Rivalled only by basketball as the major spectator sport, football has been described as a national religion. Under Franco it was encouraged, along with other sports and other diversions such as the cinema, radio and kiosk literature, as a sort of "opium of the people", but also as a means of enhancing the image of the regime abroad as it basked in the glory of Spanish victories, especially by Real Madrid in European Cup matches. It was during this period that huge stadia were built in Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia, but Franco's policy of favouring the Madrid team had the effect of turning the regional teams of Barcelona FC and Athletic de Bilbao and their colours into foci of nationalist aspiration.
   Football clubs operate as private sports companies linked to a national federation, and are members of the Professional Football League (the Liga). The Spanish League is considered among the best in the world, attracting players of the highest international ranking, but there is literally a price to pay. At the beginning of the 1997 season, for example, the clubs invested 571,000m pesetas, representing an increase of 22,000m pesetas over the previous year, for 130 players, with Real Betis creating a world record for the highest transfer fee. Not surprisingly many clubs are heavily in debt, despite significant revenue from the granting of television rights, and a crisis meeting of First and Second Division clubs in 1997 welcomed with some relief the proposal that their share of the income from football pools be increased from 8.5 to 10 percent, representing something over 8,000m pesetas per season. Another aspect of the international market in players is that a substantial number of the members of the top Spanish teams are from outside Spain and the other EU countries, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay being well represented, together with the former Yugoslavia, Croatia and Bosnia. This was already true to a limited extent even under Franco —witness the quarrel between Barcelona and Real Madrid over the Argentinian Alfredo di Stefano in 1952—but the practice has become much more prevalent, to the extent that in 1991 a restriction was placed on the numbers of non-EU players. Only six licences are allowed per club and four players per match, though this can be circum-vented if necessary by naturalization. In 1997 a strike by footballers in favour of a reduction in the numbers of such players was only brought to an end by the promise of an enquiry into the matter in the year 2000, when the 1991 agreement ends. Moreover, in the highly competitive world of league and international football such international stars are often birds of passage, not always completing even one season. Coaches, too, suffer the effects of increasing competitiveness: sixteen were dismissed in the 1994–5 season, fourteen the following season and fifteen in 1996–7, so that the average "life" of a coach had become a mere six months and twenty days (compared with two years and five months in the English league). Within the League are First, Second, Second B (further divided into four groups) and Third Divisions (further divided into seventeen groups). The number of clubs in the First Division has gradually increased over the years from ten in 1928– 9 to twenty-two from 1995–6. From 1984–5 to 1994–5 Real Madrid and Barcelona shared the leadership between them, Madrid achieving a run of five consecutive wins 1985–6 to 1989–90, a feat it had also achieved in the 1960s. Internal crises in the two clubs, including the dismissal or resignation of their coaches, resulted in first and second place going to Atlético Madrid and Valencia in 1995–6. The clubs also compete annually for the King's Cup (Copa del Rey) —Athletic Bilbao, Barcelona and Real Madrid among the most successful—and for the Supercopa, a match between the winners of the League and the King's Cup. National teams compete regularly and with considerable success in Europe, and since 1978 have regularly qualified to play for the World Cup.
   The intense interest of Spaniards in football is reflected in the sales of daily newspapers devoted entirely to sport and mainly to football. By 1995 Marca had become the best selling daily, beating even El País into second place, and accounting for nearly 12 percent of circulation. As, the leading sports daily until the end of the 1980s, ranked eighth, accounting for another 2.8 percent, and Sport and El Mundo Deportivo, both published in Barcelona, ranked tenth and twelfth, accounting for a further 4.5 percent between them. Televised matches likewise attract huge audiences, leading to fierce competition between companies for television rights. In 1997 a controversial law, dubbed the football law (ley de fútbol) was passed to control the freedom of subscriber television companies to exercise exclusive rights to football coverage. On the grounds that football is a "matter of public interest" it will permit transmission of matches on non-subscription channels on days and at times of the government's choosing, most probably on Sundays.
   See also: sport and leisure
   Further reading
   - MacClancy, J. (1996) "Nationalism at Play: The Basques of Vizcaya and Athletic Club de Bilbao" in J.MacClancy (ed.) Sport, Identity and Ethnicity, Oxford: Berg (focuses on football as an expression of Basque identity).
   - Shaw, D. "The Politics of “Fútbol” ", History Today August 1985: 38–42 (a useful brief account of the political significance of football during the Franco regime).

Encyclopedia of contemporary Spanish culture. 2013.

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