Sun, soccer and cerveza – living La Liga loca

Football’s greatest stars play in Spain. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, Neymar and James Rodriguez, they run out for the world’s two superclubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona. The clash between them, El Clásico, fills cinemas across Spain and bars around the world. It simply does not get any bigger.

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Madrid: 40.416775, -3.703790
Barcelona: 41.385064, 2.173403
Seville: 37.389092, -5.984459
Valencia: 39.469907, -0.376288
Bilbao: 43.263013, -2.934985
Malaga: 36.721261, -4.421266
San Sebastián: 43.318334, -1.981231
Elche: 38.264467, -0.690250
Almeria: 36.829898, -2.450638
La Coruña: 43.355141, -8.406258
Vigo: 42.229407, -8.723145
Pamplona: 42.797416, -1.635590
Valladolid: 41.639565, -4.728928
Vila-real: 39.940409, -0.098877
Granada: 37.186032, -3.611069
Cordoba: 37.899781, -4.773388
Eibar: 43.160615, -2.489777

In 2013-14, for the first time in a decade, another club, Real’s city rivals Atlético, won the title. Back in 2004, it was Spain’s de facto third club, Valencia.

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Atlético Madrid/Harvey Holtom

Huge stadia still occupy Spain’s big city centres, a hangover from the first days of European competition in the 1950s. Rich owners built vast arenas as showcases for the greatest stars of those days – Di Stéfano and Kubala, Puskás and Kocsis.

Real, Barça and Valencia, Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao, all are still based downtown.

Such are the distances between cities, and the state of the Spanish economy, that travelling support is generally relatively sparse.

The home crowd is drawn from all ages, the older generation dressing up as if for the theatre. You don’t have to be at El Clásico to appreciate the sense of occasion.

Spain’s national team has gone off the boil with the ageing and waning of the Barcelona side that was its engine.

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Match day, FC Barcelona/Peterjon Cresswell

Station to station

Budget airlines easyJet and Ryanair fly to most areas of Spain and islands around it, as does British AirwaysJet2Monarch and flybe serve mainly tourist destinations from the UK.

Barcelona-based Vueling is the most prominent of the local budget airlines – several others have folded. National carrier Iberia also does hotel deals.

If you reserve well in advance, you can get across Spain relatively affordably by train. Several bus companies also serve the country – the main one is ALSA, though its online service for foreign customers is poor.

The Basque country is covered by Euskotren and regional bus companies, most notably PESA.

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Trophy room/club shop, Deportivo La Coruña/Peterjon Cresswell

Tables & trophies

Spain’s top-flight Primera División, also referred to as La Liga, consists of 20 clubs. At season’s end, the bottom three are relegated.

The top two from the 22-team Segunda are promoted to the Primera. Those finishing third to sixth play off in a knock-out format, with two-legged semi-finals and final for the third promotion place. Barcelona and Real’s reserve sides usually compete in this division, but cannot be promoted.

The bottom four of the Segunda drop down to the third-flight Segunda B, four regional groups of 20 clubs.

The top club of each group goes to the four-team champions’ play-off to decide the overall winner of the Segunda B. Clubs finishing second, third and fourth join them in a 16-team play-off.

The bottom four clubs in each group drop down automatically to the fourth-flight Tercera – fifth from bottom goes into a play-off.

The top two divisions are run by the Liga de Fútbol Profesional. The Spanish FA, the RFEF is responsible for the leagues below them.

The FA also runs the Copa del Rey, Spain’s main cup competition, with two-legged semi-finals and a final at a neutral ground.

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Match day, Rayo Vallecano/Harvey Holtom

The weekend starts here

La Liga runs from the third week of August to the third week of May, with a weekend off over Christmas.

Once exclusively on a Sunday, el día de señormatch day is now a movable feast thanks to the demands of global TV. In 2014-15, there is one game on Friday at 9pm local time, and three or four on Saturday, usually staggered, generally 4pm, 6pm, 8pm and 10pm. On Sunday, there’s a game at noon, then often at 5pm, 7pm and 9pm.

Games are usually scheduled a month to six weeks in advance. Popular Spanish sports daily Marca provides an up-to-date schedule.

In the press, the Primera and Segunda are referred to by their sponsor names of the Liga BBVA and Liga Adelante.

The Segunda also starts the third week of August and runs until the first week of June. Play-offs then run until the third week of June.

The weekend usually starts at 4pm on Saturday, with matches at 6pm, 8pm and 9pm. There’s almost always a game at noon on a Sunday, with games around 5pm, 7pm and 9pm thereafter. Again, Marca provides kick-off times a month or so in advance.

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Taquillas, Sevilla FC/Peterjon Cresswell

Entry level

Tickets, entradas, are not cheap these days. Most top clubs have a significant number of season-ticket holders, socios, meaning that individual match tickets can be at a premium.

But not always. Staggered and late kick-off times, combined with economic misery, have brought average attendances across Spain to the current figure of 27,000. Average capacities are nearer 37,000.

A stand is a tribuna, often indicated as north, norte, South, sud, east, este and west, oeste. The area behind the goal can be referred to as the fondo, or bottom. The sideline is the lateral. High alto/alta and low bajo/baja seating is also indicated.

Most seats are numbered, numerada. Your ticket should be for a certain seat (asiento), row (fila) and sector (sección), accessed by a certain gate (puerta). These words vary slightly in Catalan and in the Basque country, usually the Castilian Spanish version is given alongside the Basque one.

Ticket offices, taquillas, usually windows, operate at stadiums in the run-up to match day – note the general Spanish business hours of around 9am to 1 or 2pm, then from around 5pm to 8pm. Club shops also often contain a ticket-distribution desk.

Credit-card payment is widespread.

Nearly all clubs provide online sales. Agencies such as Ticketmaster and seatwave, and re-sale service viagogo, are also useful sources – at a price.