Casillas and Puyol are just two of the big names who have given their backing to the AFE's strike action
Last Thursday, the Spanish players' union AFE, representing all professionals from the top two tiers of football in the country, announced a strike for the first two weeks of the season.
If that sounds familiar, it probably is, as this has been the third such threat of strike action since December of last year. Professional football is a dream for millions, so why are those living it taking action against their employers?
Unfortunately, to those familiar with the financial troubles that have littered the recent history of the Spanish game, the answer will be obvious. In this case, it is regarding the failure to sign a collective agreement over unpaid wages. 200 first and second division players are currently owed a total of €50 million, a number that is on the rise with each passing week. AFE President Luis Rubiales urged during last week's press conference that the Spanish League (LFP), which is the direct victim of this action; must offer a vastly increased emergency fund to aid those players affected, for whom the footballing dream has currently degenerated into a nightmare.
With families to support and bills to pay, it is easy to understand their grievances. Rubiales declared "We condemn the failure of clubs to fulfill contracts they have signed with the players. Every day there are more." He's correct. Zaragoza applied for Ley Concursal, the Spanish equivalent to administration, before last season began. Rayo Vallecano and Real Betis are coming up from Liga Adelante in precarious financial positions. Racing Santander, despite a tycoon takeover, still owe almost €12m worth of wages while big clubs like Barcelona and Valencia are not immune to financial struggle.
Valencia, in fact, reportedly still owe Betis €6m of Joaquin's €26m fee, outstanding from 2006. It has become perfectly acceptable for club's to write IOUs rather than pay their players and outstanding debts, and the game will become ever more polluted from the reverberating effects of mismanagement at boardroom level unless this culture is eradicated.
And that change is exactly what this strike is intent on bringing. There have been empty threats in the past, with a strike over the same issue threatened last Winter before being over ruled by Spain's National Court. As a result, it would be easy to dismiss this as another 'Boy who cried wolf' situation. But the seriousness and determination this time around was outlined by the men' flanking Rubiales on front of the cameras - 100 players, including World Cup winning seleccion captain Casillas and superstars like Puyol, Alonso, Cazorla, and Llorente.
While these men represent the footballing upper-class who are not affected, their show of solidarity for less well off colleagues is admirable. In many cases players owed 6 months or more of their pay have been released at the end of the season and left in the lurch, with the union as their only source of support. Strike action seems the only way the AFE can bring about the financial help these stricken professionals need.
The LFP has declared that it does not understand the motives for the strike, claiming it has always been open to dialogue, is working towards a solution, and that the action is "an incomprehensible step". While the league has reportedly offered a long term €40m social security fund, Rubiales has called it not enough "Not for this year nor the next four". Of course, a solution and financial equality would be so simple if Spain could follow an English model for the distribution of television rights, but the disparity between Barcelona and Real Madrid, and all the rest, goes much further than the pitch and the league tables. The clasico pairing generally rake in about 10 times as much from their individual TV deals compared to clubs lower down the table. It is easy to see why struggling in the pitch has correlated with economic woes for many of the clubs whose current and ex employees make up those involved in strike action.
The two sides will meet at the negotiating table on Thursday, with the AFE hopeful of an agreement but not overly optimistic. If they cannot come to one, hundreds of footballers will, unthinkably, be thrust together with Spain's 5 million unemployed in feeling the full effects of the nation's worst financial crisis in history.
The air of anticipation which filled a packed Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday evening is the best possible indicator of the desire and excitement fans have to get the footballing calender underway, and the frustration and criticism that will inevitably be directed at the players if they cause the season to be delayed and eat into an already tight schedule for the rest of the year is easy to predict.
However, financial problems are going to be the biggest barrier for Spanish football to overcome in order to dominate Europe and the World for the next 10-15 years, as Barcelona along with the national teams from U17 level upwards have shown the potential to do. This particular strike may be averted but, if left unaddressed, the long term effects of its motives will become more and more disastrous as the years go on.
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