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, 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.