As I tap on the keyboard on Sunday night in Spain, it is exactly 90 years to the day when La Liga was officially formed. It should have started in September 1928 but there had been a dispute over the format of the league, so no surprises there. Of the ten sides invited to participate that February, six are still in the top flight (Real and Atlético Madrid, Barcelona, Espanyol, Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao). The region with most clubs was the more prosperous and industrialised Basque Country, with four sides (Sociedad, Athletic, Real Unión and Arenas de Getxo), with Catalunya in second place with three (Barcelona, Español and CD Europa), the team ‘Europa’ from the Barcelona neighbourhood of Gracìa lasting for three seasons before disappearing into the murky depths of regional football. They play in ‘Tercera’ (3rd Division) now. Racing Santander, from the Cantabria region and now in Segunda ‘B’, made up the roster.
There wasn’t a massive amount of enthusiasm back then for a league structure, partly because there was a fairly thriving regional fabric which provided candidates for the national cup competition, plus numerous localised cup tournaments that kept folks happy enough over the season. People are often surprised that the Spanish league began so long after the English set up their competition in 1863 with the establishment of the FA, but that doesn’t paint the whole picture. The Spanish scene took off in 1902 with a cup competition in Madrid to celebrate the crowning of King Alfonso XIII, very much the original patron of the game in Spain.
It was late industrialisation and a reluctance to professionalise the game that held the league back, in relative terms, but once it was under way it was only the Civil War that interrupted it – and even during that terrible conflict there were tournaments in both republican and nationalist camps.
Interestingly, Arenas de Getxo, who beat Barakaldo 2-1 on Saturday in Segunda ‘B, played Real Unión in the 1927 cup final, in what was to be both teams’ last shot at glory. It remains the only occasion when two Basque sides have disputed a national cup final, despite all the years that Athletic and Real Sociedad could potentially have done this. Real Unión, also now in Segunda ‘B’ drew 1-1 at Oviedo ‘B’ on their 90th anniversary, but were probably not ruminating for too long on how the mighty had fallen.
Espanyol, who made a desperate but welcome comeback on Saturday to beat Rayo 2-1 at home (only their 2nd league win in the last ten) were spelt ‘Español’ back then, probably just to annoy Barcelona. They opened up proceedings on that Sunday in their Sarriá ground with a 3-2 win over Real Unión from Irun – on the French Basque border with Spain. The first guy to score was called Pitus Prat, which is a great name. He scored after 5 minutes, and interestingly, the keeper that he beat was Unai Emery’s grandad Antonio (Tony to you). So there you have it. Even more interestingly, Prat never scored again all season.
Atlético and Real Madrid had their big day out at the Wanda on Saturday, resulting in smiles for the visitors. 90 years back, on Carnival Sunday Real Madrid were also smiling by thumping Europa 5-0 in Chamartín and going top for that mythical first week. The two neighbours had to wait a couple more weeks to meet in the league, Real winning it 2-1.
They’ve done quite well since of course, winning 43 (RM 33, ATM 10) of the competitions between that year and last season, although Real Madrid failed to win that first title, the honour going to Barcelona. Atlético, actually called Athletic de Madrid back then, beat Arenas 2-3 up in the posh neighbourhood of Bilbao. It’s still pretty posh now.
Barcelona, up in Bilbao on Sunday night for the ‘partidazo’, were just to the west that day 90 years back, beating Racing de Santander 0-2. Poor Racing were to finish bottom that first year with a mere nine points from eighteen games, but stayed up courtesy of winning the play off 3-2 against 2nd Division champions Sevilla. You want to know who finished bottom of the 2nd too? Alright then, it was Racing de Madrid, who went out of business in 1932. Celta were next to bottom, and aren’t doing much better 90 years on, succumbing to Getafe 3-1 in an ill-tempered affair.
Real Sociedad and Athletic opened that day with a derby in San Sebastian, the game ending in a 1-1 draw in the mythical Atocha stadium. Paco Bienzobas scored for Real that day and was crowned the first ‘Pichichi’ (top scorer) of the Spanish league with a total of 17 goals in 18 games. Bienzobas became the first penalty specialist in La Liga, only missing one from the seventy-five he took in his career. Rather weirdly yet wonderfully, he died in 1981, a day after being informed in his hospital bed that Real Sociedad had won their first ever league title.
Barcelona drew 0-0 in San Mamés on Sunday night, which I suppose you could classify as their second stumble in two weeks. As Ed Alvarez pointed out in his weekend preview, the league seems very much alive, with Real Madrid once again feeling that they are in contention. They’ve gone second, and are still six points behind Barça, but there’s a new spring in their step. There was a point in the season when they’d more or less thrown in the towel, but now they’re talking of all three competitions (League, King’s Cup and Champions).
Turning back the clock 90 years, it would have been difficult to have foreseen the magnitude of the duopoly to come, despite the fact that the wealth and prominence of two cities such as Madrid and Barcelona were always going to guarantee their most representative teams a spotlight on the stage. The fact that Madrid have ended up with 33 league titles and Barça have won 25 of the 87 played contrasts starkly with the English league over the same period, for example. Whereas only 9 sides have won the Spanish league title since 1929, 19 have won the English top flight during the same period – a testament perhaps to the greater distribution of wealth in England and the greater spread of manufacturing industry that created a larger set of significant urban centres. The football simply followed.
Betis (1935), Sevilla (1946) and Deportivo (2000) have each won the league on one occasion, but there has never really been ‘a Leicester’ event in La Liga. Deportivo had a great side in the 1990s and had been threatening over various seasons to win the title, and the fact that Betis and Seville have only won single titles is surprising, given the large fan bases and the importance of the city. Again by contrast, nine sides have won single titles in England since 1929. If you can name them, I’ll think of a special prize. Nevertheless, on this 90th birthday of La Liga, it also seems apt that those three single winners were all members of the inaugural 2nd Division in 1929, as if by destiny their presence on the podium was going to be relatively scarce. They both had 21st century schizoid man days too – Sevilla scrambling back in the last three minutes to draw 2-2 at home with Eibar (they remain in 4th position, just ahead of on-fire Getafe) and Betis slumped to a 3-0 drubbing at Leganés, as perceptively predicted by Ed Alvarez in his quiniela.
This week we bathe once again in the Champions League light, with some interesting stuff to witness. Real Madrid visit Ajax on Wednesday, in a fixture redolent of older classics. Atlético and Barcelona will have to wait for another week to entertain Juventus and Olympique Lyon, which should be interesting too. Anyway – 90 years of La Liga. I’ve seen the last 28 of them, and I hope to stick around for a few more.