La Liga is back: How the bitter rivalry between Javier Tebas and Luis Rubiales culminated in the return of Spanish football

In the centre of Madrid, along one of the many expansive roads lined by trees and glorious white buildings that reflect the unforgiving sun back into the eyes of pedestrians, there sits a statue of a goddess of unknown origins. The Greeks didn’t know where she came from and the Romans adopted her into their plethora of deities at around 205BC, as she was a key source of hope in their war against the Carthaginian Empire. They reinvented her as a Trojan, but her original form was depicted as being seated on a chariot pulled by two lions – as is represented in the sculpture in the Spanish capital. The two gigantic marble lions leading the goddess Cibeles represent the transformed portrayals of Atalanta and Hippomenes; after dishonouring the mythological figure by making love in her sacred temple while hiding during a ferocious rainstorm, the young rebels were made to forever carry the carriage of the goddess as penance for their sin, forced to look in opposite directions for eternity, never seeing each other again.

The reason Javier Tebas and Luis Rubiales never look in the same direction is not because they had sex in a Greek temple. It is due to a complete ideological clash between the two alpha males which has dragged on for what seems like an eternity. Tebas – the boss of La Liga and Rubiales the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) President, have never seen eye-to-eye, leading to innumerable clashes on both national radio and television. Despite the actual length of the disagreement on how to run football in Spain being no more than a couple of seasons, the infamous quotes could fill pages upon pages; a constant back and forth between Spain’s top dogs has led most people, if not everybody, to expect that when one appears, the other will not be far behind with a scathing response.

Javier Tebas was elected leader of La Liga in 2003. A trained lawyer, he drove a sword through the rotten heart of the Iberian game; exposing the match fixing scandals that had been an open secret for years. Official court sessions were not only promoted but actively pushed through by the Puerto Rican, leading to astronomical fines being handed out by judges to the culprits that had gone unpunished for years. Each and every prison sentence was handed out, Tebas would stand proudly in the press conference, highlighting his capability to lead Spanish football into a new era with himself at the top.

In May 2018, just two months before the start of the World Cup in Russia, Luis Rubiales was announced as the new RFEF President after standing as President of the Players’ Association for 7 years. Just three weeks after his election, the day before the World Cup was due to commence, he sacked Julen Lopetegui as head coach of the national team after it was leaked that he was due to take over as boss of Real Madrid in the forthcoming season. Spain subsequently went from one of the tournament favourites to an historic penalty shoot-out loss to the hosts in a match that seemed to last forty days and forty nights, their dynamism having turned into a sluggish refusal to move the ball forward. Rubiales’ first big fist on the table was definitely a miss for the success of football on the peninsula, but one that showed his commitment to stick to his principles and not fold under the pressure from the notoriously tricky Spanish media.

The fighting started with the seemingly benign issue of the timings of league matches. Due to the curious nature of Spain’s professional divisions, La Liga had control over the top two tiers, while the RFEF was in charge of the two lowest divisions. Due to Tebas’s often bullish mission to force La Liga into the homes of the fans across the world, he declared that Spain would maintain the increasingly unpopular Monday and Friday night football. Rubiales strongly disagreed, citing travel difficulties on a work night, and late kick-off times for young fans with school the following day. Fan treatment, it must be said, is Tebas’s asignatura pendiente – a topic that he routinely avoids. Rubiales took advantage of this and threatened not to appoint and send referees – organised by the Federation – to the matches that were to be played on weekdays. The RFEF President is a fierce negotiator, and when the bickering made its way into an official court, he argued that it was the working fans who would not show up on weekdays, leading to empty stadiums and therefore a poor viewing spectacle for worldwide viewers at home. Getafe do not fill their stadium whether it is a Europa League game or FC Barcelona are in town. When it’s Real Madrid they do, but only because the away fans outnumber the home supporters by an embarrassing ratio. Football must be played on Monday and Friday, argued Tebas, in order to maximise the visual product for worldwide fans, and spread out the round of fixtures to ten time slots per week, giving TV viewers the maximum time possible to tune in to the games being played. The judge made a decision: football was to be played on Friday but not Monday, due to fan difficulties. Rubiales had won the battle, but Tebas had not thrown the towel in just yet.

In September 2018, the news broke that Javier Tebas had signed a contract that allowed one La Liga match a season to be played in the United States. The story shocked the world and the age-old argument of “sporting integrity” burst onto the front pages of the sport dailies. Tebas was proud: his league was going international, reaching a previously undersold market and landing heavy uppercuts to both the Premier League and Serie A. While some people were worried, one could definitely see the logic behind the decision. Not Rubiales: he claimed the contract was “meaningless” without the approval of the RFEF (which, obviously, would not be given).

‘Clubs had to choose ‘between mummy and daddy”

Inevitably, and similar to even the most powerful people in the world, the battle continued on social media, with Rubiales sarcastically replying to a Tebas tweet in March of 2019 with a list of mistakes that Tebas had ruled as brilliant ideas, citing the controversial La Liga match that was to be played on U.S. soil, in Miami, as well as the decision to move the Spanish Super Cup (a competition owned by La Liga and not the Federation) to Qatar. The hugely controversial issue would have undoubtedly brought in a huge income for La Liga, but not many clubs were keen: out of the 20 La Liga teams that participated in a secret vote organised by the RFEF, only 3 were in favour. Two-nil to Rubiales; Tebas needed to strike back. Under the name of Mediapro, Spain’s biggest broadcasting company, he organised a meeting of Segunda B clubs for the 25th of April 2019. When Rubiales found out about the counter-offensive, he planned a meeting too – for exactly the same day. Clubs had to choose, as put by journalist Paula Giménez, “between mummy and daddy.”

And now, with the COVID-19 global pandemic that has left the people of the world looking to its leaders for guidance and support, the Spanish government knew that the clashes of Tom and Jerry were not important enough to hold back the restart of a multi-million-euro business. Football needed to return to the peninsula. Rubiales asked for open dialogue before sending a formal letter to Tebas to solve the issues that threatened to tarnish the reputation of both the RFEF and the league itself. Tebas responded without flinching: “the negotiations are broken.”

Irene Lozano is the current President of the Consejo Superior de Deporte (CSD), Spain’s government-run sports council. Working effectively as Spain’s minister for sport, she was seen as the person most qualified to act as referee when it came to another Tebas-Rubiales Royal Rumble. In December 2018, the CSD had rejected the opportunity to intervene, citing their decision on “the good faith” and “legitimate confidence” between both entities and the fact that neither of the pair had formally reported the other. In other words, incessant squabbling does not warrant a legal intervention of the government. But that is not what Irene wanted; unfazed by personality and ego, she sat the pair down with the sole objective of paving a safe path for football to return to a country that had been in a state of alarm and nationwide self-quarantine for over two months. A mammoth 8-hour meeting ensued and, at the end of it all, El Confidencial reported the “surprise at the strong level of collaboration and a good rapport to take this situation forward” between the two heavyweights: fútbol was to return.  

On 28 May 2020, Mediapro and La Liga arrived at an agreement that allowed all of the remaining games to be shown in every old people’s home in the country. Spain has suffered more than most in Europe from the pandemic, and Tebas and Rubiales’ “social clause” will no doubt bring a smile to the group who have been most affected this year. LaLiga TV Bar – the channel that is offered to public establishments showing live football – will be offered to each and every residence within Spain in an effort to “break isolation and loneliness” for both residents and workers. Originally the older generation had the choice of watching one game per week, now they have to decide whether or not they really want to watch the soaps and game shows.

Thank you, Irene Lozano. The fighting has been mostly fun from the outside but the tedious bickering over who can eat the last biscuit had gotten to the point where the constant disagreements could have led to a detrimental fate for Spanish football. It may be small, only a flicker, but the light at the end of the tunnel is now there for everyone to see. Babysitter Lozano will hold both of their hands and feed them sweets as they walk the long journey, but it is one that has now given back to the people of Spain what they love the most: the game of football. Maybe one day, if Rubiales and Tebas have a joint statue erected that sits outside La Liga HQ, unlike Atalanta and Hippomenes, they may just be posed looking deep into each others’ eyes.

Joe Brennan

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Joe writes mainly about the Spanish game and spends his time between Leeds, Madrid and airport lounges.

By |2020-06-11T12:12:57+00:00June 11th, 2020|

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