It’s definitely time to head north and add a new region to the blog’s repertoire. Prior to my move to Andalucía, I spent a little over two years living in Galicia, the often windswept, ostensibly rain-lashed, but always beautiful northwestern-most region of Spain, with its long, rugged Atlantic coast bearing the evocative name La Costa del Morte (The Coast of Death).
There is a lot to love about Galicia and believe me, it will be covered in great detail in the course of this blog’s lifespan. But today I’m going to focus on my favourite city in Galicia, A Coruña and its fantastic Estadio Riazor, home of Deportivo La Coruña.
A Little Bit Of History
Depor, as the club is popularly known, was founded in 1906 (coincidentally the same year as the Hijos de Rivera Brewery, producers of Estrella Galicia and the club’s major sponsor) but led a fairly unremarkable existence for the majority of their first 80 years, bouncing between the top two divisions, even enduring a couple of relegations to the third tier in the late 70’s and early 80’s. A second place finish in La Liga in 1950 was the club’s greatest hour, while they were also the club who started the career of one of Spain’s greatest ever players, Luis Suarez, El Arquitecto, future star of Barcelona, Inter, the Spanish national team and to date, the only Spanish player to win the Balon d’Or.
The 1990’s saw Depor rise to prominence on the national and European stage, coached by Arsenio Iglesias, known as “el brujo de Arteixo“, who guided the club to promotion and swiftly established them as a top flight force. He was helped by the arrival of Brazilian stars such as Bebeto and Mauro Silva, but also local talent such as Fran, the Galician winger who spent his entire career at the club. They came agonisingly close to winning the title in 1994, only to lose out on the last day after Miroslav Djukic missed an injury time penalty against Valencia to hand the title to Barcelona.
The following year, they finally landed their first major honour, gaining revenge over Valencia with a 2-1 in the Copa del Rey final. Famously the game at the Bernabeu was abandoned after 79 minutes due to heavy rain with the score at 1-1. The two teams returned three days later to play the rest of the game and only two minutes after the restart, Alfredo scored the goal which brought the cup to Coruña. This brought Depor their first major European exposure as they made it to the last four of the Cup Winners cup, losing to eventual winners PSG.
The remarkable 1999/2000 season saw an even greater triumph as Depor won their first La Liga title, finishing five points ahead of Barcelona in a topsy-turvy season where they won 21 games, but lost 11 and finished with 69 points, the lowest total since three points for a win was introduced in 1995. (There was recently an excellent Guardian article on the 1999/2000 season, which can be read here.)
The arrival of players such as iconic playmaker Juan Carlos Valeron and striker Diego Tristan to the already established talents of Fran, Djalminha, Mauro Silva and Roy Makaay took Depor to another level and they were soon making waves in the Champions’ League, defeating Manchester United home and away in 2001 (in what was my first real exposure to SuperDepor) before eventually falling to them in a quarter final rematch.
But the real high point of that season came on March 6, as Depor faced Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final at the Bernabéu. The final was scheduled for that day because it was Real Madrid’s centenary and almost everyone assumed they would lift the trophy to mark the occasion. However Depor clearly hadn’t read the script and goals from Sergio and Tristan put them in control and despite a second half goal from Raul, they held on to win the cup in what is known in Spain as El Centenariazo.
2004 saw one of the greatest games in the Riazor’s history as Depor again competed in the Champions’ League quarter finals, this time against the reigning champions, the AC Milan of Maldini, Pirlo, Gattuso, Shevchenko, Kaka et al. 4-1 down from the first leg, few gave them any chance, but from the first whistle they tore into the Italian side and blew them away with goals from Pandiani, Valeron, Luque and Fran, to become the first team to ever win a Champions League tie after a three-goal first leg defeat. Sadly for Depor, they were shut out by Jose Mourinho’s Porto in the semi-finals.
They never quite recaptured the spirit of those years, and a slow decline began soon after and ended in relegation in 2011. Although they bounced back at the first attempt, they were relegated again in 2013 and so when I made my first visit to A Coruña in November 2013, it was to see a side fighting for promotion.
My first game was against Real Mallorca and ended in a 3-1 win for Depor, giving me the slightly misleading impression that they were an exciting, attacking team, rather than the somewhat functional outfit they proved to be as they just about made it back into the top flight that season.
Things to See and Do
The Estadio Riazor, Depor’s home since 1944 has one of the best locations in world football, more teams should have stadiums beside a beach! On a sunny day (there are plenty of them, despite Galicia’s reputation) there’s no better way to spend the time before a game than by going for a stroll along the paseo maritimo, or the Riazor and Orzan beaches themselves. At the far end of the beaches you can find Coruña’s aquarium and the Tower of Hercules, a lighthouse dating back to the Roman era.
If you’re interested in some pre-match food, it’s well worth heading into the old town, and exploring the streets around Plaza de Maria Pita, where you can find countless restaurants serving traditional Galician and Spanish dishes. Most offer raciones (a full portion), mediaraciones (a half-portion) and tapas (a small portion) so it’s possible to sample a lot of dishes without spending a lot of money.
It is probably best to avoid the area immediately around the ground, there are a number of bars along Rúa Manuel Murguía, which runs behind the stadium, but these are invariably packed out on match days and so getting served can be quite difficult. That said, if you just want a quick drink and want to sample some of the pre-match atmosphere, this is probably the place to go.
Matchday at El Riazor
Onto the stadium itself, it isn’t one of the bigger grounds in Spain, with a capacity of just under 35,000 but despite the fact it is rarely full, it is one of the most atmospheric grounds I’ve visited. Most of the noise comes from the Fondo Maraton where the club’s Ultras, the Riazor Blues take up residence. Generally the noise travels around the stadium well and the fans in other sections do join in the singing. One major advantage of the Riazor is that the view of the pitch is excellent, regardless of where you sit. I’ve been in most sections of the ground and can honestly say this is true. Even in the lower corners, you get an unimpeded view of what’s going on, even though you may have to strain your eyes a little to see what’s going on in the far end of the field. Being so close to the action certainly helps and means that if you’re in the right area, you can get involved in some vociferous celebrations (a late, late equaliser against Sporting Gijon in 2014 immediately springs to mind).
In my time living in Galicia, I tried to get to as many games at the Riazor as I possibly could. Tickets are readily available if you turn up on match day, but unfortunately if you live elsewhere in Galicia, the greatest problem you face is the La Liga fixture scheduler.
All too often Depor found themselves playing in the Saturday night 10pm ‘death slot’ (ie the free-to-air tv game) which makes travelling back to one of Galicia’s other major cities an impossibility, since the last train leaves Coruña station at around 9pm. Were it not for this, I’m sure I could have at least doubled the number of games I saw at this fantastic venue.