The founders, those who started the adventure of professional football in Spain, were ten clubs. Although the ball had already started to roll at the end of the 19th century, it was not until 1928 that the first edition of a championship was held, which included some names that are now recognized throughout the planet, such as FC Barcelona or Real Madrid. , and others that over time fell into more modest categories, such as CE Europa or Arenas de Guecho. This initial number of members was increased in successive enlargements —from ten to twelve in 1934, from twelve to 14 in 1941, from 14 to 16 in 1950, from 16 to 18 in 1971— until reaching 20 teams in 1987. A figure that has been consolidated and that, in addition, is shared with the top categories of Italy, France and England, and that perhaps many fans take for granted without noticing this question. Why do four of the major European leagues have the same number of clubs?
The Spanish domestic competition was the first to implement this format after the 1986/87 season, known as the “play-off”, in which an unprecedented resolution was tested. At the end of the 34 days, the teams had to be divided into separate groups: the first six would fight for the title and the last six to avoid falling into decline. The idea was to alleviate the frustrated experience of the League Cup, a tournament that was held at the end of the course between 1983 and 1986 to generate more box office income, but it did not work. And one of the consequences was that instead of dropping three clubs, as planned, only one did.
The following year, it went from 18 to 20 participants. This is how it has remained to this day, with the exception of the 1995/96 and 1996/97 seasons in which there were on occasion 22. Luis Gil, LaLiga’s director of Competitions, remembers it well because in the mid-nineties he began his career in the CD Logroñés. Now, from his position in the sports organization, he defends the validity of this formula, resorting to both sporting and economic reasons.
The manager believes that a virtual reduction of teams, with which some leader of international football organizations has recently speculated, would be “very detrimental to investment, the attraction of sponsors and the value of the competition.” He exemplifies this in numbers: since LaLiga promoted the centralized negotiation system for television rights in 2015, revenues have increased by 1,155 million euros. In addition, while at the beginning the most benefited had a profit nine times greater than the least favored, the difference has been progressively reduced to only three and a half times more. Something that has been achieved with the model of 20 clubs and that, he reasons, is essential to promote equality and sporting merit in LaLiga Santander, which this weekend reaches its last day with all the fights, the title, Europe, and the descent, to be resolved.
In sports, Gil argues, this figure guarantees the sustainability of the calendar. “For 70% of the teams, the 38 days, plus a Cup match, are the basis for competing for ten months. It is true that a minority of teams in recent years has seen an increase in duels in European competitions or, in the case of international players, in national teams, but for this, reforms have been introduced that have come to stay, such as the five changes per game or the increase in the number of members in the squads, which went from 22 to 25 players, which help to improve the management of the squads and optimize their performance ”.
In England, where the accumulation of minutes is even more pronounced by the existence of the FA Cup and the League Cup, they defend a national league of 20 teams. The Premier League was founded in 1992 with 22 members, but quickly changed it to a score of at the end of the 1994/95 season as “the formula that best fits the calendar,” says its director of International Relations and European Affairs, Mathieu. Moreuil.
“We don’t want to change the format, the pressure comes more from continental competitions or national teams because they want more dates for more competitions. For our part, we have had the same games for a long time and it works for us ”, Moreuil explains, convinced that the failed Superliga project has encouraged collaboration between the continent’s major leagues. “Our duty is to protect and ensure the interest of all, large, medium and small,” he adds.
French Ligue 1 and Italian Serie A made the switch to the 20s club in 2002 and 2004, respectively. In Europe, the only domestic benchmark competition that remains at 18 members is the German Bundesliga, although in recent years there have been voices such as the manager of Mainz, of the highest division, who would like to bet on a change. “More teams mean more games, and more games mean more revenue. More money will only be made when more is offered than we currently have ”stated Christian Heidel in an interview in Bild am Sonntag in 2015.
A unique opportunity for more than 40 cities
Since the last reform in the late eighties, 52 Spanish teams have had the opportunity to appear among the best 20. Only Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Athletic Club and Valencia CF have retained the privilege for 33 consecutive courses, while a score of clubs they have managed to be present in at least half of the editions.
The biggest opening of the championship allowed fans to witness the spectacular progression of institutions that have marked the recent history of Spanish football. Like that of a Villarreal CF, who, after debuting in the elite 23 seasons ago, aspires to win the Europa League in May, or that of a Deportivo Alavés, who only one year after returning to the top flight, in 1999, obtained a sixth This is his best qualification to date and the following season he slipped into a historic UEFA Cup final against Liverpool FC. But above all, it has offered about forty cities a way to participate in an industry that generates the equivalent of 1.37% of the national GDP and more than 180,000 jobs, according to the consulting firm PwC.
This is the case, for example, of Leganés. Having a representative in LaLiga Santander between 2016 and 2020 translated in this municipality of the Community of Madrid of about 190,000 residents in the creation of 739 jobs and the direct and indirect generation of 127.4 million euros, according to an analysis by Gaudia Consulting corroborated by the words of the mayor of the city, Santiago Llorente. “Soccer puts us on the map. We always try to use sport as a focus for attracting new investments ”, this socialist politician and economist by profession pointed out in EL PAÍS at the beginning of last year.
“LaLiga Santander is the one that generates the income of the majority of the clubs and supports the salaries of players, which have increased in recent years, as well as the jobs around football,” says Luis Gil.
Participation in the elite, where in recent years there have been places with less than 55,000 inhabitants such as Eibar, Huesca, Mérida or Vila-Real, has an impact on extra income, triggers the media presence and offers a reason for pride and a feeling of belonging to the neighbours. All a luck that is won every weekend on the green and for which every year new opportunities are generated. Who will be the next lucky ones?
Luis Gil, LaLiga Director of Competitions, defends that there is no plan to alter the competition model that has prevailed in Spanish football for a long time “and that a model of success has been demonstrated,” he points out. However, he points to two small reforms that have favored excitement in LaLiga Santander and LaLiga SmartBank: the asymmetric calendar and the promotion play-off.
The first modification, introduced at the beginning of the 2018/19 campaign, has allowed altering the order of the matches between the first and second rounds, taking into account both logistical reasons (works in a stadium, coincidence with other major events in a city, reasons safety) as well as the optimization and interest of the competition at all levels.
On the other hand, Gil values the final qualifying rounds in the silver category from third to sixth place as a success, in force for a decade. “We have achieved that the regular league wins in interest, by going up first and second, and that at the same time a fight is opened that can go up to eleventh or twelfth to achieve a place to dispute promotion.”