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

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.