El Clasico is in danger of becoming just a sideshow in greater drama of La Liga

The extreme decline of Barcelona in the last 12 months, driven by the club’s crippling debts of €1.35 billion and the departure of Lionel Messi, has been spectacular. The persistent delays to the staging of Real Madrid’s general assembly this autumn means we are yet to know the extent of their current financial problems, although debts also exceed €1 billion. The pandemic’s effect on health and financial concerns have played a part but it would also appear that, where Barcelona are concerned, the era of Luuk De Jong is yet to capture the public’s imagination.

One could argue that El Clasico is not even the biggest game of a weekend in which leaders Real Sociedad take on champions Atletico Madrid. Even two years ago it would have been unthinkable to have tickets still available for a Clasico so late in the day. Yet when the clubs concerned have built up such an addiction in their support to big names arriving summer after summer, on ever greater fees, perhaps this reaction is only natural when all that crumbles away.

This is the legacy of the years of acquisition by the Clasico Two: a pyramid of debt built by boards with no serious financial responsibility, signing player after player to feed the frenzy. In the case of Barcelona, so broke this summer they had to ask their veterans to take a paycut to cover the wages of mediocre free signings, it feels like the scheme has collapsed. They once kept rolling over the debt as the wage bill climbed although, pandemic or not, this reckoning was always coming. Having nurtured that dependence on the new and the exciting, they now find themselves much less interesting to supporters who once filled the Nou Camp.

It is a long way from the days of Pep Guardiola v Jose Mourinho and the rivalry of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Between them these two clubs paid just one significant transfer fee in the summer window. Both have switched in recent years to sales, discreetly at first and now with some degree of desperation. Barcelona have agreed new deals with their youngest stars Pedri and Ansu Fati although both contracts are backloaded with wages rising in the latter years. That old instinct to kick the can down the road dies hard.

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