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.