Real Madrid Soccer Players Look to U.K. as La Liga Loses Luster

As Spain celebrated winning the 2010 soccer World Cup, Inigo Calderon lost his job with his hometown team Deportivo Alaves and went to the U.K. to look for work.

Calderon, a defender, had trials with Norwich and Gillingham before joining second-tier Brighton where he now plays. Although he says he hasn’t got used to “everything” closing at 5 p.m. on England’s south coast, he has no plans to return to Spain.

He’s part of an exodus of Spanish talent. The number of Spaniards playing abroad in Europe’s top five leagues rose 30 percent to 148 last year, according to a Jan. 21 report by the CIES Football Observatory in Neuchatel, Switzerland. They’re fleeing the nation’s six-year economic slump in search of a regular paycheck.

“We have to emigrate because the clubs in Spain are a bit of a joke,” Calderon, 31, said. “When I tell my teammates Spanish teams don’t pay wages on time, they don’t believe me. It’s unthinkable in English soccer.”

The diaspora of talent comes amid a flight of young Spaniards because of a 56 percent jobless rate for workers under

25. In the year to April 2012, 30,370 Spaniards registered to work in the U.K., up 25 percent on a year earlier.

Spain plays Italy in a Confederations Cup semifinal in Brazil tonight. Although the national team is world and European champion, some Spanish clubs are struggling to stay in business. Union Deportiva Salamanca, the third-tier hometown team of national coach Vicente del Bosque, said June 18 it was folding after 90 years.

‘On the Cheap’

At the same time as coping with sluggish sponsorship and ticket sales, clubs face stricter rules on debt that are forcing some to trade players to the U.K. to make up revenue shortfalls, league spokesman Juan Carlos Santamaria said. The rules will help clubs become more sustainable, and maintain players in the future, Santamaria said.

For now the flow of players to England “on the cheap” is lowering the standard of Spanish club soccer, says Lee Dixon, a former Arsenal defender who is an analyst for ITV Plc. It also damages the prospects for England’s national team because Spaniards are taking berths that would be filled by young English players, Dixon said.

Among those eyeing a move to the U.K. are teenagers at Spanish powerhouses Real Madrid and Barcelona, according to Joyce Moreno, a former Real youth-team player in the 1990s who is now an agent.

Jose Angel Pozo, 17, one of Real Madrid’s brightest talents, signed for Manchester City last year, a “bit of a slap in the face” for the record 32-time Spanish champion, Moreno said. Barcelona’s Sergio Canos and Josimar Quintero are heading to Liverpool and Chelsea, he added.

England Flops

“When I was 16, I couldn’t imagine going to play in Manchester, nobody did,” Moreno, 38, said. “Now players want to go because there’s more money.”

With Spanish soccer “in vogue,” scouts from England regularly attend Real youth-team games, Moreno said. Spain’s Under-21 team beat Italy 4-2 on June 18 to win the European championship. England lost its three games in the competition in Israel.

“The level of talent available to the England manager has dwindled,” former national team player Dixon said by phone.

Some 55 percent of Premier League players last year were foreign, the highest ratio of any European championship apart from Cyprus, according to CIES data. The league is the richest in world soccer, with broadcasting deals worth 5.5 billion pounds ($8.5 billion) over the next three seasons.

Fulham, Sunderland

The Premier League is investing some of that money in the development of English players, last year committing to spend 320 million pounds over four years to assist youth-team training in 92 professional clubs.

Yet even smaller-budget U.K. clubs are looking for bargain signings in Spain like Miguel Perez Cuesta, known as Michu. The 2 million-pound capture from Rayo Vallecano got 18 goals for Swansea in the Premier League last season. Maheta Molango, a sports lawyer in Madrid who helps Charlton Athletic identify talent, says scouts from clubs like Fulham and Sunderland regularly attend games in Spain.

In England’s second tier, footballers can earn as much as 20,000 pounds a month -- about five times what they’d get at the same level in Spain, Molango said. That’s if they get paid at all in Spain: in the third tier, some 240 players filed complaints that they are owed wages from last season, according to the Madrid-based players’ union.

The exodus of Spanish players is continuing this offseason: Sevilla winger Jesus Navas moved to Manchester City, while Real Betis goalkeeper Adrian San Miguel switched to West Ham. Jose Alberto Canas left Betis for Swansea, and striker Iago Aspas quit Celta Vigo for Liverpool.

At Brighton, Calderon says he regularly plays against Spaniards on other teams such as Sheffield Wednesday and Blackburn. He’s signed a one-year extension with Brighton through next season.

“I’m a romantic and I would like to play for my hometown team again, but we footballers have a short career and we have to look after our families,” Calderon said.

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