LaLiga has been among the world’s best leagues for decades, but there’s no doubting that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and all that surrounded them, the clubs they represented, the goals, the skill, the consistency, the Ballon d’Or rivalry, had been its main attraction over the past 15 years. So, following their respective exits from the country over the past three years, it is only natural to wonder how its offering will still be of value to those peering in from the outside. Well, we were invited to see for ourselves!
Last week Sunday, 17 October, I was fortunate enough to travel to Barcelona with LaLiga for a media trip, the objective of which was to show me and other journalists, all from the United Kingdom, just what kind of effort is being put in behind the scenes in terms of enhancing the way Spanish football is consumed around the world. Previously, the football marketed itself. Messi. Pep Guardiola. Ronaldo. Jose Mourinho. Now, though, there is a co-ordinated effort to spread the gospel. Oh, and by the way, when I say behind the scenes, I mean quite literally in studio, talking to match-day pundits before filming, in this case Albert Ferrer and Gaizka Mendieta, and Semra Hunter, one of the hosts of LaLigaTV, and inside the vans parked outside stadiums from where all its innovative and advanced technologies are controlled and operated. The unique on-screen graphics, the spectacular 3D replays… I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about. Let me tell you more about what we got up to!
On the day of our arrival, Sunday, we were taken to the world-famous Camp Nou for an important league clash between Barcelona and Valencia. After a few pre-match drinks, we made our way through the busy streets to our seats, passing hundreds of Lionel Messi No. 10 shirts en route. We’d barely sat down when Valencia left back Jose Gaya rifled one past Marc-Andre ter Stegen to open the scoring. Boom! A thunderous, low-struck volley from outside the box. Alright! I was telling all the other journalists before the game how I usually carry around a 0-0 curse with me, so thank goodness it was broken before I had the chance to cast my unwelcome spell on the entire stadium. Then, in a moment that felt surreal, Barcelona’s new No. 10 Ansu Fati picks up the ball on the left flank, passes it inside to the feet of Memphis Depay, who returns it to the Guinea-Bissau-born wonderkid, who, in Messi-like fashion, sends a curling effort past the goalkeeper from the edge of the area! A loud cheer erupts around me, but it doesn’t last. In fact, it goes quiet quickly. All my life, I’d built up this expectation of what it must be like to watch a game at Barcelona’s home ground, but the reality didn’t match my child-like imagination. This, I sit there thinking to myself, feels like a club in limbo. The supporters around me carry a sense of neglect. Koeman’s side is neither here nor there. But this is what happens when a player as significant as Messi leaves. This Barcelona side is in a period of transition, and as Guillem Balague said so well on LaLigaTV this past weekend ahead of ElClasico, transitions are more interesting than periods of dominance as in them is where new narratives are formed, new stories are created and new heroes are born.
The following afternoon, after a lovely lunch at a small restaurant in the city, we visited the offices of Mediapro, the production company that does all the recording and packaging for LaLigaTV, where we chatted to a few important people about everything that goes into putting the show together. I sat opposite Mendieta and Ferrer and was able to fire some questions at them – that you can find in this week’s international page in the paper! We were then taken down to where the actual show is filmed to watch a live recording. Sitting quietly in the corner, we observed as host Semra Hunter nailed her opening monologue before the football conversations began with those who had joined her for that hour.
Then, on the bus we got for a trip back to our hotel before jumping back on. Destination? RCDE Stadium, home of Espanyol, Barcelona’s city rivals. There, we got to meet the club’s communications director Sergio Aguilar, who gave us a short presentation on the club around a massive, probably 30–40-seater table that overlooked the ground. We could see the stadium filling up behind him in anticipation for their LaLiga clash against minnows Cadiz, who they would later beat 2-0 in a fun and convincing performance. First, however, a surprise was planned for us. Joan Capdevila, a 2010 FIFA World Cup winner with Spain, walked in! Espanyol had kindly left each of us with a gift bag in which a home shirt with our surnames was included, so if you think I didn’t take the opportunity to ask Capdevila to pose with that shirt alongside me as if I was Espanyol’s latest signing, think again! Roughly about 30 minutes before the game started, we were shown around the stadium before being taken pitch-side where we got an intimate view of the surrounding stands. Chants, scarves held aloft, songs, cheers, jeers – it was all happening at the home of Barcelona’s rivals. A stark contrast to the atmosphere at the Camp Nou the evening before, but perhaps because Espanyol’s stadium is smaller and more enclosed and therefore holds sound better. Or perhaps because Espanyol is a club that knows what it is.
All in all, it was a fantastic time! I might have done 30 hours on an airplane over four days, but I’d do it again to enjoy the perks that come with having this great relationship with LaLiga, whose kind and accommodating nature makes these trips so unforgettable. Spanish football is special. The people, the stadiums, the pride and the enthusiasm. It might be a sleeping giant for now, but there will be a time when it wakes up and that is likely to start with the expected arrival of Kylian Mbappe at Real Madrid for the start of next season.
LaLiga, you wanted my attention and you have got it. I can’t wait to see where this tireless off-field work takes the on-field product. My guess? Far.