Sunday, 14 June 2009

Iberian power shift provides the Real riposte to Premier League self-regard

It began when Spain beat Germany – then Barcelona humbled United, Berlusconi succumbed to greed and Ronaldo boarded the gravy train.

Moguls are hereby invited to fund a five-a-side between our Premier League and Spain's La Liga to determine the balance of power. Their line-up now: Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká, Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi.

Ours: Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Frank Lampard and Cesc Fábregas. And two of those are Spanish. Maybe put Rio Ferdinand in there instead of Fábregas, because we'll need a defender, or five. Sorry, bad idea. We ought to play Spain at roadworks instead. Or Wags.

Self-abasing critiques of

Real Madrid's capture of Ronaldo for £80m will be fired at from high horses by the Premier League's implacable marketers. To some on the debt mountain, it comes as a personal affront to be told that vast worldwide TV deals are not the sole measure of excellence.Let's start by conceding that Manchester United v

Arsenal or Liverpool will not be next season's must-see game in the Far East or Africa. That honour passes on a gilded platter (if indeed it was not already in Spanish hands) to El gran clásico between Barcelona and Real Madrid, which will feature all of the virtuosos in my La Liga quintet to face the Premier League's famous five.

Could the opening exchange between Spain's leviathans in 2009-10 be the most coveted ticket in club football's history? The synergy is that Real have broken the bank for the past two winners of Fifa World Player of the Year in a summer when Barça's sparkling Champions League-winning side have earned comparisons with Johan Cruyff's Dream Team of the early 1990s.

To be clear, Spain are European champions and house the best club side in the world. Their two great footballing metropolises are home to the world's three best players: Ronaldo, Kaká and Messi, as well as one of the best central midfield pairings the game has seen, in Xavi and Iniesta. La Liga is also the residence for Argentina's other lustrous young talent, Sergio Agüero, not to mention David Villa. On loan, in a sense, to the Premier League are Torres, Fábregas, Xabi Alonso and Pepe Reina: all probable members of a Spain squad who ought to be favourites for next summer's World Cup in South Africa.

Not all of this is a romantic riposte to Premier League self-regard. Nothing could exceed the vulgarity of Florentino Pérez being re-elected as Real Madrid president and then summoning £136m from sources unknown to add two of the world's three most celebrated players to a side who lost 4-0 to Liverpool at Anfield and 6-2 at home to Barça.

Galácticos II are a stark counterpoint to Barça's more noble culture of talent cultivation. But does the latest Pérez splurge prompt you to reject the trip to the pub on a Saturday night in favour of Barça v Real in HD? Sure it does. Now is the time to start that wine cellar. Uefa's Michel Platini has finally trained his guns away from England to call the Ronaldo fee a "serious challenge to the idea of fair play", but let's see how many join his picket line outside the Bernabéu or Camp Nou when the clásico kicks off.

Power has shifted dramatically and irresistibly to Iberia. It started when Spain beat Germany in Vienna 12 months ago, continued when Barcelona humbled United in Rome and assumed the look of a fait accompli when Silvio Berlusconi surrendered to greed in selling Milan's best player for a world-record fee and a fax churned out at Manchester confirming the unavoidable. To hold someone you cherish against their will is demeaning to the one doing the holding. This time, there was an £80m reward for letting go.

George Weah, meanwhile, is still the only former world player of the year to come to an English club. Ronaldo was already here when he claimed that prize. Weah played 11 times for Chelsea and seven for Manchester City. Otherwise there is a litany of nonpareils who declined the opportunity: the original Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Luís Figo, Zinedine Zidane and Kaká.

There's more. Fifa's gong has passed 10 times to Barcelona or Real Madrid players and 10 times to representatives of Italian clubs. The Premier League's tally is one: the Portuguese Ronaldo.

There are countervailing gains. A retaliatory snatch squad may bring back Lyon's Karim Benzema or Bayern Munich's Franck Ribéry. We still have Torres, and Rooney may now finally come in from the cold to play through the centre for United. England are 10 points clear in World Cup qualifying. But the sprinkling of British football writers who left to live and work in Spain no longer feel like William Boot, if they ever did. Each morning, on the sun-buttered terrace, they must be shouting: "Scoop!"