Real Madrid, Real Sociedad and more in LaLiga and beyond: Why are so many Spanish clubs called 'Real'?

Real Madrid play Real Sociedad in LaLiga on Saturday. You could call it the 'Real' derby. Except it isn't, of course: Real Sociedad are based 200 miles north of Spain's capital in the Basque Country, close to the French border. But nonetheless, it feels like a good time to ask: Why are there so many 'Real' clubs in Spanish football?

It isn't just 13-time European champions Real Madrid Club de Futbol -- who are often referred to in Spain simply as 'Madrid,' while city rivals Atletico Madrid are 'Atletico' -- and Real Sociedad de Futbol, who are informally known as 'La Real.' There are four more clubs with 'Real' (pronounced 'rey-al,' the Spanish word for 'royal') in their name in the Primera Division this season: Real Betis Balompie, Real Club Celta de Vigo, Real Club Deportivo Espanyol and Real Club Deportivo Mallorca.

In the Segunda Division, you'll find Real Valladolid, Real Oviedo, Real Zaragoza and Real Club Sporting de Gijon. Further down the pyramid, look out for historic names Real Club Deportivo La Coruna and Real Racing Club de Santander in the third tier, now known as the Primera RFEF. Where do all these 'Real' clubs come from? How did they earn their titles? And can any club be 'Real' if it wants to?

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'La Real' is a good place to start. Real Sociedad -- eighth in the all-time LaLiga rankings, twice league champions in the early 1980s and more recently 2020 Copa del Rey winners -- are based in the beautiful beach resort of San Sebastian, where they are also known as the 'Txuri-urdin' ('blue-and-white') in the Basque language. By pure coincidence, a sponsorship deal with an insurance firm means their Anoeta stadium is currently known as the Reale Arena.

"The club was officially founded on Sept. 7, 1909," Inaki Mendoza, Real Sociedad's official historian, told ESPN. "At that time it was just called 'Sociedad de Football' ('Football Society'). The directors asked King Alfonso XIII to confer the title of 'Real.'

"It was a question of prestige. I imagine they asked for it because the royal family used to spend their summers here in San Sebastian."

Alfonso XIII, who ruled Spain from his birth in 1886 until the country's Second Republic was declared in 1931 and he went into exile, was keen to connect the monarchy to football to capitalise on the sport's surging popularity.

"By February 1910, we'd been given the title 'Real,'" Mendoza said. "Real Madrid received theirs later, Espanyol too. We were one of the first. It happened quickly, in barely five months."

The first club to be granted the title 'Real' was Deportivo La Coruna in 1909. Real Sociedad received their own royal decree (pictured) a year later, with Espanyol joining them in 1912, Celta Vigo and Real Betis in 1914 and Real Madrid in 1920. With so many clubs being recognised by the crown, the Spanish football federation (RFEF) wasn't about to miss out.

"The RFEF was founded in 1913, and the king granted it the title of 'Real' that same year," the federation's Pablo Garcia Cuervo told ESPN. "By then, various clubs had already received the title. Clubs would make the monarch an honorary member, and by way of thanks, the Royal Household would name them 'Real.'

"It's the Crown that has the authority to bestow the title, not the federation. The RFEF recognises the concession and applies it in the statutes, making the name change official."

Spain's turbulent 20th century history saw the names of clubs change as the political landscape shifted.

"During the Second Republic, our name was changed to Donostia Football Club," Real Sociedad's Mendoza said. "That name lasted until after the Civil War [1936-39], when the traditional name was recovered. Our fans have embraced the fact that the club is known as 'La Real.' It isn't controversial. There's no political connotation, in my opinion."

There are 23 'Real' clubs in Spain's top five tiers -- not including reserve sides such as Real Madrid Castilla or Real Sociedad B, which also compete within the Spanish league system -- including the country's oldest: Real Club Recreativo de Huelva, which was founded in 1889 and played in the top flight as recently as 2008-09, but are now in the fifth tier.

Most clubs received their titles in the 1910s and '20s, but there's nothing to stop a club from contacting the Royal Household to request 'Real' status nowadays -- as Club Deportivo Gara, a team from the small town of Garachico on the island of Tenerife, proved in 2012.

"The club has been around for many years, it has a lot of history. It's famous on the island," club president Pedro Martinez told ESPN. "Some of the club's former players set up a committee for our centenary and that's where it started, to try to make the club 'Real.'"

The result: Gara became Spain's newest 'Real' team, joining a group that includes the country's oldest club and the most successful team in the history of European competition.

"It's a source of huge pride for us," Martinez said. "It was a long process with a lot of paperwork. We're a small club. We have three youth teams and a team competing in Regional [Tenerife's local, non-professional league] this year."

From Real Madrid to Real Club Deportivo Gara, there's royalty throughout Spanish football. Just make sure you get the names right.

As Mendoza puts it: "We aren't 'Sociedad.' We're 'Real Sociedad.' That's how it is. That's the name."

By Royal Decree: Spain's 'Real' clubs (top five leagues, 2021-22)

Primera Division (6)
Real Betis Balompie, Real Club Celta de Vigo, Real Club Deportivo Espanyol, Real Club Deportivo Mallorca, Real Madrid, Real Sociedad de Futbol

Segunda Division (4)
Real Club Sporting de Gijon, Real Oviedo, Real Valladolid, Real Zaragoza

Primera RFEF (4)
Real Balompedica Linense, Real Club Deportivo La Coruna, Real Racing Club de Santander, Real Union

Segunda RFEF (2)
Real Aviles, Real Murcia

Tercera RFEF (7)
Real Avila, Real Club Deportivo Carabanchel, Real Club Recreativo de Huelva, Real Jaen, Real Sociedad Deportiva Alcalá, Real Sociedad Gimnástica de Torrelavega, Real Titanico