Unlike NFL teams in the United States which start each season hoping for that Super Bowl ring, many Spanish Clubs don’t even thing about winning the La Liga title. They assume from the start that either Barcelona, Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid will automatically be taking the crown.
The race for the Spanish league title went down to the wire for Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. For the other clubs, it never even began.
The majority of Spanish clubs started the season with no realistic expectations of winning the championship, already knowing that it would be one of the two powerhouses, or surging Atletico, lifting the trophy when it was all over.
Barcelona was the one celebrating last week after clinching its second consecutive title, and sixth in eight seasons. Madrid was second, Atletico third.
The rest of the teams weren’t even close.
Year in and year out, most Spanish teams begin the season fighting to either avoid relegation or, at the most, earn a spot in European competition. Fourth place usually feels like a title, as it guarantees participation in the Champions League.
“It’s not feasible to try to compete with the top teams in the league,” Alex Aranzabal, president of small club Eibar, said in a statement sent to The Associated Press. “The financial gap is too big. Our goal isn’t to challenge the top teams; we just want to try to remain in the first division and compete as best as we can in every match, including against Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico. But we know we are at a disadvantage.”
Barcelona and Real Madrid have won 27 of the last 32 league titles, including 11 of the last 12. Atletico lifted the trophy twice in that three-decade span, including in 2014. Valencia won it in 2002 and 2004, and Deportivo La Coruna was the outsider in 2000.
The difference between the top teams and the rest of the league is clear when looking at the standings the past few years. The average gap between the champion and the fourth-place team in the last four seasons has been nearly 25 points. Villarreal was fourth in 2016, finishing 24 points behind third-place Atletico and 27 points behind champion Barcelona.
The disparity is also seen on some of the score lines this past season. Barcelona scored six or more goals in five matches, including an 8-0 rout at Deportivo La Coruna. Real Madrid netted at least six goals four times, including in a 10-2 thrashing of Rayo Vallecano and a 7-1 trouncing of Celta Vigo.
“It’s very easy to be a fan of Real Madrid or Atletico, but not so much of a team like Getafe,” said 43-year-old Esteban Rivero, a supporter of the relegated club from suburban Madrid, shortly after watching his team lose 5-1 to Real Madrid last month. “Fans who come here at this stadium to support Getafe deserve a lot of credit. They could just choose the top Madrid clubs, but they stick to Getafe as their first team even though they know that it will likely finish 60 points behind the champion.”
Second-to-last place this season, Getafe finished 55 points behind Barcelona. Last-place Levante was 59 points off the lead.
“The top teams play for the title and most of the others just try to survive, it’s how it is,” 10-year-old fan Hugo Montalt said while watching one of Levante’s games this season as it tried to avoid demotion.
The Spanish league has been working to help the smaller teams improve financially and become more competitive, including increasing their revenues from television contracts. Barcelona and Real Madrid earned nearly 140 million euros ($158 million) in television rights this season, twice as much as Atletico and at least four times more than the smaller clubs. This difference is expected to gradually decrease over the next few years.
“It’s true that if we had a little more competitiveness, it would be easier to sell our brand, but it’s not an essential element for the league’s success,” Spanish league president Javier Tebas said. “We already have two very strong brands, now three (with Atletico), and we want these brands to remain strong, but we also want to develop other brands and to help the league’s own brand become more of a reference.”