The first season of Spanish top flight football began in 1928 and the first champions were Barcelona. Real Madrid claimed their first wins in the competition in 1932 and 1933, while Athletic Bilbao – in a period of dominance that would take 50 years to replicate – were crowned La Liga champions in 1930, 31, 34 and 36. After Bilbao lifted the trophy in 1936, the Spanish Civil War brought an end to the Primera Division for three years.
The Real Madrid Legend Is Born
Atletico Madrid, Valencia and Sevilla were among the teams who won La Liga after the Civil War, with Atletico finishing first four times. General Francisco Franco had gained power during the Civil War, and the rumor/myth is that the dictator did whatever he could to help his favorite team – Real Madrid achieve success.
In 1953, one of the best players in the world was Argentinian striker Alfredo Di Stefano, who was all set to join Barcelona, a move which was initially blocked by the Spanish FA. In the ensuing confusion, Di Stefano joined Real Madrid, becoming their greatest ever player. Did Franco influence the Spanish FA? If anybody had the power to do so it was he. Di Stefano’s goals won his club their first La Liga title in 21 years, and then helped Real Madrid to dominate the early years of the European Cup, the predecessor of the Champions League, and the most prestigious European club trophy of all.
If the signing of Di Stefano had been controversial, Real Madrid’s next major acquisition was nothing short of genius. In the early 1950s, the greatest footballer in the world by some distance had been the Hungarian Ferenc Puskas, instigator of the “Marvelous Magyars”, the Hungarian national football team that had transformed the way the game is played, highlighted by their 6-3 annihilation of England at Wembley in 1953 in a game dubbed “The Match Of The Century.”
Puskas scored an incredible 84 goals in 85 games for Hungary, and always played his club football for Budapest Honved. In 1958 however, Puskas was overweight and considered past his best, and none of the major clubs in Europe were interested in him – except for Madrid, who signed him. The ensuing partnership of Di Stefano and Puskas proved virtually unstoppable, and secured Real Madrid another two European Cups. Their on-field chemistry is highlighted by the 1960 final against Eintracht Frankfurt at Glasgow’s Hampden Park, which Madrid won 7-3, with three goals from Di Stefano, and four from Puskas.
Michels And Cruyff Bring Total Football To Barcelona
After winning the first five European Cups, Real Madrid would win once more in 1966, and then wait 32 years before their next success. In Spain, La Liga became the domain of Madrid, with Real and occasionally Atletico finishing top season after season.
Rinus Michels was the founding father of “Total Football”, the theory that every player on the pitch should be interchangeable, and capable of attacking, passing and defending. His methods had led to Ajax of Amsterdam becoming one of the greatest club sides in history, winning the European Cup in 1971, 72 and 73.
In 1971, Michels joined Barcelona, and set about implementing his methods and theories within the club. In 1973, Michels was instrumental in bringing Dutch superstar Johan Cruyff to the club, and in 1974 Barcelona won La Liga for the first time since 1960. Michels would leave the club soon after, but Cruyff would stay for five seasons, and begin a bond with Barcelona that would last a lifetime.
When Cruyff returned to Barcelona in 1988, it was as manager, and he led them to their most successful period ever, winning La Liga in 1990, 91, 92, 93 and 94, and in 1992 taking Barca to their first ever European Cup victory. Cruyff would become a member of the Barcelona board, and a major influence at the club until his death in 2016. A key member of Cruyff’s Barcelona team was Pep Guardiola, who would continue to enforce Cruyff’s teachings during his own incredibly successful time as Barcelona manager.
Barcelona And Real Madrid Dominate La Liga – And Europe
Total Football has become a part of the fabric of Barcelona, and given the club an identity it had previously lacked. Barcelona’s academy is based on the model of Ajax, and teaches even the six year-old kids to play total football. Since Cruyff, managers such as Bobby Robson, Louis Van Gaal, Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola, Tito Vilanova and Luis Enrique have maintained Barcelona’s playing style and overseen unparalleled success, both in La Liga with 14 titles since 1990, and in the Champions League, with five winners’ trophies.
If Barcelona’s identity has become Total Football, Real Madrid’s has become record-breaking purchases of superstar players. Real ended their 32-year Champions League drought in 1998, defeating Juventus 1-0 with a team coached by Germany’s Jupp Heynckes and starring top players like Davor Suker, Predrag Mijatovic and Madrid-born Raul.
To ensure continued success in that competition, Madrid would break the transfer world record multiple times, beginning with Luis Figo, who they purchased from Barcelona in 2000 for a word-record £37 million, but breaking that record by buying Zinedine Zidane (£46.6 million in 2001), then Kaka (£56 million in 2009), Cristiano Ronaldo (£80 million in 2009) and finally Gareth Bale (£86 million in 2013).
Madrid have also employed some of the world’s highest paid coaches, including Fabio Capello, Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Rafael Benitez. While that massive expenditure hasn’t led to domestic domination (Real’s six La Liga titles this century is eclipsed by Barcelona’s eight) they have now won six Champions Leagues since 1998, including three of the last four, bringing their total to 13.
La Liga Dominate European Competition
La Liga may not have the influx of TV revenue on a par with the Premier league, and due to the financial crisis which hit the nation in 2006 and still remains to a degree, stadiums aren’t as packed as in England and Germany, but when it comes to a high level of football throughout the league, no other compares with La Liga.
That is reflected not only in the Champions League, which is dominated by Madrid and Barcelona, two teams whose sky-high standards are maintained by competing in La Liga, but also the Europa League. Since 2004, La Liga teams have won eight of the 14 finals. Other La Liga teams like Atletico, Valencia, Bilbao, Espanyol, and Villarreal have reached the final or semifinal of Europe’s two biggest competitions in recent years.
With its natural climatic and geographical advantages which have often dubbed Spain “the California of Europe”, its Mediterranean diet and healthy lifestyle, plus an obsession with soccer that supersedes everything else, La Liga will continue to thrive, and maintain its phenomenal level of football for decades to come. The real worry for leagues like the Premiership, Bundesliga and Serie A should be, with La Liga enjoying such high success on a limited budget, what would happen if the Primera Division and its clubs suddenly became rich?
While the Premier League may generate more revenue and the Bundesliga might fill bigger stadiums, if you want a league which features highly technical coaches, superbly skillful players, free flowing, exciting football, and teams so good they dominate almost every European tournament, look no further than Spain’s La Liga.
La Liga boasts the two greatest football teams of all time – Real Madrid and Barcelona – as well as superb sides like Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, Valencia and Villarreal, teams that would be title contenders in any other major league.
Spanish managers currently hold some of the top jobs in club football, like former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola who is now at Manchester City, former Sevilla coach Unai Emery now at Paris Saint Germaine and Ernesto Valverde at Barcelona.
While the Premier League attracts some of the world’s best players, global superstars like Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Antoine Griezmann and Luis Suarez prefer to ply their trade in La Liga.