Last week, in an interview with the BBC, La Liga president Javier Tebas alluded to an impending disaster — depending on who you ask — when speaking about the inevitable losses of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Tebas estimated the exodus of the world’s two best players could happen in the next three seasons, leaving the league with a massive gap to fill. While his worries may be a tad premature, it’s prudent to start anticipating life after the pair. Messi and Ronaldo have been dominating Europe for almost a full decade, and at 28 and 30 years old, respectively, they are fast approaching the final acts of their careers.
Now, one isn’t quite sure exactly when this will happen. Messi, already beginning the slow transition into a more attacking midfield role, isn’t the force of nature he was in 2012, but he is a far smarter player, picking his spots when needed. Conversely, Ronaldo may have already lost a touch of pace, but he’s fought off any rumors of his decline by essentially doubling down on his output. No longer marooned on the left wing, he’s become the ultimate surgeon in the box. Last season, though Madrid faltered at the end, Ronaldo had his best statistical season ever, netting 61 goals and 22 assists in all competitions.
Still, Tebas is right to speculate. Despite the widespread success of Spanish teams in Europe, La Liga has tethered the majority of its marketing in recent years to the rivalry between the two legends. It’s a point not lost on Tebas. “La Liga needs to be more than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo,” he said in the interview. “We are selling this duel between them to the world, but we need to sell different concepts. We need to sell ourselves as an international brand.”
Of course, this entire discourse is part of a thinly veiled attempt to compete with the riches and popularity of the Premier League. This summer, Premier League spending crossed €1 billion, while La Liga capped out at a little over €500 million. While that gap is significant, without the attraction of the big two, the chasm could have been far worse.
La Liga needs to diversify and give their other talents the spotlight that they deserve. True, Ronaldo and Messi dwarf the competition, but that doesn’t inherently render the completion non-essential. Atletico’s Antoine Griezmann has recently started receiving the kind of plaudits he’s been, but in another league — lets just say for example the EPL — Grizemann would have been propped up as a star long ago. This extends to many other talents as well. Celta Vigo’s Nolito is one of the more exciting attackers in Europe, yet he’s a relative unknown. Frankly, most casual fans only learn of La Liga talents when the players are in the crosshairs of an EPL raid; case in point the likes of Michu, Ander Herrera, Santi Carzola and even, to a lesser extent, David Silva and Sergio Aguero.
La Liga’s myopic marketing strategies aside, the question still lingers:
What’s going to happen when those two depart? The truth is that the repercussions will be felt both on the field and off.
A return to the norm
La Liga is much maligned for it’s apparent “lack of competition.” Madrid and Barca usually romp to a bevy of 5-0 victories over the course of the season and inevitably finish at least 10-20 points clear of their nearest competitors. Still, I’m often befuddled by those who deride La Liga for that while ignoring the obvious: Ronaldo and Messi have taken any gap that may have previously existed between Real, Barca and the rest of the league and complexly exacerbated it to ghastly levels. It should be no surprise that the competition has been skewed in the era where the two players who are going to go down as the most prolific scorers in history have competed.
Madrid and Barcelona have always been home to some of the greatest talents in the sport, from the artistry of Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldinho’s spellbinding mastery of the ball, to the likes of Raul, (the original) Ronaldo, Figo, Rivaldo et al. Real Madrid and Barcelona have hoarded some of the world’s greatest talents like playing cards.
Yet throughout all of these instances, both Madrid and Barca endured hardships in the league. True, today these teams are stacked beyond belief with a couple world class players at each position – a far cry from the days when Real Madrid trotted out a Fransico Pavon and a past it Ivan Helguera as a central defensive partnership. But ignoring the outsized impact of Messi and Ronaldo would a travesty.
Consider Barcelona’s and Real Madrid’s goal tallies in the five years before Messi and Ronaldo and after.
The attacking furor of these two massive clubs has reached unprecedented heights in the past six seasons. In fact, Madrid, a club that had previously never scored 100 goals in La Liga throughout their illustrious history, has now completed the feat each of the last six seasons.
And if it’s down to “La Liga competition,” why hasn’t anyone else been able to replicate these feats? There’s this erroneous truism bandied about by armchair analysts that La Liga is some sort of goal bonanza where any striker with a sliver of scoring acumen can bang them in at will. But if you remove both Messi and Ronaldo from the league, the remaining top scorers look, decidedly … normal.
Still pegged to the “weak La Liga defense” angle? Then what of their dominance in Europe? The last time Messi and Ronaldo didn’t finish atop of the Champions League goal scoring charts was in 2007, when Kaka led the way. Since then they’ve either been the top scorer in the tournament or tied for first place each season, with both Messi and Ronaldo at one point breaking the single-season record.
Essentially a side effect of the first point, the departure of the two will also have reverberating effect on the league table. This is largely tied to their goal scoring as well, but more so it’s a product of their consistency.
No modern day superstars have ever exhibited the level of reliability of Messi and Ronaldo. Carlo Ancelotti summed it up best when commenting on Ronaldo: “It’s like starting with one goal already.”
Stars of years gone by were certainly able to occasionally hit the heights that Messi and Ronaldo, but these two reach those these levels week in, week out. Their relentless assault on the league has forced open a previously non-existent chasm. Excellence on the pitch leads to wins and eventually trophies. Brilliance week in week out without fail leads to 100-point totals and record breaking feats.
Remove Messi and Ronaldo from the equation and suddenly some 4-1 victories become 1-1 draws, three points turn into one and, suddenly, Diego Simeone is giggling in the corner as Atletico are sitting within striking distance.
Consider last week’s showdown at the Vicente Calderon between Atletico and Barcelona. Fernando Torres’ breakaway strike gave Los Indios the lead, yet despite the apparent importance of the goa,l Simeone didn’t celebrate at all. He would later reveal why, in an interview with a reporter: “I saw Messi warming up”
And Simeone was right, Neymar knotted up the game with a free kick soon after, yet it was Messi’s introduction that completely turned the gmae. Ghosting just outside the penalty box with a ghoulish grin, Messi drew so much attention that Atletico’s defenders suddenly found themselves under duress. Soon after, a quick-thinking touch by Luis Suarez would free up the Argentinian, and he would bury Atletico. Barcelona do not win that game without Messi.
Ronaldo’s had his moments, too, like last year with a vital hat trick away to Sevilla in game where no other Madrid player looked capable of scoring, keeping them in the title race. It would be safe to assume that Messi and Ronaldo likely win between 10-12 points on their own per season. Take that away and all of a sudden things are a lot tighter.
On a more subtle level, it’s important to remember the psychological aspect of the game as well. Messi’s and Ronaldo’s dominance doesn’t simply apply to the record books or stat sheets. It’s a palpable fear that runs through the veins of La Liga teams. Yet on the flipside invigorates their teammates, gifting them an air of confidence that they are already up 1-0 with a player like that in their side.
It’s an air of inevitability one that follows opposing defenses around, illuminating their frailties. Simply put, teams go into matches terrified. This manifests itself in many ways, changes in strategy, a loss of focus and often an overcompensating on the defensive side to deal with the two. Their sheer dominance in the league hangs like a dark cloud over their opponents; it’s a fear that compounds over time.
There is also this ridiculous notion that future stars will replicate their output, yet it’s hard to see where that argument holds weight. To be clear no one is saying that Madrid or Barcelona will fall off the wagon, so to speak. The clubs will continue to plunder the world’s top talents, many of whom will partially fill the gap, but the chances of anyone in the next couple of decades replicating the exploits of the famous duo are slim at best.