Court suspends planned strike by Spanish footballers

Spanish football fans breathed a collective sigh of relief on Thursday, after a Madrid court issued a last-minute ruling to suspend a players' strike that had threatened to bring the star-studded league to a premature end.

The decision means the current league leader, FC Barcelona, can still be beaten to the title by second-placed Real Madrid, though most experts heavily favour the Catalan team to defend their advantage. It also means that bottom-of-the-league teams such as SD Eibar and Granada CF still have two more matches to climb out of the relegation zone, and so avoid dropping into the less lucrative second league.

According to the interim ruling by Spain's national court in Madrid, the strike would have caused "grave organisational disorder", especially so late in the season and with little prospect of playing the cancelled matches at a later date.

Javier Tebas, the president of Spain's professional league, had earlier warned that the stoppage could inflict financial damage of up to €100m.

Thursday's court decision did not include a ruling on the substance of the case, which turns on the right of players to strike against a new Spanish law on broadcasting rights. The clash is part of a broader conflict playing out across much of European football, as clubs, players and federations struggle to maximise their share of the vast sums offered by pay-TV companies and other broadcasters.

AFE, the union that represents some of the world's best-paid footballers, including Barcelona's Xavi Hernandez and Real Madrid's Iker Casillas, had called the strike earlier this month. The players said they would refuse to play the last two matches of the season, along with the final of the Copa del Rey, the domestic cup competition.

The strike was supported by Spain's national football federation, but bitterly opposed by Mr Tebas and the league which initiated the legal action that led to the suspension.

The dispute centres on the familiar issue of how to divide up the spoils from the hugely lucrative broadcasting deals struck by the top flight in Spain and other European countries. Under the new law, Spanish clubs would no longer be allowed to strike individual deals for their broadcasting rights. Instead, the league would sell the rights collectively - and so ensure more money for smaller clubs.

Real Madrid, the world's richest team, made more than €232m from broadcasting rights last year - the first club in history to break through the €200m mark, according to data from Deloitte. Madrid and other clubs have said they support the new regime.

Spain's La Liga was the last of the major European football leagues that still allowed clubs to sell TV rights individually. The new law mandates that 90 per cent of the revenues should go to top league clubs, with just 10 per cent going to second division teams. It was that provision, in particular, that had angered the players' union, which also said it wanted a greater say in how the funds are parcelled out and administered.

Spanish football clubs were hit hard by the post-2008 economic and financial crisis, with several over-indebted teams forced to seek bankruptcy protection.

More recently, however, there have been signs of a financial turnround. According to Spain's ministry of sport, the outstanding debt of all first league clubs combined fell from €3.4bn in 2011 to €2.9bn last year. Over the same period, the clubs also managed to turn a combined annual loss of €120m into a profit of €156m.

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