The four-year fantasy of the Copa de la Liga: Spain’s much-maligned ‘other’ domestic competition

The four-year fantasy of the Copa de la Liga: Spain’s much-maligned ‘other’ domestic competition

The three ingredients on the menu for a Real Madrid bocadillo are pork, bacon and melted cheese. The sandwich named after Valencia CF is lovely: slices of jamón serrano come served with fresh tomato on a toasted baguette. The European Cup is a simple classic: ham, cheese and tomato. And then, at the bottom of the menu at the Restaurante El Tera – a small building just up the road from the Argüelles Metro station in north-western Madrid – is an item that might catch the eye in the busy football-themed deli.

The Copa de la Liga – the Spanish League Cup – sits at the bottom of the menu, despite the fact that it doesn’t exist in today’s world. The teams in Spain fight domestically for the two giant trophies of LaLiga and the Copa del Rey, so surely this is a misprint from the owners, no?

On a wooden plinth in the Estadio José Zorilla, the home of Real Valladolid, sits a lonely trophy with big ears; purple and white ribbons drape down like a gypsy’s earrings and the winners’ plaque has been rusted for decades. On the silver cup, a small red crown rests above a circular badge, where the letters FEF are scrambled together: the logo of the Spanish Football Federation.

Los Blanquivioletas may not need a compass to navigate their trophy room but they are one of only three teams in Spain that have the honour of showing off such a curious and forgotten cup. Look closer and engraved into the metal are the words Copa de la Liga Española. Conceived as an expression of progression and modernity, this trophy had the potential to be a beacon to all of football on how to evolve positively into the modern age. Instead, for the four years that it clung to life, it was an example of how to fail dramatically in doing so. 

Born in the brain of Barça’s then-president Josep Luis Núñez, in principal the Spanish League Cup appeared a logical decision. TV money and gate receipts alone, according to Núñez, were not sufficient to sustain the growth of clubs in Spanish football during the late part of the 20th century. The optimistic businessman – who also in the same year proposed the idea of the Spanish Super Cup – thought that more football played meant more money. He subsequently championed the campaign of pressure towards the Spanish Football Federation to fulfil their responsibilities and aid the expansion of football in Spain with the addition of another domestic competition.

The FEF, under significant pressure from Núñez, proposed independent knockout style tournaments for each division, from Primera to Tercera, reaching down all the way to the bottom of Spanish football. In the top tier, all 18 teams would compete, with the four Copa del Rey semi-finalists receiving byes and joining during the latter stages. 

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Despite some entertaining matches, including a ludicrous 7-1 win for Espanyol away at Celta, the semi-finals quickly came around but levels of joy and enthusiasm were low. On paper it looked fantastic: Real Zaragoza fell to Real Madrid and César Luis Menotti’s Barça beat Atlético Madrid in the penultimate round, so a two-legged Clásico final awaited. 

Diego Maradona put the Blaugrana 2-0 ahead at the in the 57th minute, but in six minutes the lead was gone: Vicente del Bosque halved the deficit before a Juanito penalty left it all to play for at the Camp Nou. The return leg saw a Barça side, with goals from Maradona and Alexanko, come out with a 2-1 win and become the first team to lift the inaugural edition of the Copa de la Liga. 

Football, as much as metaphors, similes and other linguistic tools may aim to disagree, is a sport and is ultimately describable in definitive terms. Goals are either given or not; the card is either yellow or red; your team can do one of three things: win, lose or draw. But what football and its rule book fail to account for are the things that do not live in the referee’s pocket or within a highlights reel.

Every week, fans turn out all over the world to support their colours, badge and players who represent the values of their club. Feeling and sensations about football cannot be manufactured at will, just in the same way two pandas cannot be put in a cage and told to mate. You cannot force a football fan to cry with sadness or joy just in the same way you cannot guess if the pandas will like what they see.

The incentive alone of a new trophy with no historical weight or pedigree did little to turn on fans and players. Added to the low numbers of spectators in the stands, Televisión Española, the branch that manages the broadcasting rights within Spain, didn’t allow for the regional channels to show selected games that would be popular in various cities around the country, leading to low TV audiences. In a country that was coming out of a dictatorship, this was a detrimental move that separated fans from the tournament right from the beginning. 

As a result, the FEF decided to react by incentivising the competition; a carrot was hung on the end of the ribbons of the cup. The decision was made that the winner of the tournament would now qualify for the UEFA Cup. 

Order  |  Spain

A year before the tournament began, the purple and white stripes of Real Valladolid entered LaLiga for the first time since the 1960s. Since then they had lingered in Spain’s second tier with one season in the notoriously difficult Segunda B. One of Spain’s great yo-yo teams, Valladolid would have a strong mid-table case to make in an all-time Primera table; the purple and white shirts have, until now, spent 43 seasons in the top flight and 35 in the second.

In 1984, with the tournament expanded to include the winners of the lower division versions and a squad that included former Real Sociedad manager Eusebio Sacristán, Valladolid managed to outclass Real Zaragoza, Sevilla and Real Betis during the tournament. After a gruelling league campaign and an entire domestic trophy organised uncomfortably at the end like a poor dessert after a huge meal, the LaLiga new boys found themselves on the verge of a European adventure.

Luís Aragonés’ Atlético Madrid, who had tournament top-scorer, Hugo Sánchez, only managed a 0-0 draw in the first leg of the final, but a rampant Valladolid left no room for questioning in the return leg when Votava, Fortes and Minguela put goals past goalkeeper Carlos Pereira at the Estadio José Zorilla. It remains the only major honour in Valladolid history, just two years after battling for promotion to LaLiga. Now they had Europe to contest with – and a trophy to polish. 

If Real Madrid didn’t win at least one edition of this trophy, they would have carried on for years until they did or invent a new one. Luckily for the legs and lungs of all the players in LaLiga, they did win it. No team has ever reached the final more times than Atlético, with the big two also reaching it twice, but both Barcelona and Real have something to show.

The tournament in 1985 was, in spite of the continental reward, still failing to attract the attention of fans, and the clubs were becoming increasingly uneasy at the number of games they were putting their players through. And so, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid – who curiously finished in 1986 with the most games played (32), won (18) and lost (nine) in the tournament –  finished their league season in the last week of April.

They had around two weeks to train and keep their spirits high in preparation for the cup. Fresh from a 4-0 league defeat against their city rivals just a few days earlier, Real were out for revenge. German Uli Stielike and elegant youth-graduate Míchel put Real Madrid two goals ahead without reply in the second leg ten days after a frantic match at the Vicente Calderón finished 3-2 to Los Rojiblancos.

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Real Madrid were champions of the League Cup after a dismal league campaign but it was, after the way the tournament had been received over the past years, for manager Luis Molowny the equivalent to winning nothing at all. 

And finally, on the morning after the night before, on 15 June 1986, amongst news of electoral fraud, the opening of the Bellas Artes museum in Madrid and controversies surrounding Bernd Schuster, the newspapers in Seville lamented the 2-0 loss to Barcelona at the Camp Nou. ABC Seville sighed, saying, “The UEFA dream died.” Béticos knew before the final that it was to be the last chance; the dream of Euro Betis and the chance to play on the continent again.

The Spanish League Cup was to be no more after 1986. Despite the gradual winding in of the sheer number of fixtures – the second, third and fourth division versions of the trophy had been quickly swept under the carpet of the FEF – the calendar was beyond saturated and at breaking point for the fans and players alike. 

Like an innocent child picking flowers from their parents’ garden, Núñez’s intentions were positive and genuine, although the results left a bad taste in the mouth for some and anger for others. Pressure was heaped on the FEF to alter the competition or scrap it altogether: a long league campaign coupled with both domestic and European cup runs left little in the tank when it came to fighting for a further honour. Add in the unforgiving heat of Spain’s summers and one begins to imagine the pressure on an unfortunate federation who now had the task of cancelling the tournament just four years into its life.

Nowadays, the tournament is long gone but the trophy remains in the cabinets of the most unlikely trio of clubs. Three decades later, a street poll would reveal that people have actually, year after year, given the competition a label of absolute failure. And maybe the dust collected on top of the silver handles is now just deep enough that it tempts you to believe such a hypothesis.

The old trophy will never be lifted again but its legacy lives on in the whispers, shadows and food menus of Spain. By the way, the sandwich named after the Copa de la Liga is chorizo and cheese – and it’s lovely. 

By Joe Brennan @j4brennan

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