ineteen days after the first division’s 20th club was finally decided, 2019-20 ending with Pere Milla scoring the “goal of my life”, a dramatic 96th-minute strike that took Elche up, the new season begins on Friday. Excitement builds and it all starts at the foot of the Sierra Nevada in Granada, home for the first time of a European team. Spain’s great revelation head to Albania next week; first they raise the curtain on La Liga by welcoming Athletic Club, who are playing their 2,877th top-flight game – more than anyone else.
Oh, wait, no. That’s not right.
On Wednesday night, less than 48 hours before the season was due to start, the competition committee sided with the federation in the latest battle in an endless, tedious war of attrition and decided there could be no Friday or Monday night games. Which might make some sense in defence of the rights of match-going fans if, you know, there were any fans going to matches. But which ultimately, like a lot else, made very little sense at all, the sports minister, Irene Lozano, commenting: “So much energy is wasted in absurd battles.”
Battles which, this time, mean the season does not start with Granada-Athletic on Friday; it starts with Eibar-Celta on Saturday afternoon, or so it says here. Nor will the first round of games end on Monday evening with Alavés-Betis, which has been moved too. In the second division, the same thing has happened, Leganés neatly summing it up when they sent a note to Las Palmas, their opponents on Friday Saturday, saying: “Look, you just give us a shout when you get here, OK?”
At least no fans are being messed about, and it wouldn’t be the start of a season if there weren’t some risk that it might not be the start of the season at all. But, no, it doesn’t begin in Granada or end in Vitoria. And as for excitement, well, that’s not quite right either. At least not for everyone.
Like everywhere else, the season has snuck up on Spain. Probably more so here, where it feels almost clandestine. It’s one thing ending a season without fans; it’s another starting one like that, in silence. Empty stadiums are accepted because you’ve started so you’ll finish, the need to complete is pressing: too much has been invested to simply let go. Just get to the end, get it done, then fix it. There’s always next year. But the season is over, the summer too, the Covid numbers rise, nothing has been fixed, and next year (this year now) looks the same.
Javier Tebas, the president of the league, said this week he didn’t expect fans in until January or February: a vaccine must come first, and so the void remains. Enthusiasm wanes over a season, everyone knows reality has a habit of ruining everything, but it should be there at the start. This time, much of it is missing. There is something flat about this opening. Maybe that will build, maybe it will take us by surprise.
An example: Cádiz return after 15 years and face Osasuna but the Carranza, a noisy, funny place, usually full of comic chants and silly songs, will be empty. How can it be the same? If there is a team defined by their fans, it is … well, it is all of them. But Cádiz especially. Without their supporters, there will be a hole. They will also be without their manager, who has coronavirus. On the other side, poor Chimy Ávila has suffered his second cruciate tear in seven months, out as soon as he was back.
It’s not only that. There is little money and few signings. That may change as there is still almost a month left until the window shuts, but this is a depressed market with relatively little movement, focused more on releasing players than signing them. Only Martin Odegaard is new at Real Madrid, returning from loan at Real Sociedad. At Barcelona only Miralem Pjanic is a new signing. There is no one new at Atlético Madrid. Elche have only 12 first-team players – and they’re looking to move on at least one of them.
There have been injuries and illnesses too: half the clubs starting this weekend have at least one player positive for Covid. There are five at Granada, including new signing Jorge Molina. Six of Athletic’s players couldn’t start pre-season. Madrid cancelled a friendly with Rayo Vallecano. There have been few pre-season games, and none of those big, overblown tours that, for all their many faults, contribute to the sense of something building. What few friendlies there have been have been unattended, of course.
All of which contributes to a sense that the start of the season is here quite suddenly, almost too soon. For some clubs, literally: the first round of games do not include Madrid, Barcelona, Atlético, Sevilla or Elche, something missing.
Someone missing too, beyond the fans: Aduriz, Bruno and Banega have gone. Santi Cazorla too, for goodness sake. Real Sociedad begin without their new signing: David Silva is one of three players who tested positive for Covid and will not travel to Valladolid on Sunday.
Still, he will be there soon. His signing, which took less than 24 hours from “Hey, what about trying Silva?” to him scrawling his name on a contract, is one of the most exciting moves of the summer, a sense of homecoming for a player for whom appreciation came late but is unanimous now. His return feels like a coup and nor is he alone. At the other end of the age range, the performance of Ansu Fati for Spain got everyone excited again this week. So, yes, there are reasons to be cheerful, plenty to look forward to still, things happening.
Nowhere is more happening than at Mestalla, even if that has been eclipsed by the crisis in Catalonia. Valencia unravel. A huge club, it shouldn’t be this way, the sense of decline palpable, the social divide becoming unbridgeable. The federation of supporters’ clubs has been told to leave the stadium office it has had for 25 years. Dani Parejo and Francis Coquelin left before them, practically given away to Villarreal. Ferrán Torres has gone to City. Rodrigo has departed for Leeds. Ezequiel Garay didn’t renew. If offers come, don’t rule out Maxi Gómez following. But there is trust in Javi Gracia, a clever manager who has been in situations like this before.
He who finds no consolation doesn’t seek it, they say. Fingers crossed, fans will get in eventually, making this feel right again, the football a vehicle for everything else. And there is cause for enthusiasm elsewhere, things to watch, games to grab you, people to enjoy. Not least at promoted Cádiz, Huesca and Elche, who bring 40-year-old striker Nino with them. Or Athletic, Eibar, La Real, Alavés: there’s something about the Basque teams, although that is bound up in the community around them. Maybe Levante surprising everyone again, so much fun. Eibar against the odds, José Luis Mendilíbar still there fighting the good fight.
Manuel Pellegrini has joined Betis. Unai Emery is back in Spain with Villarreal, who have signed well. Ivan Rakitic has gone home to Sevilla, where Óscar has joined him. Why shouldn’t they dream of winning the league, president Pepe Castro asked, instantly becoming a hostage to fortune. But, add a goalscorer, and actually why not?
Atlético still want a striker too. Barcelona, who have Philippe Coutinho back, may have a busy month ahead. Madrid won’t, at least not when it comes to bringing players in, but they will believe they have the base from which to defend their title, Odegaard was the league’s outstanding midfielder in the first half of last season and they’re entitled to expect more this season from Vinícius, Asensio, Rodrygo and Eden Hazard, who has cost them €10m per league game. Get him fit and there’s a player, that’s for sure.
There are players everywhere, not least those no one knows yet, waiting to take us on their journey with them. Not that it’s only them; it’s so much more. There’s Joaquín, the feint and the sprint heading into its 20th season. Jesús Navas’s legs whirring still. The Deyverson show. Comandante Morales and José Campaña. Isak and Aspas, Benzema, Saúl and De Jong. Iñaki Williams, Jorge Molina, Samu Chukwueze, Carlos Fernández. Oh, and Lionel Messi is still around.