A Beginner's Guide to Spanish Fútbol (Soccer)
Spanish Fútbol 101 – An Introduction
Along with the English Premier League and the German Bundesliga, La Liga, Spain's professional soccer league, is considered to be among the best in the world. Year after year, La Liga (officially called Liga BBVA) attracts some of the world’s most talented players and produces extremely competitive football.
Note: This isn't a guide to The World's Game. If you need a primer on the basic rules of soccer/football/fútbol, check out this soccer 101 guide that the MLS team, Chivas USA, put together for Americans new to the game.
Football / Futbol - Terminology
Now is a good time to provide you, the neophyte, with some terminology. These terms will be used interchangeably for the rest of this guide. The North American terms will be listed first, followed by the more accurate English and Spanish terms, which are what you will hear in the media and football community most of the time.
- Soccer is referred to as football (English) or fútbol (Spanish)
- The field will be referred to as the pitch (English) or the campo (Spanish)
- Jerseys can be referred to as a camisetas or playeras (Spanish)
- Uniforms are called kits (English) or uniforme (Spanish)
- Cleats are called boots (English) or botas (Spanish)
- Games will be referred to as matches (English) or partidos (Spanish)
- Fans will often be referred to as supporters (English) or aficionados (Spanish)
- Teams can be referred to as teams, sides, or clubs (English) or equipos (Spanish)
A Bit of History
Spain is a country with a long and complicated history of regionalism. Beginning with the arrival of modern humans to the Iberian Peninsula, and continuing through the Spanish Civil War and Franco regime of the 20th century, Spain’s lands were fiercly fought over. Massacres were carried out, territories conquered and reconquered, boundaries redrawn, and cultures and languages suppressed.
While Spain is a peaceful place now, past wounds turned into scars and were passed down through generations. Fierce, sometimes bitter rivalries still exist between provinces and even neighboring towns. Spanish football clubs represent more than just a favorite team to their supporters. The clubs are symbols of regional pride and history. Some Spanish football clubs are even owned in part by their supporters. This pride translates to raucous atmospheres in stadiums and local bars on match days and club colors and enthusiasm displayed openly throughout the year.
What About The National Team?
If there is one thing that can get Spaniards to temporarily put aside their regional rivalries, it's an international match featuring Spain, especially in the World Cup. The national team is formed by native Spaniards and those like Diego Costa, who have gained Spanish citizenship as adults. Historically, the national team has had success since its founding in 1909, qualifying for 14 World Cups and winning 3 European Championships.
The country erupted with joy in 2010, when "La Roja" won Spain's first ever World Cup. The 2010 Spanish side is considered by some to be the best to ever play the game.
Expectations were high riding into the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but a repeat was not in the cards. The collective disappointment was palpable in bars throughout the country when Spain wilted and was unceremoniously bounced from the tournament in the group stage.
As of November 2014, Spain enjoys a #10 FIFA world ranking.
La Liga - League Structure
While 60 Spanish professional teams have played in La Liga at some point since its inception in 1929, the current configuration features 20 teams. The season lasts from September to June each year and competition follows a double-round-robin format. Each team plays every other team twice, once at home and once on the road, for a total of 38 games.
Teams are ranked by total points earned throughout the season, and the team with the most points after the final game is named champion. Three points are awarded for a victory, one point is given for a tie, and no points are earned for a loss.
La Liga also features a secondary division, made up of 22 teams. At the end of each season, the bottom three finishers in the 1st division are relegated to the 2nd division, and the top three finishers from the 2nd divison are promoted to the big show.
Stars of Today:
As you might expect in a league with such financial inequity, star power tends to be concentrated at the top. The biggest names in the game come from around the world to play in La Liga and many of those end up being snatched up by Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.
Lionel Messi (FC Barcelona)- considered by most to be one of the greatest players ever, the 27 year old Argentine currently plays for FC Barcelona. Messi has won countless individual and team accolades including three golden shoes, six La Ligas, two Copas del Rey, six Supercopas de España, three UEFA Champions Leagues, two UEFA Super Cups and two Club World Cups. He holds the records for most goals scored in a La Liga season (51) and most consecutive La Liga matches scored in: 21 matches (33 goals).
Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)– even if you have never seen a football match, you probably saw this boy-faced man plastered all over magazine covers during the 2014 World Cup. The 29 year old Potugese footballer is a polarizing figure but an undeniable magician with the ball. Ronaldo currently plays for Real Madrid.
Neymar (Real Madrid) - This electric 22 year old forward is considered by many to be the future of the game. He served as captain for Brazil during the 2014 World Cup. During league play, he suits up next to mega-stars Messi and Suarez for FC Barcelona.
Gareth Bale (Real Madrid)– this 25 year old winger hails from Wales and began his career in the English Premier League. In 2013 he was transferred from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a fee rumored to be between £77 and £85 million.
James Rodriguez (Real Madrid)- Rodriguez had a breakout World Cup in 2014, scoring 6 goals for his home country, Colombia, the most of any player in the tournament. The 23 year old playmaking midfielder currently plays for Real Madrid.
Aymeric Laporte (Athletic Bilbao) - This rising French defender plays for Athletic Bilbao. As is often the case, his impressive play has the sharks circling. Real Madrid is already rumored to be seeking the services of the 20 year old footballer.
Ivan Rakitic (FC Barcelona)- this 26 year old Croatian midfielder transferred to the star-studded Barça lineup from Sevilla in 2014. He suits up for the Croatian national team, but played youth football in Switzerland. Rakitic scored 12 goals for Sevilla in 2013 and likes giving the thumbs-up in photos.
Luis Suarez (FC Barcelona)– this Uruguayan striker is a hell of a player, but his achievements have been overshadowed by unsportsmanlike play and numerous biting episodes. Yes, Suarez is infamous for biting opposing players. The most recent episode occurred against Italy in the 2014 World Cup. Suarez will make a salary of £10 million playing for FC Barcelona in 2014.
Leo Baptistao (Rayo Vallecano)- Leo plays for Rayo Vallecano (the third team based in Madrid). He is currently on loan from Atletico Madrid. This 22 year old Brazillian-born striker an up-and-coming star with considerable upside potential.
Teams of La Liga
The Heavy Hitters
La Liga can accurately be described as Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, and the rest of the pack. These two clubs are the Yankees and Red Sox of Spanish soccer. They have the paper and are willing to spend it to bring in top flight talent year after year. Teams that buy championships are generally derided by fans of their rivals, but winning brings fans, which brings in more money, which starts the cycle anew. Few teams on earth have had more success in the international branding game than Madrid and Barca, as evidenced by their millions of supporters around the world.
Not only do La Liga's other teams have to compete with the bottomless bank accounts of Real Madrid and Barcelona, they have to deal with near constant rebuilding, as those teams poach the talent they develop year after year. Real Madrid’s crosstown rivals Atlético Madrid have had the most success against the juggernauts in recent years, winning the La Liga title in 2014 behind the stellar play of their superstar, Diego Costa (now departed for Chelsea and the EPL). Atlético have won 10 La Liga titles in their history, but only two (1995-96 and 2013-14) in the past 20 years. Two Basque Country teams, Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad (Donostia / San Sebastián) have enjoyed sporadic success with 8 and 2 titles respectively, but neither team has been crowned since the early eighties. Sevilla have won 6 titles with 6 runner-up finishes, including championships in the 2001-02 and 2003-2004 seasons.
The Rest of the Pack
Success is lacking for the rest of the 50 plus teams that have competed in La Liga throughout its history. Teams that have never won a primera divison La Liga championship include Villareal CF (runners-up in 2007-08), Granada CF, Málaga CF, and Rayo Vallecano de Madrid.
Despite enduring decades of relative ineptitude, and what outsiders might label insurmountable odds, most, if not all La Liga clubs enjoy rabid support, year after year.
2014-2015 Primera Divison Teams
Historic Primera Divison Titles + Runners-Up Finishes
WTF is the Champions League?
The Champions League is a sort of post season all-star league. Many fans consider winning the Champions League to be the ultimate European football prize. Each of the European domestic leagues send a pre-allotted number of top-finishing teams (between 1 and 4, Spain gets 4 slots) into a post season knockout tournament to determine the best team in Europe.
This year, 53 countries sent 77 teams into the preliminary round of the tournament. These initial teams are whittled down to a 32 team group stage where teams are drawn into 8 groups of 4.
Each team plays the other teams in their group twice, with the top two sides from each group advancing to a knockout round of 16. Real Madrid are the current champions and have won the trophy 10 times in their history.
When are the Champions League and La Liga seasons held, and how long are the seasons?
Fútbol is a year round game. One point of confusion for new fans is the timing of Champions League versus La Liga and other domestic leagues.
The Champions League tournament begins in mid-July and runs through May while the La Liga season runs from September to June, meaning the two seasons overlap. A Spanish team that qualified for Champions League the year before will be playing games in that tournament, while concurrently beginning play in the new La Liga season. The same is true for teams in other European domestic leagues.
Now you're ready to engage in 101 level conversations about Spanish fútbol. Go out and find a pub in your town that shows matches, watch some YouTube compilations, and read up on the sports tabloid gossip, and you'll be ready for your next trip to España.
Buena suerte, amigos.