COLUMN: Pulling the plug – Gabri Veiga’s imminent departure is a concern for La Liga

Celta Vigo boss Rafa Benitez on Saturday confirmed what had been rumoured for weeks – one of his club’s most prized assets, its top young player, is on his way out two games into the 2023/24 season.

Gabri Veiga, one of the revelations of La Liga last year, will be sold to Napoli in a deal that will be finalised in the coming days. The 21-year-old is leaving for the Serie A champions, his final official game having taken place two months ago, when he practically single-handedly kept the Galician side in the top flight with a matchday 38 brace against none other than champions Barcelona – two of his 11 goals last season.

“We are close to finalising a deal,” Benitez told reporters following Celta’s 1-1 draw with Real Sociedad. “We must be realistic and say that the agreement is close.”

The point they just took at Reale Arena might prove to be quite valuable come mid-May, but with skipper Iago Aspas aging and instability at boardroom level, losing Gabri could be quite damaging for Os Celestes – who have finished 17th twice in the past five years, staying in the top flight only by the skin of their teeth.

Granted, Gabri going to Napoli is nothing to sneeze at, and he’s earned an opportunity like this one abroad. Yet this deal will be spun as good value for an academy-bred player – even if it will be concluded for slightly less than his €40m release clause. Celta President Carlos Mourino’s tragicomic desire to shop him, on no fewer than three occasions publicly, can hardly have boosted morale at Balaidos. Seeing how much of his brilliant career Aspas alongside him has committed to Celta, it makes you wonder whether that kind of thing is even possible anymore.

More concerningly, Veiga is the latest budding star to leave LaLiga having only just made his mark on the competition – a talent drain affecting what was once the most scintillating product among the top European leagues.

Transfermarkt data shows that the average expenditure per club in LaLiga this summer is a shade under €19m. The average expenditure per club in Serie A is nearly twice that amount at €36.4m – and in the Bayern Munich-dominated Bundesliga as well (€35.9m). Ditto for Ligue 1, at €37m per club, headlined by the hulking behemoth of Paris Saint-Germain.

I’m not even going to touch the Premier League, as financial comparisons to England’s top flight are largely pointless. But of the four leagues just mentioned, only LaLiga has been unable to crack €500m in income while spending a bit less than €375m on transfers. On the surface, this is the financial fair play system working as LaLiga president Javier Tebas designed it – reining in years of spending (some of it reckless) and debt accrual from many clubs to build a more sustainable competition, even if it means a few “lean years.”

But for many of these clubs, the only desirable assets from abroad are its young players – who, by Spanish law, all have release clauses, rendering the negotiation process a mere formality in many cases.

Nico Jackson parlayed six great months at Villarreal last season into a €37m transfer, the 22-year-old signing an eight-year deal after Chelsea paid a fee minimally above his exit clause. Mallorca star Lee Kang-In was linked with a switch to Atletico Madrid this summer, keeping him in the Spanish league, but he moved to Paris Saint-Germain in a deal worth just over €20m. He joins former Valencia teammate Carlos Soler in Paris, who left Mestalla for Parc des Princes in a deadline day transfer last summer for roughly the same fee.

Valencia also sold 20-year-old Yunus Musah to AC Milan for €20m this summer – in typical Peter Lim fashion, for well below the United States mdifielder’s €100m clause – while Almeria’s 21-year-old forward El Bilal Toure, acquired for €8m, joined Atalanta in a €31m transfer, a record for the Italian club. Toure has since been ruled out for several months with a thigh injury that will require surgery.

Last year, Newcastle completed a €70m swoop for the inconsistent but occasionally brilliant 23-year-old striker Alexander Isak. Real Madrid sold Martin Odegaard to Arsenal two years ago – he now captains the club at 24 and is regarded as a world-class midfielder. Winger Bryan Gil’s development was stunted by a part-exchange transfer to Tottenham Hotspur that same summer, when the highly-rated academy graduate was just 20 years old.

Polarising teenage right-back Ivan Fresneda could be the next young Spanish talent out the door. Not everyone rates Fresneda, and maybe he stays in Spain by virtue of Barcelona deciding to sign him. But the Valladolid defender has other novias from England, Germany, and Italy. On another (but still related) note, it’s been a pleasant surprise to see 20-year-old right-back Arnau Martinez remain at Girona this summer following his breakthrough campaign last year, but you can bet he remains on many a radar around Europe.

Now, I know – as everyone does, seeing as the lad has only gone and scored three goals in his first two games – that Real Madrid agreed to spend well over €100m on Jude Bellingham this summer. Madrid spent €80m on Aurelien Tchouameni last summer too, paying what amounts to a premium in both cases to replenish its midfield for the next decade (or so Florentino Perez hopes).

It’s also true that neither Pedri (20 years old) nor Gavi (19) will leave FC Barcelona any time soon – that seems to be a given, even taking into account the Catalan club’s myriad financial crises. Lamine Yamal (16) made his first La Liga start for Barca on Sunday, and the winger showed no fear of the moment against a stubborn Cadiz.

Atletico have held onto midfielders Pablo Barrios and Rodrigo Riquelme (23) despite a wave of interest in the latter – including, reportedly, from English and European champions Manchester City. Barrios already appears to have an important role under Diego Simeone, who has spoken glowingly of the 20-year-old’s progress since his debut in the first team last autumn.

However, we also know La Liga is more than those three clubs, even though they are the country’s most attractive landing spots. La Liga is a multicultural, multiethnic source of pride, and it remains one of Europe’s top leagues. But the loss of talent – as well as an inability for many clubs to attract it – is a problem. It’s playing out in how little the ball actually remains in play during games and the requisite lack of dynamic, free-flowing football once so integral to the league’s brand.

So Celta can and will on some level be pleased with an injection of over €30m into the coffers for Gabri Veiga, a Pontevedra native signed into the academy for nothing. But sooner than later, someone or something needs to plug the talent drain depriving the Spanish top flight of homegrown players with high potential.

Tags Celta Vigo Gabri Veiga La Liga Napoli
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