In a pandemic riddled year, the top story in Spanish Football 2021 was, unfortunately, also the top story in global football—the attempt, led by Real Madrid’s Florentino Perez, to form a breakaway, exclusive Super League comprised of the top dozen European clubs. The effort’s immediate, fan-fueled implosion was the only rightful conclusion.
But on the pitch, it was an unavoidably up and down season with some drama thrown in and a felicitous dosage of perceptual parity if not the real deal. Atletico Madrid won the La Liga, Barcelona won the Copa del Rey and Real Sociedad won the rescheduled 2020 Copa del Rey, Villarreal won the Europa League, and Athletic Bilbao defeated Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup in an exciting matched marred somewhat by Lionel Messi’s first-ever Barcelona red card.
Each one of those separate victories had its own special story and most some alluring drama. Atletico had to persevere until the last day of the competition to ensure Ream Madrid’s season-ending push did not bypass the Colchoneros’ fine year. Barcelona and Real Madrid were relegated to third and second places respectively, a rare and healthy happenstance. Messi’s troops trod through the minefields of his expressed desire to depart while navigating the return of Ronal Koeman as club manager, and one of the Cules’ worst-performing seasons of the Messi era to arrive at the other side of the tunnel with a chance to rebuild a legacy.
Barca met Athletic for the second time in a year with a cup final in contention and in the second meeting, nearly 90 days apart, the Catalans avenged their previous 2-3 (aet) loss with a 4-0 demolition of the Lions in the same stadium, La Cartuja, in Sevilla. Meanwhile, the Covid-rescheduled 2020 Copa del Rey saw Athletic a finalist once again, but La Cartuja was witness to another loss, this time with Real Sociedad scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win.
Villarreal won one of the most dramatic Europa League finals including a mini-drama within when at 11-10 on penalties it was Manchester United’s Spanish goalkeeper, David de Gea, who, after having tried his hand at gamesmanship during the shootout’s penalty kicks against him, was called upon to take the final first-round penalty kick for Man-U in the shootout and missed.
Bilbao’s win over Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup came after their defeat of Real Madrid in the semifinals 2-1 at the Rosaleda in Malaga. A match they led 2-0 from the 38th minute and which Real only modified cosmetically at the 73rd. Messi’s sending off in the final, a sad footnote to be sure, was for a petulant 120th-minute kick out-in-frustration, about ten minutes after Inaki William’s winner had hit the net and a few instances before the final whistle.
As is the case in many European leagues historically grounded, political and cultural rivalries consistently raised their heads at all sorts of junctures, and one, the Rayo Vallecano incident, showcased the tenor some can be wrapped into.
But perhaps a better example of the reverse of that coin, the other nature of small-nation domestic football competition can be grasped by the wonderful familiarity of the exchange between Gerard Pique and Koke mid-match at the Camp Nou, with Koke lying behind the Atleti wall as Messi prepared to take a dangerous free-kick. Said Pique: “Did you imagine yourself having a Gin and Tonic as you lounge comfortably in the Camp Nou, as if on vacation, man?”
Other sideshows abounded, of course, such as Barcelona’s colossal blunder in disrespecting and then trading Luis Suarez to eventual La Liga champions, whose top scorer (21 goals) was, well, Suarez. Or La Liga president, Javier Tebas’, expressed thoughts on the Super League—“It’s the kind of thought you come up with when you’re drunk at a bar at 5 am.”
To conclude, of course, the crown jewel of Spain’s football scene, still yet, Messi, with 30 goals, was again the Pichichi winner, and even outside La Liga, he was the creator of his usual collection of highlight-reel moments to boot. The Iberian peninsula was struck hard by the pandemic, but its football remained a bright spot and rallying standard for many around the globe.