First thing you notice, at the Mediapro studios in Barcelona, is the ‘frankness’ of the punditry.
Imagine Eamon Dunphy became the Spanish football expert he often styled himself as.
There’s plenty of ‘tactics truck’ stuff to digest. But we also hear one international player has been “a waste of money”, who has become “useless and scared”. Diego Costa has become “a statue”. Atletico, as a group, have gone “soft mentally”. If Diego Simeone hadn’t abandoned any hope of learning English, “he’d have been in the Premier League long ago”.
We’re on set because LaLigaTV launches in Ireland on January 29, broadcasting live every single match from the Spanish top flight thisseason and for at least the next two.
Available here and in the UK on the Sky platform via Premier Sports, the deal makes LaLiga the first football league to have a 24/7dedicated channel in the UK and Ireland carrying all games live.
With seven days of programming to fill, there’s a variety of magazine and analysis shows packed around the matches.
Today we’re earwigging on the Viva LaLiga Wednesday debate, with familiar Spanish football pundits Graham Hunter and Guillem Balague, former Arsenal full-back Lauren, and the Daily Mail’s Spanish football writer Pete Jenson.
Host Simon Hanley hopes the channel will reawaken British and Irish viewers to Spanish charms beyond Messi worldies and Bale headlines.
“We just hope people who maybe aren’t aware of LaLiga apart from Barcelona and Real Madrid get to realise it’s much more than that.
“We’ve had Granada leading LaLiga this season, Sevilla in third, Getafe battling to get back into Europe, which even though they did it last season is an astonishing story.
“We’ve got the two big Basque clubs, Sociedad and Athletic Club, battling it out with radically different approaches to playing football and their philosophies as clubs.
“There’s Eibar, a town of 20,000 people in their fifth LaLiga season, a magical story.
There’s so much to dig into if you look beyond the big two, and then you’ve also got the big two, so attractive to audiences around the world.
LALigaTV has been created by the league itself, in partnership with Mediapro, to sell as a turnkey channel to broadcasters around the world.
But shouldn’t an in-house product be safe and sanitised?
You don’t watch Real Madrid TV for criticism of the regime. When Roy Keane went rogue, MUTV destroyed the tapes.
“We’re not propaganda merchants,” says Hanley. “We genuinely love the league and are passionate about it. I feel if we were just selling propaganda nobody would trust it and these quality of guests wouldn’t come on.”
Most of the harshest words today come from ubiquitous Scot Graham Hunter, well known to Irish radio listeners.
“Nobody has ever said to us at LaLiga television, this is institutional, it’s Sunday School language only, be nice to everybody, this is Cliff Richard in football boots,” Hunter says.
“Simon Hanley said I want something that’s like the golden age of Parkinson. What we are asked to do is show our knowledge of why LaLiga is, in our opinion — not LaLiga’s opinion, our opinion — the best.
“That’s why I moved country, that’s why I’ve been here 18 years. You see technique and strategy and football intelligence and creativity and skills here that you still don’t see anywhere else. That’s what drives us.
“They don’t ask us for ‘headlines’, or ‘clicks’. But in Britain and Ireland sometimes you’ve got this knowledge, but it’s, ‘I better not say it because I might need a job or my mate might…’ It’s rubbish, because football’s too big and too pure for that.”
When Gary Lineker was once asked why Irish punditry could be more forthright than its UK counterpart, he put it down to access.
“It’s easy to do these things when none of the people, the managers, are watching.
“If Sky did that or we did that back home constantly and just went over the top with our opinions, the clubs wouldn’t talk to us, the managers wouldn’t talk to us and the players wouldn’t talk to us.”
So is there a more mature attitude to opinion in Spain? Isn’t access used as a weapon?
“It’s give and take,” says Hanley. The clubs are interested in this mouthpiece and to be seen further afield. There’s going to be criticism, but it’s personal opinion and I think clubs understand it.
“Atletico have been getting stick, not just today but all season. But we’ve had no problems getting interviews with their players. Nobody would be interested in watching a channel which says everyone is wonderful.”
Hunter detects a key cultural difference in his adopted home.
“It’s one of the principal reasons I moved here, is that if they like your work, you’ll get a player’s phone number.
“Tiny little examples; when I was travelling with Spain, I was allowed into the World Cup-winning dressing room. And into the 2012 winning dressing room. At the Champions League in 2011 at Wembley, Xavi had said, ‘fine, we’ll do an interview in the dressing room with the cup’.
“That’s not ego, the players here, broadly, to a much greater degree, think journalists are worthwhile human beings who probably know about football.”
Jenson adds: “That Spain group Graham is talking about were extraordinary in terms of the down-to-earth personalities and the fact that they would talk to you on your level. The access was incredible.
And other players who have come up, subsequent generations, have taken their lead from the way Xavi behaved and the way Xabi Alonso behaved and Santi Cazorla behaved. So there is an openness that maybe you don’t get elsewhere.
SPAIN does like to talk football. The radio show, El Larguero (The Crossbar), attracts one million listeners every night, running ‘til 1am. Tuesday’s Viva LaLiga goes full nerd, with all the stats and heatmaps you can eat.
“Here, it’s about the game, who can argue it best, who knows the game, which style of football do I love, that’s a really healthy environment to work in,” Hunter adds.
“So if we weren’t talking adequately about football, and if LaLiga was saying to us, let’s make it anodyne, nobody, none of the infrastructure of Spanish football, the coaches, the players, would come and talk to us.
“Because they view it differently, they don’t think, like they do in some countries, there’s a fee for an appearance, I’ll turn up, just churn out some old rubbish and I’ll turn up again next week. That’s not the way they think here.”
The success of LaLigaTV will hinge, of course, on the matches not the chat. With Spain’s staggered kickoff times, you’ll be able to watch every game live if you have the interest and stamina. The fragmented football market means another subscription will be a tough sell, though €5.99 per month looks a fair price point for the scale of the service.
‘All of LaLiga, all in one place’, goes the tagline, a counterpoint to the jumbled Premier League picture where punters must fork out several times.
Ballague accepts Spanish football has faded a little from consciousness in UK and Ireland since the pomp of Guardiola’s Barcelona and Revista De LaLiga on Sky.
When streaming service Eleven Sports held the rights last season, demand didn’t keep the show on the road.
“I think in general people are watching a lot of football and I guess they wanted the whole thing to be easy for them,” Ballague says.
“The days where you watch the 5.30pm game in the Premier League and then you just stay there and a Spanish game comes on — that’s gone.
"It’s now built in a different way but clearly it did feel a little bit like we were out of the conversation. But also, because the Premier League started to become a stronger proposition, for example Mourinho, Pep were in the Premier League.
“Can we get back that audience from them? I don’t know. But what is being produced here has more names, more quality, more of it. Remember (on Sky) we used to have one show and then that was it for the week.
But you can’t look back and reference five or 10 years ago because everything has moved on, including the way people watch games. You all watch a game now with the phone or an iPad or whatever, so it’s not like when we had you kidnapped completely for two hours. It’s not like that anymore.
What LaLiga does have is the greatest player that ever lived. Everywhere you look there is acceptance of his importance.
There is only one face emblazoned across Mediapro’s screens before the show starts.
“If Messi left… you’re talking about an icon, somebody you have to watch. We’ve still got plenty of years to come and nobody is talking about that yet but it’s going to be a void in everybody’s life — whoever loves football, not just Spanish football.”
What viewers can expect from LaLigaTV
- Special ‘calendar selector’ software is used to optimise kick-off times to maximise domestic and international audiences. So premium games are unlikely to be scheduled during the Saturday 3pm UK blackout.
- LaLigaTV requires a minimum of 15 cameras at each top-flight ground, with 14 of the 20 having an aerial camera and eight a 360-degree camera.
- Post-match player interviews will be conducted using ‘hologram’ technology, to ‘beam’ players into the Mediapro studio.
- Each LaLiga club must provide a list of players comfortable giving interviews in English, with LaLigaTV having access to the special ‘English-speaking’ mixed zone.
- As well as 10 live LaLiga games each week, there's a Monday highlights show, a LaLiga SmartBank (second division) highlights show, classic matches, and daily review programmes.
- Upcoming is a special Messi documentary as part of a series marking 90 years of LaLiga.