x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Hoping for a second chance

Clubs below the top tier in the Primera Liga are desperate to get into the big time and despite not being short on big names.

Real Sociedad's Gerardo Garcia applauds his fans after the club were relegated from the Primera Liga the end of the 2006/07 season.
Real Sociedad's Gerardo Garcia applauds his fans after the club were relegated from the Primera Liga the end of the 2006/07 season.

Below the glamour surrounding Spain's Primera Liga, the country's second tier is often forgotten. The average crowd in the second level in England and Germany is more than 17,000. In Spain's Segunda A, it is 6,000. Some clubs, like Villarreal's B team, are lucky if they attract four figures.

Segunda A is not short of famous names. Real Sociedad won the Primera Liga twice in succession and reached the semi-final of the European Cup in the early 1980s. Bars in San Sebastián's old town - where numerous flags bear the legends like "Tourists beware, the Basque country is not Spain" - still proudly display posters of that side, immortalising stars like the goalkeeper Luis Arconada; Perico Alonso, father of top midfielder Xabi Alonso, and the 1982 World Cup striker Lopez Ufarte. Sociedad came within a game of beating Real Madrid to the title in 2002.

Celta Vigo have twice played in the Champions League this decade. "When I played there, they had a fantastic side with Alexander Mostovoi, Valery Karpin, Michel Salgado, Claude Makelele and Mazinho," said Jordi Cruyff. "When I returned to Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson got me in one day to talk about Celta. He knew that Celta were a great team and said, 'If you could take two players from Celta, who would it be?'

"I told him that Makelele was the best, but also recommended Salgado and Mostovoi, explaining that he was a little older. United did nothing, but Makelele and Salgado moved to Madrid that summer." Real Betis played Champions League football as recently as 2005-06, when they beat Chelsea 1-0 at home. That rare foray into Europe was the reward for Betis' best season, 2004-05, when they also won the Spanish cup, only their third trophy, with idols Joaquin and Olivera influential.

Relegated last season, Betis are the best supported club in the league and lie fifth in the table aiming for an immediate return. Sociedad are third, while Celta are marooned in 20th. As Alaves and Oviedo have found, they are not too big to drop into the regional third divisions, known as the "glue pots" because they are so difficult to get back out of. Levante, Numancia, Rayo Vallecano, Recreativo Huelva, Las Palmas, Murcia, Albacete and Cadiz are all clubs who have played in the Primera Liga this decade. They are contributing to a tight Segunda A where just 16 points separate top and bottom - against 25 points in the Barca and Real Madrid dominated Primera Liga.

Conscious that there is almost a perfect correlation between wage bill and league position, most have invested millions to boost the capacity of their stadiums in the hope that if they do get back into the Primera Liga, they will be able to attract the higher crowds and revenues to keep them there, except Numancia, who come from a town of 54,000 and were lucky if they filled their 9,000 capacity ground when they were in the top flight. It is a gamble - for teams typically see their average attendance half when they are relegated and the spectre of huge empty stadiums is not appealing.

Another issue for the teams who fall out of the top division is that, publicity wise, it is like walking off a cliff. It is as if they have ceased to exist in the eyes of the national media who usually only spotlight the lesser teams when Real or Barca play them. Consequently, Xerez, playing their first season in the top flight, have got a far higher profile than any of the bigger clubs in the league below. Xerez can charge ?80 (Dh436) a ticket for a visit by the big two in the hope the extra revenues generated will keep them up. They should not bank on it and nor do clubs in Spain get the umbrella payments following relegation.

Relegated clubs thus shed as many players as possible and join a group of the similar sized fish, keen to get out of the limited Segunda A pool, desperate for another bite at the big time. @Email:amitten@thenational.ae