El Camino de La Liga

Welcome to El Camino de La Liga

The challenge: to visit every club in La Liga and see a match in their stadium in one season. That means 20 teams in 38 weeks.

The reason: to see more of Spain, to learn more about Spain, to meet new people and to see some good football.

Bienvenido al Camino de La Liga

El desafío: visitar cada club de fútbol de La Liga española y ver un partido en su campo en una sola temporada. Eso significa 2o equipos en 32 semanas.

La razon: ver más de España, aprender más sobre España, conocer gente nueva y ver buen fútbol.

View Spanish football stadiums in a larger map

Red = Visited Blue = Still to visit

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

A Tale of Two Cities

After several recent trips to the north of Spain it was time to head south to see two cities and two matches in two days. Andalusia is Spain´s second largest and most populous region. It´s a land known for its hot weather, cloudless skies and tourist beaches. It is also the region with the most number of teams in la liga, four in total. I travelled there to see two of these teams and the cities they represent. Two teams who suddenly find themselves as bigger rivals than before.
The first stop on my Andalusian adventure was Seville, Spain´s fourth largest city and the capital of Andalusia. One of Spain´s most important cities and a popular destination with tourists, Seville is associated with everything stereotypically Spanish; flamenco dancers, bullfighting, sun, sangria, gypsy women and la Macarena (the song is named after a neighbourhood in the city). Recently though, the city has also become familiar to football fans around Europe due to the exploits of one its football clubs. Over the last few years Sevilla Fútbol Club has become a household name after winning back to back UEFA cups, as well as a European Super Cup.
Like some of the cities of the north, Seville is a football city. However, despite the recent success, Sevilla doesn´t have the whole city behind it. It´s not very often you will here Glasgow and Seville in the same sentence, but when it comes to football they have something in common. That is because both cities are divided by two football teams who are equally as big. There are other cities, such as Liverpool or even Madrid, who have two teams but one is bigger and more successful than the other. In Seville though, like in Glasgow, there isn´t a big one and smaller one but two big ones. In fact, you could say that it´s impossible for one to ever be bigger than the other. In Seville, the significant other is Real Betis.
The clubs may be equally matched in terms of fan base, stadiums, prestige and history, but the current situation of both on the park couldn´t be more different. Sevilla have carried on the good form of recent seasons, easily qualifying from their Champions League group and challenging Barcelona and Real Madrid. Real Betis, on the other hand, find themselves mid-table in the second division with as many problems off the park as on it. Real Betis´relegation from la liga on the last day of last season was a huge shock similar to that of Newcastle´s relegation in England.
When la liga lost Real Betis, it didn´t only lose a big club, it also lost the Seville derby. The Seville derby is one of the biggest matches in Spain, second only to Real Madrid vs Barcelona. While Sevilla fans reveled in their bitter rival´s relegation it soon dawned on everybody that there would be no Seville derby for at least one season. As much as the two clubs dislike each other, they need each other and deep down, if Sevilla fans are being honest, they probably miss Betis a little. With Betis out of the picture for the moment, a new Andalusian derby has sprung up.
The second stop on the Andalusian trip was Málaga, Andalusia´s second largest city. Unlike Seville, Málaga is located on the coast. Like Seville, it has tourists, although its tourists are the Costa del Sol type. Most importantly though, like Seville, it has a football team in la liga.
In Spain the fighting isn´t just between the regions, but within the regions themselves. In Asturias it´s between Gijón and Oviedo, in Galicia between La Coruña and Vigo and in Andalusia between Seville and Málaga. This has led to Málaga vs Sevilla taking on extra importance and becoming this season´s biggest match in the south. So how real is the rivalry between the two? A quick look at some of the stalls before both matches gave me a clue. I could see several anti-sevillista scarves on sale in Málaga but I didn´t see anything anti-málaga in Seville. This confirmed what I suspected, there is antipathy between the two cities but it seems to flow in one direction more than the other.
The turn out in Málaga´s Rosaleda stadium was surprisingly good, considering their team is in the relegation zone. It was probably helped by the 20 degree temperatures (not bad for December) and a winnable home match against Osasuna. The Rosaleda is perfect representation of the city itself. Like many things in Málaga it is newly built, yet it is located between a gypsy market and a dried out river.
Likewise, at Sevilla´s Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium the turnout was high for the visit of Valladolid. This probably had less to do with the weather, although it was as warm as in Málaga, and more to do with Sevilla´s good form. Like the Rosaleda, the Sanchez Pizjuan represents the city very well. Old and dirty but with a special, hot atmosphere.
With both teams needing wins, the atmosphere was good. In both stadiums the Ultras put on an impressive show. The Málaga ultras in particular were impressive considering the lack of inspiration offered up by their team. In the end, despite the best efforts of both sets of fans, neither side could fashion out the victory they needed, both drawing 1-1. In Sevilla´s case, the football was good but the finishing wasn´t. In Malaga´s case, the football was worryingly bad and only a lucky equaliser rescued a point for them. With Barcelona and Real Madrid both winning, Sevilla lost some ground on the top two. Results at the other end of the table moved Malaga further into the relegation zone and unless things improve very soon they are facing relegation to the second division and Andalusia is facing the prospect of looking for a new derby to get excited about.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Back to the North

Snow top on the mountains, rivers rushing through valleys, cows and sheep grazing on the green hills. It could easily be a scene from the Alps, but we aren´t in Switzerland, we are in Spain, in the northern region of Asturias to be more precise. Asturias is famous among Spaniards for its unspoiled nature, its friendly people, its milk, its cider and its stomach filling fabada. In sporting terms, Asturias is perhaps more famous for its racing driver Fernando Alonso than for its football teams but to those who follow Spanish football more carefully the name Sporting Gijón conjures up images of a northern club known for its loyal and dedicated support.

The train journey up to the northern coast is a memorable experience. After several hours travelling through the deserted plains of Castilla y Leon you are suddenly thrown into the mountain valleys of Asturias. Some may believe the boundaries between the Spanish regions are artificial but here they couldn’t be clearer.

If you only have one day in Asturias, as I did, then you have to try the local food and drink. Spanish regions are known as much for their food as for anything else and each region has its specialty. In Asturias it’s fabada, a type of stew with beans. To wash the fabada down, you need some strong Asturian cider which is poured in its own special way. With a stomach full of fabada and cider you are both full and drunk enough to enjoy the Asturian winter weather.

The game I was in town to see was between Sporting Gijón and Villareal. After avoiding relegation on the last day of last season, Sporting have started this season quite well and went into the match sitting just outside the European places. Whether Sporting can maintain this good form is questionable but what isn’t in doubt is the joy of the town at being back in La Liga.

Gijón, like Bilbao, has the feeling of a football town. The Asturians, like the Basques, are proud people and you can’t help get the impression that the whole city is behind their football team. Wearing a Sporting top is not just about what football team you support but it’s about who you are and where you come from. Compare this with someone wearing an Arsenal or a Chelsea top and you might see what I mean.

The Sporting supporters, known as Sportinguistas, are considered among the most loyal in Spain and there is hard evidence to back this up. Despite spending the whole of last season fighting relegation, Sporting had the 5th highest occupancy rate in their stadium with an average of 85% of seats occupied. This figure puts them below Athletic Bilbao but above Barcelona. For that reason, attending a Sporting match guarantees atmosphere.

The atmosphere inside the 25,000 El Molinon stadium was similar to that of San Mamés or Vicente Calderón which led me to think that it might have something to do with teams who play in red and white. The Sporting Ultras were in good voice and kept the singing going for almost the entire 90 minutes. This was an impressive feat as the game itself created little entertainment to get excited about. In the end it was decided by a penalty, awarded to home side and converted at the second attempt by Sporting‘s Croatian forward Billic. The result was enough to keep Sporting’s good start going and give the supporters something to cheer about.

After the match there was a nice walk, past the beach, back to the city centre. The Sporting fans weren’t getting carried away and the conversations focused mainly on how many points were needed to stay up. The Sporting fans are realistic. For them, football is more than fancy signings and winning trophies. They know they can’t win the league but they support their team with a pride and passion not found at every football club. Again, compare this with a Chelsea or an Arsenal fan and you might see what I mean.

Monday, 9 November 2009

The Rain in Spain

The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain. Whoever first coined this expression clearly didn´t have the north of Spain in mind. This weekend I travelled to Santander to see a northern derby between Racing Santander from the Cantabria region of Spain and Athletic Bilbao from the Basque Country. It was a trip that demonstrated quite clearly the differences between the north of Spain and the south, the regional politics of Spain and how the weather can affect everything from the character of the people to the job prospects of a football manager.
The weather on the Spanish north coast is notoriously stormy and I got to sample it first hand as I experienced the pleasure of landing at Santander airport in early morning gale force winds. Once on the ground we headed to a friend´s flat for breakfast and ended up staying there for the next several hours due to a downpour of Scottish proportions. Welcome to the north of Spain in November. In Madrid temperatures drop but it remains sunny and dry. On the north coast, the end of the summer means rain, wind, more rain and little more wind.
Being Scottish, I know all too well the influence of the weather on your mood and on the character of people in general. Rain and wind don´t make you feel energetic, enthusiastic, cheerful or relaxed. They get in your way, you have to fight against them; both mentally and physically. In Spain, northerners are considered to be serious, cold, tough and reserved people.
So is it true? Are northerners a different kind of Spaniard from southerners? I was thinking about this as I observed people in the local bars. For me, bars are the best places to observe Spanish people as you tend to get a wide spectrum of people; workers, families, students and the elderly. So the one thing that struck me about the people in the bars in Santander was the lack of noise. My image of Spanish bars is that they are smoky, noisy places. Perhaps they are quieter because many of the people in the bar are only there to escape the rain. When you are caught in a sudden downpour, the easiest place to go is a bar as there is more or less one on every corner. When you have just escaped the rain, you´re main thoughts are how you are going to get to where you were going, when you´re going to get there or even if you´re going to get there. Southern Spaniards don´t have that problem, if they are in a bar it´s because they want to be there, they are happy to be there and they express this by making a lot of noise.
The next day the weather wasn´t looking any better. The whole morning, like much of the day before, was spent looking out of the window at the rain and I seriously started thinking that the game might not go ahead. Luckily the rain let up enough to make venturing outside a realistic possibility and playing a game of football just about manageable.
Racing´s stadium, El Sardinero, is named after the local beach which is literally a stones throw away. El Sardinero is a small, tight stadium with only 22,000 seats. In fact, it´s fittingly named as the word sardinero also means sardine and if Boca Juniors stadium is nicknamed the chocolate box I suggest Racing´s be nicknamed the sardine can.
I travelled to this game with none of the naivety I had had in Valencia. This was a local derby that I knew wouldn´t be a friendly affair. On this occasion the lines were not blurred, one team was Spanish while the other was Basque, mucho morbo. Racing´s full name is Real Racing Club Santander. There are several clubs in Spain with Real (Royal) at the start of their name, most notably Real Madrid but also Real Zaragoza, Real Club Deportivo de La Coruña and Real Club Deportivo Espanyol. Clubs such as these have all been granted royal patronage and as such have a crown on their badge. Their supporters also tend to wave Spanish flags at matches and don´t sympathise very much with Athletic Bilbao´s Basque only policy.
Bilbao is only a one hour drive from Santander and this led to a decent away support, considering the conditions. The same, unfortunately, could not be said for the home side who could only manage to fill 14,412 seats.
So, why the poor attendance for a local derby? Well the first thing that comes to mind is the weather but on this occasion it wasn´t the main reason. The poor attendance was almost certainly because of Racing´s poor form this season. Football fans will always turn up when their team is winning, not even the weather can change that. Racing have started the season poorly and it´s quite clear to everyone that this season is going to be about fighting for survival. It´s a fight for survival that Racing must win if Cantabria are to remain represented in La Liga. Cantabria is the second smallest of Spain´s 17 autonomous regions and Racing Santander is the regions only representative in La Liga. In fact, Racing Santander are the only Cantabrian club to have ever played in La Liga. For the Spanish regions, in particular the smaller ones, it´s important to have some sort of representation in the main league. Cantabria doesn´t want to join the select club of regions such as Extremadura, Castilla y La Mancha, Murcia and La Rioja who are without a team in La Liga.
The Racing fans that were brave enough to turn up started the match in a high spirits. There were the customary insults aimed at the opposition with a heavy focus on the fact the opposition were Basque. Unfortunately for the Racing fans, the Basques had the last laugh on this occasion as they adapted to the conditions better and in the end ran out comfortable 0-2 winners. The result, as well as the performance, left the home support far from impressed and the final whistle was met with a chorus of boos and the waving of white handkerchiefs, a sign that the home support want the manager sacked. It certainly did the trick as the manager was sacked the following day. A bad performance and a defeat by local rivals is bad enough but it´s even worse when you have got soaked in the process. Perhaps the Racing manager is just another victim of the weather.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Not so black and white

I am no stranger to Valencia or to Valencian people. I have visited the city on several occasions and I knew a lot of Valencian people from my time spent working in Catalonia. Therefore I travelled to Valencia this weekend with some pretty well founded ideas of what to expect from the city. However, it once again took football to show me a side of Valencia and Spanish politics I hadn´t yet seen.
I arrived in Valencia early on Saturday morning after taking the 35 minute flight from Madrid. There is something special about walking around a city very early in the morning so I took advantage of the chance to appreciate some of the views you don´t have time to notice when you are dodging traffic and pedestrians during the day. After the obligatory Spanish coffee (the one thing that never changes throughout Spain is the quality of the coffee); I managed to catch a midmorning football match between two local boys´ clubs. For a while it brought me back to my football playing days as a child in Scotland albeit with far superior facilities and ball control. Anyone who is in any doubt about why Spain is so good and Scotland so poor at football only needs to attend a boys´ club match in both countries and everything will become clear.
After sampling more of the sites of Valencia I headed back to the hostel where I was staying and that is where I ran into Pedro. In terms of profile, Pedro doesn´t fit what you would imagine a typical Valencia fan to be like. Pedro isn´t from Valencia, he is from Mallorca. Nor are his parents from Valencia. His father is from Albacete and his mother is English. In fact, Pedro isn´t really sure himself how he came to be a Valencia fan but one thing is clear, he is a Valencia fan. As a matter of fact you would be hard pressed to find a bigger one. As he lives in Mallorca, he must attend every home match by either plane or ferry. It reminds of the Shetland Tartan Army whose motto is “every game is an away game”. Pedro has been a Valencia fan for as long as he can remember and will happily speak about Valencia past and present all day. As he goes to most matches alone, we agreed to go to the game together and a better guide I couldn´t have asked for.
I have to admit that I arrived in Valencia with some rather naïve ideas of what a Valencia vs Barcelona fixture might look like. Valencia and Catalonia are neighbours on the Mediterranean coast and both communities speak the same language. When I lived in Catalonia I knew just as many Valencians as Catalans; many people from Valencia come to work in Catalonia due to their knowledge of Catalan. So although I knew it was a derby of sorts I expected a derby between likeminded cousins, maybe something similar to a Scotland vs Ireland match. However, once again, Spanish politics and football proved much more complicated than I had anticipated.
The first hint that my rosy picture was far from the truth was when Pedro got ready for the match. Pedro wore two scarves to this match, one with Valencia CF and the other with España written on it. When I asked him why he was wearing the second scarf he told me straight that it was to wind up the Catalans. When I asked him if there was some morbo, an almost untranslatable Spanish football term which means bitter rivalry, between Valencia and Barcelona, he told me there was a lot and not only between the football clubs but also between the communities. The problem, as always, is political. There are some in Catalonia who speak of the Països Catalans which can be literally translated as the Catalan Countries but might be better translated as Greater Catalonia. This is a political idea of an independent Catalonia which encompasses all the areas where Catalan is spoken and for the adherents of the Països Catalans this includes the community of Valencia, The Balearic Islands, Andorra, part of Aragon, part of Murcia part of Northern France and even part of Sardinia. The idea of Greater Catalonia, while appealing to some in Catalonia, has very little support in Valencia and is in fact actively opposed by many. Valencians may speak a language almost identical to Catalan but for them it´s not Catalan, it´s Valencian. What is more, many Valencians while proud of their community are also supportive of Spain and in fact the community of Valencia is governed by the Popular Party, the conservative party who also govern the community of Madrid. In Valencia you are just as likely if not more likely to hear Spanish being spoken in the street than hear Valencian. Therefore, you might describe the feelings of many Valencians towards Catalonia as similar to those of many Catalans towards Madrid, i.e. resentment and opposition towards a political and linguistic idea they feel is being imposed on them.
Pedro is one of those football fans who like to get to the stadium early, to soak up the pre match atmosphere. The closer we got to the stadium, the more apparent the antipathy towards Barcelona became. Even two hours before kick-off the area around the stadium was buzzing and the atmosphere was cranked up a few more notches when the Barcelona team bus arrived. I have seen opposition team buses arrive at stadiums in Spain before and there is always someone on hand to hurl a few insults but the scene which greeted Barcelona was something new to me. The team bus, escorted by several police vans and riot police was met by perhaps 1000 Valencia supporters chanting “puta Barça y puta Cataluña!” which is difficult to translate but is along the lines of “f**king Barça and f**king Catalonia”. The atmosphere inside the stadium was equally as hostile with the Valencia ultras making frequent remarks to Joan Laporta, the President of Barcelona, who is an open supporter of the Països Catalans. The Valencia ultras also engaged in some singing of Viva España and carried on with “puta Barça y puta Cataluña” chant throughout the match.
The game itself, in terms of action, didn´t live up to the pre-match hype and ended goalless but this match was all about the atmosphere. After the game I met with Pedro who was quite satisfied with the result and happy not be facing the trip back to Mallorca on a downer.
The next day Valencia was enjoying a calm Sunday afternoon with none of the chaos of the previous night. I headed down to the beach to have some paella, Valencia´s most famous dish. As I sat eating my paella, I reflected on a lesson learned in Spanish football. Nothing in Valencia, except the colours of the football team, is black and white.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Football City

When I decided to do this project there was one club that I was looking forward to more than any other. The club was Athletic Bilbao, one of the most famous clubs in Spain and one of undoubted uniqueness. Bilbao is situated in the Basque Country, perhaps the most controversial part of Spain. For some, the Basque Country is just another part of Spain, all be it with a different climate and a second language. For others, the Basque Country is a separate nation with its own traditions and a unique language. Well it´s certainly different, that´s for sure.
On the train up from Madrid you start to feel like you are entering a different country. First there is the change of landscapes as you leave the dry, arid landscape of Castilla y Leon and enter the green, mountainous lands of the Basque Country. With the change of land, comes a change in the houses. The Basque houses that start to spring up in the hills and valleys look more like Austrian or Swiss houses than Spanish ones. You could even get the impression you are in the Balkans or the Caucuses and this becomes more realistic when you start to read the names of the stations and hear the train announcements in Basque. The final sign you are not in just another part of Spain is a sudden ID check on the train by plain clothed police officers, perhaps from the anti-terrorist division.
Arriving in Bilbao on match day is also a unique experience. Bilbao is the Newcastle of Spain, in the sense that almost everyone from Bilbao supports Athletic. In my two days in Bilbao I can´t remember seeing one man, woman or child wearing a Real Madrid or Barça top. That is the equivalent of visiting an English city and not seeing a Manchester Utd top or a Scottish city and not seeing a Rangers or Celtic top. On match day in Bilbao, everyone knows there is a match on. Even the woman who worked in the hostel where we were staying, someone who didn´t seem that interested in football and was in fact a Real Sociedad fan (Athletics Basque rivals) knew there was a match and that it was against Sevilla. To be fair, knowing there is a match on isn´t difficult as so many of the bars have red and white Athletic flags set up on match day and every second person you pass in the street is wearing something red and white. Nevertheless, the city has the feeling of a football city where every man, boy, woman and girl is behind Athletic and is praying for a victory.
So why are Athletic so special? Well, like many things in Spanish football, it has a political edge. Athletic are best known for only playing Basque players, a policy they have stuck to throughout their entire 111 year existence. In the past, in the days before TV money and Bosman transfers, it was quite normal for teams to be made up of local players. Nowadays, it is unheard of for a team playing in one of Europe’s top leagues to be made up of entirely local players. Now, when I say local, I don´t mean entirely from Bilbao but rather from the Basque Country. This is what gives Athleitc an extra edge because as well as being the local team for people from Bilbao they are the de-facto national team of the Basque people who feel Basque and not Spanish. Unlike Scotland, the Basque Country doesn´t have an officially recognized national team. Basque players who want to play in World Cups and European Championships have to do so under the flag of Spain. For many Basques it´s not a problem but for others it is and it is those people who can look upon Athletic as their national team. This was the first ground so far where I haven´t seen anyone selling Spanish flags or the rather provocative scarf saying “Esto es España y el que no le guste que se vaya” which roughly translates as “This is Spain and he who doesn´t like it can leave”. Instead, you only see Basque flags and scarves saying “Euskadiko Selekzioa” which I think is Basque for “Basque national team”.
Whatever your political views on the Basque situation, it is admirable that Athletic continue to survive at the top level with only Basque players while others spend millions buying the best talent from around the world. In fact Athletic have never been relegated from La Primera División.
Another thing that makes Athletic special is their famous stadium, San Mamés; better known as the Cathedral. San Mamés is the oldest football stadium in Spain and you can feel it as soon as you enter. For the football traditionalist like myself, it trumps the Emirates any day of the week. It is one of those stadiums that still has pillars blocking some poor guy´s view and stands that come from different eras. The atmosphere of San Mamés on match day is also unique. If being at a Getafe match is like attending a Clyde match then being at an Athletic match is like attending a Scotland match. Unlike other teams in Spain, there are no easily identifiable Ultras but when a song starts everyone gets involved and the noise is incredible. Likewise, when the referee makes an unpopular decision, everyone joins in with the insults, whistles and boos. Unfortunately for Athletic there was much more of the latter in the match with Sevilla. Athletic had started this season very well with three straight wins but a midweek loss to Tenerife was followed by a 0-4 home loss to an unforgiving Sevilla. The loss was made worse by the fact it came from a combination of Athletic mistakes and bad refereeing. However, what made Athletic´s loss different was that the crowd didn´t turn on the team, manager or the board. There were no insults hurled at their own players. There was no one demanding they scrap their Basque only policy and go out and buy the type of foreign talent that Sevilla had. They crowd were visibly hurt at the defeat but you knew they would be back in numbers for the next match. In fact the next day the city’s main square was full of men, boys, women and girls wearing Athletic tops. Some had gathered to trade football stickers as they raced to complete their album. Others, the younger boys, were playing football, no doubt dreaming of playing for Athletic when they are older. The Athletic fans seem to have more patience and loyalty than average Spanish football fan. They seem to accept that their club´s uniqueness will prevent it from winning the Spanish league but that seems ok. Perhaps that is because here, more than anywhere else, the club is more than just a football team.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Un equipo del barrio

Second time lucky but last night I finally got to see Getafe play at home. I had actually planned to see them a few weeks ago but tickets were hard to come by. That wasn´t the case last night in the 10pm kick-off against Valencia. Yes, they have 10pm kick-offs in Spain, even on a Wednesday night. The fact that the match was live on the tele probably also contributed to the lower than average crowd inside the fabulously named Coliseum Alfonso Perez stadium. Football fans will remember Alfonso Perez simply as Alfonso, the player who scored a dramatic winner for Spain vs Yugoslavia in Euro 2000.
Well, one man who wasn´t put off by either the kick-off time or the fact that the match was televised was Daniel, the man sitting next to me. I was too polite to ask but Daniel must be around 75 years old but he has been following Getafe his whole life and hasn´t lost any of his passion. As he put it, Getafe are “un equipo del barrio” or a small team from a small neighbourhood. He explained to me that for most of his life Getafe had languished in the lower divisions of Spanish football before finally gaining promotion to La Liga in 2005. Since then, they have reached 2 Spanish cup finals and one UEFA cup quarter final, narrowly losing out to Bayern Munich in stoppage time. As well as this, they have changed manager every year since being promoted and only have one player left from their 2005 promotion team.
As I listened to this I couldn´t help making a comparison with my team in Scotland, Clyde, who like Getafe live in the shadow of bigger neighbours, have a stadium they can never fill, change managers on a yearly basis and until very recently were punching above their weight. And the parallels didn´t stop there. As the game went on I began to realise that attending a Getafe match is much like attending a Clyde match.
Firstly, when you are in a smaller crowd you can hear every insult and everyone can hear your insults. This leads to a much more creative way of swearing that you don´t hear in the bigger stadiums. As Daniel told me, “this is a great vocabulary lesson for you”. Secondly, the atmosphere among the supporters is much more familiar than at a big club. This is due to the fact that more or less the same group of people come every week and very soon you get to know everyone who sits within earshot of you. Smaller clubs definitely have a more family atmosphere in terms of everyone knowing everyone else. Daniel actually thought I was the son of the man who normally sits next to him and was a little confused when I told him my dad was in Scotland.
The match itself also reminded me of some good nights at Broadwood. Getafe were up against the much fancied Valencia, with Villa, Silva and Mata all in the starting line up. Valencia went in front through Villa but Getafe fought back and were 2-1 up by half time. Like some of the older Clyde teams I remember, Getafe played as a team and won despite the opposition having more money or technically superior players. Getafe also suffered from some bad refereeing which led Daniel to tell me that 89% of violence at football matches is caused by referees. Quite how he came to this figure I don´t know but I certainly wasn´t going to challenge it. In the second half Getafe continued to press Valencia into making mistakes and got their reward with a third goal and in the end ran out comfortable 3-1 winners.
I said my goodbyes to Daniel, wishing Getafe all the best this season, and left to catch the metro home. To be honest I didn´t expect Getafe to have much character but I forgot that that is exactly the charm and strength of smaller clubs. They don´t have money, stars or a huge support but they got character and for Daniel´s sake I hope they survive for many more seasons.

Monday, 21 September 2009


After a four hour bus journey we finally pulled into the bus station in Zaragoza around midday. Zaragoza is Spain´s fifth largest city and was host of the Expo last year but I wasn´t heading to the Expo park. The first stop in Zaragoza was La Romareda Stadium, home of Real Zaragoza. Zaragoza may be Spain´s fifth largest city but Real Zaragoza are not Spain´s fifth largest football club. That being said, most people with an interest in football outside of Zaragoza probably know about them due to their dramatic 1995 UEFA cup final victory against Arsenal, the one in which the Real Zaragoza winner was scored from their own half as Seaman fell into the net.
When I arrived at the stadium, the scene was pretty deserted. There were a few guys setting up stalls selling scarves, hats and flags but that was about it. The ticket office, however, was open. The price for today´s match against Valladolid, 45 Euros; which by my reckoning makes them more expensive than Real Madrid. Unsurprisingly it wasn´t much trouble getting hold of a ticket for what in reality is a bottom of the table clash.
So, ticket purchased, it was time to go and see a little of Zaragoza and maybe pick up a football souvenir along the way. A nice walk, coffee and Real Zaragoza pin badge later and it was time to head back to the stadium for the match.
For my 45 Euros I got a seat in the sun, behind the goals and very close to the pitch. Ten minutes before kick-off it seemed the prices had put many people off coming however in typically Spanish fashion many people turned up late and in the end the official attendance was given as 22,000. The stadium itself, which apparently hosted a Michael Jackson concert once upon a time, is a nice wee venue and once the game got going and the Ultras started making some noise the atmosphere was actually quite good. On the subject of Ultras the Real Zaragoza ones seem to be split into two groups, one suspiciously far right looking group calling themselves Ligallo Fondo Norte and another called Colectivo 1932. The two groups sit at opposite ends of the stadium and sing different songs which led me to think there was some sort of conflict between them however the man sitting next to me assured me there was no such problem. In terms of making noise, Colectivo 1932 won.
The match itself was a decent enough affair but despite the presence of Roberto Ayala, Jermaine Pennant and Pavon, Real Zaragoza slipped to disappointing 1-2 defeat. Real Zaragoza are back in La Liga after being promoted last season but if they want to remain there they need to win these sort of matches. The supporters know this very well and so the match ended with the customary sack the board chant which seems to be sung whenever the home side loses in Spain.
So after the match it was a mad rush through rush hour traffic in Zaragoza in order to get to the bus station and back to Madrid in time for work on Monday. Luckily we made it to the station with some time to spare. Zaragoza is a nice city but you need more than one day to see it. No doubt I´ll be back in the future to visit the more cultural sides of the city, I just wonder if the football club will still be in La Liga when I do.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Red and White Enigma

There is more to Madrid than Real you know. Second stop on el Camino de La Liga was the Vicente Calderon stadium, 14 kilometres across the city and home to Atlético de Madrid. This was my first trip to see Atlético, so I wasn´t sure what to expect in the stadium although I was pretty sure that it would be very different to a day out at the Bernabéu. While the Bernabéu stands proudly on the plush Castellana street, surrounded by expensive apartments, bars and restaurants, the Vicente Calderon is hidden among cheaper looking buildings on the banks of the Manzanares river. While the Bernabéu can boast 80,000 seats all covered by a roof which includes central heating for those chilly December and January matches, the Vicente Calderon has to settle for 54,000 seats, three quarters of which have no roof covering whatsoever. So, when it comes to style, comfort and beauty, the Bernabéu wins hands down. However, we are football fans and those things don´t matter to us. Only one thing matters to the hardcore football fan, atmosphere, and when it comes to atmosphere, Atlético can confidently say they are number one in Madrid.
While Ultrasur, the Madrid Ultras, make up a tiny proportion of the Real match day crowd, the Atlético Ultras, known as Frente Atlético, make up a significant portion of Vicente Calderon on match day. While Ultrasur make a wee bit of noise every now and again, the Atlético Ultras carry on singing and make a lot of noise for the full 90 minutes. Now don´t get me wrong, the atmosphere in the Bernabéu can be fantastic but the supporters need to be motivated to bring it about. In the Vicente Calderon the supporters need no such motivation, even in a match like yesterday´s with less than glamorous opponents Racing de Santander.
So why are the two sets of supporters so different? One possible reason is that Real supporters are predominately middle class while Atlético supporters are working class. It´s an argument I have heard banded around several times and I´m sure there is more than a little bit of truth to it. However, another equally plausible reason is that Atlético supporters have suffered more disappointment and heartache than their city rivals. The life of a Real Madrid fan is characterized by seeing their team win. The life of an Atlético fan is characterized by seeing their team underachieve. While the supporter of let’s say Huelva can accept that their team has neither the means nor the potential of ever winning the league or challenging the big clubs, the Atlético Madrid supporter has good reasons to believe that his club has both the means and potential to win the league but is almost always left disappointed. In most cities, a club with a 54,000 seater stadium and a support that can fill it and can boast players such as Kun Aguero, Maxi Rodriguez, Diego Forlán and Simao would be considered the number one team. However in Madrid this means nothing when your rivals are Real Madrid. This feeling of being considered small despite feeling big must have an effect of the psyche of the Atlético supporter. This makes them more and more determined and desperate to win and more upset and heartbroken when they lose. If only they could win the league, perhaps the attention and money might start moving in their direction and they could rise up and knock Real Madrid of their perch. But they never manage it and yesterday´s match was another reminder of their short comings.
After losing 3-0 in Malaga on day one, yesterday´s home match against bottom club Racing de Santander seemed the perfect match to kick-start their season. However, Atlético proved once again to be a complete enigma. Fair enough, Racing defended well and are pretty decent going forward but Atlético´s inability to motivate themselves to win the more winnable matches was obvious. Despite Racing being reduced to 10 men for the entire second half, Atlético couldn´t find the performance needed to win the match and ultimately challenge the big teams point for point over a whole season. The match finished 1-1, a result which will please Racing much more than it will please Atlético.
Next up for Atlético is the daunting trip to the Camp Nou to face Barcelona. Knowing Atlético Madrid they might well win that match but it is matches like yesterday´s that they need to address if they are to live up to their big club feeling.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

First stop, Santiago Bernabeu

One down, nineteen to go! I started my journey close to home by making the short (1.4 kms according to googlemap) trip round the corner (literally) to see Real Madrid vs Deportivo La Coruña. The reason for starting here was not so much the close location but the significance of the match. This was Real Madrid´s first official match since big spending Florentino Perez returned. That meant a debut for Cristino Ronaldo, Kaká, Karim Benzema, Xabi Alonso, Albiol and Arbeloa. After being well and truly humilated by Guardiola´s Barcelona last season, Real Madrid are desperate to reassert themselves as the biggest and best in Spain. Florentino Perez has returned promising success and good football and has put his money where his mouth is. So this match took on special significance as everyone in Spain and Europe waited to see how this new team would gel and whether they could handle to pressure heaped on them.
To understand the excitement around Madrid at the moment you have to understand the sheer depression of last season as their arch rivals Barcelona won a historic treble (the first Spanish club to ever do so) playing some wonderful football which culminated in a historic 2-6 victory in the Bernabeu. This domestic humiliation was made worse when Real were thumped 5-0 on aggregate by Liverpool in the Champions League. At the end of last season there wasn´t one player in the Real Madrid team, with the possible exception of Casillas, who could get into the Barcelona starting eleven.
Furthermore, you have to understand the mentality of the club. Real Madrid have a firm belief that they are god´s chosen club, that it is their destiny to win everything and dominate football globally. Real Madrid love drama, they love creating myths and legends. This season could be one of their legendry years as the Champions League final will be held in their stadium. Nothing would be more Real Madridish than to win their tenth Champions League final in their own stadium. Then again, there is another possibility. Don´t say this too loud around here but there exists the very real possibility of Barcelona winning the Champions League in Real´s stadium. The thought of the Catalans celebrating on Real´s sacred surface and on the streets of the capital is too much for many Madridistas to bear. But that is the drama that is Real Madrid, that is why this season is so important and that is why yesterday´s match was a real test.
As part of Real´s constant fight to prove they are number one, Usain Bolt was paraded before kick-off. The fastest man in the world is now a Real Madrid fan, another great piece of theatre from Florentino Perez. The weather was perfect, the pitch as immaculate as Real´s all white strip. The scene was set for Real to lay down a challenge and send shivers down Guardiola´s spine.
It all got off to a good start with semi-God Raul opening the scoring for Real however Deportivo showed they weren´t there just to make up the numbers and hit back with an excellently worked equaliser. Real went back in front from the penalty spot and guess who scored? The most expensive player in the history of football, Cristiano Ronaldo. Surely Deportivo wouldn´t have the gaul to come back again, well they did. Seconds into the second half and veteran Valeron was given far too much time to pick his spot and fire home. So we were back level again. Then we had one of those match changing moments. Deportivo hit Real on the counter attack, the ball was squared to Valeron and although it looked harder to miss he somehow contrived to knock the ball wide from a couple of yards out. With this miss the capacity crowd inside the stadium started to get restless however there was still time for one more twist and it was Lass Diarra of all people who popped up with the winner to settle the home crowd´s nerves and break Deportivo´s resistance. There were no more goals and so the match finished 3-2. For the neutral it was a good match but for Real Madrid it was a bit of a letdown. As the Real manager rightly pointed out, a win is the most important thing and it will take a while for the team to gel but he also knows that Real supporters are famously impatient, as is Florentino Perez. Real will come up against much better teams than Deportivo this season and they know they need to do more. For the time being at least, Guardiolas spine is relaxed.