A House Divided: The Origins of La Liga

By Dan Parry

In the picturesque La Rioja town of Ezcaray there is a large, rustic brick house which always causes this particular visitor to stop for a minute, scratch his head and gaze in bemusement. It doesn’t have any structural irregularities nor is it an architectural wonder but it does boast an interesting shift in colour.

Town gossip says that there was an almighty argument between the building’s proprietors, apparently a pair of cousins, who held different ideas about the paint job needed. They settled the issue in the most matter of fact way possible; they drew a line dissecting the house into two perfectly symmetrical halves. One part beige, the other grey.

Spain, it has been said, is the land of furious disagreements. Spanish fortitude and stubbornness have resulted in many of the nation’s greatest accomplishments. (Take the national teams’ Euro’s and World Cup victories, for example, it is easily arguable that these successes were built on a refusal to compromise their style of play.)  On other occasions, though, it has ruined friendships, relationships, families and it has even threatened to destroy the country itself.

Once upon a time, Spanish football, before it had barely begun to make an impact, came dangerously close to being a victim of this very same complex.

40 years after a ball was first kicked in anger on Iberian soil, football officially became a professional sport. In England, players had already been earning a tidy salary from the game for decades, but it took a while before Spain started to see the possible benefits, and profits, available.

The formation of the Copa del Rey in 1903, the popularity of regional championships and Olympic silver in 1920 saw football become the nation’s favourite sport and by June 1926 the temptation of professionalism could no longer be resisted.

The adoption of professionalism had far-reaching consequences. If players and staff were to be paid, the money had to come from somewhere. Provincial tournaments and the Copa del Rey wouldn’t be able to cut it anymore. In order to pay a full-time salary, clubs needed more games in order to get more fans to fill their stadiums.

Professional football in Spain needed its own national premier league. But in a country where cultural and political differences between provinces can be vast, and disagreements are a favoured past time, forming said league was never going to be straightforward.

It was José María Acha, Vice-President of Arenas Club de Getxo, who initially got the ball rolling. Most were in agreement when it came to the necessity of a national league and minds began to turn to the format of this new premier division. They looked towards England and its ‘all against all’ system for inspiration. However, the matter only exacerbated some of the thoroughly deep-rooted divisions.

Essentially, Spanish football, at this time, was a powder kegs of sorts. The lack of an effective ruling body had created an ongoing power struggle for the heart of the game. The major actors included the RFEF (Spanish Football Federation), the clubs and the regional football federations.

The RFEF, having only been founded in 1909, was still in its infancy as an organisation and therefore didn’t have sufficient strength to whip either the regional federations or clubs into line. Many clubs were older than the RFEF itself, and some federations, such as Catalonia, had more than 200 clubs in their ranks. Each looked out for their own and everyone had an opinion about how this nationwide competition should be run.

As conversations progressed, a couple of opposing schools of thought emerged, battle lines were drawn and all involved entrenched themselves along these two ideological fronts. There was the Minimalistas on one side, and the Maximalistas on the other.

The Minimilistas, led by Acha wanted the league to consist exclusively of previous Copa del Rey winners: Athletic Club, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Arenas de Getxo, Real Unión Irun and Real Sociedad (who had won whilst being known as Club Ciclista). They argued that a six-team championship would be competitive and large enough to attract interest but, most importantly, it wouldn’t overshadow, or eliminate, the regional leagues or the Copa.

The likes of Athletic Club de Madrid and RCD Espanyol, two of the oldest clubs in the country, scoffed at the idea of league that did not include themselves. They envisioned a larger championship which would contain the Copa del Rey winners and a selection of Spain’s other powerful clubs, such as: Valencia, Celta Vigo, Sevilla and Sporting Gijón.

This vision was extremely contentious as it also sought the end of regional tournaments. Many feared that this would lead to the death of the smaller clubs, who relied on the local leagues for their existence. As a result, it was not seen as a viable option and it was forthrightly rejected.

Negotiations continued into the spring and summer of 27. Like all good strategists the Minimilistas looked to defeat their enemy with the old if you can’t beat us then you might as well join us ploy. They offered a concession to Athletic Club Madrid and Espanyol; if they switched sides they would be allowed into their exclusive league of winners. The underhand tactic provoked a response of seething indignation from the rest of the Maximalistas. Suffice to say, Athletic Club Madrid and Espanyol didn’t dare accept the offer.

Much like those cousins with their house in Ezcaray, the clubs drew a line through the middle of Spanish football. They split into two unions and set up two distinct leagues. The Minimalistas formed El Torneo de Campeones, whilst the Maximalistas created La Liga Maxima.

The tournaments were unmitigated disasters. Neither attracted the interest nor crowds that had been hoped for. Some matches were abandoned, and in the ones that were played clubs often fielded weakened sides, preferring instead to preserve their best players for the Copa del Rey. By the end of the season, both camps had given up on their rebellious endeavours and the tournaments were disbanded in the summer of 28. They arranged to return to the negotiating table and find a lasting solution.

The failed tournaments gave the clubs a new perspective and in turn there was a new impetus to reach some kind of conclusion. In June 1928, representatives from both sides of the great footballing rift arrived in Madrid to hash out a deal and create a new Spanish super league.

The debates raged for months. Commissions and assemblies with members from several clubs were created to study existing leagues and generate new ideas. But, much like before, as soon as a new proposal was raised, it was promptly struck back down. For example, some advocated the creation of a two-tier system with each league containing eight-sides but once again the Maximalistas would not agree, they continued to insist on larger leagues.

The situation was edging ever closer to yet another calamity. The Basque clubs grew tired of the delays and threatened to break off completely in order to create their own cup tournament, whilst the Galicians clubs began to look into the possibility of joining the Portuguese leagues.

At last, in November 1928, an agreement was finally made. There would be two professional leagues with ten sides each. The top league to be known as El Campeonato Nacional de Liga de Primera, or La Liga for short, would include the six aforementioned cup winners and the three other runners up: Athletic Madrid, RCD Espanyol and CD Europa. The tenth side would be decided by a short knock-out tournament made up of the remaining ten clubs, who would form the Segunda División: Valencia, Sevilla, Celta, CD Alavés, Sporting Gijón, RC Deportivo, Ibería SD, Real Betis, Real Oviedo and eventual winners Racing Santander. The champions’ place in the Segunda would be taken over by Racing Madrid.

The rules of the leagues were as such: each side would play one home and one away game against every other team; 2 points for a victory, 1 point for a draw and 0 for a loss; and the side which propped up the Primera División at the end of the season would enter a relegation/promotion play-off against the winner of the Segunda Divisíón.

After years of intense negotiations, in-fighting and a rupture that almost split the country in two, the clubs, regional federations and RFEF found a resolution that somewhat satisfied all.

The new fully professional leagues commenced on the 10th of February 1929. The first goal came within five minutes as Espanyol’s winger José ‘Pitus’ Prat managed to put one past Real Union’s Antonio Emery, great-grandfather of Arsenal’s Unai.

The season was a close one, with several sides looking like potential champions at certain points. But on the final weekend, it was none-other than Real Madrid and Barcelona who were the only two left with the chance to take the glory . A 2-0 loss away at Bilbao’s Athletic club meant Real Madrid were pipped to the title by the Catalans, who were crowned inaugural champions after a 2-0 victory at another Basque outfit, Arenas Club.

La Liga has undergone some changes since its conception. For example, the running and organisation of the tournament changed hands in 1984 when control was assumed by the independent LPF (Liga Nacional de Fútbol Profesional); more teams have gradually been added to the league throughout history, it currently stands at 20; and in 1995 the points system was revised with clubs being given 3 points for a win and 2 for a draw. Potentially, there are even more changes in store, the newest point of controversy in the ever globalised world of football being the prospect of La Liga matches being played in the United States.

It’s not far off 90 years now since all those clubs and federations overcame their differences to create a league that continues to thrill millions of people all over the world. The house in La Rioja may forever stand as a testament to Spanish obstinance but luckily for us La Liga, for the moment, remains a symbol of another of Spain’s greatest qualities; never letting anything get in the way of a great fiesta, and as Spanish football fans we can all agree, La Liga is the greatest party of them all.

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The header image is of the 1929 winning side, taken from the official Barcelona website.

This is the house in Ezcaray…

Ezcaray The Linesman Org Origins La Liga A House Divided

If you’re interested in the topic and want do some further reading, I highly recommend these:

https://www.ludopedio.com.br/v2/content/uploads/215624_es1806.pdf by Juan Antonio Simón

http://tikitaka-futbol.blogspot.com/2011/10/history-of-spanish-football-vii-1926.html

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