“He who fears corruption fears life.” Saul Alinsky
La Liga is corrupt. The same two teams win nearly every year. Revenue isn’t distributed fairly. The players dive a lot. Teams use underhanded means to win games. Unlike many criticisms of La Liga, all these things are true.
I don’t care.
But what about fair play? What about the rules? Think of the children! Trust me, the children already have this figured out. They’ll be fine.
Anyone who watches La Liga on a regular basis knows how capricious, even amoral, the league can be. You know what else is like that? Life.
Fundamental difference in perspective
There are two common, yet fundamentally different, ways to look at sports. One perspective is that sports are a microcosm of an ideal world—in this case, a pure meritocracy. Competition is based on playing within the rules and everyone giving maximum effort. The ultimate goal is fair play. Leagues like the Premier League, the Bundesliga, and Major League Soccer aim for these ideals, if not always reaching them.
The other perspective is that sports are a microcosm of the world as it currently exists. The race does not always go to the swift, but rather to the one who endures. If you have to bend the rules every now and then to endure, so be it. The ultimate goal is winning. La Liga, Serie A, and pretty much every South American league ever fall into this category.
The word “cheat” gets thrown around a lot in reference to leagues in the second category, but even that is a matter of perspective. I once heard a BBC panelist talk about a conversation he’d had with Gus Poyet. Poyet said that if a player isn’t willing to do anything to win a game, including breaking the rules, then maybe they don’t want it bad enough.
People can debate if this perspective is right, but it’s hard to argue that it’s the reigning one in La Liga. Embracing this second perspective leads to some interesting life lessons that we can apply.
Abandon all pretense of a level playing field
In life, it’s almost certain someone will have an advantage over you, and much of that time, that advantage will be unearned. Rather than complain about how unfair life is, a better thing to do is ask yourself what you’re going to do about it. Trying to beat such an opponent at their own game is asking for humiliation (just ask Rayo Vallecano). It’s generally more effective, albeit sometimes less exciting to watch, to make the most of what you have and try to catch your opponent sleeping. After all, big advantages often lead to complacency, and every once in awhile, the little guy wins.
Complacency can take the form of sloppy defending, as it did for Real Madrid in a defeat against Sevilla. It can also take the form of a team mentally prioritizing other competitions, as happened to Barcelona against Real Sociedad.
Atlético Madrid have built their most successful team in years on this mentality of endurance. If you only watch Atleti play against Barcelona or Real Madrid, it’s easy to think the team’s entire approach consists of counterattacking and tactical fouls. But if you watch more regularly, they’re happy to play an attacking style when it suits them. The nasty, physical approach is mostly reserved for teams with technically superior players. Atleti ranked 4th in last season’s Fair Play table, which indicates they don’t always rely on physical play. But they won’t hesitate to pull those tools out of the box if they’re needed.
It’s completely legitimate to argue that it’s better to work to make the system fairer. That’s a worthwhile goal. But in the meantime, you still have to work with the system as it is.
Perception and reality go hand-in-hand
If you’re reading this, you’ve almost certainly seen footage of Luis Suárez biting Giorgio Chiellini at the 2014 World Cup. If he wasn’t there already, the incident shot Suárez to the top of many people’s lists of most hated soccer players. Neither this incident nor the long suspension stopped Barcelona from signing him.
The work to rehabilitate his image began before the club could even present him as one of their players. Fellow new Barcelona signing Ivan Rakitić praised Suárez for having the courage to apologize to Chiellini. The club’s social media emphasized Suárez as a devoted family man. When Suárez was presented to the Barcelona fans before a pre-season friendly, the fans gave him a standing ovation and chanted his name, although he had yet to touch a ball for the club.
The operation didn’t stop there, though. By the end of his first season at Barcelona, the focus had shifted, highlighting his friendship with Lionel Messi. During this past season, Suárez was featured more in the club’s charitable efforts. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Suárez played well and mostly behaved himself.
However, such efforts have been known to backfire, as they did with Messi’s recent tax fraud conviction. There’s a legitimate argument that the law hasn’t been applied fairly in this case, but such arguments are a hard sell – the image of a wealthy athlete who doesn’t pay his taxes tends to stick in the mind. Barcelona’s ill-advised solidarity campaign made things worse for Messi; the club would have been better off issuing a statement to the effect of, “We disagree with the conviction and continue to support our player.” They still would have been criticized – some people will criticize no matter what – but not to this extent.
The life lesson here: manage your image to the best of your ability, but don’t expect facts to get you anywhere if the optics are bad.
There is no such thing as an unbiased source
In Spanish soccer, there are two main camps. There’s the Madrid press, led by Marca and AS, and the Catalan press, led by Sport and Mundo Deportivo. Although there are small differences within each camp, the goals are the same: to make their team look good and make the other team look bad.
Of course, this past season, Barcelona won La Liga and Real Madrid won the Champions League. The spin from the Catalan press was that La Liga is more difficult to win than the Champions League, which is more about luck anyway. Meanwhile, the Madrid press celebrated Real Madrid’s Champions League win. AS even said, “Zidane has won his league” after Barcelona clinched the league title.
You might say, “Yeah, but that’s Spain.” I would argue that such bias is everywhere—it’s simply more obvious when the bias goes against the team, or the league, you support.
For instance, pundits bent over backwards to defend Wayne Rooney’s dive against Preston in the 2015 FA Cup. It was gamesmanship, a man trying to help his team. Of course, when any South American player does the same, he’s a dirty cheater who is ruining the game. In Rooney’s case, I nearly got whiplash watching the English media reverse their general anti-diving stance.
That said, if I were to search for an “unbiased source,” I’d be searching forever. It’s better to know up front what someone’s biases are and adjust accordingly.
I get that some people follow sports exactly for the escapism factor. A league that operates in the same way life does can be an unpleasant reminder of things people wish weren’t true. So go on, escape, like some people do when they tune into “reality” shows. But understand that others prefer a bit of real life mixed in with their sport.
And if your Premier League-style approach isn’t making things happen in life, maybe it’s time for a bit of La Liga.