The Primera División (First Division) of the Liga de Fútbol Profesional (LFP), commonly known in English as La Liga, is the top professional association football division of the Spanish football league system. It is officially named Liga BBVA (BBVA League) for sponsorship reasons. It is contested by 20 teams, with the three lowest placed teams relegated to the Segunda División and replaced by the top two teams in that division plus the winner of a play-off.
A total of 60 teams have competed in La Liga since its inception. Nine teams have been crowned champions, with Real Madrid winning the title a record 32 times and FC Barcelona 23 times. Real Madrid dominated the championship from the 1950s through the 1980s. Since the 1990s, however, Real Madrid and Barcelona have both dominated, although La Liga has seen other champions, including Atlético Madrid, Valencia CF, and Deportivo de La Coruña.
La Liga has been the strongest league in Europe for the past five years according to UEFA’s league coefficient, and it has been the top league in Europe for more combined years than any other European league. La Liga clubs have won the most UEFA Champions League tournaments and Real Madrid are the competition’s most successful club, with ten titles. Sevilla are the most successful club in the UEFA Cup/UEFA Europa League, with 4 titles. La Liga is the first and only league to be represented by both finalists in a UEFA Champions League final on two occasions. La Liga-based players have won the highest number of FIFA World Player of the Year awards, Ballon d’Or awards and UEFA Best Player in Europe awards. La Liga players also represent the highest number of FIFPro World XI and UEFA Team of the Year places. Real Madrid and Barcelona is the only La Liga clubs to have won the UEFA Champions League.
La Liga is one of the most popular professional sports leagues in the world, with an average attendance of 28,265 for league matches in the 2011–12 season. This is the sixth-highest of any domestic professional sports league in the world and the third-highest of any professional association football league in the world, behind Germany’s Bundesliga and England’s Premier League.
In April 1927, José María Acha, a director at Arenas Club de Getxo, first proposed the idea of a national league in Spain. After much debate about the size of the league and who would take part, the Real Federación Española de Fútbol eventually agreed on the ten teams who would form the first Primera División in 1929. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad, Arenas Club de Getxo and Real Unión were all selected as previous winners of the Copa del Rey. Atlético Madrid, Espanyol and Europa qualified as Copa del Rey runners-up and Racing de Santander qualified through a knockout competition. Only three of the founding clubs, Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Athletic Bilbao, have never been relegated from the Primera División.
Although Barcelona won the very first Liga in 1929 and Real Madrid won their first titles in 1932 and 1933, it was Athletic Bilbao that set the early pace winning Primera División in 1930, 1931, 1934 and 1936. They were also runners-up in 1932 and 1933. In 1935, Real Betis, then known as Betis Balompié, won their only title to date. Primera División was suspended during the Spanish Civil War.
In 1937, the teams in the Republican area of Spain, with the notable exception of the two Madrid clubs, competed in the Mediterranean League and Barcelona emerged as champions. Seventy years later, on 28 September 2007, Barcelona requested the RFEF to recognise that title as a Liga title. This action was taken after RFEF was asked to recognise Levante FC’s Copa de la España Libre win as equivalent to Copa del Rey trophy.
When the Primera División resumed after the Spanish Civil War, it was Atlético Aviación (nowadays Atlético Madrid), Valencia, and Sevilla that initially emerged as the strongest clubs. Atlético were only awarded a place during the 1939–40 season as a replacement for Real Oviedo, whose ground had been damaged during the war. The club subsequently won their first Liga title and retained it in 1941. While other clubs lost players to exile, execution, and as casualties of the war, the Atlético team was reinforced by a merger. The young, pre-war squad of Valencia had also remained intact and in the post-war years matured into champions, gaining three Liga titles in 1942, 1944, and 1947. They were also runners-up in 1948 and 1949. Sevilla also enjoyed a brief golden era, finishing as runners-up in 1940 and 1942 before winning their only title to date in 1946. By the latter part of the decade, Barcelona began to emerge as a force when they were crowned champions in 1945, 1948 and 1949.
Di Stéfano, Puskás, Kubala and Suárez
Naturalised Argentine Alfredo Di Stéfano was part of a dominant Real Madrid side in the 1950s
Although Atlético Madrid, previously known as Atlético Aviación, were champions in 1950 and 1951 under catenaccio mastermind Helenio Herrera, the 1950s saw the beginning of the Barcelona/Real Madrid dominance. During the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, there were strict limits imposed on foreign players. In most cases, clubs could only have three foreign players in their squads, meaning that at least eight local players had to play in every game. During the 1950s, however, these rules were circumvented by Real Madrid and Barcelona, who naturalized Alfredo Di Stéfano, Ferenc Puskás, and Ladislav Kubala. Inspired by Kubala, Barça won the title in 1952 and 1953. Di Stéfano, Puskás, and Francisco Gento formed the nucleus of the Real Madrid team that dominated the second half of the 1950s. Madrid won the first division for the first time as Real Madrid in 1954 and retained its title in 1955. They were winners again in 1957 and 1958, with only Athletic Bilbao interrupting their sequence. During this period, Real Madrid also won an unprecedented five consecutive European Cups. Barcelona, with a team coached by Helenio Herrera and featuring Luis Suárez, won the title in 1959 and 1960.
The Madrid years
Between 1961 and 1980, Real Madrid dominated the Primera División, being crowned champion 14 times. This included a five-in-a-row sequence from 1961 to 1965 and two three-in-a-row sequences (1967–1969 and 1978–1980). During this era, only Atlético Madrid offered Real Madrid any serious challenge, adding four more titles to their tally in 1966, 1970, 1973, and 1977. Of the other clubs, only Valencia in 1971 and the Johan Cruyff-inspired Barcelona of 1974 managed to break the dominance of Real Madrid.
The Madrid winning sequence was ended more significantly in 1981 when Real Sociedad won their first-ever title. They retained it in 1982 and their two in a row was followed by another by their fellow Basques Athletic Bilbao, who won back-to-back titles in 1983 and 1984. Terry Venables led Barcelona to a solitary title in 1985 before Real Madrid won again another five in a row sequence (1986–1990) with a team guided by Leo Beenhakker and including Hugo Sánchez and the legendary La Quinta del Buitre – Emilio Butragueño, Manolo Sanchís, Martín Vázquez, Míchel and Miguel Pardeza.
Johan Cruyff returned to Barcelona as manager in 1988, and assembled the legendary Dream Team. Cruyff introduced players like Pep Guardiola, José Mari Bakero, Txiki Begiristain, Ion Andoni Goikoetxea, Ronald Koeman, Michael Laudrup, Romário, and Hristo Stoichkov. This team won Primera División four times between 1991 and 1994 and won the European Cup in 1992. Laudrup then moved to arch-rivals Real Madrid, and helped them end Barcelona’s run in 1995. Atlético Madrid won their ninth Primera División title in 1996 before Real Madrid added another Liga trophy to their cabinet in 1997. After the success of Cruyff, another Dutchman – Ajax manager Louis van Gaal – arrived at the Camp Nou, and with the talents of Luís Figo, Luis Enrique, and Rivaldo, Barcelona again won the title in 1998 and 1999.
As Primera División entered a new century, the Big Two of Real Madrid and Barcelona found themselves facing new challengers. Between 1993 and 2004, Deportivo La Coruña finished in the top three on ten occasions, a better record than either Real Madrid or Barcelona, and in 2000, under Javier Irureta, they became the ninth team to be crowned champions. Real Madrid won two more Liga titles in 2001 and 2003 and also the UEFA Champions League in 2000 and 2002, and won their third league title in 2007 after a three-year drought. They were challenged by a re-emerging Valencia in both competitions. Under the management of Héctor Cúper, Valencia finished as Champions League runners-up in 2000 and 2001. His successor, Rafael Benítez, built on this and led the club to a Liga title in 2002 and winning the double with a league title and the UEFA Cup in 2004. The 2004–05 season saw a resurgent Barcelona, inspired by the brilliant Ronaldinho, win their first title of the new century, in addition to the Liga-Champions League double in 2005–06. With world-class players like Raúl, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Gonzalo Higuaín, Real Madrid won back-to-back La Liga titles in 2006–07 and 2007–08 season. Under Josep Guardiola’s Dream Team, powered by La Masia talents such as Lionel Messi, Xavi, and Andrés Iniesta, Barcelona added three straight Liga titles (2008–09, 2009–10, and 2010–11).
In the 2011–12 season, Real Madrid won its 32nd title under the management of José Mourinho with a record-breaking points tally of 100, a record 121 number of goals scored, most overall (32) and away (16) wins in a single season in La Liga History. Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova matched the 100-point record a year later (2012–13) season while battling terminal cancer. Atlético Madrid won the 2013–14 title, their first in 18 years, and the first title in 10 years that Real Madrid or Barcelona had not won.