the election was brought forward to rebuff any potential challenges from rival candidates. The Spanish league (LFP) submitted a letter from all 42 clubs in its top two divisions complaining of “obscurantism and a lack of transparency in the electoral process”. The Spanish coaches’ federation (ANEF) was also unhappy with the election, in which amateur clubs have greater voting weight than the professional game.

The association carried on regardless. There were similar issues raised after the previous election in 2008, but 12 separate appeals were overcome. The Manos Limpias (clean hands) lobby group, which had the investigative judge, Baltasar Garzón, barred from working last year, has turned its attention to Villar. They have not yet had any success. There have been various allegations of misappropriated funds over the years and criticism from different Spanish governments, but no mud has stuck to the former lawyer.

Critics argue that the national team sweeping all before them during Villar’s time is just a coincidence that hides the worrying financial issues riddling the Spanish game. In March the new sports minister, José Ignacio Wert, told parliament that the country’s football clubs owed the taxman €752 million (£625m). The 20 clubs in La Liga have combined debts of €2 billion. This season kicked off a week late due to players striking over €50m in unpaid wages. The notoriously unequal TV revenue deal has allowed Real Madrid and Barcelona to trample all over Spain’s other clubs.

 Villar rarely comments on any of these topics and there is little evidence of solutions being formulated behind the scenes, as he concentrates on balancing the different power bases within the Spanish game. The national team seems to serve the association’s needs, not vice versa. Friendly matches are organised for financial not footballing reasons (see Price of success, WSC 300). This year’s Copa del Rey final has been scheduled for May 25, meaning Spain’s Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao players will miss most of Vicente del Bosque’s preparations for Euro 2012.

The new term runs to 2016 but the word in Spain is that Villar may have moved on, and up, by then. With Michel Platini set to take over as FIFA president when Sepp Blatter finally steps down in 2015, Villar looks next in line at UEFA. Platini was in Madrid for February’s re-election and was fulsome with his praise.

“Without doubt, Ángel is the most successful sporting leader in all the world, and in the galaxy,” said Platini. “His quarter century as president has seen work, battles, courage, but above all else, unending success. This creates envy and criticism, but that is just a fact of life. Congratulations Ángel, football needs you.”

According to As‘s report, “some delegates applauded, others laughed”. More seriously, Platini’s appearance at the event was taken as a sign of approval for the former Spain midfielder. Villar has put in the groundwork. He has been a vice-president at UEFA since 1992 and at FIFA since 2000. He has stood by Blatter through his various mis-steps in recent years. Few in Spain would lament the promotion, but many in Europe might.

From WSC 303 May 2012