This is the greatest soccer pilgrimage in the world

When Americans think of Spanish soccer, two teams come to mind: Real Madrid and Barcelona FC.

But to boil the 20 teams of its professional soccer league, called La Liga, down to just those wealthy, successful clubs would be like saying the Yankees and Cowboys are the only worthwhile brands in American sports.

La Liga’s season kicked off in mid-August, and it’s time for sports travel geeks — myself included — to start knocking off the next item on ye olde bucket list.

I travel to Spain at least once a year and made a few footy pilgrimages of note. Yes, Real Madrid and Barcelona are amazing, but if you really want to experience soccer — and therefore culture, and dare I say religion, in Spain — there are far more dynamic rivalries, quirky stadiums and fascinating fan bases that are too often overlooked.

There’s Eibar, one of the two La Liga teams helmed by a female president. Their tiny Ipurua Stadium, nestled in a gritty industrial town less than an hour’s drive from both Bilbao and San Sebastian, holds just over 7,000 fans. But in a Wrigley Field rooftop-esque twist, it’s bordered by a high-rise apartment buildings where people watch the action from their balconies.

But perhaps the most poignant experience I’ve had in or out of a stadium in Spain was in Seville last April. The annual Easter-time game — called El Gran Derbi — is a fierce rivalry between the storied clubs Real Betis and Sevilla FC. After attending last year’s game, I understand why soccer fans around the world consider it the holy grail.

The magic of the match is that it falls at the start of Holy Week, or Semana Santa, when solemn, candlelit processions roll through the streets at night in preparation for Easter Sunday celebrations. People come from all over to visit the charming Andalusian city, which is filled with the sweet scent of orange trees, the clomping of horse-drawn carriages and the jazzy melodies of flamenco music. In essence, going to this game is the perfect cocktail of culture and sport.

With its cobblestone streets, grand cathedral, the Real Alcazar palace and gardens and fantastic room-temperature soups like gazpacho and salmorejo, Sevilla is the one city that could make my heart and my stomach, which belong to northern Spain, defect down south.

Sports travel sites like have packages; one includes a game ticket, two nights’ accommodation and a city guide for about $370. Stubhub and official team sites also sell tickets.

To indulge my inner soccer nerd, I took tours of the teams’ stadiums ($11 apiece): Betis’ Estadio Benito Villamarin and Sevilla FC’s Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium, which has a stunning mosaic facade.

On game day, I joined Sevilla FC faithful at Pena Sevillista Al Relente, the most popular supporters’ club. It’s filled with memorabilia and its sidewalks are packed with supporters drinking cervezas.

This year, the game was at Sevilla’s home field. Behind one goal, fans unfurled a banner — that stretched the entire height of the stands — of a woman holding a Sevilla scarf instead of rosary beads. Given that I had no allegiances, I weighed which team I wanted to come out on top. While Sevilla FC wears my preferred color of red, Betis has a wonderful, never-would-happen-in-America practice of only charging $88 for a kid’s season ticket.

If you want to fit in with the locals, make sure to bring a foil-wrapped bocadillo (sandwich) — which is consumed, almost in unison, at halftime. If you can’t make one yourself, go to a local cerveceria and ask for your sandwich para llevar, or to go.

In the end, Sevilla won 3-2.

But in between all of the soccer, I ate at the storied and more formal Casa Robles, which caters Sevilla FC’s meals, and at Mariatrifulco, a restaurant with stunning views of the Guadalquivir River.

Sadly, the only thing I didn’t do? Book my ticket for El Gran Derbi 2020.

The author was a guest of La Liga.

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