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 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.