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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Spanish Soccer 101 (for Beginners)

I was already a pretty big fan of soccer before I moved to Spain. A big reason I have followed the sport is because I was lucky enough to attend a Real Madrid match when I came to Spain for a visit a few years ago. The 2006 World Cup finals in Germany were extremely popular in Seattle where I was living at the time. I would go to a bar and watch the games as early as six in the morning among crowds as big, boisterous, and beer-fueled as anything you see on a Saturday night. That was all good preparation for appreciating football in Spain.

The Spanish first division, ominously referred to as "La Liga" here, contains 20 teams, with every large city in the country fielding at least one team in this competition. The second league is made up of 22 lesser clubs. Each year the bottom three squads in the first division are sent down to the second and the top three in the second are promoted. Valencia currently has two teams in the first division: Valencia CF and Levante. As of this writing, Valencia CF is one point behind the leader while Levante is in last place. Teams are awarded three points for a win and one point for a tie. If there is a tie at the end of the season the winner is decided on a goal differential. The odds against this are fairly staggering so it never happens, except last season when Madrid was declared the winner on goals after the very last game of the year.

The Spanish football season starts at the end August and ends some time in May. There are international games in June, July and August, so I suppose that soccer is a yearlong sport. It’s kind of like our baseball, football, and basketball rolled into one super sport. It’s not that people here don’t take other sports seriously—basketball is very popular in Spain—it’s just that soccer has a special place in their hearts—probably where religion used to be before people here pretty much gave up on it. There aren’t many new cathedrals going up in Spain these days, now they build huge new sports stadiums. Teams in the Spanish Liga play one game a week, unless they play two games. Matches are on Sundays unless they are on Tuesdays, or Thursdays, or any other day of the week. Football is as essential as oxygen for lots of people here and they need to breathe it in on a regular basis.

I remember when I first came to Spain and I noticed that there was a soccer daily newspaper. I thought that a daily paper dedicated to soccer was a bit excessive. How much news could there be if there are only one or two games a week for each team? I thought that a daily paper for soccer was excessive until I realized that there is a daily paper for soccer FOR EVERY TEAM! I’m sorry, was I shouting?

I like sports as much as the next slob but this just seemed a little crazy to me. At least it did at first. Now I realize that one daily newspaper for each club is just about enough, that is if you supplement this with the regular newspaper’s coverage of soccer. Some cities have two soccer dailies. Of course, you also have to watch the constant television broadcasts of soccer news. How else are you going to see a replay of Baptista’s bicycle kick last night? I guess that following scores and different European leagues on the internet just goes without saying.

I am lucky enough to be living in a city that has a really good team. Valencia made it to the quarter finals of the Champions League in 2007 before finally bowing out to Chelsea. Valencia is back in the Champions League playoffs along with three other Spanish teams: Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Sevilla. I suppose that the Spanish are no more sports crazy than Americans except they dedicate most of the fanaticism towards one sport and it goes on almost all year. If this isn’t enough soccer worship for anyone’s taste you have to remember that every two years there are also the European Cup finals or the World Cup.

Just like in the United States, bars here are often heavily saturated with sports, if by sports you mean football, and if by saturated you mean that people just won’t shut up about it. Just like soccer in Spain takes on the roll of our three main sports of baseball, football and basketball, bars in Spain double as restaurants and coffee shops. Just like the Spanish football season lasts almost all year, people go to bars early in the morning until late at night. More than likely, the bar will have a television tuned to sports news or an actual game, if one is being played somewhere on the planet. The bar tops are littered with football newspapers and regular papers usually opened to the sports section.

I go to a bar at least once a day at the absolute minimum; I have to have one professional cup of coffee every afternoon. Quite often I go more than once a day depending on how much coffee, wine, beer, or food I decide to consume when I am out of the house. This is why I first decided to become fluent in Spanish football conversation. Talking about football is the great equalizer; it’s the great ice breaker, even if my Spanish language skills aren’t always up to the task. Talking about sports is sort of like the knucklehead’s version of Esperanto, the universal language. An offhand remark about football goes a long way in establishing my credentials as a local in the places I frequent. A casual reference to a player in the league who is currently tearing up the nets helps to gloss over any errors I make in grammar or diction.

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