Football in Spain

The national sport

Football ( fútbol), or soccer, is Spain’s national sport and easily the country’s most important participant and spectator sport. Spanish football fans are among the most dedicated and fervent in Europe and are matched in their fanaticism only by the Italians.

Every town in Spain has a football pitch and team, and indoor football ( fútbol sala) is also played in sports centres throughout the country. Spanish children learn to play football almost as soon as they can walk, with the most promising players being snapped up by the major clubs and coached from an early age in football schools.

Not surprisingly, Spain has many sports newspapers devoted almost exclusively to football, where every aspect of the players’ public and private lives are analysed and debated. Countless TV minutes are dedicated to analysing every other move or even word uttered by a football player or manager. All news bulletins include an item on football and the ‘sports section’ in most news is merely a euphemism for football. Only when Spain achieves prowess in a sport other than football (such as when a Spanish driver wins a Formula 1 motor race) does football take a back seat!

The Spanish football league

The Spanish league is one of the most competitive in Europe and Spanish teams enjoy considerable success in European competitions – Barcelona won the Champions’ League in 2006 and Sevilla won the UEFA cup. Spain has never been able to repeat its clubs’ successes at international level and the Spanish national team is a constant source of disappointment – Spain won only one game in the 2004 European Cup and failed to reach the quarter-finals in the 2006 World Cup. The progress of the national team hasn’t been helped by the influx of foreign stars in recent years (some 150 play in the first division alone), which makes it difficult for promising young Spanish players to get a game.

The Spanish league is divided into three main divisions, two of which are sub-divided into regional competitions. Division 1 (with 22 teams) and division 2a are national leagues. Division 2b is divided into four regional leagues (I central, II north, III east and IV south) and division 3 consists of local groups regionalised for financial reasons. Spanish clubs also compete in the Spanish Cup ( Copa del Rey) and the European Cup (UEFA). The Spanish football season runs from September to June, with a break from Christmas eve until the end of January. Matches are usually played on Sundays (occasionally Saturdays), starting at 5pm, and evening matches (many televised) are also held most weeks starting as late as 9.30pm.

Generally, you must queue to buy tickets on match days, although tickets for major games are sold in advance at ticket agencies in El Corte Inglés shops around the country. Hooliganism and violence are rare at Spanish football grounds and families can safely take their children to matches, although incidents of violence are on the increase, particularly at ‘high-risk’ matches, e.g. between Real Madrid and Barcelona.

There’s a huge gulf between the top Spanish clubs and the rest regarding every aspect of the game, not least their stadiums. Real Madrid and Barcelona (Barça) in particular stand head and shoulders above the rest and have a huge international following (both clubs’ websites have Japanese-language options!). Real Madrid play at the imposing 130,000-seat Santiago Bernabeu stadium, while Barcelona’s home is the equally impressive 120,000-seat Nou Camp stadium. Outside the top handful of clubs, attendances at many first division matches are low. A number of division one matches are shown live on TV each week, invariably involving either (or both) Real Madrid or Barcelona, and are screened in bars throughout Spain.

Gambling on football in Spain

Gambling on football is also popular and is organised through a tote system called the Quiniela. Spanish football is dominated by arch rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona, with few other teams getting a look in. Other top teams include Valencia (winners of the Spanish League and Champions’ League in 2004), Deportivo La Coruña and Real Sociedad.

In the early ’90s, Spanish football went through one of the worst periods in its history. However, like British premiership and Italian clubs (although without the corruption!), many clubs have been rescued financially by the vast revenue from televised football matches, although many clubs are still deep in debt. Top clubs demand instant success and tend to swap their coaches almost as often as their players change their shirts. Real Madrid has had around ten coaches in the last decade, which looks like secure employment when compared with Atlético Madrid’s almost 30 coaches in the same period! Barcelona has also had its fair share of managers in the last few decades.

Spanish football is renowned for its gifted players and fluent attacking style, although there are a surprising number of sterile one-sided games, lacking in excitement and passion, when teams appear paralysed by the fear of losing. Spanish football is equally noted for its cynical ‘gamesmanship’ (i.e. cheating) which includes every underhand trick in the book, e.g. obstruction, body-checking, shirt-pulling, elbowing, diving, ‘accidental’ tripping and collisions, and faked injuries, all of which Spanish players have perfected. Players often do their utmost to get opposing players booked or sent off. However, as was obvious during many of the 2006 World Cup games, these practices are universal!

This article is an extract from Living and Working in Spain.
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Further reading

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