Messi and Ronaldo are putting up numbers. Decadent numbers. The duo drew last term, setting a new Spanish record with 53 goals in all competitions. Messi has broken it already this year, with 54 (and become Barcelona’s all-time leading scorer ). Ronaldo trails with a paltry 42 in 40. Should they meet in the Champions League Final, they could both start 18 more times. They transcend their sport the way Wayne Gretzky did hockey in the early 1980s, and there are two of them.
Their unrivaled goal totals defy belief. For context, Ronaldinho, recently the consensus best player in the world, never scored 30 for Barcelona. The WSJ’s Gabriele Marcotti posits that these guys really are that good. He may be right. The trouble is their clubs’ performances have been equally unparalleled, suggesting this is more than mere agency.
A decade ago, the Spanish Primera Liga was equitable. From 2001/02 to 2003/04, Valencia won two titles. Four clubs finished ahead of either Barcelona or Real Madrid in the standings. Combined, the rivals finished in the top two just twice in three years. They averaged 67.7 points and a +25.8 goal difference, roughly on par with their three top opponents in each given year, 69.1 points and a +21.6 goal difference.
Barca and Madrid distanced themselves from 2004/05 to 2006/07. They claimed the top spots in La Liga all three years. They averaged 78 points a +38.1 goal difference, comfortably outstripping the top three other finishers (65.7 points and a +16.2 goal difference). Now, they have leapt onto another track entirely.
From 2008/09 to 2010/11, the two rivals averaged 91.3 points and a +64.1 goal difference compared to 65.4 points and a +14 goal difference for the next best finishers. The disparity thus far in 2011/12 has been even greater. Should events play out at their present pace, Barcelona and Real Madrid would average 93 points to their best competitors’ 60.5 and edge them on average goal difference +86 to +6.1. Real Madrid have won 23/26 league matches against teams that are not Barcelona. Seventeen of the wins have come by two or more goals. These teams don’t lose, unless they play each other or they beat themselves.
Messi and Ronaldo are great, great players, but they alone cannot account for this sea change. Their predecessors were hardly stocked with cretins and knuckle-draggers. Madrid’s 2002/03 team won the Champions League with five players – Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo, Raul, Robert Carlos – who had won or finished second in the Ballon D’Or. The 2005/06 Barcelona team won the Champions League with the same Spanish core, Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o leading the line and some 17-year-old Argentine punk pushing his way into the first team.
The present teams may be better, but those were still memorable, all-time great teams. Ability alone does not explain the dominance. We must look at the clubs’ opposition.
La Liga is fetid and crumbling. Half the clubs in Spain’s top two divisions have gone bankrupt recently. Players struck at the start of this season to ensure backlogged wages would be paid. Clubs are billions of dollars in debt, and that does not include the nearly $1 billion they owe in back taxes, which the reeling Spanish government may need to collect soon. The glaring exceptions to this decay are Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Spain has no collective TV deal, allowing Barcelona and Real Madrid to sell their own rights, have their own networks and earn as much as the other clubs combined. They capitalize on international brands the rest cannot. Real Madrid and Barcelona are No. 2 and No. 5 on the Forbes rich list. They brought in $528 million and $488 revenue respectively last year. Atletico Madrid, the only other La Liga club in the Forbes Top 20, brought in $153 million. Barca and Madrid brought in three times as much revenue as the next largest Spanish club. They take their pick of the world’s best players. The rest of the league stays afloat by a thread. The revenue disparity, not surprisingly, is being exhibited in the product. The top two clubs are breathtaking. The rest of the league is terrible.
Messi and Ronaldo are superb players. Both will finish among the best of all-time. Messi may end up being the best. As brilliant as they are though, they are the fruit of circumstance. They are the game’s most potent players but they also stare for the game’s most awesome teams in a lopsided league ill-equipped to cope with them. Their prosperity embodies everything beautiful about top-level European soccer, but it is equally a testament to the forces corroding the sport from within.
[Photos via Getty]