Real Madrid and Barcelona Are Good, But Spanish La Liga Not a Two Team League

ByMitchell Shabani

Given Barcelona’s and Real Madrid’s recent dominance and superstar rosters, some sports pundits and commentators have labeled Spain’s La Liga a two-horse race in which the other 18 teams are merely spectators. However, some teams in Spain beg to differ.

While Barcelona and Real Madrid are each semifinalists in Europe’s Champions League, three Spanish squads have also left European heavyweights in the dust to reach the Europa League’s top four.

For the last seven seasons of Spain’s La Liga, only Barcelona (five) and Real Madrid (two) have won titles. During that span, Barcelona won the UEFA Champions League – Europe’s top inter-league tournament – three times, while Real Madrid made a semi-final appearance last year and holds an all-time best nine titles in the tournament.

Barcelona and Real Madrid have also topped the list of most valuable soccer clubs and top revenue earners for the last couple of years, while Barca’s Lionel Messi has won the FIFA World Player of the year/Ballon d’Or for the last three seasons, with Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo winning it in 2008. These two teams have indeed been dominant, but this does not mean that they are the only relevant, competitive squads in Spain. 

Athletic Bilbao, Valencia and Atlético Madrid have each made their way past fierce competitors to reach the semifinals in the Europa League – Europe’s second most prestigious tournament. Athletic Bilbao had perhaps the toughest road, beating England's Manchester United (perennial favorites, current EPL leaders and 2008 Champions League winners) in the round of 16 and Schalke 04 (currently top three in the German Bundesliga) in the quarterfinals. 

Valencia’s path to the semifinals saw them beat a Dutch pair in AZ Alkmaar and PSV Eindhoven (both currently in the top five and within points of league leader Ajax). And Atlético Madrid beat Italy’s Lazio (currently third in the Italian Serie A) and Germany’s Hannover.

But if that’s not enough to demonstrate that Spain’s league hosts competitive talent beyond its two storied clubs, note where these three Spanish squads current place in La Liga: Valencia is in third, Athletic Bilbao in seventh and Atlético Madrid in ninth. The three teams that swept some of Europe’s top clubs are spread throughout their league and face strong competition within Spain.

Barcelona and Real Madrid are both unquestionable leaders not only in Spanish soccer but in soccer worldwide. Their recent dominance is not due to their league’s lack of talented teams but rather to the unprecedented levels they each have reached with their current squads. Barcelona is indeed labeled as the greatest team ever, with the best player ever, so it should be no surprise that Spanish teams have had practically no chance at the Liga title.

However, the recent performance from these three teams suggests that La Liga does hold highly talented players and produces internationally competitive teams. And if they played in other European leagues where they didn’t have to compete against unprecedented super-teams, these “spectators” might end up giving European superpowers a run for their money.