August 8, 2015. 2:55 p.m.
Carrow Road is waiting, packed to the rafters by a sea of yellow. Dean Court is bubbling with excitement, awaiting the sort of game it has never previously hosted. Goodison Park is intense, the away end in full voice for Watford's return to the top flight. The King Power Stadium is boisterous, still riding the crest of last season's late wave.
The Premier League is back. La Liga, take note.
OK, so Manchester United and Tottenham had technically kicked it all off at Old Trafford at lunchtime, but the early game has always felt a touch odd. The time slot, the channel it's on, the unusual amount of sunshine, whatever it is: The lunchtime kickoff always feels a touch disconnected from the rest of the day. From 3 p.m. Saturday—the best time of the week. Every week.
So here we are, the magical 3 p.m. approaching. Four grounds, eight teams, roughly 100,000 fans in attendance. Three of the clubs being supported are newly promoted; the other five are desperate to maintain their top-flight status. At all four venues there's a cocktail of anticipation, nerves, chants and beer-induced bullishness. Football is back, and everyone is craving the win, the hot start. And now it's here.
And it all kicks off at once.
August 8, 2015. 3 p.m.
From the opening whistle, every bit of action across all four venues feels connected, every kick, every header, every tackle, every foul, every goal extremely important both at that ground and at the other three. Inside each stadium, the focus is well and truly on the game at hand, but the other games also matter. A lot.
Leicester are the first to score, grabbing a 1-0 lead over Sunderland thanks to Jamie Vardy. Watford get the day's next against Everton, Miguel Layun scoring his club's first Premier League goal in almost a decade. Then it's Leicester again. And again. Crystal Palace get in on the act next.
Half-time. Breathe. Beer.
Back to it.
Palace get the madness underway after the break, taking a 2-0 lead at Carrow Road. Then Sunderland hit back against Leicester, Leicester hit back against Sunderland. Norwich get one next. Then Sunderland again. Then it's Aston Villa, pinching a crucial away goal against Bournemouth. Everton then draw level with Watford. Watford then pull ahead. Everton then get level again. Palace finish it all off.
Full time. Breathe. Beer.
In under two hours, there have been 15 goals and seven lead changes. Three teams have won, three have lost and two have drawn. It's the perfect start for some, a decent start for one or two and a disastrous start for others.
Regardless, though, it's been enthralling. Intense. Radios had been playing in many an ear, the news of goals across the country spreading around each ground. The younger generation had gotten the same news via smartphones, apps refreshed incessantly, "cash out" buttons being hit by everyone's mate who'd laid down a "fiver." The whole exercise felt connected, every game meaningful and relevant, each holding consequence to the others. After the isolated nonsense of pre-season schedules, this felt the way it should—not just like games, but like a league.
Like the Premier League's had been, the opening weekend of La Liga is now looming. In Spain, August 21 will be the equivalent of England's August 8. But there's something missing: There will be no equivalent of 3 p.m. The magical 3 p.m.
Once La Liga arrives, it will feel, well, disjointed. Again.
Now, this isn't La Liga-bashing from a Premier League devotee. No, I love Spain's top division; I love its stars, its skill, its flavour, the contrast it offers, the stories it throws up. I cover it every week. For myself and many others, it can't start soon enough; this season is shaping up to be among the best in years.
Outside the big two, Atletico Madrid have had a sensational summer, Valencia are rising, Sevilla continue to recruit magnificently, Villarreal have strengthened, Real Sociedad led by Jonathas will be more potent, and the remarkable Eibar will be around once more. Outside El Clasico, we'll have juicy derbies in the capital, in Seville, in Basque Country. Bring it on.
Yet, the disjointed feel of it all will remain.
Consider the opening weekend. The season opener between Malaga and Sevilla at La Rosaleda arrives on a Friday night, after which there's an almost 24-hour gap until it all returns at 6:30 p.m. local time the following day. It's a bit like putting away that long-awaited first beer but then being told that's it, you can't have another. Your excitement quickly nosedives.
Then, when the action does return, there are other problems. At 6:30 p.m. Saturday, we'll get Deportivo La Coruna against Real Sociedad, and Espanyol against Getafe. Kicking off two hours later will be Atletico and Las Palmas, and two hours after that will be Rayo Vallecano and Valencia—at 10:30 p.m. local time. The actual times themselves aren't the real issue, though; it's how many there are that's the problem.
A day later on the Sunday, there are four more separate time slots, the round finishing with the practically forgotten Monday night game.
This is the weekly routine.
Consequently, what we end up getting is a string of games that feel isolated, each detached from the other, the round wandering from one time slot to the next as the viewer gradually ponders whether any of it is relevant and whether Netflix might be a better option (this is a schedule geared totally for TV, after all). The feeling of a complete, connected jornada is almost non-existent.
The rationale behind such scheduling isn't at all complex. The idea is to ensure that, across a four-day stretch from Friday to Monday, there's always some sort of action from the Primera Division available on a screen.
"We have live football on television all weekend. That spread of games puts us in a good position, particularly internationally," LFP president Javier Tebas told Sid Lowe of ESPN FC when quizzed on La Liga's scheduling that hurts the jornada. "There's always a Spanish game on; the same is not true of other leagues."
That might be true, but Tebas' conviction in such an approach seems to miss one key point: The quality of the television product is entirely dependant on the quality of the product offered at the ground. It's why the Premier League is a hit with broadcasters: The stadiums are charged, the atmospheres palpable, the noise genuinely loud. Sitting in your living room, you feel it.
Part of that can be attributed to the unique culture of English football, but playing into it is the ever-present sense that, whether you're at Leicester or West Brom or Sunderland or Crystal Palace or Stoke, the performance, the result and the spectacle feel connected to something bigger, something compelling. It might only be 11th against 14th, but it matters.
It's this that the Spanish game lacks. When you're watching big clubs at iconic stadiums like the Camp Nou, the Bernabeu, the Mestalla and San Mames it's fine, but good luck trying to engross yourself in an isolated clash between Real Sociedad and Villarreal at close to midnight on Sunday, the detached, TV-oriented time slot deterring the match-going fan and damaging the atmosphere, in turn destroying the product on the screen.
Still, though, Tebas believes such scheduling is effective. "There are times over the weekend when you put the television on and the only game you can see is one from the Spanish league. That's beneficial. That helps increase the satisfaction of the consumer," he said. Really? It's hard to buy into such a stance when you remember that football of any standard, even the highest, is nothing without the fans, the intensity. The passion.
Last season, Manchester City took on CSKA Moscow in the Champions League behind closed doors after UEFA banned fans for racist chants. So there we were, watching one of England's elite against one of Russia's elite, the teams contesting the grandest competition of all, and the How I Met Your Mother re-runs over on Channel 4 were outrageously more appealing because no one was there. Did you switch over? I did.
It's an example the LFP need to remember.
But here's the thing: La Liga has experienced the other way, how good it can be, but in its TV-fixated stance isn't prepared to embrace it.
On the penultimate weekend of last season, every game in Spain's top division kicked off at 7 p.m. local time. It's an extreme example and isn't realistic for the normal week, but the effect of the simultaneous kick-offs can't be ignored. It was absolutely brilliant.
At the top, we had Barcelona and Real Madrid trading blows through Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the title race. Below them, Atletico, Valencia and Sevilla were locked in an enthralling dash for Champions League places, the advantage shifting from one to the other throughout the two hours as Valencia and Sevilla went behind early, as Sevilla hit back hard, as Atletico went one goal down, as Valencia clawed one back. It was riveting, and each ground revelled in it.
The following week, the season's final one, was just the same. Of the 10 games, eight kicked off at once, the hunt for European spots and the relegation battle taking centre stage with the title already decided. What a day it was.
Deportivo dropped into the relegation zone and then jumped back out. Eibar jumped out and then back in. Almeria did the same. Higher up, Valencia's hopes for fourth looked dashed but then came alive. Sevilla's chances for the same spot went the other way. Atletico held on. Against them, Granada did the same. It was a day in which there were 81 possible combinations across the three races (Champions League places, Europa League places and relegation), and the wild shifts in advantage were totally engrossing, as teams went up and down, from safe to in danger, from into Europe to out of Europe.
What a jornada. For one day, Los Carmenes, La Rosaleda, the Ipurua and the Juegos Mediterraneos were totally connected, their events feeling like those at Carrow Road, Dean Court, Goodison Park and the King Power Stadium.
The radios, the smartphones, the "fivers": They were out in force. Big breaths were needed. The madness of it had gripped players, the officials, the fans and the grounds. It gripped the TV audience, the product truly captivating.
But soon April 21 will arrive, the Spanish equivalent of England's August 8, and all of that will be lost. We'll have four days and eight time slots for 10 games, none of them likely to feel connected, like they belong to something. We'll marvel at the exploits of the big two but stare blankly at the disjointed nature of the rest of it, the whole experience poorer for the absence of a Spanish equivalent of that magical time: Saturday, 3 p.m.