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, 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.