On one level, it’s hard not to be happy for Nolito, who is probably packing his bags right now, giddy with anticipation about sending crosses Luis Suárez’s way and running onto through balls from Lionel Messi, as reports have him very close to a transfer to Barcelona. Here is a guy who was never marked for stardom along his long and winding playing career; who spent a good part of his early twenties at Barcelona not as a promising youngster for the future, nor even a first team rotation option, but instead as a designated B-teamer to maintain the reserve team’s position in the lower divisions; who finally blossomed in his late twenties at Celta Vigo, becoming one of La Liga’s most dangerous attackers with his strength and speed and eye for goal; and who is now on the brink of the ultimate reward, rejoining the club where he made his La Liga debut, this time as an important squad member of the best team in the world.
In another sense, though, it’s a shame that it’s come to this. Nolito has developed into one of the most exciting talents on display in Spain, and arguably holds the title as best La Liga player not playing for one of the big three teams. With Nolito alongside Fabián Orellana, Iago Aspas, Augusto Fernández, Celta Vigo have become must-see viewing every week, running out there with the ball and crashing and careening through defenses with a style of play that is the most consistently entertaining outside of Barcelona. Nolito’s impressive displays these past couple years have even won him a handful of caps for the Spanish national team, and it won’t be at all a surprise seeing him in next summer’s Euros.
That Nolito looks likely to leave, giving up his position as the star man on a surprisingly fun and lovable up-and-comer like Celta in favor of a spot on Barcelona’s bench, is too bad. Nolito would be the fourth forward option in a three-man attack where almost every single minute will be dominated by the starters. He’d offer Barça some much-needed depth and experience behind Neymar and Messi and Suárez, but the vast majority of his time in Blaugrana will be spent watching the game on the sidelines, hoping to snatch a half hour or so on the pitch here and there to spell the three superstars ahead of him. No longer will we see a team built around his exceptional abilities, the way things are currently set up for him at Celta. Instead he’ll be a supersub or rotation option trying make sure Barcelona don’t lose too much of a step when one of their true stars need a breather.
European soccer in general largely exists in a world with about five big buying clubs and everyone else below in some way creating a feeder system supplying the megaclubs with talent whenever needed. There is a hierarchy within this larger structure—Tottenham aren’t pressured to ship their players upstream the way, say, Málaga are—but when one of the giants comes knocking, it’s nearly impossible for anyone below them to resist.
This disparity between the few buyers and the numerous sellers is even more stark in La Liga. Unlike in England, where practically every club is rich to varying degrees and thus can either keep hold of their studs for a while or bring in new ones when forced to sell, everyone in Spain is a selling club to those at the top. The tens of millions of Euros Barcelona and Real Madrid can offer clubs in exchange for their players is almost always too tantalizing to pass up, and the enormous salary boosts those two can promise the players themselves is enough to turn anyone’s head. The financial discrepancies are so glaring that interest from one of the haves in a player of one of the have-nots almost always results in an agreement in the end. It’s incredibly hard for Spanish teams not playing in Barcelona or Madrid to keep their best squads together for more than a couple seasons.
Should this move go through, Nolito would join his former teammate Fernández (who was bought by Atlético earlier this transfer window) as Celta players cannibalized by a club higher up on the food chain. That would mean the two most important pieces in what could have realistically hoped to be a Champions League-qualifying team are gone, crippling their aspirations. And Celta had developed a promising youngster in their academy who could’ve stepped in and potentially thrived with the minutes increase, but they sold Santi Mina to Valencia last summer. Indeed, the latest news on this transfer is that the Celta bosses have delayed things as they contemplate whether they can really face their fans after selling off the core of this hugely exciting team.
La Liga is still for my money the best league in the world, owing to the greatness of its three best teams, the competitiveness of the handful of clubs below them, the technical style of play, and the seemingly unending stream of young players every club is capable of producing in any given season. However, until its middle class can afford to keep hold of the talents they produce and aren’t compelled to sell off their unearthed gems whenever someone waves a couple stacks of bills in their face, the league won’t compete with the Premier League in terms of intrigue and week-to-week unpredictability. While this move, should it end up going through, would make Barcelona better and Nolito richer, it would also, like so many similar deals, make La Liga actively worse.
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