Supporters watching a game at Rayo Vallecano Game action at Rayo Vallecano de Madrid; note the lack of clouds and roof.

I have seen more than 150 soccer games in the UK, so I think I know my way around those leagues and clubs pretty well. As I now expand my groundhopping into Spain, I am already seeing some differences. This is not a “which league is better” post, though. It’s about how going to a game in Spain compares to seeing one in England.

Football Fans Mix Together in Spain

In England, cheering for one team while among other team’s supporters will get you kicked out of the stadium immediately – possibly for your own safety! Call it passion, tribalism, whatever, but English football culture keeps opposing supporters strictly apart from each other. But in Spain? Well, check out this video of a penalty from Leganes vs Real Sociedad, when Sociedad fans celebrated all around me.

I should say that I have not been to a proper derby yet, so maybe this doesn’t apply at those.

Fewer Away Fans in Crappier Seats

One of the things that makes English football so much fun is the atmosphere created by thousands of away fans, who are usually seated right behind a goal or in a corner of the stadium. In Spain, there certainly are away fans, but fewer — I assume because it’s a much bigger country — and they are often seated way up in the upper deck. There is generally a glass or plastic divider between them and the home fans, as opposed to a row of stewards in England, and at Real Madrid and Barcelona, they are famously up in the fifth tier of the stadium.

The Crowd Itself is Different

The English football crowd, especially at the big Premier League clubs, is dominated by men. When a “football crowd” gets on a train with you, you know it. But in Spain, from what I’ve seen, a football crowd could just as well be a “going to the market” crowd, or a “headed for the beach” crowd. It’s no more ethnically diverse, but in age and gender it couldn’t be more different.

Spain is Much Less Beer-Focused

Reading “ground reviews” from British people, and looking at the scene around their football grounds, you would think beer – and a fair amount of it – is as much a part of the experience as the stadium itself.

Everything about the pregame ritual in England seems to be about beer, consumed in quantity in packed, loud pubs. But in Spain, it’s about food, possibly including beer. In the neighborhood across from Real Madrid’s stadium, for example, you’ll see people drinking, but mainly there are numerous places to eat – and eat well. And owing to the weather, this generally happens outside.

I will say here that I hung around outside a Seville Derby (Real Bets v Sevilla), which I did not get into, and that was a very intense, much more drunken spectacle.

A stack of "jamon" ham sandwiches in a cafe near Real Madrid.

The jamon sandwich is Spain’s answer to the food cart burger.

Pregaming and Spanish Food

Here we are speaking about outside the ground. Brits seem to think a terrible burger or curry chips from a truck is just part of the deal – ditto for the generally awful pies and candy bars inside. Spain, which admittedly puts even less effort into in-stadium food, just crushes it in the neighborhoods around the grounds. Imagine your group sitting down at a table covered with tapas before heading to the stadium!

The Weather: Spain vs England

Spanish stadiums rarely if ever have a roof, and there’s a reason: the weather for most of the season is glorious! I saw three games in January, with temps around 10 Centigrade (or 50 Fahrenheit), and the local people were wearing down parkas! It made me forget all about walking through near-freezing puddles to get to a game in England, then clutching a Bovril to try to survive the game.

a video screen at FC Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium

Goofy old-fashioned fun at Barcelona; it’s the bongo version of the “kiss cam.”

Football Stadiums in Spain

People are often surprised, when they go to Barcelona or Real Madrid, to find out those two palaces of the game are in fact large concrete bowls with few suites, one small scoreboard and perhaps a tiny video screen. Neither of them — or any other place I’ve been in Spain — shows replays in the the stadium, because they can’t! And when I was at the Camp Nou, the tiny screen was showing the kind of stuff we had in the States in the 1980s.

Otherwise, both countries have a mix of modern, boring stadiums and older ones in the middle of town. But at Rayo Vallecano, I watched home players pull up in their own cars, take a few selfies with fans on the street, then stroll into the stadium. Show me that in the Premier League sometime!

Spanish Football Clubs Always Have an Anthem

I’m not referring to something like “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at Liverpool, I mean a song from the 50s, or something operatic, or some kind of rock anthem that plays when the teams come out. Certainly, some English clubs have this kind of thing (like “Marching on Together” at Leeds United), but it seems to me that in Spain, everybody has a traditional pregame anthem that blasts out as the teams emerge from the tunnel.

Here’s one of the most famous, at Barcelona:

Soccer in Spain: Late Kickoffs

In England, owing to television, you occasionally get an 8:15 p.m. kickoff, but 7:30 is far more common. In Spain? 9 p.m. is extremely common, and 9:30 doesn’t even elicit a shrug. I guess in a country where people nap in the afternoon and eat dinner at 11, why not?

La Liga Schedule and Ticket Chaos

English folks get worked up because games can be adjusted for television four to six weeks before the game. In Spain, it seems to me, two weeks is the standard. Imagine having tickets to see your team play three hours away on a Saturday, then finding out two weeks before that it’s actually on Monday. I guess they’re just used to this.

Meanwhile, Rayo Vallecano, who play in La Liga, apparently don’t sell tickets on their website; you have to go to the stadium, which I can appreciate, but it does make it hard to plan. And I am writing this on a Thursday, hoping to see a Copa del Rey game on Saturday, but the host club still has “coming soon” on their tickets page!

Constantly Singing Fans Behind the Goal

I am beginning to think the kind of decentralized, spontaneous singing at English football games may be an outlier. In Spain, as well as in Italy, the United States, and all of South America as near as I can tell, there will be an organized set of supporters behind a goal who never stop singing and chanting. They usually have people in front of the section leading the cheers, and as near as I can tell the songs are not so much tied to the game or players as just generalized support. Of course, I don’t speak Spanish …

Different Crowd Noises

Much of this is the same of course; for example, everybody gets excited for a corner kick, even though it rarely leads to a goal. And everybody thinks their team never commits a foul.

But watch some English highlights: When a goal goes in, everybody yells “Yeah!” In Spain, it’s “Gol!” Spanish fans also whistle a lot, like when the other team is taking a corner or the fans are just pissed off in general. English fans boo in these situations.

And then there’s a hard one to pin down, but it’s very noticeable when you’re in the stadium. Let’s say a player puts in a good tackle, or steals the ball, or makes a good defensive play of some sort. In England, that elicits shouts of “well done” or “well in.” But in Spain, there’s this guttural kind of “yehhhh” sound that actually reminds me, ironically, of the sound British Parliament members make when they agree with something. I’ll try to get a video of this at a game sometime.

One last example here: If a player in England gets the ball about 30 yards out in front of the goal, half the crowd will yell “Shoot!” – again, even though hardly anyone ever scores from out there. In Spain, even admitting I don’t speak Spanish, I have never heard people do this.

view of Real Madrid players warming up at the Santiago Bernabeu from upper tier seats

Real Madrid players warming up at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Football in Spain: Flicks and Tricks

I might be wandering into stereotypes here, and I am no tactical expert at all, but the main difference I see in the style of play between the two countries is the astonishing number of backheels, fancy dribbling moves, and other stylistic endeavors in Spain. I think there are more fouls in England, and just a generally tougher style of play, and there may be more theatrics in Spain, but I might be “seeing” all that because I have read it. But I guarantee the number of times in a game I, and the people around me, react to something cool a player does with the ball is well higher in Spain than in England.

Did I miss anything? Maybe made you angry? Post a comment below and let’s hear it!

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