Dec 27, 2013

    Valencia's Singapore Santa Claus

    BEFORE Spanish soccer began its annual holiday break this week, the big (and leading) teams of Barcelona, Atletico and Real Madrid all dug in to win tumultuous contests in La Liga.

    Barça's was the great escape of the season. The Catalan giant were rocking in Getafe. It was two goals down on Sunday inside a quarter of an hour, and they had no Messi or Neymar to conjure up goals, no Xavi to control the midfield and no Puyol or Victor Valdes to steady the defence.

    No stars, no problem. First, Pedro stepped up to strike three goals in nine minutes, goals comparable to many that Lionel Messi has fired in the past. Then Cesc Fabregas scored twice, both with input from the irrepressible Pedro.

    At 5-2, Barça called a truce and stopped punishing Getafe's temerity in exposing its defensive frailty.

    They stand atop the league by virtue of having scored more goals than the second-place team. That, for the moment, is Atletico Madrid, whose greater defensive grit, together with 19 goals from Diego Costa, has allowed them to match Barcelona's record of 15 wins, one draw and one defeat so far.

    Real Madrid? Five points off the pace, and perhaps distracted by Real's obsession with attempting to bring home the Champions League trophy for an unprecedented 10th time. Cristiano Ronaldo continues to accumulate goals, scoring 27 times in 19 league and cup matches this season.

    Gareth Bale, not yet at peak fitness, has nine goals. Karim Benzema, Isco and Angel Di Maria also contributed goals.

    Nevertheless, Real had a bit of luck on Sunday in winning, 3-2, at Valencia, where Ronaldo's goal should have been ruled offside.

    But Valencia might reflect the true situation in Spanish soccer. They are mired in debt. They play in a stadium that has long been considered unfit for modern times, yet they cannot afford to finish the new one that stands half-built nearby.

    And in that light, Valencia made an announcement before Sunday's game at the old Mestalla Stadium. The club president, Amadeo Salvo, told reporters that Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim had made an offer that would wipe out the 300 million euros (S$520 million) in debt they owe, inject immediate cash for the team to buy players next month, and give about US$175 million (S$222 million) to finish building the Nou Mestalla stadium.

    Salvo stopped short - just - of suggesting that Valencia has found its Santa Claus in Singapore.

    "Lim called us and came to Valencia to meet the board, the vice-president, and the foundation," Salvo said, referring to the Valencia Foundation, which owns 70 per cent of the club's shares.

    "He promises," Salvo continued, "to get rid of the debt and build a competitive team by investing an important amount. Before we accept the offer, which is among the biggest two or three in the world of club football, we need to hear from the bank."

    Bankia, the club's main creditor, asked for four to six weeks to evaluate the bid. Lim, who is estimated to be worth US$2.05 billion, asked for a decision by Jan 15.

    His haste is soccer related. In the past, he bid to buy Liverpool and showed interest in Glasgow Rangers, and he understands that Europe's soccer allows trading of top players only in the summer months or in the January window.

    The clock is ticking. The Singaporean, 60, said he was ready to commit between £30 million and £50 million for new players in the final two weeks of January if the takeover is finished by the middle of the month.

    By then, the league will be back up and running after the Christmas and New Year breaks.