Football in Catalunya:
Who to Support?

🕔 12 mins (total)
La Liga: The best league in the world?
La Liga: The best league in the world?

Whether you are a football (soccer) fan or not, this sport is very much a part of the fabric of society in this country. Even if you’re not a fan, football can help us better understand Spain as a country, with all its political divisions and regional rivalries. And, as it happens, they’re also pretty damn good at it!

La Liga – the best in the world?

La Liga has consistently been up there with the best football leagues in the world for at least the last two decades or so. In terms of achievements in European competition, no other league has come close since the turn of the millennium – just to take a nice round year to start counting from. And, before you say it, it’s not all about only FC Barcelona and Real Madrid either.

Since 2000, the Spanish league has produced 11 of twenty-four Champions League winners, plus four runners-up. (The next three most successful leagues are the English with 5, and the Italian and German leagues with 3 victories each.)

In the same period, Spanish clubs have also won 12 of twenty-four Europa League titles and have been runners-up on three occasions.

Three Champions League finals and two Europa League finals during this period have even been all-Spanish affairs.

Apart from FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, the other European winners or finalists include Valencia, Atlético de Madrid, Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao, Espanyol, and Villarreal. Domestically, within the same timeframe (since 2000), La Liga has been won by Deportivo La Coruña, Valencia and Atlético Madrid as well as the “big two”, so there’s a lot more strength in depth in La Liga than it is often given credit for.

Anyway, whether or not you agree that La Liga is the world’s best football league or not, we can all at least agree that we are privileged, living on the Costa Brava, to have the opportunity to go and see some of the world’s best football right on our doorstep.

F.C. Barcelona

Let’s start with the big one: F.C. Barcelona! Even if you have little or no interest in soccer you’ll have heard of el Barça! One of the founding members of La Liga, they are one of only three clubs never to have been relegated from the top flight in their history, the other two being Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid. They have 26 La Liga titles to their credit, second only to Real Madrid, plus 5 European Champions Leagues and 31 Copas de Rey, as well as a plethora of other trophies.

In 2010, at the height of F.C. Barcelona’s power, their academy, La Masia, made history by being the first youth academy ever to have produced all three finalists for the Ballon d’Or in the same year: Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andrés Iniesta. Messi won the award, his second of seven Ballons d’Or – also a record!

In Lionel Messi, they had, until 2021, arguably one of the greatest players ever to play the game, along with a host of other world-class footballers. Moving from Argentina to join Barcelona in 2001 at the age of 13, he played with the club for 20 years altogether, 18 of those with the first team. In August 2021, despite an agreement on a new contract between Barça and Messi, the club was forced to let him leave on a free transfer to Paris-St Germain due to huge losses accrued during the coronavirus pandemic, salary cap restrictions and UEFA financial fair play regulations – plus some very poor financial management by the previous club president and administration.

Camp Nou in Barcelona is the biggest stadium in Europe - and set to become even bigger!
Camp Nou in Barcelona is the biggest stadium in Europe – and set to become even bigger!

All of Barcelona’s success on the field is impressive indeed, but for Catalans el Barça isn’t only about football; it’s més que un club, or “more than a club”. As Catalan culture was suppressed and the Catalan language forbidden during the military dictatorships of the last century, being a supporter of Barça became a way of expressing Catalan identity. One of their nicknames, La Blaugrana, refers to the colours of the stripes in their strip. In Catalan, “blau” refers to blue, whereas “grana” means deep red.

Since Catalunya cannot officially compete in football at an international level, FC Barcelona is seen by many as the closest thing to having a Catalan national team. Their main rivals, of course, are Real Madrid, who are seen as the embodiment of everything Spanish and are sometimes even referred to as “Franco’s team”. Any game between the two is referred to as El Clásico.

Barça’s stadium, El Camp Nou, has a capacity of just under 100,000, making it the largest in Europe, so if you would like to see a game there, it’s usually not that difficult. With the exception of the biggest games, like El Clásico for example, or a big Champions League tie, it is usually possible to get your hands on tickets. Once you’re in Barcelona city, Camp Nou is accessible by Metro, line 3 or 5. Click here to find it on Google Maps, where you can get directions from wherever you are coming from.

After Barça played their final game of the 2022/23 season, work immediately began on renovating El Camp Nou. Apart from giving a general facelift and improving facilities, the new version of the stadium will have a retractable roof covered in 30,000m² of solar panels. The energy the panels generate will power, amongst other things, a new 360° screen that will run around the entire interior of the stadium. Rainwater will also be collected and recycled in another effort to improve the ground’s sustainability.

During the works, Barça played the 2023/24 season at the Olympic Stadium in the Montjuïc area of the city, the former home of their city rivals, RCD Espanyol. The capacity is around 50,000, just over half of what El Camp Nou could hold before renovations began. Incidentally, when finished, the “New New Camp” will have a capacity of close to 105,000! It is expected that Barcelona will continue to play in Montjuïc for the first half of the 2024/25 season, before moving back home to the Camp Nou, albeit with a reduced capacity while the renovations are being completed.

FC Barcelona Femení

Although FC Barça’s women’s team was founded back in 1970, a league wasn’t established until the 1988/89 season and with only nine teams. As it grew over the years, more clubs joined until there were 18 teams involved. The 2021/22 season marked the first time the league went fully professional and the number of teams involved was reduced to 16.

Barcelona Feminí won no titles during the first couple of decades, but in the last ten years before the league went professional, they racked up a total of 6 league titles – Atletico de Madrid winning three and Athletic Bilbao one. Then, as full professionals, they totally dominated the 2021/22 season by winning all 30 of their matches for an incredible tally of 90 points. They scored 159 goals (over 5 per match on average) and conceded a mere 11.

That season also saw them reach the Champions League Final, beating Real Madrid (8-3 on aggregate) en route, and also breaking attendance records (91,553 and 91,648) for their home-leg quarter- and semi-final matches in the Camp Nou, before eventually succumbing in the final to the absolute “Queens of Europe” that are Olympique Lyonnais Féminin. FC Barcelona Femení were the defending champions by the way! By winning the Champions League in 2021, FC Barcelona became the first football club to have won both the men’s and women’s Champions League.

For the 2023/24 season, El Barça will be temporarily moving out of Camp Nou to allow work to begin on increasing its capacity to 105,000. For the 2024/25 season, they plan to move back to Camp Nou and use around 50% of the capacity while the renovations continue. During the first season – and the following one too, if required – they will take up residence in the Olympic Stadium in Montjuïc – the former stadium of our next Catalan team, R.C.D. Espanyol.

R.C.D. Espanyol

The second biggest football club in Barcelona city is RCD Espanyol, another founding member of La Liga. As their name suggests, Espanyol is seen as the “Spanish” club of the city, and most of their fans would feel Spanish and generally be against Catalan independence, in contrast to Barça and the majority of its fans who have ties to the Independentista movement.

Not surprisingly, the derbi matches between the two are often very feisty affairs! It is also the most-played local derby in the history of La Liga. Espanyol have spent most of their history in the top flight, and in fact, hold the record for the most seasons in the Primera Liga without ever actually winning it! They were relegated at the end of the Covid-delayed 2019/20 season but won promotion back to the top tier at the very first attempt to resume their place as Catalunya’s second team in the Primera Liga once again. At the end of the 2022/23 season, they were consigned to the drop once more, however, and are currently plying their trade in La Segunda Liga.

If you want to catch a game, head along to the Cornellà-El Prat stadium where they have been playing since they moved from the Olympic Stadium on Montjuïc in 2009. With FC Barcelona being by far the more supported of the two teams, tickets for Espanyol games are normally relatively easy to obtain on the official club website.

RCD Espanyol - the second biggest football club in Barcelona
RCD Espanyol – the second-biggest football club in Barcelona

Girona F.C.

The third main football team in Catalunya is Girona F.C. They play their games at the 14,500-capacity Estadi Montilivi, right next to the University, and, as with other clubs, match admission prices depending on the opposition on a given matchday. You can search for tickets in English on their website.

Founded in 1930, Girona had never made it to the top flight until the end of the 2016/17 season, after a few close calls (losing three promotion playoffs in four years!) they finally achieved promotion to the Primera Liga by coming second in the division and thus avoiding the playoffs altogether. They went on to have the best season of any club playing their first year in the Primera Liga, even defeating Real Madrid in the process!

Upon achieving promotion, 44% of the club was bought by City Football Group (who also own Manchester City, among other clubs). Despite their financial backing, however, after two seasons in the Spanish top tier, Girona FC were relegated at the end of the 2018/19 season.

They agonizingly only just missed out on promotion back to the first division by conceding a goal with the last kick (well, header) of the game in extra-time in the final playoff at the end of the 2019/20 season, and suffered more heartbreak at the end of the 2020/21 season by losing yet another promotion playoff, despite having won the first leg away from home.

Playoffs just didn’t seem to be their thing!! Finally, though, on 19 June 2022, they managed to gain promotion via the playoffs back up to La Primera Liga, and comfortably survived the season by finishing just inside the top half of the table.

The 2023-24 turned out to be the most remarkable in their history, as they beat FC Barcelona both home and away – both times by a 4-2 scoreline – and had already qualified for the 2024-25 Champions League with four jornadas to spare! They eventually finished in third place. Incredible stuff and heady heights indeed!

The only question then was where they would play their Champions League matches, as Montilivi didn’t meet the UEFA criteria for matches at that level. Possibilities including Espanyol’s stadium in Cornellà, the Olympic Stadium in Montjuïc, or even USAP’s rugby stadium in Perpignan were discussed, before an agreement was reached with UEFA allowing them to play their home Champions League games in Montilivi.

The temporary stands that were added following their promotion from the Spanish second tier will not be allowed to be used for the Champions League; only the original 9,000 permanent seats will be permitted. This means tickets will be pretty hard to come by for those matches, but it was better than surrendering home advantage and the gate receipts, meager and all as they might be. Now, let’s see what the draw brings!

The red and white of Montilivi stadium in Girona
The red and white of Montilivi stadium in Girona

Footie on La Costa Brava

If you just want to see a game of footie, there’s no need to travel even as far as Barcelona or Girona at all! Below the Primera and Segunda divisions, Spanish football is divided into geographic regions. After a major restructuring of the league in advance of the 2021/22 season, the old Segunda B (3rd tier) and Tercera (4th tier) divisions were restructured, and there are now five tiers of the Spanish football league instead of four.

The top two tiers remain unchanged, but the third is now the Primera División RFEF, which is divided into two groups in roughly the eastern and western halves of Spain. RFEF stands for “Real Federación Española de Fútbol”, by the way, in case you were wondering. The Segunda División RFEF, or fourth tier, is also made up of geographical groups, five in total – Grupo 3 being comprised of teams from Catalunya, Aragón, and the Balearic Islands. Finally, the Tercera División RFEF has a total of 18 groups, and each belongs to a Comunidad Autónoma of Spain, with Grupo 5 being the Catalan one.

With UE Costa Brava amalgamating with CF Badalona and moving to that town before the start of the 2022/23 season, the Costa Brava region was left without any teams playing in the LFP until the mighty F.C. L’Escala changed all that—more on that in a moment. Of course, lots of clubs from around here play the Liga Catalana.

Palamós C.F. – the oldest club in Catalunya!

Palamós C.F. was founded in 1898 (one year before the mighty FC Barcelona), making it the oldest football club in Catalunya and the second oldest in all of Spain (still in existence) after Recreativo de Huelva. While they have unsurprisingly never played in the Primera Liga, they did make up to the Segunda División in 1989 and stayed there until the end of the 1995 season when were relegated all the way down to the fourth tier due to financial irregularities.

Unfortunately, in May 2018, they were relegated again, from what was then still the fourth tier of Spanish soccer to the regional Primera Catalana. There is no need to look for Palamós FC match tickets in advance or online but rather just check their schedule and show up at the Nou Estadi Municipal de Palamós.

At one point, there was talk of negotiations to merge Palamós CF and UE Costa Brava (formerly Llagostera), but the talks came to nothing as the merger would have officially meant the formation of a whole new club and Palamós CF would no longer retain its status as the oldest club in Catalunya, something the club were understandably reluctant to surrender.

Palamós C.F. finished their 2022/23 campaign very strongly in second place, but we pipped for promotion to the Spanish leagues by L’Escala. Following a restructuring of the Catalan Leagues, a new Liga Élite Catalana was created for the 2023/24 season, and that is where Palamós will play. The good news is that the standard will be higher, but earning promotion will, obviously, be tougher. Good luck to them!

Palamós C.F. - the oldest club in Catalunya
Palamós C.F. – the oldest club in Catalunya

U.E. Figueres

Also playing the Primera Catalana are Unió Esportiva Figueres, having just been relegated at the end of the 2021-22 season. Originally founded in 1919, UE Figueres have floated up and down the divisions through the years, and during their best years, they played in the Segunda División for a seven-year spell between 1986 and 1993, overlapping with C.F. Palamós for four of those years. Those were good times for Empordà football!

Eventually, in 2007, the club president (who was also a majority shareholder) moved the club to Castelldefels for financial reasons and citing a lack of local support. Not wanting to see their town without a football team, the rest of the shareholders along with a bunch of locals re-founded the club and managed to negotiate the retention of 1919 as their official foundation date, but they were obliged to re-enter at the lower level for Quarta Catalana.

They won promotion five years in a row and regained their place in the national Spanish league once again in 2012, where they remained until dropping back into the Catalan league at the end of the 2022 season. Their quite attractive stadium is in Vilatenim on the outskirts of Figueres and has a capacity of almost 10,000.

UE Figueres play their home matches in Vilatenim
UE Figueres play their home matches in Vilatenim

F.C. L’Escala

On a much smaller scale, another Costa Brava team, FC L’Escala, earned promotion from the Primera Catalana league to the Tercera División RFEF for the first time ever at the end of the 2022-23 season. They didn’t do too badly either, finishing in fifth, just three points off a promotion playoff spot.

Their “stadium” only has a capacity of about 500-700 and is located on the edge of town. There was never any need to buy tickets in advance for their games before, but let’s see how they get on now that they are up in the Spanish league system. Maybe they’ll have to carry out some Camp Nou-style renovations on the Nou Camp Municipal de L’Escala! You can wear your Barça shirt to the L’Escala Camp Nou too as their playing strip is also “blau-grana”!

Mediterranean International Cup

In addition to being home to all of the above teams, la Costa Brava also hosts the MIC Youth Football Tournament during Setmana Santa (Easter Week) every year. The tournament has been running since 2001, and it attracts youth teams from the world’s best academies in dozens of countries across several continents. In fact, it started life in Las Canarias as the “Mundialito Islas Canarias”, hence the MIC acronym, but in 2002, the founders Josep Colomer and Judith Estrada decided to move the tournament to Girona, where it is still held today. Naming it the “Mediterranean International Cup” meant they didn’t even have to change the initials!

Over 1,000 games at levels between U12s and U19s are played in over 40 municipalities across the region, and many now-famous superstars have participated in the MIC in the past. Who knows, you might just catch a glimpse of the next Lionel Messi!

Olé, olé, olé!!

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