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A History of La Liga and Spanish Football

La Liga BBVA

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A history of La Liga and Spanish Football

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FOUNDING YEARS (Up to 1950s)

Football arrived on Spanish shores during the late nineteenth century, spread by expatriate workers from England and Spanish students, returning from overseas placements. The oldest football club in Spain, Recreativo de Huelva, was founded in 1889 by British workers of the Rio Tinto company based in the southern region of the country, close to the border with Portugal. The first official football match in Spain was held in 1890, between Recreativo Huelva and Colonia Inglesa (a team made up of employees from the local water works) and involved no less than 20 British players. Athletic Club was later founded in 1898 made up of players from the dockyards in Southampton and Portsmouth, Durham miners as well as Basque students, and they later merged with the previously founded Bilbao Football Club in 1903 to create Athletic Club de Bilbao. This double act won the first ever Copa del Rey against Barcelona under the name of Club Vizcaya in 1902.

First club competition in Spain
Improving support for local teams, together with the expanding transport network across the Spain, suddenly made away fixtures possible. The Copa del Rey became the first nationwide club competition in Spanish Football. In 1902, Carlos Padros (who later became president of Real Madrid) suggested a knock-out competition was held to celebrate Alfonso XIII’s coronation as King of Spain. The first edition of the cup only featured four teams (Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, RCD Espanyol and Club Vizcaya), but the competition later developed, in 1905, into the nationwide Copa del Rey.

From Copa del Ayuntamiento to Copa del Rey
The cup was initially known as the ‘Copa del Ayuntamiento de Madrid’ (Madrid City Council’s Cup). Between 1905 and 1932, it was called the ‘Copa de Su Majestad El Rey Alfonso XIII’ (His Majesty King Alfonso XIII’s Cup). During the Second Spanish Republic it was known as the ‘Copa del Presidente de la República’ (President of the Republic Cup) and during the Franco’s dictatorship it was known as the ‘Copa del Generalísimo’ (The General’s Cup). King Alfonso’s early interest in the game lead to patronage of several clubs, characterised by the prefix ‘Real’, such as those displayed in the names of Real Madrid, Real Sociedad, Real Zaragoza and Real Valladolid.

The beginnings of La Roja
A version of the Home Internationals, ‘La Selección’, started in 1915, and was originally intended as a means of choosing the side which took part in the Olympic Games. The national team made their full debut in the 1920 Olympics in Belgium and came away with the silver medal. During the years there have also been Galician, Basque and Catalan national sides, but they are yet to be recognised by FIFA, although they continue to play International fixtures to this very day. One particularly tense moment came in 1925, when the Barcelona crowd booed the Spanish National Anthem. Dictator Primo de Rivera closed the ground for six months (later reducing it to three) and forced the Barca president, Joan Gamper to resign.

La Liga was born
Out of initiatives like the Catalan championship, nationwide football developed in the 1900’s and achieved completion in 1929, when La Liga was founded. In April 1927 Jose Acha, a director at Arenas Club de Getxo, first proposed the idea of a national league in Spain. After much debate about the size of the league and who would take part, the Real Federación Española de Fútbol eventually agreed on the ten teams who would form the first Primera División in 1929. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad, Arenas Club de Getxo and Real Unión were all selected as previous winners of the Copa del Rey. Atlético Madrid, Espanyol and Europa qualified as Copa del Rey runners-up and Racing Santander qualified through a knockout competition. The first 8 seasons for the League were dominated by Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid.

British Influence
In those early years several British and Irish managers ended up coaching teams in Spain. Walter Wild was president of Barcelona between 1899 and 1901, with Arthur Witty going from player to president in 1902. Barcelona was also managed by Jack Greenwell and Ralph Kirby in the 1910’s, 1920’s and 1930’s. Greenwell also managed Valencia in the 1933-4 season, as well as Espanyol in the 1920s. Steve Bulmer coached Irùn in the 1920s, Patrick O’Connell managed Santander, Real Betis and Oviedo and Arthur Johnson, managed Real Madrid from 1910 to 1920.

The Spanish Civil War
Although Barcelona won the very first Liga in 1929 and Real Madrid won their first titles in 1932 and 1933, it was Athletic Bilbao who dominated La Liga in the early years, winning in 1930, 1931, 1934 and 1936. They were also runners-up in 1932 and 1933. In 1935, Real Betis, then known as Betis Balompié, won their only title to date. The Civil War in 1937/1938 brought severe disruption to the league but not complete closure. The Spanish League was suspended but the Valencian and Catalan clubs continued in the Mediterranean League in early 1937, with Barcelona winning. Barcelona later toured Mexico and the USA, raising support for the Republic.

Franco and Football
The League and the Cup were restored in the 1939/40 season after the Civil War had ended. In 1941, as part of his policy of eradicating regional identities, the Franco regime banned the use of non-Castilian names. Certain clubs had to amend their names. Many had chosen English prefixes, such as Athletic, reflecting the British origins of the clubs. Many changed to Atleticó. Europa became Club Deportivo. The Catalan Championship was banned and the Catalan shield taken from Barcelona’s badge however the Camp Nou remained one of the few public places were Catalan was still spoken. Spanish football began to rebuild in the wake of the War. Spain’s isolated international position meant they did not properly re-enter International football till 1950.

1950’s TO TODAY:

Although Atlético Madrid, previously known as Atlético Aviación, were champions in 1950 and 1951 under Helenio Herrera, the 1950s saw the emergence of the Barcelona/Real Madrid dominance that still reigns today. During the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s there had been restrictions imposed on the number of foreign players allowed at each club. In most cases clubs could only have three foreign players in their squads, meaning that at least eight local players had to play in every game. During the 1950s, however, these rules were twisted by Real Madrid and Barcelona who nationalised players such as Alfredo Di Stéfano, Ferenc Puskás and Ladislao Kubala. Inspired by Kubala, Barça won the title in 1952 and 1953. Di Stéfano, Puskás and Francisco Gento formed the nucleus of the Real Madrid team that dominated the second half of the 1950s. Madrid won the first division for the first time as Real Madrid in 1954 and retained its title in 1955. They were winners again in 1957 and 1958, with only Athletic Bilbao interrupting their sequence in 1956. During this period, Real Madrid also won an unprecedented five consecutive European Cups. Barcelona with a team coached by that man Helenio Herrera and featuring Luis Suárez won the title in 1959 and 1960.

The Madrid Years
The two decades sandwiched between 1961 and 1980 are now known as the ‘Madrid Years’. Real Madrid dominated La Liga, winning the championship 14 times out of 20. This included an incredible five-in-a-row sequence from 1961 to 1965. During this era only their neighbours Atlético Madrid offered Real Madrid any serious threat, adding four more titles to their own tally in 1966, 1970, 1973 and 1977. Of the other clubs, only Valencia in 1971 and a Johan Cruyff-inspired Barcelona in 1974 managed to break the dominance of Real Madrid. The Madrid winning sequence was ended more significantly in 1981 when Real Sociedad won their first ever title. They retained it in 1982 and their two in a row was followed by another by their fellow Basques, Athletic Bilbao who won back-to-back titles in 1983 and 1984. English manager Terry Venables led Barcelona to a solitary title in 1985 before Real Madrid went on the rampage yet again, with another five in a row sequence (1986–1990) with a team guided by Leo Beenhakker, striker Hugo Sánchez and the legendary ‘Quinta del Buitre’ which included youth products Emilio Butragueño (‘El Buitre’ – The Vulture), Manolo Sanchís, Martín Vázquez, Míchel and Miguel Pardeza. Infact, between 1984 and 1996, no other team outside of Real Madrid or Barcelona managed to win the title.

Barca Dream Team
Johan Cruyff returned to Barcelona as manager in 1988, and assembled the legendary Dream Team which won La Liga four times between 1991 and 1994 and the European Cup in 1992, defeating Sampdoria in the final at Wembley Stadium, London. Cruyff brought in legends such as Josep Guardiola, José Mari Bakero, Txiki Beguiristain, Goikoetxea, Ronald Koeman, Michael Laudrup, Romário and Hristo Stoichkov. Laudrup then moved to arch-rivals Real Madrid after a fall-out with Cruijff, and helped them end Barcelona’s run in 1995. Atlético Madrid won their ninth Liga title in 1996 before Real Madrid added another Liga trophy to their cabinet in 1997. Another Dutchman, Louis van Gaal, then arrived at the Camp Nou, and with the talents of Luís Figo, Luis Enrique and Rivaldo, Barcelona stormed to the title in 1998 and 1999. Meanwhile, Real Madrid also experienced success on the continental stage, winning the UEFA Champions League in 1998, with a 1-0 win over Juventus, which ended their 32 year drought and began a string of three European Cup winds in five years.

The challenge to the Barca/Madrid throne

As La Liga entered the new millenium, Real Madrid and Barcelona found themselves facing new challengers. Between 1993 and 2004, Deportivo La Coruña finished in the top three on ten occasions, a better record than either Real Madrid or Barcelona, and finally in 2000, under Javier Irureta, they became the ninth team to be crowned champions of La Liga. Real Madrid won two more Liga titles in 2001 and 2003 and also the UEFA Champions League in 2000 and 2002. The first was courtesy of a 3-0 win over fellow Spaniards Valencia (with a goal from Steve McManaman to boot). Their win in 2002 was down to Zinedine Zidane, who scored a glorious goal against Bayern Leverkusen at Glasgows Hampden Park. They had disposed of their bitter rivals Barca in the semis that year.

Valencia join the party
Under the management of Héctor Cúper, Valencia finished as Champions League runners-up in 2000 and 2001. His successor, Rafael Benítez, built on this and led the club to a Liga title in 2002 and the winning a double with a league title and the UEFA Cup in 2004. The 2004–05 season saw a resurgent Barcelona, inspired by the awesome Ronaldinho Gaucho, win their first title of the new century, in addition to the Liga-Champions League double in 2005–06. Real Madrid won La Liga in 2006–07 and 2007–08 season under Fabio Capello and Bernd Schuster, and a Lionel Messi-inspired Barcelona won again in 2009, as part of their historic sextuplet season under Pep Guardiola. Guardiolas second season wasn’t quite as fruitful as they finished the season with only the league title after a tight battle with the second wave of galacticos at Real Madrid, led by Cristiano Ronaldo. Barca then made it three in a row in 2011 before Jose Mourinho’s Madrid managed to prize the title back to the capital in a record breaking 2012 season: It was the season that saw Madrid become the first team to 100 points; they scored a record 121 goals and gained the most overall wins (32), including the most away wins (16); It was also the season that saw Messi break all Pichichi records to become the first man to reach 50 goals in a La Liga season. Messi won the Pichichi again in 2013, with ‘only’ 46 goals as the late Titi Vilanova’s side wrestled the league trophy back by equalling Madrid’s record of 100 points from the previous season.

Atletico break Barca-Real Duopoly
Nine years of dominance between the big two came to an end in enthralling fashion in 2014 as Diego ‘Cholo’ Simeone’s Atletico Madrid managed a draw at the Camp Nou on the final day to give them their 10th title (defeat would have seen Barca crowned champions). Normal service was then resumed as Barcelona won the next two titles, in 2015 and 2016, before Real Madrid won their first for 5 years in 2017.

     

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