Soccer is a weird sport. I am an avid fan of just about everything - from basketball to tennis to baseball to (in the past) American football - and soccer is the only one of all of them in which people obsess over playing “the right way.” Sure, there are debates about personal preference in playing style, or which types of formations are more effective, but it is extremely rare for anyone to ascribe moral virtue to any specific model. The Showtime Lakers of the 1980s won five championships with a fun, flashy, highly attacking offensive style that wowed fans around the globe. The San Antonio Spurs of the late 1990s and early 2000s won their own five titles and were revered for their cohesive playing style, which was solidly defensive and decidedly not flamboyant. People may have enjoyed one team more than the other, but they generally didn’t deride Spurs coach Greg Popovich for playing “negative basketball.” Pop developed a system that worked, and I guarantee you that the struggling Lakers of the 2010s would gladly have adopted the Spurs’ “boring” fundamentals-based system in exchange for some of their successful results. More crucially than that, no one in the Spurs organization would have even CONSIDERED firing Popovich amidst all those winning seasons simply because they didn’t wet themselves over Tim Duncan’s bank shots.
Yet that is what happens all the time in European soccer, especially at the Bernabeu. My first year watching Real Madrid, I saw them win La Liga in an exciting three-way race that went down to the last few games. Following that title winning season, the coach, Fabio Capello, was promptly fired for playing a defensive game in a city used to the flair of the Galácticos. Never mind that Capello had won Madrid their first title since 2003; the point was that he hadn’t done it in the right way, and thus the victory was insufficient.
This was completely foreign to me as a fan. What kind of team finds a winning formula, then immediately turns around and dismantles it because it didn’t look quite perfect? When Bernd Schuster was brought in the following season and won a second straight La Liga title for Real Madrid while playing a more offensively minded game, it started to make sense; until, that is, a string of bad results and an ill timed comment about the impossibility of beating Barcelona at the Camp Nou prematurely ended his tenure. At this point, the team had won two straight titles and, part way through the third season, was now about to embark on a journey with a third coach. There is no universe in American sports where that would make any sense whatsoever.
Part of the answer to this conundrum is what is known as the “culture” of a club in European soccer. While certain eras or teams in the U.S. may have certain defining characteristics over a specific period of time, it’s hard to identify any one element that could be considered as defining of its entire existence. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a reputation as a hard-nosed defensive team for many years, and they won a Super Bowl in 2003 on the back of that identity, but it’s no longer considered a uniquely specific determiner of the team’s culture. What’s more, the high powered offensive Raiders who the Bucs defeated in that Super Bowl were not viewed as a more “positive” team whose style of play was more deserving of victory simply by virtue of its attacking ethos. The cliche that “defense wins championships” is so ingrained as sports dictum in America that it took until the Golden State Warriors won the NBA title in 2015 for remnants of the old guard like Charles Barkley to concede that a team built around offensive production could win a championship.
In European soccer, the reverse seems to be true, at least among many prominent pundits. It is with derision that coaches and announcers refer to smaller teams “parking the bus” by choosing to focus on defense at the expense of attacking play in order to try to eke out a result against a team with superior talent. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona that won the triplete is frequently referred to as having reached the “pinnacle of football” for the way its players strung together intricate passes on the way to demolishing opponents in an aesthetically pleasing fashion. And there is no denying that, like the Showtime Lakers, those kinds of teams are fun to watch. I’m not only referring to the tiki taka style of play here. Attractive counter-attacking play and the direct, two-to-three-pass offensive blitzkrieg common among top teams in the Premier League come in for similar praise. The point is that offensive soccer is viewed as not only inherently better, but also morally superior to alternative tactical formations.
I have thought long and hard about why this should be, and I keep coming back to one key factor: the salary cap, or lack thereof. While it’s probably a foreign concept to fans of European soccer, especially those of us fortunate enough to be Madridistas, it is a serious consideration in every boardroom decision in American sports (although slightly less so in baseball’s laxer luxury tax system). The result of this is that there are rarely the disparities between team salaries like the ones that exist in La Liga, where Getafe, the lowest salaried team in 2018, had a combined wage bill that totaled only 5.5% of the wage bill of the highest salaried team, Barcelona, which paid out £448 million to Getafe’s £25 million.
The upshot of this economic disparity is that the teams who are swimming in cash have the luxury of developing something as long-term and esoteric as a club “culture,” which they can continually supplement with the world’s best and most expensive players. This can be both a blessing and a curse in clubs’ development. Barcelona can, for better or worse, use its cantera system at La Masia to instill in its youngsters the positional and possession based style of play that will serve them if and when they make it to the first team. The flip side of this is that the club is then wedded to this conception of football for the foreseeable future as it comes to define the “Mes que un Club” as its raison d’etre. This results in scenarios like the one in which they currently find themselves, where coaches tinkering with the formula come under fire for any decisions that deviate from the club’s established mode of operation.
Real Madrid’s ethos has been more akin to the Raiders under Al Davis - just win, baby, but do it with flash. This is why Capello’s pragmatic approach didn’t suit fans at the Bernabeu, and why teams like the Galácticos, parts one and two, were put together in the first place. Yes, they had players like Makelele and Xabi Alonso to anchor the center of the pitch, but the emphasis was always on quick movement forward by skillful dribblers and passers. From a pinpoint Beckham cross to a relentless Marcelo dribble down the flank, the wow factor needed to be there to engage the fans, and they have been less than satisfied when they don’t get it.
Couple that with the recent inability to get W’s or even score goals (at least prior to Solari’s reign) and you have the formula for a very unhappy Madridista fan base. They may insist that players be willing to die for the badge both on and off the pitch, but their tolerance often only extends as far as the club’s ability to provide the kind of football they have been conditioned to require.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is important to keep in perspective why it has come to pass in the first place, which is, frankly, the absurd levels of success that the club has achieved due to its financial hegemony and the virtual duopoly with Barcelona on big name players. The developing parity within La Liga is a positive sign overall, as the league itself becomes more competitive and worth watching on a game by game basis, but this inevitably creates a more difficult situation for the teams accustomed to being at the top. It’s no coincidence that Madrid, Barça, and Atleti have all found themselves struggling to maintain the form that they have taken for granted all these years while teams like Espanyol and Alavés - formerly solidly mid-table clubs at best - contend for European spots alongside us. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing if you’re rooting for La Liga as a whole. Unfortunately for us Madridistas, it may be a cold dose of reality that we have to swallow to make sense of the new world order, assuming it continues to move in this direction. As a neutral, I thoroughly hope it does; as a Madridista, I am cautiously optimistic that we will get our groove back in time to reassert our dominance, regardless of the upward trend of our newfound rivals. A rising tide lifts all boats, and the elevation of La Liga more generally can only be a good thing for all concerned. If that means European spots for the likes of Alavés and Levante, so much the better for our presence on the international stage, because emerging victorious from a deeply competitive league will only make us better in European matches. La Liga has long been labeled a two-horse race, justly or unjustly, so showing that Spain’s lesser knowns can compete in the Champions and Europa Leagues would be quite the statement indeed. Hala Madrid as always, but que siga mejorando La Liga también. It will be to the benefit of all involved.