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Saturday September 15 2018
American dream or nightmare?

Girona-Barcelona in Miami throws into sharp relief the matrixed structure of Spanish and world football – and could set a precedent for multiple copycat initiatives – warns Rob Hemingway

Playing a single League game – out of 380 – in an overseas territory sounds simple enough. But consider for a second the reality of the anticipated Liga fixture between Girona-Barcelona in Miami. 

La Liga and Relevent, the multinational media group, formed the initial idea. Girona and Barca volunteered in the first instance to be part of it. Girona are owned primarily by Girona Football Group and City Football Group, with the latter owning MLS franchise New York City FC. The Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) needs to give their approval but claims to have barely been consulted, with President Luis Rubiales at the centre of yet another verbal spat, this time with Javier Tebas, his Liga counterpart. 

In addition to the Spanish federation, there are no fewer than seven other domestic and international bodies who must sanction the proposal, including Spain’s Foreign Office, CONCACAF and UEFA. Fan groups for both clubs, whilst not holding decision-making authority, certainly stand to influence the outcome. And at the end of all this red tape, the Spanish players’ union (AFE) – according to Rubiales – hold the casting vote. With dissenters among these ranks, including the likes of Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets, the picture grows ever hazier. 

On top of this complex chain of corridor consultancy, consider the vested interests of the parties involved. It clearly benefits City Football Group to support partners who are effectively investing in a market they are already in. La Liga, meanwhile, stands to gain from the increased exposure of its product to an American audience. 

The all-Catalan clash also serves to make this a highly-politicised issue. Partisan Catalans view this fixture through a Spain-first prism, which is aiming to marginalise their region further. They point to Tebas’ past allegiance to nationalist movement Fuerza Nueva and how selecting this particular game – that in the current climate would undoubtedly be a show of separatist fervour – to take place outside Spain is what he wanted all along. The proposed banning of pro-independence flags and anthems in the stadium only serves to reinforce this feeling.

Generally, there is a deep well of ill-feeling towards administrators from players and fans, which refuses to die down, and AFE President David Aganzo has not ruled out player strikes if the match does go ahead. Fan protests would undoubtedly follow.

The precedent this concept could create has the potential to trigger a domino effect across other Leagues and bodies looking to capitalise on new markets. Previously-dormant conversations about the Premier League taking fixtures abroad or the creation of a European Super League are likely to resurface and the President of Mediapro, Jaume Roures, this week revealed his future aspiration to stage a Champions League Final in New York. 

As of June, Mediapro now own distributor rights in two of Europe’s big five Leagues (France and Spain) and, with their Barcelona base and Chinese private equity ownership, should be expected to make further disruptive moves to influence the direction of the footballing landscape.

What all of this underlines is that there is no right or wrong solution here - rather a situation that is an inevitable consequence of a large, diverse group of stakeholders all motivated by financial, political and sporting reasons. It also reemphasises the unique challenge of modernising and commercialising sport, as well as the adjoining tug-of-war that represents between the traditionalists and those who are seeking to run a business.

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