Football Features

Who’s La Liga’s biggest club outside Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético?

By Matt Clark, from La Liga Lowdown

Published: 13:49, 21 April 2021

The European Super League was over before it began, crashing and burning 48 hours after it was boldly announced on Sunday evening.

Its premise was to bring all the biggest clubs in European football together, assaulting the traditional football pyramid in the process.

The reaction in England is what’s garnered the most headlines, but Spain also has a rich and storied footballing culture beyond the ‘Big Three’. Here, Alan Feehely (@azulfeehely) and Matt Clark (@MattClark_08) of La Liga Lowdown (@LaLigaLowdown) make the case for why Athletic Club, Real Betis, Sevilla and Valencia could all be considered the biggest club in Spain outside of Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Valencia

While Valencia have never had a period of sustained domination, they have consistently been among the best of the rest, and have achieved their fair share of titles. Standing fifth in the list of La Liga titles, they have won more than Real Sociedad, Sevilla and Real Betis combined. Their eight Copa del Rey triumphs have also been spread across the generations. Triumphant in seven of the last eight decades, they have given fans of all ages a taste of success to match their famous paella.

They have been strong representatives on the European stage too, reaching back-to-back Champions League finals at the turn of the century, only losing on penalties to the mighty Bayern Munich in 2001. They won La Liga and the UEFA Cup under Rafa Benítez in 2003/04, and have been home to some of the best-loved players this century: David Villa, Juan Mata, David Silva to name a few. Since those glory days, they have continued to maintain a semi-regular presence at Europe’s top table, winning away at Stamford Bridge as recently as 2019.

Off the pitch, they are many things to love about Valencia. A beautiful city, a phenomenal stadium in Mestalla, a passionate fanbase and a vibrant matchday experience. These attractive qualities have helped Valencia develop a global following, with peñas located far and wide. Finally, Adurizpedia (@DatAthle) crunched the numbers and found that in the absence of the ‘Big Three’, Athletic Club and Valencia would both have won a record 23 LaLiga titles.

Athletic Club

Athletic Club are undoubtedly one of the historical greats in Spanish football. A founder member of La Liga, they have never been relegated and would be the only club with this honour if Barcelona and Real Madrid had broken away.

In the early years of domestic competition, they were the powerhouse, winning multiple Ligas and Copas. As of today, only the Big Three have won more La Liga titles than Athletic (8). Furthermore, only Barcelona have won more Copas than them (23). Until the arrival of Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Athletic had their own goalscoring juggernaut. Legendary forward Telmo Zarra was the holder of numerous goalscoring records, some of which he still possesses.

But perhaps beyond success on the pitch, Athletic’s identity sets them apart. They are a unique club in Spain, even in Europe. Their proud policy of only using homegrown players of Basque origin is a tradition that has kept them in touch with their roots and their loyal fanbase. Their famous youth academy, Lezama, has been a production line for decades, developing quality players with talent and an appreciation for the values of the game.

The Basque Country is a special place with its own rich identity. Bilbao itself is a former industrial city that has developed into a cultural hub. The club knows it is the standard-bearer for its people. San Mamés is nicknamed ‘The Cathedral’, and it is easy to understand why. Football is like a religion to them, it is everything – the passion runs deep.

Sevilla

There are football clubs and there are football clubs. Sevilla, as tough as it may be to understand, are the latter. Named after the city in which they reside, Sevilla are an organisation built on intelligence, strategy and cohesion, an approach that’s seen them punch above their weight to a remarkable degree, at home and in Europe, this century.

Due to this success, it’s almost inarguable that they’re the biggest club in Spain outside of Atlético Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Unlike their great rivals Real Betis, they can take great pride in their accumulated honours. Domestically, Sevilla won La Liga back in 1946 as well as the Copa del Rey in 1935, 1939, 1948, 2007 and 2010, also claiming the Supercopa de España in 2007. Below the elite, they’ve won four Segunda División titles and 18 Copa Andalucía titles.

Los Nervionenses, a nickname taken from Nervion, the neighbourhood where their 43,883-capacity Estadio Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán is situated, truly excel in Europe, however. The Andalusians have won six UEFA Cup or Europa League titles, triumphing in 2006, 2007, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2020, as well as the European Super Cup in 2006.

Founded in 1890, Sevilla are the oldest and most successful club in Andalusia and unquestionably the representative of the hottest and most passionate city in Spain to the wider world. They’re a club engineered for success, embodied off the pitch by the frighteningly shrewd sporting director Monchi and on the pitch by club captain Jesús Navas. The latter,
born in nearby Los Palacios y Villafranca, epitomises the club. He’s lean, mean and somewhat slight. But beneath a gentle exterior are gypsy eyes that burn with fire, ambition and, above all, steel. Sevilla are going places, make no mistake about it.

Real Betis

Real Betis could be considered the biggest club in Spain outside of Atlético Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid for reasons that go beyond tangible success. Founded 113 years ago, in 1907, that doesn’t mean that Betis have an insignificant trophy cabinet, however.

Los Verdiblancos won La Liga back in 1935 as well as the Copa del Rey in both 1978 and 2005, to go with the Supercopa de España in 2005. Such elite successes are paired with seven Segunda División titles, the Tercera División and the Copa de Andalucía.

But to judge a club solely on what they’ve won is to miss the essence of what makes them what they are. Betis are intimately tied to Seville and Andalusia, that most mystical of Spanish regions, and share one of European football’s most intense rivalries with neighbours Sevilla. Their name is derived from Baetis, the Roman name for the Guadalquivir River that runs through the city.

Their home is the Estadio Benito Villamarín, a colossal 60,720-capacity stadium based in Heliópolis, close to the centre of Seville. Béticos, as the club’s passionate and committed supporters are known, are vast in number all over Spain, aided by the Andalusians’ historical propensity to migrate to industrial hubs like Barcelona, Bilbao and Madrid.

‘Viva el Betis manque pierda’, or ‘long live Betis even when they lose’, is the phrase that encapsulates the club. Supporters identify themselves by their association with it, something also evident with players like Joaquín and Sergio Canales. The former is steeped in the club, while the latter is a blow-in from Cantabria, but both are totally plugged into Betis. For Betis is more than a football club. It’s culture, religion, philosophy, a way of being. It’s unlike any other football club in Europe.

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