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

Sunday, 23 May 2010

El Camino Awards and Thanks

Well the football season is over and so is El Camino de la Liga. The challenge has been completed. Twenty stadiums have been visited and twenty Primera Division matches watched. I have travelled on foot as well as by bus, train and plane in an 18,700 km round trip. I have seen 51 goals, seven home wins, seven away wins and six draws. I have paid between 5 and 125 Euros for tickets.

People have been asking questions about my favourite match, best stadium etc. It’s difficult to pick out one trip but below are my awards.

Best Stadium: San Mamés (Athletic Bilbao). Known as the Cathedral, San Mamés is unique in Spanish football. It is a real loss to Spanish football that this was its last season and I feel privileged to have visited it.

Best home Support: Atlético Madrid. Really difficult call but in terms of noise, passion and loyalty it has to go to the colchoneros from the capital.

Best away support: Xerez. Clearly Xerez don’t usually take several thousand away supporters to matches but it was by far the largest and most vocal away support I saw.

Best club song: Sevilla. Anyone who has heard the himno de Sevilla will know what I am talking about, a great football song.

Best Banner: Xerez: Banner read “Xerez no es Cadiz” (Xerez isn’t Cadiz)

Best match: Almeria 2 Barcelona 2

Most watched teams: Athletic Bilbao and Valladolid (4 times)

Finally, El Camino de La Liga wouldn’t have been possible without the help of many people. I would like to thank Pedro Villar Yeates for his advice and help in Valencia and Mallorca. Russell Murrell for his help in Santander. Diana Osak for providing accommodation in both Santander and Tenerife. Juana Alosno for help with accommodation in Barcelona. Xavi Jané López and his family for help in Barcelona. Stephen Abrams for his help in Jerez. Rodrigo Garrido Delgado for his help in Valladolid. Fernando Urra Goñi for his help with Osasuna. And lastly, but definitely not least, Kasia Lewieniec for her help in every single trip. Without her none of this would have been possible and this is as much her achievement as mine.

I would also like to thank Jim Trainor from Vaughan Radio and InMadrid newspaper for helping to publicise the blog as well as friends of El Camino de la Liga at livinglaliga.com, madridatleticos and soccerwrapup.blogspot.com. Check these guys out, they all have excellent blogs. Finally thank you to everyone who has read El Camino de la Liga and left comments either on the blog itself or via other channels. It has really encouraged me to keep writing and persevere.

El Camino de la Liga is over and my weekends won’t be the same again. Well at least not until next season. Watch this space.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Last Day Drama

The 2009/2010 Spanish football season will be remembered as one of last day drama. Going into the final weekend of the season, nothing except third place had been decided. While most eyes were focused on who would win the championship, another fight was going on to see who would remain in the league. While all that was going on, I was engaged in my own fight to finish el Camino de la Liga and this led me to Pamplona, home of Club Atlético Osasuna.

Pamplona is famous for its annual San Fermín festival which involves the running of the bulls. For many foreigners, San Fermín is a typical image of Spain but Pamplona is far from a typical Spanish town. Pamplona is the capital of Navarra, a region in the north west of Spain. The region has a border with France to the North, Aragón to the East and La Rioja to the South, however, Navarra’s Western border is its most controversial. To the West, Navarra has a border with the Basque Country. In Navarra, Basque is an official language, along with Spanish, and there are some who would like Navarra to join with its Northern neighbour. In fact, shortly after arriving in Pamplona I saw a demonstration calling for a union between the two regions. So despite it being home to one of Spain’s most well known festivals, Pamplona is a city where you see very few Spanish flags and where there are some who openly don’t feel Spanish. There is something of an anti-establishment, anarchist feel to the place and people, many of whom definitely don’t conform to the traditional, conservative, facha image of being Spanish.

As has become clear throughout el Camino de la Liga, the link between politics and football is never far away in Spain and Pamplona’s football team, Osasuna, is no different. Before the match I met with Fernando Urra Goñi, commentator on all the Osasuna games for the local radio station. Fernando told me how Osasuna is a club that is very close to the people and this is reflected in almost full stadiums for every home game. Osasuna’s stadium, El Reyno de Navarra, may only hold 19,500, but it is almost always full and getting a ticket can often be difficult. Fernando told me that attendances weren’t always so high, especially when the club was in the lower leagues, however, everything changed one season when the club came close to relegation. With club languishing bottom of the league a campaign called “we’re not going down” started with the aim of filling the stadium for the remaining fixtures. The campaign was a success and the full stadiums led to Osasuna going on a good run and avoiding the drop. Since then, the club has continued to enjoy a healthy support and have remained in Primera División. Like almost all clubs, Osasuna has a group of ultras and it’s them who add the political edge. The Osasuna ultras are known as Indar Gorri which is Basque for Red Strength. Their political philosophy is far left, Basque nationalism and they have turned the Reyno de Navarra stadium into an intimidating atmosphere for many teams, especially Real Madrid.

The match against Real Madrid is one I would like to return and see but I was in Pamplona to see the final match of the season against Xerez, one of five teams fighting against relegation. The importance of the match led to a very large away support making the long trip north. Large away supports are one of the things most lacking in Spanish football and I was curious to see the reaction the Andalusians would get. To my surprise it was an extremely friendly one, with supporters mixing before, during and after the match without any problems whatsoever. As Fernando informed me, as this was Xerez’s first ever season in Primera División, this was the first time the teams had ever met and therefore they had no historical reasons not to get along.

If the friendliness outside the stadium surprised it was nothing compared to what I witnessed inside. With Osasuna already safe from relegation, the home supporters decided to support Xerez who needed to win and hope others lost. That’s right, as well as the couple of thousand Xerez supporters, the Osasuna supporters were also cheering on the away side. Extremely confused, I asked the people sitting around me why they wanted Xerez to win. Did they want someone else to go down instead? Perhaps a rival they don’t like? No, the answer was that it would be nice to see Xerez survive. Spanish football fans never cease to amaze me.

The match itself was a typical end of season game with the majority of the crowd listening to the radio for scores in other matches and random cheers going up around the ground when goals went in elsewhere. To the disappointment of the vast majority of the crowd, Osasuna took the lead, plunging Xerez closer to the drop. Hope was restored when the away team equalized but despite the home supporters urging their goalkeeper to “let one in”, Xerez couldn’t find a second and when the final whistle went, they were relegated. There then followed a pitch invasion by the home supporters which ended with the riot police coming out and chasing everyone back into the stands. As I stood watching this I reflected on my journey to every stadium in Primera División. I have learned a lot about Spanish football culture but there is still so much that surprises me, so much that is different from what I am used to, so much more I have to learn. El Camino de La Liga may be finished but my Spanish football education has just begun. Viva el Fútbol!!!

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Sun, Sea and St Andrew's Crosses

It’s sunny and hot, 28 degrees to be precise. The sea and the beaches, full of sunbathers, are visible from the top of the stadium. It feels like Spain yet, bizarrely, it also feels like home. That’s because everywhere I look I see St Andrew’s crosses. In fact I can see 18,000 of them to be exact. Stop number 19 on el Camino de la Liga, Tenerife.

Scotland and Tenerife don’t have much in common but one thing we do share is the same flag and today the local football team is giving everyone in the stadium a St Andrew’s cross as they battle to stay in La Liga. Club Deportivo Tenerife is the only representative from the Canary Islands in Primera División and situated 1,974 km from Madrid, it’s also the longest trip on el Camino de la Liga.

Being located so far away from the rest of Spain has almost certainly had an impact on the people of the Canary Islands. The people here are visibly more laid back than those on the peninsula. You rarely hear anyone tooting their horn in Santa Cruz. The way people speak and the words they use are also different, in fact some say the people are more similar to South Americans than Spaniards. It also appears that this distance has affected the fortunes of the football team. With the closest La Liga side, Xerez, located 1,360 km away, every away match seems very far away and every visiting team has the same sensation when visiting Tenerife. For example Racing Santander, this weekend’s visitors, had to travel 2268 km to get to Tenerife.

Distances like these seem to have led to Tenerife having very contrasting home and away records. On the plus side, at home Tenerife have won 8, drawn 5 and lost 5. However, away from home they have lost 13, drawn 3 and won only 1. That easily makes Tenerife the team with the worst away record in the league. With an away record as bad as that, it’s not surprising that Tenerife find themselves in the relegation zone. The football club is back in Primera División after a 7 season absence but the stay was looking short going into this weekend’s must win match against Racing Santander, a team only 4 points ahead of them.

The importance of the match wasn’t lost on the locals and around 18,000 of them turned out to cheer on the team. Unlike La Liga’s other island team, Real Mallorca, Tenerife appear to be well supported. This probably helped by reasonable ticket prices, 20 euros, a supporter friendly stadium in the city centre and of course the aforementioned lack of another team for a couple of thousand kilometers.

The good weather, large crowd and the importance of the match came together to create a good atmosphere and the Scottish connection seemed to go further than just the flags. Before the match the Tenerife Ultras belted out a rendition of Auld Langs Syne, completely bizarre but very nice. When the match got under way the singing didn’t let up and the volume increased a few notches as Tenerife grabbed a first half lead. During the break I spent all my time under the stand and out of the unrelenting sun. Like many grounds in Spain, Tenerife’s Heliodoro Rodriguez Lopez Stadium doesn’t have a roof. This is inconvenient on the rare occasions that it rains but much worse during those much more frequent scorching Spanish days. Luckily I had bought a hat before the match, the best 4 Euros spent during el Camino de la Liga.

Into the second half and Tenerife went further ahead after some comical goalkeeping gifted them a penalty. At 2-0 Tenerife looked to be cruising but Racing pulled one back and the nerves set in. Luckily though, Tenerife held on to secure a vital home win which leaves them one point from safety with 3 games to play.

I left the stadium, like the rest of the people, in good spirits all be it very sweaty. Firstly, I was happy for Tenerife who deserved the victory; however, more importantly I was relieved to have completed the furthest el Camino de la Liga trip. Like the Spanish championship and relegation race, it looks like el Camino de la Liga is going to go to the last game of the season. All eyes on Pamplona.

Monday, 12 April 2010


The southern Spanish city of Jerez has been world famous for centuries due its most famous export, sherry. However last year Jerez was on the lips of people for a different reason, its football team’s historic promotion to the Spanish Primera Division.

Jerez is located in the south west of Spain, somewhere between Cadiz and Seville. With its famous sherry and a beautiful historic centre, Jerez is one of Andalucia’s most beautiful cities. Of course Andalucia also has many football teams who have played in Spain’s top flight but until this season, Xerez CD was not one of them. Xerez’s promotion last year was a great boost for the city and also for Andalusia as region lost both Recreativo de Huelva and Real Betis to relegation. The club’s promotion means Andalusia remains the region with the most number of football clubs in Primera Division.

Gaining promotion is of course challenging but staying up is perhaps even tougher. As one of the new boys, Xerez were among the favourites to go down and unfortunately for them they haven’t disappointed, sitting bottom of the league. Xerez are really suffering because of a terrible start which eventually led to the manager getting the sack. The change of manager has led to an improvement in results but they have a lot of ground to make up if they are to pull off a great escape.

This weekend Xerez faced Getafe at home and with the two teams above them playing each other they had a great chance to get themselves off the bottom of the table and closer to safety. In matches of this importance a large crowd helps and Xerez lowered the prices significantly, with the cheapest ticket costing just 5 Euros, in order to attract as many people as possible. It’s a ploy that clearly worked and one Xerez must be applauded for. As one of those sitting in the 5 Euro section I saw many children there and this can only be good for the future of the club.

With the Chapín stadium pretty near capacity and the Ultras in good voice, all that was needed was for Xerez to do the business on the park. On a side note, the Chapín stadium is one of the most bizarre I have come across in Spain. It not only has a running track but a hotel whose rooms look onto the pitch and is the only stadium I have ever come across with trees inside it. The match programme, the best I have come across so far, went with the Obama like headline “Podemos” (We Can). Unfortunately for Xerez they couldn’t and ended up losing 0-1 to the visitors from Madrid. The result probably typified Xerez’s season, some bad luck but mainly a lack of ruthlessness in front of goal and naivety at the back. In the top league these mistakes are punished more severely.

The defeat makes Xerez’s relegation look even more likely. Whether they can come back up will depend on what the club does next. If the ticket prices stay low then there is definitely some potential for building a good fan base and another challenge at the main league. If not then they will have to go back to just being famous for their sherry.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Generation Superdepor

It’s 12 degrees and raining. On both sides of the road all you can see is green. The grass, trees and moss of the fields, woods and gardens. I’m in a Celtic land on my way to see a football match. However, I’m in neither Scotland nor Ireland. I’m in Galicia and I’m on my way to see the region’s only representative in Primera Division, Deportivo de La Coruña.

Galicia is located in the north west of Spain. If you imagine a map of Spain, it’s the part above Portugal. It’s a region that doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of Spain. It’s generally known for its green landscapes and heavy rainfall. Its roots are Celtic, so instead of Spanish guitar and flamenco there are bagpipes and flutes. Despite the rain, the people are warm and welcoming and, for me at least, are more similar to the Portuguese than to Andalusians or Madrileños. Galicia’s proximity to Portugal has also influenced the region’s language and it is one of three Spanish regions with two official languages. Galician is probably more comprehensible to Portuguese people than to Spanish people. Within Spain the region is very famous but abroad it’s less known. However, to most European football fans, Galicia should be familiar. The region’s two main football teams, Deportivo de La Coruña and Celta Vigo were, until fairly recently, regulars in European competitions. That was perhaps Galicia’s golden period in football terms. Both Deportivo and Celta competed at the top end of La Liga and, helped by a healthy contingent of Brazilians, played attractive, attacking football.

Unfortunately, those days seem to have gone for the moment. Celta Vigo play in the second division and don’t look like getting promoted any time soon. That leaves Deportivo as Galicia’s only representative in the top league.

Deportivo’s stadium, the Riazor, has seen some famous nights. Deportivo’s destruction of AC Milan in the 2004 Champions League quarter final being up there with the best of them. Trailing 4-1 from the first leg in the San Siro, Deportivo came back to beat the Italians 4-0 in the Riazor. In those times, the stadium was known around Europe as a tough venue to visit and it’s not difficult to see why. Despite being modern, the stadium has character to it. Located right next to the beach, the stadium is surrounded by narrow streets, apartments and bars, making the pre match atmosphere more exciting. The stadium itself, a 35,000 seater, is completely enclosed with the crowd very close to the pitch. The atmosphere is cranked up by Deportivo’s Ultras who have decorated their part of the stadium with a series of impressive murals. The Deportivo Ultras are organized, colourful and noisy. They are definitely up there with the likes of Atletico Madrid, Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao. Some of the murals they have painted have a clear political message. These ones are dedicated to the left wing, Galician independence movement. The other murals are related to some of Deportivo’s legends and unsurprisingly they are all players from the modern era, such as Bebeto and Diego Tristan. When you look at the average age of the Ultras the majority of them are in their twenties and are therefore the generation of the Superdepor and Eurodepor. This was the name given to the Deportivo teams of both Bebeto and Tristan, the two most successful teams in the clubs 108 year history. This period lasted from around 1991 until 2005. As well as having international stars such as Rivaldo and Roy Maakay, Deportivo won their first and only league title during this period. They also won the Spanish Cup in the Bernabeu against Real Madrid during the Madrid giant’s centenary year. For the generation who grew up during this time, these memories will never go away. Deportivo challenged the best in Spain and Europe and were a team to be respected if not feared across the continent. Those times have gone for the moment but the legacy lives on and will almost certainly ensure a support base for generations to come.

Monday, 8 March 2010

A Missed Opportunity

Of all the teams in La Liga the youngest is UD Almeria. Founded in 1989, the club is only 21 years old, younger than me. On Saturday they hosted Barcelona, arguably the best team in Europe. In the end they drew 2-2 but I left the stadium feeling they had missed a big opportunity not only on the park but off it too.

Almeria is a city of around 200,000 located on the south-east coast of Spain. Their football team is one of four Andalusian teams currently playing in La Liga. Almeria is not immediately close to any major Spanish city so the conditions are not bad for creating a half decent Premier League football club. And create a half decent team they have. However, there remains one major problem; a fan base.

Now it has to be said, being a young club isn’t easy. Most clubs in Europe have been around for close to at least 100 years. They have a history, legends and traditions. Fathers have passed the traditions onto their sons who will one day pass it onto theirs. It’s this fan base that has ensured the survival of the club for so long and will continue to do so in the future.

You may have heard the saying, you can change your car, your job or even your wife but you can’t change your football team. This sums up the problem for a young club in attracting supporters. So if you can’t attract those who already have a club, who can you attract? The answer is those who didn’t already have a club before you were created, i.e. those born after your foundation. They are the only group who are truly able to commit to such a club. The rest will always be Real Madrid or Barcelona first and Almeria second.

Your formative years as a football supporter are undoubtedly when you’re young. This is when you get hooked. The excitement of going to the stadium, getting your first scarf, learning the songs, going to your first away match and witnessing one of the unforgettable matches that come along every now and again. All football fans go through this process and it never leaves them, their loyalty is assured. It’s the type of loyalty that can only be assured from those who were there, those who were in the stadium, who felt the atmosphere first hand.

For most generations, the only option was to be there. If you weren’t there you didn’t see it, you couldn’t see it. Nowadays though there is Sky Sports and Canal Plus. Some people love them, think they have revolutionized football, changed it for the better and made it more accessible to everyone. However, the true football fans recognize the dangers. Who remembers Scotland beating France at Hampden more, the guy who was there or the guy who watched it on Sky Sports? I’ll be perfectly honestly, I’d rather sit in row ZZZ behind a pole in a full Hampden than sit in front of a 52 inch plasma TV watching the game of Sky Sports high definition, that’s the simple truth. Unfortunately not all of today’s generation will share my views on that. The reason is simple, they have never been to a match. They don’t have a team, they have Sky Sports or Canal Plus.

Back in Almeria, the results are clear to see. A match against European Champions Barcelona and only 11,000 of the 22,000 available tickets were sold. Of those 11,000, a good 1,000 or so were locals wearing Barcelona shirts. Pretty sad, eh? Well there is something even sadder. Almeria’s stadium has an outer perimeter fence. That means you have to show your ticket twice, once at this fence and then once again at the turnstile. To get through the outer perimeter fence I had to push my way through hundreds of young children who were all trying to sneak in but were being pushed away by security guards. By the way, the cheapest ticket for the match was priced at 90 Euros. So while the stadium sat half empty, hundreds of young children were being kept as far away from the stadium as possible. But it gets even sadder. At another entrance, BMWs, Mercedes and Land Rovers containing men in suits and their blonde girlfriends were being ushered through. Since I didn’t spot any of them in the stand I can only assume they were in the VIP boxes. I wonder how many of them paid for their tickets.

Call me idealistic but shouldn’t it be the other way round? Isn’t the young generation the VIP’s for a club like Almeria? Shouldn’t they be the ones allowed in for free to watch the football? Who is more likely to stick by the club during a rough period? The guys in suits with the blonde girlfriends or the local kids who think of nothing but football?

I’m afraid this story ends on another sad note. The match itself was terrific. Almeria had a real go at Barcelona, fought like hell and pushed them all the way. Almeria twice took the lead and were pretty unlucky to only get a point. In the end it was Barcelona who were the more relieved side. It was one of the biggest results in Almeria’s history. The atmosphere was great and it was a really proud night to be an Almeria fan. Why is that so sad? How many of the suits and blonde girlfriends will remember the match? How many of the kids outside would never have forgotten it?

Friday, 5 March 2010

Pucelanos, Pulmonía and Purple

Castilla y León is the biggest of the Spanish regions but it only has one team in the Primera Division, Real Valladolid. They are the only one team who are either brave enough or pijo (posh) enough to wear purple. However, if we go on reputations, then it probably has more to do with the second reason.

Valladolid is the capital of Castilla y León, the region between Madrid and the north coast of Spain. It may be the largest region but it has a small population, only 2.5 million people. It’s not a region of big cities and heavy industry but predominately of small villages and traditional pastimes. The capital has earned the nickname of fachadolid due to its conservative, somewhat pro-Franco views. In Spanish the world facha describes someone with a very conservative attitude.

This description of Valladolid came from two fellow Castellanos Leoneses, one from Burgos and the other from Segovia. It’s certainly true that Valladolid is a far cry from Andalusia. The city is calm, clean and quiet and the people speak clearly. In fact, it is from this region that the Spanish language is said to derive and it’s alleged that the best, most correct Spanish is spoken in Salamanca, one of the region’s main cities.

As well as being famous for its linguistical influence, the region is also famous for its good food and wine. Having visited the region several times, I can say that it’s up there with the best Spain can offer. So it may be famous for language, food and wine but one thing it certainly isn’t famous for is football.

As I said earlier, Real Valladolid is the region’s only representative in Primera Division. They are also the region’s most successful team, which to be honest isn’t saying much. Real Valladolid have never won a league title or even the Spanish cup. Their most successful season ever was finishing seventh, under the stewardship of none other than Rafa Benitez. Currently though, their stay in Primera Division is in real threat as they languish in the relegation zone.

Their 26,000 seater stadium, Estadio José Zorrilla, is a unique ground with its moat around the pitch. Incredibly this stadium was built for and played venue to world cup matches during the 1982 tournament. Their stadium has also earned the knick name of El Estadio de la pulmonía, which translates as the stadium of pneumonia, due to the fact that it can get very cold in winter.

Well, it certainly wasn’t cold when I visited, it was one of those nice, dry, sunny but fresh Spanish February days. With some good food and wine in me, I was looking forward to the match. The atmosphere in the ground was decent for a winnable match against Real Mallorca. The Pucelanos, as the Valladolid supporters are known, were getting behind their team and the 16,500 who turned up were rewarded when they took a second half lead. In fact, this season the club got a record number of season ticket holders, with 18,600 people signing up. However the lead only lasted 20 minutes as Real Mallorca hit back to equalize. From then on the nerves set in and Real Mallorca unsurprisingly went on to the score the winner. The second Real Mallorca goal was enough for most of the crowd and the stadium started emptying rapidly. It seems the pucelanos are as fickle as their reputation suggests.

Either way, it’s a shame to say it but Real Valladolid look like a team destined for relegation and both the players and supporters seem to have reached the same conclusion. Perhaps some people won’t miss them but I think it’s a shame for a region to lose its only representative, even if they do wear purple.

Monday, 22 February 2010

An Island Mentality

For the second week in a row I find myself in a half empty stadium.

This time there are 11,000 people but this is not Villareal, this doesn’t make sense. Palma de Mallorca, the city whose team I’m here to watch, has a population 8 times that of Villareal. If you include the whole Island of Mallorca then that figures doubles again. The low attendances are even stranger when you consider the season Real Mallorca, the club I’m here to see, are having. Going into Saturday’s match, Real Mallorca were sitting fifth in the table and were one of only two teams with a 100% home record. Furthermore, Saturday’s match was against the team directly above them, Sevilla. It was a match for a place in the Champions League. However, this only managed to coax 11,000 along to the Ono Estadi for the match.

So why is a premier league team on an island, with the next nearest premier league team a plane or boat trip away, struggling with attendances? One explanation is that the match was on the TV. I’m not buying that one though. All La Liga matches are on the TV if you’re willing to pay for it. Another reason was the weather, for a Spaniard the weather in February is cold. I’m not having that either, it’s colder in Bilbao, Gijón and Pamplona and they fill their stadiums. Finally you could argue that the football on show isn’t great. Once again, it’s not great in 3 aforementioned cities but the people come along in big numbers. When you consider Real Mallorca’s last few campaigns in La Liga, which involved fighting relegation, then this campaign has been great.

A more probable answer is that Mallorca doesn’t have the football culture of the North or of Seville. I attended the match with several Mallorca socios (season ticket holders). They were all born in Mallorca and attend the matches but they all had a second team from the mainland. They were Mallorca supporters but also Real Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia supporters. As they live on an island, it’s hard to travel to see these teams so to see football they go to see Real Mallorca. In the North you don’t get such supporters. I doubt anybody is an Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid fan. The same seems to be true of Seville. I don’t know any Sevilla and Barcelona fans. In Mallorca, the stadium gets close to full only when Real Madrid or Barcelona visits. The feeling of pride for the local football team just isn’t there. It doesn’t feel like a football town.

When we arrived on the island we were given a tour of Palma by one of the people we were attending the match with, Pedro (Valencia and Real Mallorca). During the tour he showed us Mallorca’s old stadium, Estadio Lluís Sitjar, now abandoned. Later at the new stadium, Nico (Real Madrid and Mallorca) was telling me that the move has been a disaster and the fans haven’t followed the team to the new stadium. The Ono Estadi (now named after a mobile phone company) is a “multi-purpose” stadium with a running track. In other words, it’s not a football stadium. The fans aren’t happy with its location, 3 km from the city centre, and the track which definitely takes away from the atmosphere. When it comes to atmosphere, the closer you can get to the pitch, the better.

Real Mallorca is one of many clubs in Europe to have made the mistake of destroying tradition. Moving 3 km out of the city centre, away from the pubs, to an athletics stadium named after a mobile phone company is not what fans anywhere want. This is even more destructive when you don’t have a big fan base to start with.

It seems the club is trying to undo some of the damage as there are plans to take away the track. However, you still have the problem of filling the stadium. For that there is no easy solution.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Yellow Submarine

12,000 is a pretty low attendance for a Premier League match between two teams chasing European football. True but when consider the population of the home team’s town is only 50,000 then it’s not so surprising. Of all the towns and cities that have teams in La Liga the smallest is Villareal, home of the yellow submarine.

Most football fans around Europe have heard of Villareal CF. Over the last 5 or 6 years they have been regulars in European competitions, even reaching a Champions League semi-final back in 2006. As well as being known for their bright yellow strips, hence the nickname, they are also known for their attractive football. Top players such as Diego Forlán and Juan Roman Riquelme have played for them in recent years. What most people abroad probably don’t know about Villareal is that it’s a tiny wee place that not even many Spaniards could locate on a map. It’s so small that it only has 10 licensed taxi drivers, not even enough to make a football team. Chick Young once described it as the Wishaw of Spain. I wouldn’t go that far but it’s not exactly picturesque.

Villareal is located in the region of Valencia. To get there, you have to go Castellón, the nearest big place. Castellón is quite similar to Villareal except bigger and with a beach. The region might not be the prettiest but it’s an important one as it’s the centre of the Spanish ceramic industry. It’s this industry that Villareal the city and now the football team owe much of their existence to.

The football club is owned by Fernando Roig, a business man who has made most of his money in the ceramic industry. Roig is more of a Brooks Mileson than a Roman Abramovich, taking a very small town team from the fourth division all the way up to the Premier League and into Europe. The only difference being that Villareal has maintained it while Gretna went bust.

While many people in Scotland resented what Gretna did and how they did it, Villareal are a club to be admired and copied here in Spain. They aren’t a club who simply buy the best players of everyone else, they produce their own. In fact they are the only club in La Liga whose B team play in the second division. Not only are Villareal B surviving in the second division they are currently sixth (above Real Betis) and 7 points off a promotion place which they can never gain due to Villareal already being in La Liga. The biggest recent success story of the Villareal system is Spanish international Santi Cazorla, originally from Asturias but signed as a teenager by Villareal. Cazorla is one of 4 Villareal players who are part of the Spanish squad, very impressive for a team outside the top two. There is no denying that Villareal have also benefited from buying foreign talent but they have bought quality players who have improved the standard of the team.

After losing legendary manager Manuel Pelligrini to Real Madrid, Villareal started this season very poorly by their standards but have recovered sufficiently to make it into the top 10. However, the late revival didn’t save the manager’s job and they recently replaced him with Juan Carlos Garrido, former coach of Villareal B. Last Saturday was his first home match in charge and I was there to see it.

Villareal’s stadium, the Madrigal, holds 25,000 which means they literally need half the town to turn out to fill it. As the game was at 22.00 and live on TV, only 12,000 people bothered. The 50 euro price for the home end might also have had something to do with it. Bizarrely, it was only 25 euros to sit in the away end.

The atmosphere? Well I don’t know how many people you need to officially have a group of Ultras but I don’t think 3 is enough. The three guys in question gave it their best shot, they even had a drum, but they were on their own. It’s not really surprising though, given the size of the town and the only recent history of success. Apparently they only got a few hundred people through the gates when they were in the fourth division. Perhaps the next generation of Villareal supporters will be more vocal. The match itself, against Atheltic Bilbao, was a decent one. In the end the home team did just enough to deserve their 2-1 victory and keep themselves on course for a European place. Due to the late kick-off I left the stadium around midnight and faced the challenge of getting back to my hotel in Castellón. Villareal is not Madrid, there is no public transport after 11.00 at night. No buses. No trains. So in the end there was only thing for it, find one of those 10 taxi drivers.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Més Que Un Club

More than a club. How many football clubs could get away with that as a slogan? Arsenal? Chelsea? No way. Newcastle? Getting warmer. Rangers or Celtic? Possibly. There are others we could debate about but there is only one who actually claims to be it, FC Barcelona.

FC Barcelona is one of the biggest clubs in the history of football. I could run through their statistics and achievements but there is no point, we all know how successful they have been. Their success on the park is phenomenal but it is not why they are more than a club. What marks Barça out from much of the rest is their significance as an institution, their role in society. When I say society, I don’t mean world society, nor do I mean European society. I don’t even mean Spanish society. I’m talking about Catalan society and to fully understand Barça, you need to understand Catalonia.

Catalonia may officially be part of Spain but many Catalans don’t identify themselves as Spanish. Like most Scots are more likely to say their Scottish rather than British, most Catalans will say their Catalan rather than Spanish when asked. In the United Kingdom, the question of nationality isn’t really a problem (with the exception of Northern Ireland). The English are English, the Welsh are Welsh and the Scots are Scottish. British is what it says on our passports and how we compete in the Olympics but apart from that we don’t really talk about Britain and the British. We are much too absorbed in our own football, rugby and, for some, cricket teams.

However in Spain, it’s a different story. Spain may only have a population of roughly 46 million but it is divided into 17 autonomous regions. Of these 17 regions, 3 have a second official language in addition to Spanish. These 3 communities, known as the historic nations, are the Basque Country, Galicia and Catalonia. Of the 3 historic nations, Catalonia is the biggest, richest and most self-assured. With 580 km of Mediterranean coastline, the Pyrenees in the North and Barcelona as its capital, it’s no wonder the Catalans are self-assured. However what really marks Catalonia out from other parts of Spain and what causes most of the controversy is the issue of language. There are two other regions with another language but the number of Catalan speakers is much higher and the language is in a much stronger position than that of Galician or Basque. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, in comparison to Basque, Catalan is much easier to learn. It’s a Latin language with the same roots as Spanish. Secondly, in comparison to Galician, Catalan doesn’t carry a social stigma. However, probably the most crucial reason is that Catalans simply want to speak Catalan, it’s part of their identity.

So where does Barça fit in? Well for many years the Camp Nou was one of the few places where you could speak Catalan without fear of being arrested. Under Franco’s dictatorship the only language permitted in Spain was Spanish. This meant some football teams, such as Espanyol and Athletic Bilbao had to change their names. It also meant that for a whole generation of Catalans, Basques and Galicians their mother tongue was forbidden and speaking Spanish became an obligation rather than a choice. The idea was that if you speak Spanish, you’ll feel Spanish and Spain will remain united. A bad idea in theory and even worse in practice.

The Franco dictatorship is responsible for much of the current policies of the Catalan parliament. It is also the background to much of the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona. The ideas of Franco, of a united, Spanish speaking, centralized Spain go down a lot better with those who frequent the Bernabeu than those who go to the Camp Nou. However the rivalry continues to this day, 35 years after Franco died. That is due to the fact that Barça still have a cause despite Franco’s death.

So what is the Barça cause? In words of Barça’s current President, Joan Laporta, Barça is a tool to promote Catalan culture and language. Barça have become the de-facto national team of Catalonia. They speak the language of the Catalan people. They use the Catalan flag, on the strip, in the stadium and on the captain’s armband. What is more, they play beautiful football that makes the Catalans walk taller and feel even more confident. Barça is supposed to serve as an inspiration to the Catalans, a reminder (if they needed it) that they don’t need Madrid, that they can do better than Madrid.

You are always guaranteed good football at the Camp Nou but I consider myself very fortunate to have visited the place during arguably the greatest period in Barça’s history. Barça have enjoyed an unbelievable last year and half. Led by local hero Josep Guardiola and with a team made up mainly of canteros (players from the youth system), Barcelona have won 6 trophies on the bounce. In the process Barça won the league, cup and champion’s league, the only Spanish side to have ever done so. What’s more, on the way to winning the league they humiliated great rivals Real Madrid 2-6 in their own backyard. It doesn’t get much better than that and you can’t miss the feel good factor around the city and stadium.

Despite Real Madrid spending over 250 million on new players, the Barça steamroller has continued unabated. Barça are currently 5 points clear at the top and are still unbeaten. That didn’t change last Saturday against Getafe (2-1), despite Barça finishing the match with 9 men. So can Barça maintain the form from last season? Some say it’s impossible, that it’s difficult to stay motivated when you have won everything.

There are two reasons I think they can. Firstly, the stakes have been raised with Real’s spending spree. The Madrid media grinned and bared it last season but this season they were looking forward to a quick role reversal. It hasn’t happened and they are now getting nasty. There are daily reports emanating from the Madrid press suggesting Barça are winning because of conspiracies in the Spanish football federation. Every refereeing decision has been analysed to find proof of the conspiracy. The accusations have reached such a point that the normally calm Xavi Hernandez of Barcelona has become a vocal critic of the Madrid media. If Barça needed any motivation, they need only read certain newspapers. And the second reason? Well I said that it doesn’t get much better than what happened last season but I can think of one scenario that might top even that. The beauty of it is that it only requires Barça winning one trophy as opposed to three. If Barça retain their champion’s league title the feeling in Barcelona and in Madrid will be just as it was last season. Why? The final is in the Bernabeu. Still think Barça will struggle with motivation?

Monday, 1 February 2010

Mind your language

In Spain, language is important and no more so than in Catalonia. Any discussion relating to Catalonia will inevitably get round to the topic of language. That is because there are two languages in Catalonia, each fighting for supremacy, each claiming to be in danger if not protected and promoted and each provoking emotional fights which are taken up by not only political parties but also two football clubs.

The most famous club in Catalonia is FC Barcelona, of that there is no doubt. Barça are the team of the people, the Catalan people. Their slogan, more than a club, reflects their role in defending and promoting the Catalan cause throughout their history. Barça are unashamedly Catalan.

There is however another team from Barcelona who are a lot harder to define and whose name sums up the political nature of language in Catalonia. Stop number 11 on El Camino de La Liga, Espanyol.

Reial Club Deportiu Espanyol de Barcelona, to give them their full name, are Barcelona’s second team. Their name is written in Catalan but it translates as Royal Spanish Sporting Club of Barcelona. I can’t sum it up any better than Simon Harris from Spain-Football.org,

“If you can imagine what would happen to a football club in Glasgow made up of Scottish players but called Her Majesty's English FC, then you're some way to understanding why the majority of Catalans will always find it difficult to support RCD Espanyol”

The history of Epanyol’s name is perhaps the most interesting thing about them, having changed four times, each time reflecting the changing nature of politics in Catalonia. The club was the first in Spain to be founded exclusively by Spaniards and not foreigners. The original name, Club Deportivo Español (written in Spanish), was supposed to reflect this. City neighbours Barça had been founded by foreigners and consisted mainly of foreign players. A few years later the club was given royal patronage and became Real Club Deportivo Español. However in 1931 Spain became a republic and royal symbols were banned. At the same time support for Catalonian autonomy was growing and so the name was changed to Club Esportiu Espanyol in order to fit in with the times. That is without the Royal patronage and this time written in Catalan and not Spanish. The Spanish republic didn’t last very long and following Franco’s victory in the civil war the name had to be changed again, this time due to the fact that the Catalan language itself had been banned. So once again they became known as Real Club Deportivo Español. This has been the name that lasted the longest. However in 1995, quite a bit after Franco had died and the ban on Catalan had been lifted, the club changed their name for one final time and invented a word in the process. This time they kept the royal patronage but changed the spelling to Catalan. However in order to keep the initials RCD they invented the word Deportiu a Catalanised version of the Spanish word Deportivo. The final result was the aforementioned Reial Club Deportiu Espanyol de Barcelona. If there is a club who reflects the linguistical history of Catalonia over the last 100 or so years then I have yet to find them.

So that’s the history lesson but what about the people who support Espanyol? It has to be said, anyone who is from Catalonia and supports a team named Espanyol is probably not voting for Esquerra Republicana (the Catalan independence party). I lived in Catalonia for a year and only met one Espanyol fan in that time. He was Catalan born but his parents were from other parts of Spain, what some Catalans call immigrants. During the Franco years many people moved to Catalonia from poorer parts of Spain such as Andalusia and Extremadura in search of work. Like many people of a similar background, he associated much more with his parent’s roots than with the place of his birth. He spoke both Spanish and Catalan but considered Spanish his mother tounge.

On my way to the stadium I was thinking about him, wondering if he was representative of most Espanyol fans. Espanyol have recently moved to a new stadium in Cornellá, a town with a large Spanish speaking population on the outskirts of Barcelona. Walking through the streets to the stadium I passed by several pubs full of fans having a pre-match beer. The language of choice for the conversations was definitely Spanish. The closer I got to the stadium the more police I passed until I eventually passed a group who were clearly the Espanyol hooligans, looking like a cross between Millwall and Ultrasur, kitted up in Burberry hats and Spanish flags.

Once at the stadium I popped into the club shop to buy a pin badge (this has become something of a tradition for me) and while having a look at the scarves I realised they have two versions, one written in Catalan and the other in Spanish. I doubt if FC Barcelona offer such a choice. When I got in the stadium and had a look through the progamme I realised it too was bi-lingual, with some articles written in Spanish and others in Catalan. Inside the stadium I also started to hear a bit more Catalan being spoken, although the dominant language remained Spanish. Looking around the stands I could see quite a few Spanish flags, many of which had the outline of a bull emblazoned on them. The bull is a symbol of Spanishness and particulary controversial at the moment as the Catalan parliament debates banning bull-fighting in Catalonia.

So I had pretty much made up my mind that this was a club for Spanish speakers when suddenly the teams were read out only in Catalan. If I found this a little strange then I was really confused when the teams came out for the start of the match and club anthem was played. All teams in Spain have an anthem, usually played as the teams come out at the start of the match. The Espanyol anthem is written and sung in Catalan. So I’m sitting watching a stadium full of people, many holding Spanish flags, standing to sing their club anthem in Catalan.

The visitors happened to be Athletic Bilbao, who along with Barça are the sworn enemies of Españolistas (Spanish nationalists) everywhere. The presence of a couple of hundred Basques in the stadium seemed to get the hooligan mob I had spotted earlier a bit animated and I could see quite of a few of them aiming facist salutes towards to the travelling support. You could also hear Viva España being sung although many of the home support booed when this happened. I have heard Viva España being sung many times at Real Madrid, perhaps Spain’s most Epañolista club, and I have never heard anyone boo it. So it seems that what we can say is that not all Espanyol supporters are Españolistas. However what is clear is that they are all anti Barça. There was universal approval for the songs insulting their city neighbours. So perhaps that is what unites them, a hatred of Barça and what it stands for. And what exactly does Barça stand for? I’ll tell you next week because stop number 12 on El Camino de La Liga is FC Barcelona.