Real deals frame Europe's cash-overflow problems

In the end, it always comes down to money.

But before we go down that route, take a glimpse back to Friday night and a game played in a locale where the dollars are piled higher than in most places on the planet -- the Stade Louis II in the casino-fueled principality of Monaco.

Up in the stands, Michel Platini, the French president of UEFA, was hobnobbing with royalty, in this case Monaco's Prince Albert II, who had wandered down from his palace just to the north of the stadium.

Down on the field, European Champions League winner FC Barcelona of Spain was playing UEFA Cup winner Shakhtar Donetsk of Ukraine on a pitch whose dreadful condition made it more suitable as a pasture for the prince's cows.

The occasion was the European Super Cup, which Barcelona duly won, 1-0, on a 115th-minute goal by Pedro to earn its fifth title of 2009, to go along with its Champions League, Spanish league, Spanish Kings Cup and Spanish Super Cup triumphs.

Nothing, it seems, can stop Barcelona, these days.

Nothing, that is, except a team that is bought rather than built. A team such as Real Madrid, for example.

The fact that Florentino Perez, Real Madrid's president, has spent $356 million this summer on acquiring the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso has been well documented.

The English Premier League is similarly threatened by those with Monopoly money to splash about.

Manchester City, now in the control of oil-rich sheiks from the United Arab Emirates, has coughed up $195 million to acquire the likes of Gareth Barry, Emmanuel Adebayor, Carlos Tevez and Kolo Toure.

Other teams have cried foul, and the media across Europe has bemoaned the fact that a more-or-less level playing field has been tilted precariously out of balance by the unchecked flashing of cash.

There have always been rich clubs and poor clubs and there always will be, but now the rich clubs are being challenged by super-rich clubs.

In his conversation with Prince Albert, Platini probably steered clear of such matters, the prince having a fair bit of money of his own, no doubt. But Platini has vocally let the media know his feelings.

European soccer's governing body wants to put in place legislation that requires teams to balance the books or face banishment from competitions such as the exceptionally lucrative Champions League, which this season will earn UEFA and the competing clubs a record $1.55 billion in marketing and television revenues.

Platini, supposedly concerned at the enormous debts incurred by top clubs, wants the new rules in place by 2012.

"We have three years to help clubs by saying you cannot spend more than you earn," he said. "If a club can get loans from a bank to buy players and is able to pay back loans, then it is not a problem.

"But if a club gets a lot of money or subsidies from a big backer and is still in deficit in two years, then it is a problem and we don't like that."

Although the difficulties of drafting, implementing and enforcing such legislation would be enormous, Platini said he has backing for the plan.

"It's mainly the owners that are asking us to do something," he said, referring to such figures as Chelsea's Roman Abramovich, AC Milan's Silvio Berlusconi and Inter Milan's Massimo Moratti. "They do not want to fork out any more.

"Manchester City can spend $500 million if they want to, but if they are not breaking even in three years then they cannot play in European competition."

This, then, is the backdrop to the Spanish season that got underway Saturday with Real Madrid defeating Deportivo La Coruna, 3-2, in front of 80,000 fans at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid.

Among those on hand -- no doubt there to see Real get off to a fast start -- was Usain Bolt, the world-record holder at 100 and 200 meters.

"Expectations are always very high and the nerves and pressure were having an effect throughout the match," said Manuel Pellegrini, Real Madrid's Chilean coach and the man who is expected to spin gold out of all the talent put at his disposal.

Ronaldo, acquired from Manchester United for a world-record $132 million, scored on a penalty kick, but the big question being asked all across Spain is: Has Real already bought the league title or can Barcelona hold onto it?

There are 20 teams in La Liga, but only two that are ever favored. As Atletico Madrid Coach Abel Resino put it recently: "Real Madrid and Barcelona are very, very far from the rest of the other Spanish teams in terms of economic power."

Pellegrini knows his task. "A club of Madrid's stature has to aspire to win all the competitions," he said.

Barcelona Coach Josep "Pep" Guardiola is not in the slightest bit intimidated. His team, which opens league play Monday against Sporting Gijon, last week added the Spanish Super Cup and the European Super Cup to its bulging trophy cabinet.

It might have struggled to break down a defensively determined Shakhtar Donetsk on Friday night, but Guardiola was simply enjoying the Monaco ambience.

"We were two seconds too slow tonight," he said, "but it is August. People are partying, there are boats in the harbor, people are on holiday. It's not like in April or May when you are firing on all cylinders, but we will get there.

"We have already won two trophies this week and the league has not begun yet. We will improve. There is a long way to go."




Spain's La Liga by the numbers

0--Number of times Barcelona and Real Madrid have been relegated.

3--European championships won by Barcelona.

9-- European championships won by Real Madrid.

10--Jersey number of Barcelona's Lionel Messi, heavily favored to be the next FIFA world player of the year.

19--League titles won by Barcelona.

20--Teams in the top flight.

31--League titles won by Real Madrid.

38--League games in the season.

80,354--Capacity at Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.

98,772--Capacity at Barcelona's Camp Nou Stadium.

18.7 million--Salary in dollars Real Madrid is paying reigning FIFA world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo.

146 million--Value in dollars of the insurance on Ronaldo's legs.

-- Grahame L. Jones

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