Spanish Corner | Looking beyond FC Barcelona and Real Madrid

In this feature we will bring in stories from Spain. In the first of its series, Indranath Mukherjee looks beyond Barça and Real Madrid and shows how Spanish football is more than the sum of the two giants

The 2012-13 La Liga season started earlier than usual and after five games, FC Barcelona is sitting at the top of the table with a perfect record while the defending champions, Real Madrid are 8 points behind. But we all know that by the end of the season the 7 teams that separate the two champion sides will fail to keep pace and the league will turn out to be a two-horse race.  To quote José Mourinho, Barcelona and Real Madrid will make any football league in the world a two-horse race. On the basis of the last two-three years, there is merit in what José has said. Look at the nominees for the Ballon d’Or awards for the last few years and you will see that arguably the best players of the world today play for either of the two clubs. They have been playing incredible football weekend after weekend and it’s not easy to end the season with 99 or 100 points, however superior they may be, compared to rest of the clubs in the league. Barcelona and Real Madrid look like two sides from a different planet and we shall talk about their rivalry throughout the season. But for now let us turn our attention to the other clubs in Spain and see if there’s an interesting story somewhere.

Football is a way of life in Spain and it reflects the country’s regional cultures much more than any other country in Europe. Each region feels so special about their identity that many could even take offense to the term ‘Spanish’ in the title of the story. Many pundits call the Europa League the true test of a league’s depth and if there is any element of truth in it then La Liga would certainly claim to be one of the strongest leagues in the world. And this is despite the criminally discriminating television rights that are systematically destroying any possibility of the other clubs to be competitive in the league. Yet Spanish football cannot be about its two giants only.

Most recently, we saw Atlético Madrid completely destroying the Champions League winners, Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup final. Last year, in the UEFA Europa League we saw how Athletic Bilbao dominated Manchester United both home and away. Valencia was perhaps a relatively familiar name in Europe even before the beginning of the millennium. They, in fact, made it to consecutive UEFA Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001 but football historians perhaps remember them from the 1980 European Cup Winners’ Cup final when they beat Arsenal FC 5-4 on penalties. Celta de Vigo came from the wilds of Galicia to knock out Aston Villa and Liverpool, in the 1998-99 UEFA Cup. Deportivo de La Coruña, from the same region, won La Liga in 1999-2000 in some style finishing five points ahead of the runners-up Barcelona. In 1999, Real Mallorca from the Balearic Islands stormed into the final of the last Cup Winners’ Cup only to lose out 2-1 to Lazio at Villa Park in Birmingham. The rise of Alavés, in 2001, was brief but astonishing to say the least. In the 2001 UEFA Cup final at the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund they came from behind twice to finish the match 4-4 against Liverpool. Pool went on to win the final on the golden goal rule, thanks to a Delfí Geli header in his own net and thus completed a treble of Football League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup.

Valencia Club de Fútbol came into European prominence after winning the UEFA Cup Winners Cup in 1980


With the advent of the likes of ESPN, Sky Sports, Eurosports, Ten Sports and more importantly the World Wide Web, football fans across the world now know a lot more about Spanish football. For instance, they know that there exists another football club in Barcelona called Espanyol, but what they may not know is that the club have officially changed the spelling of their name in Catalan since 1994, using the ‘y’ in place of the previous Castilian ‘ñ’, as in Español, the provocative name given to them back in 1902.

Villarreal CF, the small town club in the province of Castellón within the Valencian Community won the Intertoto Cup in 2003-04, thus qualifying for the old UEFA Cup where they went on to reach the semi-finals only to lose out to the eventual champions, Valencia CF. But their dream season in Europe was 2005-06 when they qualified for the UEFA Champions League by defeating Everton in the play-off. In the group stage, they had drawn both their games with Manchester United and eliminated Internazionale on away goals in the quarter-finals. They went out in the semi-final against Arsenal after Jens Lehmann saved a Juan Román Riquelme penalty in the 89th minute of the second leg at Villarreal. But by then The Yellow Submarine had won the hearts of millions of football fans across the globe.

Miguel Pérez Cuesta, nicknamed Michu, has gained instant popularity in England for his display at Swansea City. Folks there know that he hails from Rayo Vallecano, a football club based in Madrid, in the neighbourhood of Vallecas. Another Madrid club, Getafe made it to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup in 2007-08 and gave a gutsy performance against Bayern Munich to draw 3-3 in Madrid but lost out on aggregate.

Three Spanish clubs have won five of the last nine UEFA Cup / Europa League competitions, and we are not talking about Barcelona or Real Madrid here. This in itself is ample testimony to the fact that Spanish football is more than the sum of the Madrid and Catalan giants.

The infamous missed penalty in the 89th minute of the second leg of the UCL semi-final against Arsenal


The football rivalry within Spain also goes beyond Madrid and Barcelona and by some distance. The rivalry in Spain exists in two layers: one among clubs competing from different regions and the other among clubs competing from the same city. The atrocious animosity that exists between Sevilla and Betis, for instance, may make the British derbies, except the Glasgow one, look like friendly matches. The primary difference between the two clubs stems from a socio-economic divide – Betis representing the relatively poorer, working class in the city while Sevilla is more a club of the bourgeois. We know that there is no discrete charm in the coexistence of the working class and the prosperous ones anywhere in the world; the economic gap between the two classes in Spain is much less than it is in England. Probably because football is a way of life in Spain, they need it to allow class consciousness to manifest itself. In 1998, when Betis president Manuel Ruiz de Lopera announced the most expensive transfer of the season with the £22m acquisition of the over-hyped Brazilian Denílson, it was actually a statement made to the other side of the city.

Another derby in Spain which is among the bitterest is the Asturian one, when Real Oviedo visit Sporting de Gijón, supporters apparently wear blue helmets (symbol of workmen) to avoid the barrage of objects thrown at them as they approach the stadium. This ‘throwing of objects’ is symbolic too; the residents of Gijón throw coals (symbolic, or even literal at times) to accuse the visitors of having more to eat at the onset of the civil war. Although the Asturians in general were anti-Francisco Franco, and Real Oviedo’s own suffering was no less heroic – the local interpretation is somewhat ironical.

Similar class differences get manifested, although to a much lesser extent, between Barcelona and Espanyol, Deportivo and Celta, and Real Madrid and Atlético; in the capital though the actual working class is represented by Rayo Vallecano. According to Vicente del Bosque, putting regional tensions aside has helped Spain achieve international success. There is apparent merit in what he says but if one looks at the Spanish society in general, sense of nationalism is still strong in Catalonia and the Basque Country. It’s that Spain now has a golden generation of footballers and in players like Xavi Hernández and Iker Casillas, Spain have found leaders who understand the worth of defending the national side. Otherwise for the Spanish, ‘Provenance is Everything’ and it will remain that way. Football will always be among the key, if not the medium, through which the differences between the social classes will get manifested.

Coming back to 2012-13 La Liga season, it’s still very young and we will keep talking about what’s happening, in the course of the next nine months. But for now, it’s great to have Deportivo back in the top flight!