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Which LaLiga team should you root for?

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The Spanish LaLiga season will begin Aug. 13 (stream live on ESPN+ in the U.S.). LaLiga is one of the biggest club leagues in the soccer world, and if you don’t have a favorite team, ESPN has info—some directly soccer-related and some less scientific—on all 20 to help you decide. Which team should you back this season?

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How do you like your soccer played? Do you want to watch players passing the ball back and forth to tire out the opponent before exploiting the gaps (like Real Madrid’s Luka Modric)? Or should they sit deep and explode into a counterattack (for players like Barcelona’s Sergio Aguero) when they get the chance? Maybe parking a bus in front of your own goal (like Atletico Madrid) and hoping to eke out a 1-0 win is the way to go if it gets results?

POSSESSION AND CONTROL

If the opponent don’t have the ball, they can’t hurt you. These teams will keep possession all day long and exploit the gaps. Barcelona coined the ‘tiki-taka’ short-passing style, while last season Real Betis (59.4%) had more possession than Real Madrid (57.8%)

COUNTER-ATTACK

You want your team to absorb the opposition attacks and catch them on the break with speed and accurate passing. Bilbao’s Inaki Williams is one of Europe’s fastest players with a reported top speed of 35.7km/h in 2020.

DEFENSIVE

Don’t let the opponent score and worry about attacking later. You do need to avoid defeat, though: Valladolid managed 16 draws and were relegated last season after winning only five games.

Atletico Madrid won the title by being gritty, tough and not afraid to take a foul. Indeed, they conceded the least goals (25) and picked up 100 yellow cards last season (third behind Celta’s 104 and Getafe’s 114), and they were also able to register the second-highest number of goals (67) and shots on target (186) behind Barcelona. Barcelona’s possession-based style is easier on the eye, but if you concede more goals than the team in seventh (Sevilla), something is wrong.

51.8%

Percentage of possession from LaLiga 2020-21 champions Atletico Madrid—ranking eighth in the league. Barcelona were best with 62.4%.


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Local rivalries, like Real Madrid vs. Barcelona, are the lifeblood of many soccer fans who need a nearby club to hate. (Think Red Sox and Yankees, only closer and with more venom.) The COVID-19 pandemic has robbed us of noisy stadiums for the past year, but there is hope that some passion will be back in the stands this season. It could be down to geography or even a rivalry for titles, but Spanish teams have plenty of fight.

YES – I LOVE A RIVALRY

Spain’s fiercest city derby is between Real Betis and Sevilla on the south coast and is renowned for its passion, separating families into two sides. Sometimes, it can go too far, such as when Sevilla manager Juande Ramos was knocked out by a bottle thrown from the stands in 2007. The Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia city derbies pale in comparison.

NO – NO MAIN RIVALS NEEDED

Either not successful enough to warrant a rivalry against another team, or positioned geographically away from others in LaLiga, these teams live a quiet life.

WELL, NOT STRICTLY LOCAL

El Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid is not a derby—they’re geographically too far apart—but as a match, there’s nothing bigger in club soccer. A rivalry that many times has decided LaLiga’s title, the animosity between Barca and Real boiled over when a pig’s head was thrown onto the pitch in 2002 (though the controversial transfer of Figo from Barca to Madrid had something to do with it.)

There’s nothing like a Spanish derby to get the blood pumping. LaLiga has the biggest, but outside the top flight there’s also a few derbies based on region, including the “Asturian Derby” of Real Oviedo vs Sporting Gijon, while the “Galician Derby” of Celta Vigo vs. Deportivo La Coruna was once great before Deportivo (LaLiga’s 2000 champions) began their descent into the third tier.

90

The number of titles won since LaLiga was established in 1929. Real Madrid have 34, Barcelona 26 and last season’s champions, Atletico Madrid, have 11. Only three clubs have competed in LaLiga for all 90 seasons: Barcelona, Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao.

Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico operate on a different planet in comparison to the rest of LaLiga. According to Transfermarkt, Barca spent around €1.05 billion in transfer fees for new players over the past five years, Real Madrid spent €672m and Atletico Madrid €674m. But now they’re all in serious debt, with Barca owing €1.2 billion, Real Madrid €901m and Atletico around €870m, according to the October 2020 financial reports.

WALL TO WALL SUPERSTARS

After years of massive spending, Barca are struggling financially this season and had to let Lionel Messi go for free, but still managed to land Sergio Aguero, Eric Garcia and Memphis Depay. Real Madrid’s Galacticos policy from the early 2000s—which saw them land Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo (the Brazilian star) and David Beckham—is the ultimate example of a club going big to win.

SAVVY SPENDING

Occasionally willing to splash out on a big star—Real Betis once broke the world record transfer fee to sign Denilson from Sao Paulo for €31.5m back in 1998—these clubs usually have to get their funds by moving players on first before they can bring anyone in.

FREE TRANSFERS AND LOANS

Money is tight at the bottom of the table, but there are still some cheap options if you know where to look. For example, Levante picked up former Spain, Real Madrid, Valencia and Tottenham striker Roberto Soldado for around €500,000 this summer.

NOBODY FROM OUTSIDE THE BASQUE COUNTRY

Incredibly, since 1912, Athletic Bilbao have operated a policy of allowing only players from the Basque Country, Navarre and the Northern Basque Country in France to play for them. If you came through the youth academy of a club like Real Sociedad, Alaves, Osasuna or Eibar, they may also sign you. Otherwise, they probably won’t. And they are still one of the most successful teams in Spain.

LaLiga clubs have been involved in nine of the top 11 most expensive transfer deals of all time, and could be again if 22-year-old Kylian Mbappe, one of the most exciting young players in world football, moves from PSG this summer.

€222M

The world-record release clause that French club PSG paid Barcelona to sign Brazilian forward Neymar in 2017. The most that a Spanish club has paid to sign a player was the €160m Barcelona spent to bring in Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool in 2018.

If you’re American, we understand that you might want to root for one of the U.S. stars in LaLiga. The problem is, there haven’t been many. ESPN’s own Kasey Keller, a goalkeeper, was the first with a spell at Rayo Vallecano in 1999 for two years, then forward Jozy Altidore moved to Villarreal (2008-11). Oguchi Onyewu was at Malaga on loan in 2012-13 and Shaquell Moore played for Levante during 2017-18 (he’s now at second-tier Tenerife). This season, Yunus Musah (Valencia) and Sergino Dest (Barcelona) are representing.

YES – U.S. PLAYERS ARE KEY

Your options are limited but the players are pretty good. Barcelona right-back Sergino Dest moved to the club from Ajax in 2020, while Valencia midfielder Yunus Musah headed to Spain in 2019 after a youth career at Arsenal.

NO – I’M NOT BOTHERED

These clubs just haven’t looked to American players for their transfers.

I WANT TO WATCH A TOP BASKETBALL TEAM AS WELL

If Spanish football isn’t entirely your bag, perhaps basketball is? Real Madrid are top dogs in EuroLeague with 10 titles. Barca? They’ve bagged two. Real Betis are your other option.

The history of United States players in LaLiga isn’t stellar. There are currently 50 Americans at clubs across Europe, but Spain is underrepresented. Still, Dest and Musah are leading the way in LaLiga, and if you require a bit of basketball to keep your U.S. interest up, there are also Liga ACB teams (not attached to soccer clubs) in Betis, San Sebastian, Zaragoza, Seville, Bilbao, Malaga and Valencia.

51

The number of games played by U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller at Rayo Vallecano. “The media likes to say that I’m the most famous American living in Spain,” Keller told Soccer America in 2001. “I probably am—actually living [in Spain]… I’m not that famous.”

Some people thrive on living on the edge and not knowing what is going to happen next. Others prefer the comfortable life with no surprises. In LaLiga, club presidents like Real Madrid’s Florentino Perez and Barca’s Joan Laporta have a knack for turning their clubs into political dramas, with infighting, leaks and public spats. Just look at the recent European Super League fallout if you need an example.

PLOT TWISTS AND POWER STRUGGLES

It can feel like the TV series “Succession” as these superclubs battle as much off the pitch as on it. But you won’t want to miss a thing.

A MODERATE AMOUNT

Occasionally there will be an “X-Files” type of situation to deal with, but you can be pretty certain the main characters are going to be OK.

DRAMA FREE, PLEASE

You know what to expect week-in, week-out.

When you are dealing with the world’s biggest players, drama is never far away. Whether it is a headline about a contract negotiation, transfer, or a reaction to being substituted, LaLiga’s big clubs have plenty of it. But it’s in the boardroom where the real drama happens. Barcelona and Real Madrid have struggled to keep their dirty laundry out of the public domain—with court cases, tax issues and conspiracy theories aplenty—while Valencia are owned by a businessman who treats the club like a business, and soccer fans really don’t like that.

$4.76B

Value of the world’s most expensive club, Barcelona, according to Forbes in their April 2021 study. Real Madrid finished a close second at $4.75 billion, and that’s considerably more than the next Spanish club, Atletico Madrid, who finished 13th at $1bn.

Reporting by Jonathan Molyneux-Carter, Eduardo Fernandez-Abascal. Editing by James Martin.
Produced by ESPN Creative Studio: Rob Booth, Jarret Gabel, Lori Higginbotham, Jason Potterton, Rami Moghadam, Munehito Sawada.
Illustrations by Freak City

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