Living La Liga loca – where sunshine, cerveza and classic stadiums combine

A complete guide to the game across the country

The last-gasp gallop by record champions Real Madrid, the heroic run by Villarreal and single-digit loss by Atlético Madrid in the deciding phase of the Champions League in 2021-22 showed that Spain had not lost its moxie in the global prestige stakes.  

Two seasons before, Real Madrid had surrendered, Atlético Madrid slipped up and Barcelona sank completely. That was the first time since 2007 that no Spanish team made the final four. 

Back then, however, Real and Barça had gone out on away goals, and Valencia (remember them?) by a last-minute strike to Chelsea. In 2020, the Spanish giants were simply swept aside.

At home, crowd-free football during the pandemic felt that much more silent in Spain, its stadiums grand temples to the post-war magic of European football. These vast arenas were built for the world’s greatest players – Di Stéfano and Kubala, Puskás and Kocsis – to perform. 

Cruyff, Zidane and Ronaldinho then followed but it was the titanic El Clásicos between Ronaldo’s Real and Messi’s Barça that had true global reach. Filling cinemas across Spain and bars around the world, Spain’s twin titans sold replica shirts and filled stadium tours like no other brand outside England. 

The 3-2 thriller between them in 2017 was as breathtaking as any final in football history, at stake a mere three league points.

Messi’s exit from the mess that is FC Barcelona in 2021 signalled the end of an era as golden as any in the game’s history. Xavi from that marvellous FCB midfield has come back as coach and other Azulgrana stalwarts hang on, just as Real’s three-man midfield of 2022 vintage had a combined age of 98.

The stadiums, meanwhile, still dominate major city centres across Spain. The soccer palaces of Real, Barça, Athletic Bilbao, Sevilla and Valencia staged showcase football long before co-hosting the 1982 World Cup and the modern move to mall-like arenas outside town.

The exception is the Wanda Metropolitano, new home of Atlético Madrid and the derby with Real. With Levante’s relegation from La Liga in 2022 and Espanyol’s promotion, Valencia loses a cross-city derby and Barcelona gains one, but the real biggie is always in Seville, and the Betis-Sevilla clash.

The Basque area, numbering five top-tier clubs, throws up the classic Athletic Bilbao-Real Sociedad encounter. Galicia and the Asturias are relatively underrepresented at top level compared to recent years, while Palma provide Spanish fans with their only top-flight island hop in 2022-23, although Tenerife came close to a first promotion in more than ten years.

Partly because of the distances involved, travelling support has never been numerous in Spain anyway, by comparison to England or Germany. The national team play all over the country, sometimes in relatively small towns, maintaining their popularity despite the lack of silverware since 2012. 

Recent fixtures have taken place in Badajoz, Zaragoza and at Espanyol, although the current major reconstructions at Real Madrid’s Bernabéu and Barcelona’s Nou Camp should ensure the 2010 world champions can stage marquee fixtures at a major arena long into the 21st century. 

With Valencia now moving on their own new stadium project, the Nou Mestalla has been pencilled as a potential venue in Spain-Portugal’s strong bid to co-host the World Cup in its centenary year of 2030.


Arriving and getting around by public transport

Budgets easyJet, Jet2, Ryanair serve most of Spain, as do Spanish carrier Iberia and partner airline British Airways. Barcelona-based Vueling is the most prominent Spanish low-cost carrier while Hungarian Wizzair flies to many destinations in Spain from around Europe.

Urban public transport is excellent, with metro systems in the bigger cities and English-friendly ticket machines. Taxis are affordable and reliable. State-run Renfe links most major cities by high-speed train, with attractive advance prices. 

You can get from Madrid to Barcelona in 2hrs 30mins for around €40 – though this price doubles closer to your departure date. Madrid-Seville is around the same journey time and €30 single, Madrid-Valencia under 2hrs and €25, all advance rates.

The Basque country is covered by Euskotren, Bilbao-San Sebastián (€7) taking 3hrs. The main bus company, ALSA has a comprehensive national network and online booking in English. PESA runs across the Basque Country, with several services a day from Bilbao Airport to Eibar and San Sebastián.

Spanish motorwaysautopistas, are mostly tolled – take a ticket as you enter the network and pay by cash or card upon exiting. Madrid-Barcelona (625km) currently costs €36 in tolls. 

Certain regions levy their own tolls or have dropped them entirely – Seville to Cádiz is free, much of the Valencia region, too. Mainly untolled autovías and national roads provide alternatives to paid roads.


The league system, promotion, relegation and cups

Spain’s top-flight Primera División, usually referred to as La Liga, consists of 20 clubs. All top four finishers qualify for the Champions League group stage, the fifth team for the Europa League group stage, the sixth for the play-off round of the Europa Conference League. 

The bottom three go straight down to the second-tier, 22-team Segunda, whose top two go straight up. Those finishing third to sixth play off in a knock-out format, with two-legged semi-finals (3 v 6, 4 v 5) and final for the third promotion place.

The bottom four of the Segunda go down to the third tier. This level and the two below were reorganised in 2021-22 and are overseen by the Royal Spanish Football Federation, RFEF. These tiers are semi-pro.

The Primera RFEF is divided into two 20-team sections, east and west, called Group 1 and Group 2 to avoid any geographical denomination. Each champion goes up to the Segunda automatically, the four behind them play off. The teams placed second and fifth in each group are bracketed together, then those finishing third and fourth. Ties between them are decided on one game, hosted at a small hub of neutral stadiums. There’s extra-time if need be, but no penalties – previous form in the season decides.

For the inaugural promotional play-offs in 2022, the term ‘neutral’ was a loose term as former giants Deportivo La Coruña enjoyed home advantage over Albacete in one final – yet still contrived to lose in extra-time. 

Potentially, the side finishing sixth, even seventh, in each group might have the compensation of qualification for the Copa del Rey (see below), along with the champions and remaining play-off qualifiers, as the reserve sides of top clubs are not granted a berth.

Five teams from each group comprise the ten dropping down to the fourth-tier Segunda RFEF. This consists of five groups of 18 teams. The champions of each go up, the four sides behind them play off in similar fashion to the Primera RFEF, with one geographical hub chosen. With 20 teams involved, the draw ensures that those in the same division during the regular season do not meet in the initial play-off stage. 

At this level, reserve teams may take part, such as Real Sociedad’s C team in 2022. For the Copa del Rey, however, the first five senior sides in each of the five groups qualify.

The bottom five in each group go down, four of the five sides finishing 13th go into a relegation play-off. The one with the best overall record compared to the other in the regular season four stays up. The four remaining clubs play off over one game at a neutral venue, penalties taken to decide if need be.

This results in a total of 27 clubs dropping down to the Tercera División RFEF, the five lowest-ranked sides in each group plus the two relegation play-off losers. Spain’s fifth tier consist of 18 groups of 16 teams, from Galicia to the Canaries, with Spanish territories in North Africa lumped in with either east or west Andalucia. 

Each champion goes up and qualifies for the Copa del Rey, unless it’s a reserve side. The four sides behind them qualify for the promotion play-offs and the three bottom-ranking teams drop down to the amateur regional divisions.

In all, 25 teams from the Tercera qualify for the Copa del Rey, the top of each of the 18 groups and the seven with the next-best records, again, no reserve sides. The promotional play-offs are more conventional, in that in each regional group, the runners-up play fifth (one game, extra-time but original league position takes precedent after 120 minutes of stalemate), third play fourth, at a neutral venue. The two winners then play each other in similar fashion. 

These 18 play-off winners then go into the national stage, nine one-off matches at Real Madrid’s Las Rozas training complex. The draw is seeded according to league position during the regular season, and seeding also decides in the case of a draw after 120 minutes.

The nine winners then join the 18 champions, so that 27 clubs go up to the Segunda RFEF to replace the same number coming down.

Below the Tercera are up to five tiers of regional divisions organised by their respective federations. The top level, usually called the Preferente, promotes to the Tercera RFEF to replace those 18 x 3 teams coming down. This is amateur football but a team with the right backing – Andorra FC, say, owned by Barcelona star Gerard Piqué – can promote from the Primera Catalana in 2019 and reach the Segunda in 2022.

The Copa del Rey is Spain’s revered main cup competition. Qualification changed for 2022-23 following the reorganisation of the league below the Segunda. Reserve teams do not participate. 

Apart from those, all members of the Primera, the Segunda and the top five of each group in the Primera RFEF from 2021-22 qualify, as well as the top five of the Segunda RFEF groups, champions of the Tercera RFEF and best seven next-placed. From the amateur ranks come the 20 best teams that weren’t promoted in 2022 plus the four semi-finalists from the Copa Federación between the regions.

(This Spanish equivalent of the FA Vase in England was first contested in the 1940s and won by Alavés in 1946. It was soon dropped, to be reintroduced as a different tournament in 1994, involving all clubs at semi-pro level and below. Córdoba were the winners in 2021.)

Getting back to the Copa del Rey, competing teams in 2022-23 number 106. For this huge First Round, La Liga teams are seeded so that they don’t face each other, and lower-ranked teams get home advantage. 

Matches are decided on the day. This same format of seeding, home advantage and no replays continues into the Second Round and Round of 32. Seeding disappears for the quarter-finals but home advantage is still granted to lower-league clubs still participating. The semi-finals are over two legs, the final at a neutral ground, elected as La Cartuja in Seville until 2023.

The winners qualify for the group stage of the Europa League. The two finalists and two best-placed sides in La Liga enter the Supercopa de España, a four-team showcase-cum-shameless-sell-out to Saudi Arabia, where the two semis and final are staged in early January.


The season from kick-off to crunch time

Except in season when the World Cup takes place in November and December (!) La Liga traditionally runs from the third week of August to the third week of May, with around a fortnight off from just before Christmas to Epiphany. 

Match days are spread over the weekend, usually one at 9pm on a Friday, four or five spread over a Saturday and a Sunday at 1-2hr intervals between noon/1pm and 9pm. Midweek fixtures are also spread evenly over three days, Spain a rare country where league games take place on Thursdays. Games are usually scheduled a month to six weeks in advance.

To accommodate the World Cup in late 2022, La Liga will break off in early December and resume on New Year’s Eve. The season runs until mid-June.

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 with a game at 9pm on Fridays, with matches staggered like La Liga, from mid-afternoon to 9pm on Saturdays and Sundays. The winter break is also the last days in December/first few days of January. The World Cup will not affect the Segunda schedule in 2022.

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

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

A stand is a tribuna, often indicated as north, norte, south, sud, east, este and west, oeste

Ticketsentradas, usually start at around €30-€35 in the fondo behind the goal or poorer seats along the sideline, lateral. Upper and lower tiers are indicated alto and bajo, with better seats (preferencia) rising to €50-€60. The best are around €80-€100. For Real Madrid and Barcelona, add €25-€40 to these prices. 

Most top clubs have a significant number of season-ticket holders, socios, meaning that individual match tickets can sometimes be at a premium. Spain also has its own supporters’ clubs or peñaspenyas to Catalans, with their own bars and ticket allocations. 

Seats are numbered, numerada. Your ticket should be for a certain seat (asiento), row (fila) and sector (sector), accessed by a certain gate (puerta). These words vary slightly in Catalan – boca for the block and seient for the seat at FC Barcelona.

With most main stadiums still in city centres, they are ringed with local bars and a celebratory atmosphere on match days. This continues inside the ground, though the beer sold there tends to be low-alcohol.