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Our football league and the depopulation of Spain


Is football an indicator of the health of a nation’s cities? It certainly appears to be so. I remember when I once asked my friend Michael Robinson what exactly the difference between a city and a village was in the UK. I was amazed to learn that the definition of a city was based on whether or not an urban population had an archbishop in mediaeval times. “Or, if you like, the same as having a Premier League team now,” he added with his usual straightforwardness. It is not the case that all that counts today is football, but it does have a bearing. A map of contemporary Spain, from province to province, coloured by whether they have a first division or second division side – or one of each – is revealing. It highlights the various gears of development in Spain and of a country where traditional village life is gradually ceasing to be as rural areas depopulate.

My interest in this subject was piqued by a good colleague of mine, Blas López-Angulo, who took it upon himself to extrapolate the concerns laid out by Sergio del Molino in his study on “The Empty Spain” in football. There is a corridor running along the Mediterranean coast, from Cádiz in the south to Girona in the north, which is liberally sprinkled with Primera and Segunda sides, with the odd exception being Alicante. These include three Primera and three Segunda sides in Catalonia, all in coastal areas. Lleida is the anomaly. The Basque Country has four Primera sides. Moving westwards along the northern coastline Galicia and Asturias are well represented but Cantabria draws a blank due to the parlous state of Racing Santander.

The central plateau is a different matter. There is a concentration of wealth and teams in Madrid, as is the case in Seville in Andalusia, with Córdoba seeking its own place at the table. The capital is a volcanic island surrounded by swaths of nothing. In the vast expanse of Castilla-La Mancha only Albacete has a Primera or Segunda side and even in Aragón it is necessary to travel a long way to link up two teams playing in the second tier and León is there by the grace of Qatar, whose Aspire Foundation owns Cultural Leonesa. Extremadura has no representative in the top two divisions. The days of the conquistadores and the Honourable Council of the Mesta have long since departed the western province. Historical upheaval has bequeathed to us this melancholy footballing map of Spain, where the lack of regional television stations, or their belated arrival, has left some areas with scarce football fare. Spain's interior is being hollowed out, while in the cities they argue about whether Cristiano Ronaldo or Leo Messi is the better player