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A Little Love for La Liga ( or Why I Just Can’t Stop Loving Spanish Futbol)

Barcelona-v-Atletico-Madrid-Football-Big-Match

La Liga is a hot mess. I have to accept that.

As a child growing up in Texas, it was the game in Spanish. It was a strange, curious, and compelling sport shown on Univision or Telemundo. It was a game where every goal didn’t count. It was a game where 22 men made a ball dance for 90 minutes, sometimes without a result. Often, the dance was enough. The players were expressive and wild. The field was wide and green. And it was all gloriously, enthusiastically called in Spanish.

For me, it was futbol before it was soccer. Or calcio. Or association football.

Sometimes, it was the Mexican Premier Division.

More often, it was La Liga. Same-day game delays and highlight reels ushered me into this wondrously fascinating, slightly alien world long before MLS finally came along and gave me a domestic league I could embrace.

That was some time ago.

La Liga has now become that troubled lover constantly oscillating between exquisite bliss and infuriating dysfunction. La Liga will one night provide the most thrilling, passionate tryst imaginable – and then spin around and turn a painfully cold shoulder as you stand in the rain waiting for that returned phone call. The title race has consistently become a tedious affair played out between Real Madrid and Barcelona. If you are a fan of a team not part of that Old Firm (as I am), this becomes an uncomfortable exercise in futility. Television revenue distribution between the smaller clubs is practically non-existent. Some teams are in such dire straits that they are unable to pay their players (this recently resulted in a players’ strike that delayed the beginning of the 2011/2012 season).

My fellow soccer geeks keep clamoring that the English Premiership is the most exciting league on the planet. The English league is certainly the most successful association football league in the world. That cannot be denied. It’s culture and history are so rich. It’s tempo and demeanor are furious. And it’s ferociously competitive.

At least between its big clubs.

And yet, I just can’t surrender and walk away from La Liga’s contradictory charms.

Yes, the league’s finances are a mess that unfairly benefit the top two organizations. However, if you take the top two teams out of the mix, La Liga’s remaining 18 clubs provide highly competitive campaigns. Champions League and Europa League spots are highly unpredictable. The relegation dogfight is always nail-biting.

Yes, the Spanish game is played at a slower tempo than its English – or even its North and Central American – counterpart. But the Spanish game is often unfairly maligned as a less physical style. Many a La Liga match has shown players to be quite combative in their attack of the ball while NOT falling into the ridiculous histrionics found all too often in El Clasicos. While many neutral fans will only watch Real Madrid or Barcelona games, I find myself drifting to watch games against teams further down the table. The lack of hysterical hype allows the game to be about the soccer and not the soap operatic shenanigans surrounding the game.

But listing practical merits for why I love the Spanish game now only masks what any sport aficionado knows to be a basic truth of fandom.

You ultimately love what you grew up with.

La Liga was the game I knew when I first discovered professional soccer – even before the US National Team. That beautiful, tactical style of play. The absurd hair. The jerseys that were louder, more colorful versions of American football referee shirts. The tribal fans in the stands with smoke and fire. This was futbol to me.

And – more than likely – always will be.

So, I’m giving a bit of love to that hot mess of a girl called La Liga. You’re still the most successful league in European competitions. You still have some of the most passionate fans. You still draw me in with your technical flourish. You still keep me enthralled with your attacking flair. You even keep me riveted by the melodrama of your national Football Association.

You will always have a place in my heart…
even if you keep breaking it.

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