Striking solution

Following industrial action Spanish law has changed. Dermot Corrigan hopes the result is more responsible action from clubs

A most welcome wind of change may just be blowing through Spanish football, sparked by a players’ strike before the first round of fixtures. Twenty Primera División and La Segunda matches were postponed in August after the Spanish players’ union (AFE) head José Luis Rubiales led his players out in a dispute over €58 million (£50m) in unpaid wages. This is due to 200 first and second division footballers at seven different clubs.

The union’s demands were for the league to increase the central fund available to the unpaid players, and also to change the rules so that teams who deliberately avoid paying their bills are automatically relegated, as happens in many other European leagues.

Rubiales, a former Xerez, Levante and Hamilton Accies midfielder, seemed to be talking sense. “We don’t want more money, we want the clubs to honour the contracts they sign with their players,” he said. “We have asked that players who are owed more than three months’ wages can break their contracts. We have put forward proposals which exist in Holland, Germany, France and England which are preventative. In these countries if a club shows it can’t pay its players the club doesn’t compete.”

One hundred high-profile footballers stood behind Rubiales at the strike announcement, including World Cup winners Iker Casillas, Fernando Llorente and Carles Puyol, as well as representatives from players’ unions in France, Germany and Italy.

There was criticism of the action from club presidents, however. Sevilla’s José María del Nido called it “totally unjustified”, while Racing Santander’s Francisco Pernía said it should be called off “for the good of football”. Spanish football league (LFP) president José Luis Astiazarán called it “absolutely unjustified and futile”.

With the bargaining positions set, a choreographed series of seven negotiations followed between AFE and LFP representatives, including one that ran all night, before it was announced they had reached a preliminary agreement.

Both parties would make an unspecified contribution to an increased fund for unpaid players and La Liga’s second round of games could go ahead as planned. First division players are now guaranteed an annual €60,000, with €40,000 for the second level. “The problem of the 200 players has been resolved,” Rubiales said. “We are very content and very satisfied with the agreement. From now on we will all work together.”

This preliminary agreement, while ensuring a certain level of wages for the players, left  untouched the deeper issues around how the clubs were run. Many of these centre around the Ley Concursal (the equivalent of administration) which disallowed any sporting sanctions for off-the-field affairs, and led many clubs to agree transfer fees and wages which they could never realistically afford.

Knowing the law would protect them, clubs of all sizes have racked up total debts of €3 billion, with creditors including the taxman, other clubs, current and former players, and local businesses. Zaragoza’s leaked creditors list included Ibercaja bank (€16m), Shakhtar Donetsk (€13m), Roberto Ayala (€2.6m), Adidas España (€31,500) and the Spanish Red Cross (€4,475).

Club presidents find plenty of different people besides themselves to blame for the situation, with the unequal distribution of the league’s TV revenue often cited. Del Nido recently invoked the spirit of the French Revolution in a failed bid to reopen negotiations on the issue. However, others argued that just giving more money to already profligate club presidents was unlikely to help the situation.

With the football back the urgency receded and the union and clubs settled into further open-ended negotiations, only for progress to come from an unexpected source. The socialist Spanish government, looking for good PR ahead of November’s general election, introduced a reform of the Ley Concursal to avoid its “abuse” by clubs and preserve the “sporting integrity” of competitions. This means that from July 2012 clubs ignoring creditors can be relegated.

It is now up to the LFP to incorporate the change into its own rules so that “can” is changed to “must be”. Rubiales welcomed the politicians’ move as “magnificent news” and said many club presidents were also happy, although none immediately went public with their satisfaction. It does look as if some real positive change in the way the Spanish game is organised is now possible, and pressure seems sure to mount on the league and the clubs to finally live within their means.

From WSC 297 November 2011