Momentum gathered quickly. Last Friday, La Liga president Javier Tebas gave it a 90 percent chance of happening in a radio interview. FC Barcelona would play Girona in the United States – probably Miami – in an actual, competitive La Liga game in January.
On Tuesday, the Spanish league officially requested permission from the Spanish soccer federation to move a game overseas. Barca and Girona had signed off as well. On Wednesday, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez met FIFA President Gianni Infantino and federation president Luis Rubiales to discuss the idea, among other things.
And there, it’s likely that Infantino poured cold water over the thing.
According to Spanish newspaper Marca, the Spanish federation felt that such an outsourcing of a game wouldn’t serve Spanish soccer or its fans. FIFA thought it a money grab. And the Spanish government worried that a game between two Catalan teams abroad might become a flashpoint for the region’s simmering separatist movement.
Yahoo Sports previously reported that even if La Liga and Relevent, the organizing partner stateside, managed to somehow talk the Spanish federation, government and FIFA into the scheme, regional governing body CONCACAF and U.S. Soccer were unlikely to go along.
From the very start, the plan faced enormous complications. The clubs involved needed to give their permission. And then the players’ association probably did too – which hadn’t happened yet. Meanwhile, the rest of La Liga likely had to approve it as well, and juggernaut Real Madrid had not been made aware of the idea before it was announced as part of some kind of 15-year deal with Relevent, which puts on the summertime International Champions Cup in which Spanish clubs often participate. The National Sports Council of Spain and the foreign ministry had to go along as well.
So it was probably optimistic for the famously brash Tebas to give the game a 90 percent chance when none of those parties had yet been consulted.
Then there’s the Girona fans to think of, who would be robbed of a home game against Barca, one of the marquee games of the season. For that, compensation was being arranged in the form of a discounted trip to Miami or as much as a 40 percent season ticket reimbursement.
Yet Tebas and his cohort were willing to put themselves through all this hassle because in La Liga’s eternal financial arms race with the English Premier League, the United States is considered a crucial market. La Liga plainly covets a larger share of the American pie, as do the Germany Bundesliga and French Ligue 1.
The Spanish are surely envious of the EPL’s new-ish broadcast deal with NBC for 6 years and $1 billion. That’s about $166 million per season, up from about $83 million on its previous agreement. BeIN Sports reportedly pays La Liga $120 million per season for American rights, a pact that runs through the end of next season. And the Spaniards would obviously like to improve on that.
But it’s more than TV rights. It’s merchandising and licensing. And it’s the value of summer tours. In all those areas, the Premier League is far ahead of the pursuing pack.
Yet going along with this sort of thing makes little sense for Major League Soccer, U.S. Soccer, CONCACAF, UEFA or FIFA.
MLS ultimately might not get much of a say in this plan, if it ever gets off the ground, but it has significant clout within the United States Soccer Federation and CONCACAF through both its own weight and that of its marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing.
As it is, MLS competes with the many major European teams touring the country during their preseason. But the league retains the advantage that unlike those friendlies, its games are competitive. And while it has no games in January for La Liga to go up against then, the precedent of European clubs playing real league matches stateside would undercut MLS significantly.
Precedent is the key word here. European leagues have had mixed success moving their season-opening super cup games – between the past season’s domestic league and cup winners – abroad for marketing purposes. But a league game is another thing altogether. The EPL tried adding a “39th game” to its schedule to allow for a kind of semi-competitive global barnstorming tour under the league’s banner, before it was shot down by pretty much everyone. Imagine, however, that Barca and Girona really was played here.
It could completely upend the global club game as we know it.
The territorial sovereignty of domestic leagues, to put it in geopolitical terms, would be shattered. It would fundamentally alter what we understand a domestic league to be.
Any game could simply go to the richest market or the highest bidder, sowing chaos.
What argument could then stop, say, Saudi Arabia or any other place that’s trying to import soccer culture wholesale, from cherry-picking the world’s tastiest league games and bringing them to their shores? Why couldn’t Qatar simply pay off, say, Portuguese giants Benfica, FC Porto and Sporting Lisbon to just play all their home games there?
Maybe the powers that be in Doha decide one day that Paris Saint-Germain, which they already own and control completely, is now a Parisian club in name only. None of it is all that far-fetched once it’s been established that a Spanish league game needn’t necessarily be played in Spain.
This would make UEFA’s already tenuous grip on its biggest clubs even looser and threaten all other confederations. FIFA, for its part, would somehow have to oversee an even more fractured and money-driven sport.
So it’s probably for the best that it doesn’t look like this is happening anytime soon. Because it could change everything. And surely not for the better.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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