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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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