BARCELONA, Spain – Spanish players are holding firm in their decision to carry out their first work stoppage in 27 years in their fight for a new collective bargaining agreement with improved salary guarantees.
The Association of Spanish Football Players (AFE) and Spanish league officials failed to hold talks Thursday but will meet again Friday. Unless a last-minute deal is reached, Spain's 42 first- and second-division teams will strike from Friday to Monday, delaying the opening week of the Spanish league.
"We have made clear that all the players support the players' association," Barcelona striker David Villa said. "If a solution is not found, we won't play."
And after this week's unproductive meetings, it appears that any solution will be hard come by.
"It is impossible, at this point in the week, to reach a deal to sign a new collective bargaining agreement," league president Jose Luis Astiazaran said Thursday.
The conflict is all about player wages. Players want better guarantees, with clubs owing up to $72 million in unpaid salaries to more than 200 players.
The league has proposed to create a fund for players whose teams are under bankruptcy protection that would guarantee a minimum annual salary of $345,000 for players in the first division and $172,000 for those in the second division. It says this is "the maximum the league's economic capacity" can afford.
However, the players' association says that is not enough.
"The fund to guarantee salaries is a system imposed by the league so that the teams can continue to take advantage of bankruptcy protection with complete impunity," the AFE said in a statement.
At the center of the dispute is Spain's bankruptcy law, which allows insolvent clubs to re-negotiate or delay paying player salaries — just like other outstanding debts — while under bankruptcy protection.
The players' association wants to put on end to this and supports legislation making its way though the Spanish parliament that would immediately relegate clubs to the third division if they become insolvent and are unable to meet their payrolls. It is expected to pass in September, but wouldn't go into effect until the end of this season.
There are six topflight clubs and a number of second-division clubs in bankruptcy protection.
Villarreal president Fernando Roig said recently that while he does not agree with the AFE's method, he supports the move to reform the league's financial system.
"I completely agree with the AFE because it wants the current bankruptcy law to disappear forever," he said. "The fact that of the 20 teams that are bankrupt in Europe, all but one is Spanish is simply embarrassing."
But experts say there is a larger, economic problem facing the league.
Jesus Palau, professor of financial control and management at the ESADE Business School, says that players' contracts are simply too costly.
"I think the underlying problem is that player salaries are completely out of proportion to the club's income," he told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "Everything goes to paying players."
Some clubs are resigned to the fact that they will be without their players during the coming days. Espanyol and Real Betis have announced on their club websites that their squads would honor the strike and not play or train this weekend.
Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho said that he had no part in the conflict, but he would stand by his players' decision.
"That's not my (problem, but) if it's a decision by the players I have to respect that," he said. "If we have to play next weekend, we are ready to play."
Other clubs have direct conflicts with the strike.
Villarreal faces a critical game on Tuesday when it must rally from a 1-0 deficit against Danish club Odense in its Champions League qualifying round series. The club has announced its players are expected to report for training Friday morning.
Meanwhile, Barcelona told The Associated Press that it has no plans to cancel its exhibition with Italian club Napoli scheduled to be played at Camp Nou stadium on Monday night.
If tomorrow's meeting doesn't lead to a surprise breakthrough, the players and league will sit down again on Aug. 20 and 22.
Baring a deal over the next few days, the AFE plans to continue the work stoppage the following weekend, delaying the second round of games as well.
The league wouldn't begin until Sept. 10 under such a scenario. The league has not announced if the games scheduled for the first week would then be played or if the calendar would be reshuffled.
"It looks like that until Christmas there are no possible dates for the games," said Real Sociedad midfielder Xabi Prieto. "So if we have to we'll play during the Christmas break."
Since its creation in 1979, the AFE has called three previous strikes, the last coming in 1984.