On the European scene, Spain is one of the major players. The Spanish League, La Liga, has been arguably one of the best in the world as of late, and Spanish clubs have dominated European competitions while also producing some of the most talented players.
However, this current UEFA Champions League season paints a very different picture. As we just witnessed in the first leg of each Round of 16 match, three of the four Spanish teams in the tournament lost their first leg. While these ties are not over and anything can happen, there is a decent chance that the Champions League Quarterfinals will feature no Spanish teams this year.
These results signal a progressive decline of Spanish clubs in recent seasons, leading many to conclude that we are witnessing the end of an era. But the verdict is still out: Is this the end to Spanish dominance in European Football?
Throughout the 2010s, there was no more dominant force throughout European football—or really, world football—than Spain. The numbers don’t lie. The Spanish National Team won Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012 consecutively: an unprecedented record. Even as the National Team’s strength started to fade away after the 2014 World Cup, Spanish club teams and players would continue to dominate world football for many years to come.
One only needs to look at Europe’s most prestigious club competitions: the Champions League and the Europa League. In football history, the team who has won the most Champions League trophies is Real Madrid, and the team with the most Europa Leagues is Sevilla—both from Spain. In fact, no country has won more total Champions Leagues or Europa Leagues than Spain. During the late 2000s and throughout the 2010s, this domination would surge to the highest degree.
From 2010 to 2019, a Spanish team would win the Champions League (Europe’s top tier club competition) six out of 10 possible times. And in two instances, 2014 and 2016, the final was contested between two Spanish teams. Beyond just the winning team, at least one Spanish team made it to the Semifinals every single season this decade.
In the 2015-16 season, Spain broke a record for being the first nation in history to have five of their clubs qualify for the Champions League. They hold the same record in the Europa League, the second-tier competition, as Spanish teams also won on six occasions with an all-Spanish final happening once there as well. Throughout the entire decade, there was only one Europa League season without a Spanish semifinalist, 2013; however, the immediate year before saw three of the four semifinalists come from Spain in comparison.
From a La Liga perspective, the Spanish domestic league was easily the strongest league during the 2010s. Real Madrid and Barcelona were by far the two best teams in the world, and their hegemony was made even more compelling and exciting by the Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo rivalry—the two best players of this generation playing for rival teams. Messi and Ronaldo dominated the individual awards, which meant from 2008 to 2019, the winner of the Ballon d’Or (the award given to the best player of the year) was given to a player from La Liga.
The FIFPro World XI, a list gathered by FIFA which votes on the best XI of year, was habitually populated by players from Spanish teams or players who were Spanish themselves. In 2012, the entire FIFPro World XI was made up from players from Spanish clubs.
Evidently, both Real Madrid and Barcelona dominated the Champions League, routinely trouncing the rest of Europe’s elite clubs, including Germany’s Bayern Munich, Italy’s Juventus, France’s PSG and England’s Manchester United. But Barcelona and Real Madrid weren’t the only successful teams from the Eastern Iberian nation, with other clubs being successful as well.
Atletico Madrid won La Liga in 2014 and were consistently the third-best team in Spain. They also won the Europa League three times and even made it to the Champions League Final twice, losing only to Real Madrid on both occasions. Sevilla was another club that experienced great success, winning the Europa League three times consecutively from 2014 to 2016. Even relatively smaller Spanish clubs, such as Valencia, Villarreal, Athletic Bilbao, Malaga, Celta Vigo, Real Betis, Real Sociedad, Levante and others, did well in Europe this decade. Simply put, from 2010 to 2019, La Liga had the best teams, had the best players, and was the best league in the world.
Fast forward to 2021, and it is very clear that the Spanish grip on world football has severely loosened to the point where they will almost certainly lose hold. 2019 was a wake-up call of a season, as the reigning champions, Real Madrid, were thoroughly trashed and shocked by Ajax in the Champions League Round of 16. This also culminated with Ronaldo’s transfer away from Madrid to the Italian giants, Juventus, in the 2018 summer transfer window. Ironically, with Juventus, Ronaldo would go on to eliminate Atletico Madrid from the same stage of the tournament.
While a Messi-led Barcelona made it to the Champions League Semifinals, they were humiliated 4-0 in the second leg by the eventual champions, Liverpool. By the time the final came around, it was to be contested by two English teams: Liverpool vs. Tottenham Hotspur. The situation was identical in the Europa League, as the final was also between two English teams, Chelsea and Arsenal, with the latter defeating the only Spanish representative in the Europa League Semifinals, Valencia, 7-4 on aggregate.
The 2020 Champions League saw an acceleration of the pattern. To be fair, Sevilla would go on to impressively win the Europa League. However, the Spanish teams in the Champions League that same year did not fare that well. Valencia were convincingly torn to shreds by the underdog Italians, Atalanta, 8-4 on aggregate, while Real Madrid exited the tournament rather meekly against a Manchester City side, who were admittedly in poor form.
In the quarterfinals, RB Leipzig capitalized on a surprisingly mediocre performance from Atletico Madrid, eliminating them 2-1 Meanwhile, Barcelona were ejected by eventual champions Bayern Munich by an 8-2 single match scoreline. To call it embarrassing doesn’t fully describe the utter humiliation this defeat was for the Catalan superclub. These results meant that it was the first Champions League Semifinals without a Spanish team since 2007.
This season has only seen a continuation of this trend as well as we enter the second legs of each Round of 16 matchups next week. Real Madrid barely made it out of the group stage, despite being drawn into a group many thought they would easily win, and Barcelona failed to top their group for the first time since 2007. Into the Round of 16 so far, Barcelona were smashed 4-1 by PSG and Kylian Mbappe in their own home stadium. At this point, Barcelona need a miracle to make a comeback in the second leg.
Despite both being at home as well, Sevilla were outgunned 3-2 by Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid slumped to a sluggish 1-0 defeat to Chelsea. Even though Real Madrid narrowly won their match against Atalanta, they played poorly, and one would expect this free-flowing Atalanta side to heavily push for a comeback in the second leg. Theoretically, all four Spanish teams could still make a comeback and turn the tides in their favors, but at the same time, there exists a very real possibility that the 2021 Champions League Quarterfinals will feature no Spanish teams at all.
With all that in mind, it is very clear that the Spanish claim to the throne has fallen. So, what exactly happened to Spain and their clubs? Well, many factors can explain this decline, some independent of each other and others connected.
First off, it must be noted that Barcelona and Real Madrid both experienced nothing short of golden generations throughout the 2010s, beyond just Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Barcelona had world class players, like Luis Suarez, Neymar Jr., Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Carles Puyol, while Real Madrid countered that with stars like Iker Casillas, Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric, Gareth Bale and Marcelo. These players were all some of the best in each respective club’s history, so as they inevitably aged, left the club or retired, the team naturally regressed. Both Real Madrid and Barcelona have so far done a subpar job in replacing these players with efficient substitutes, but given the immense talent they used to have, one can argue that replacing them is impossible.
Financial problems have also hit many of the Spanish clubs hard, along with internal mismanagement. Although the big two clubs have fallen victim as well, many of the smaller clubs have really felt the effects. Valencia, for example, went from being consistently the fourth or fifth best team in Spain to hovering above the relegation zone after a series of terrible decisions from their club president. Internal problems have plagued several other clubs, too. Malaga, who were a talented and exciting team in the early 2010s, have since been relegated to the Segunda Division. Real Betis, who possess the best squads in the country in terms of player quality, have finished in the bottom half of the league in the past two seasons due to internal mismanagement.
Overall, the decline of Spain in club football is only normal. Ever since football became the massively popular sport that it is, several countries have come and dominated before fading away and being replaced by another. In the 1990s up until the mid-2000s, Serie A was easily the best league in the world. Italian clubs, like Milan and Juventus, constantly won the Champions League or made the final. Meanwhile, teams who were a class below (or even midtable teams like Inter, Napoli, Roma, Parma, Palermo, Fiorentina, Sampdoria, Lazio and Torino) all lit up a league headlined by worldwide stars: Roberto Baggio, Paolo Maldini, Gabriel Batistuta, Franco Baresi, Ronaldo, Alessandro Del Piero and many others. Jump ahead to the late 2000s and into the 2010s though, and now the entire country’s reputation was tarnished by the Calciopoli scandal, giants like Milan and Inter hit financial crises, failing to even qualify for the Champions League while overall stagnation saw Juventus win the league nine times in a row despite.
The mid to late 2000s was dominated by English clubs. The historical and colossal power of Manchester United and Liverpool, along with the rise of Chelsea and Arsenal, controlled Europe. Majority of the world’s best players, like Thierry Henry, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, John Terry, Petr Cech, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Didier Drogba, all plied their trade on English shores. From 2005 to 2009, at least one of the Champions League finalists was from England, with the 2008 final being an all-English affair. In fact, three of the four semifinalists in the 2007, 2008 and 2009 seasons were English.
Throughout the mid-2010s though, the power of English clubs had waned. Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement left Manchester United on a half-decade long soul-searching journey, while Liverpool regularly finished midtable. Similar administration blunders saw Arsenal slowly get weaker every season while Chelsea became widely inconsistent every season.
Just like Italy owned the 1990s and England ruled the 2000s, Spain was king throughout the 2010s. We are now simply witnessing the end to that era. Overall, this is not a bad thing. European football is an incredibly competitive sport, and it would be very boring to see the same few clubs from the same country dominate the entire continent over and over again.
So, what does the future hold? It’s hard to say for sure, but the upward trends seem to suggest that England and possibly Germany will come to dominate the 2020s, with the emergence of clubs like Manchester City and the renaissance of Liverpool and Bayern Munich. However, many of the Italian clubs are also starting to make a comeback, even as Juventus’s power has faltered. While many are quick to discredit the French League, it would be foolish to turn a blind eye to the growing strength of Paris Saint-Germain and even other clubs like Lyon and Marseille. While the leaf may have turned on Spain for the time being, the future of European football still looks bright.