MADRID - The first players' strike in nearly three decades is damaging Spain's status as world champions, will shake confidence in its institutions and risks alienating fans.
Talks between the players union (AFE), which last week called the strike for the first two rounds of matches in the top two divisions, and the professional football league (LFP), which represents the 42 clubs affected, failed to prevent the action.
European champions Barcelona and Real Madrid, the two richest clubs by revenue in the world, had been due to start their campaigns on Sunday.
Talks are now centred on preventing the second round of matches being halted which would create serious problems in the sporting calendar.
At the heart of the dispute is the union's demand that an emergency fund be set up to cover wages that have not been paid to players at clubs that have gone into financial administration.
The union says around 50 million euros is owed to 200 footballers from the end of last season, and the league's proposed 40 million euro fund is not enough to cover a growing problem.
"We have the best football in the world, but it is run very badly. The league has failed to control the situation with the clubs," Jose Maria Gay, an accounts professor at Barcelona University, told Reuters.
"Winning Euro 2008 and the World Cup earned Spain a great deal of goodwill, it helped open doors for us. But a strike because we can't pay our players will generate a lack of confidence in Spain as a whole.
"It would be a good time to use the situation to restructure Spanish football. It can't carry on as it is. They need to get out of the clouds and back down to earth."
A recent study published by Gay, an expert in football finances, showed the 20 clubs in La Liga made a combined net loss of some 100 million euros in the year to the end of June 2010.
The total debt stood at 3.43 billion euros, more than double revenue of 1.61 billion.
Spain has been hit hard by the world economic crisis, is suffering from unemployment levels of more than 20 percent, and an increasing number of debt-laden clubs have sought protection from creditors by going into administration.
Six sides in the Spanish top flight have already taken this route, and in the second division more than half the clubs have as well.
Once a club is in administration, Spanish law can override competition rules that could lead to a club being relegated for failing to honour commitments such paying their players.
Analysts say the rules surrounding the "Ley Concursal" process have been used as an easy way for clubs to get out of their predicament, to preserve their league status, and to allow them to continue pursuing their irresponsible practices.
The players are seen to have genuine grievances, but the high profile support from individuals such as Spain internationals Iker Casillas of Real Madrid and Carles Puyol of Barcelona has drawn criticism as well.
"They have no shame," Getafe president Angel Torres told sports daily Marca.
"If they are showing so much solidarity, why don't they help pay. If they are on strike, why are they still training?" he added, as many of the bigger clubs continued to train despite the four-day strike call.
"If they are going to make the strike indefinite, they won't be paid anything and they will have to go and join the queue to draw unemployment benefit like five million Spaniards already do."
The strike also drew criticism from the Association of Spanish supporters clubs (AFEPE), which represents around one million fans.
It said it was tired of being continually overlooked in decisions affecting Spanish football.
The strike is added to long-standing grievances such as the short notice given for when matches are to be played in Spain - typically 10 days - and new kick-off times such as 10pm on a Sunday to try to woo Asian television viewers.
WHY CALL A STRIKE?
"Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, that's what's needed," AFEPE secretary general Pepe Hidaldo told Reuters.
"The AFE say they have 80 percent agreement, then why call a strike for only a 20 percent difference? The league was to start earlier this year in August, during the holiday season. Many fans have arranged their holidays around going to see their teams.
"Once again the ones who lose out are the fans. We have spoken to the supporters clubs about the possibility of organising protests against the players when they come out for their first games of the season."
A Spanish consumer rights organisation, FACUA, recommended fans go to the clubs if they are left out of pocket by the postponement.
In a statement FACUA said fans should demand reimbursement not only for matchday tickets they were unable to use, but also for cancelled or changed transport arrangements and accommodation costs which were not redeemable directly.
Talks between the league and the union are to continue, with time of the essence.
The league cannot be extended past the current end date of May 13 due to the time given over to national teams to prepare for next June's Euro 2012 tournament, and available dates to reschedule matches are few and far between.comments