Barcelona-based Cillian Shields explores the storied history of the matchday poster through one of the best exponents of the phenomenon in Spain, CD Leganés.

Match posters hold a unique position in the social fabric of football. They can be artistic, creative and colourful, grabbing fans’ imaginations and stirring up enchanting images of micro moments of action during matches that make us love the game.

On the other hand, some are completely nondescript and barely worth looking at, providing only the basic information needed to tell people a match is being played between these teams, at this time, in this place. But that’s also perfectly fine, because they don’t necessarily need to be anything more than that.

Posters can range from unremarkable to wonderful pieces of art, but rarely offend in their terribleness. They provide a completely blank canvas for club marketing departments to take the poster any direction they wish. They can either offer the public the most basic necessary facts that a punter would need to know to attend the game, or clubs can use the poster as an opportunity to make something special.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the first advertisements for football games appeared in newspapers and posted in public spaces in towns and cities, typically text-heavy with little imagery. There was no television or internet to inform people of the games that were being played.

There were of course exceptions to this rule, with some posters showing the layout of a football pitch and formations of the XIs, or playing with different fonts often to differentiate between the teams.

A few decades after organised football’s beginnings, with the popularity of the sport already well established across the globe, some more artistic approaches were taken to the concept of the match poster.

Leagues and cup competitions had grown in grandeur and rivalries were being forged across the football landscape. Imagery of the game was already in the public’s consciousness, and this gave designers more material to work with, drawing on action shots of players striking a ball, leaping for a header, or stretching for a save.

There’s a huge difference to the purpose of match posters in the formative years of football, the majority of the 20th century, and the current day. They’ve moved from simply informing the public of games that will be taking place to inspirational and colourful action shots to excite and draw you in.

Nowadays, of course, we have the internet. Every summer we eagerly await the release of the upcoming season’s fixture list, and many fans have their team’s full calendars synced up to their phones almost as immediately as the draw is made. We can find out instantly when the next matches we want to watch or attend are, rendering the match poster redundant to a certain extent.

As such, the match poster has taken on a completely new identity in recent years. They are no longer strictly necessary at all yet remain a tradition as old as the organized game, cherished by some and never given a second thought by others. Many clubs still take the easy option of selecting some photographs of players celebrating or in action, accompany them with the opposition team name and essential information such as the date, time, and where to buy tickets.

But this doesn’t have to be the case, and the possibilities offered by 21st century graphic design are only beginning to be tapped into.

CD Leganés are one of the best examples in Spain of a club turning the match poster into something different, something vibrant, alive and even hotly anticipated. Their playful, outside-the-box use of the match day poster has helped them stick out from the crowd, and has become another way they made La Liga fall in love with them when they arrived in Spain’s top flight for the first time in their history in 2016.

Leganés, nicknamed the cucumber growers (‘los pepineros’ in Spanish)employ humour, wit, and bags of creativity in their game posters. The method of designer Sergio Cid, who works at creative advertising agency Hugin & Munin and designed the match posters for his local club free of charge, all begins with “analyzing the opposition.”

He, along with his friend and colleague Alberto Pascual, made clever references to rival team names and nicknames, looking at “their city of origin, their situation in the league table, typical things about the region they came from such as holidays or the local cuisine” to find inspiration.

For a noon kickoff against Valencia, who proudly wear a bat on their crest, the poster nodded at Leganés’ hopes of catching their visitors still asleep on the pitch, depicting a bat fast asleep in bed. Another, for a fixture against Villarreal, nicknamed ‘the yellow submarine,’ showed an instantly recognisable Beatles style yellow submarine with the message “we can’t bring the sea to Butarque, but we can bring a submarine.”

“A lot of the time we also took current affairs, popular culture, or especially things on the internet as a base to start with,” Cid explains. Against Eibar, with a blockbuster from the Jurassic Park franchise recently in cinemas, the film was transformed into ‘Butarquic VAR,’ making a play on words with their own stadium and video assistant refereeing technology that dominated headlines for so long after it had just been introduced in Spain.

Ahead of one tie against Rayo Vallecano, an image of Thor’s Hammer was transformed into a south Madrid cucumber, struck by a bolt of lightning. In Spanish, the word ‘rayo’ can translate to ‘lightning bolt.’ “Once we had the idea, all we had to do was open Photoshop and… the rest is difficult to explain, it’s something magical.”

This wasn’t the only time they made great use of their own curious nickname, the cucumber growers, replacing images of airplanes, bananas, and parakeets with cucumbers.

The whole project began with the need for humour in the face of pain. Leganés had just missed out on promotion to the second division, beaten in the 2013 Segunda B playoffs to Lleida, and were facing yet another year in the semi-professional wilderness, all the while their close neighbours and bitter rivals Getafe were safe in the top division, and heading for their 10th consecutive season among Spain’s elite, having never been relegated from La Liga at the time.

That summer, Cid, along with Alberto Pascual, had an informal meeting with Daniel Abanda, director of communications at Leganés and the pair offered their creative services. Cid had been a Lega fan his whole life, explaining that “they used to hand out free tickets to schools” in the area, but for whatever reason the club didn’t deliver to his school.

At this young age, Cid already showed his creative nous, and asked his neighbour, who went to another school, to give him her free tickets that she was given and didn’t want to use. “I even remember a rainy day when I was a ball boy against Real Madrid B, you just had to arrive there early.”

When Lega moved to the new Butarque stadium in 1998, Cid bought himself a season ticket, and was member number 700. However, something didn’t sit quite right for Cid. “At that time, the low attendances at the stadium bothered me.”

Leganés is a small commuter city south of Madrid. Its football team reached the top flight of Spanish football for the first time ever in 2016, having spent the majority of its history below the professional top two divisions. Their old ground, the Estadio Luis Rodríguez de Miguel held just 5,000 spectators, while their current Butarque ground can welcome just about twice that.

With the dual intention of garnering excitement for Leganés games, as well as fostering good relationships with visiting teams and fans, the designs proved an instant success. The following season, the cucumber growers were promoted back into professional football for the first time in eleven years. They would only spend two seasons in the second division however, as bigger and better things awaited them.

Leganés are not a glamorous club. They play in the shadow of giants like Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid. Despite spending so long in the same division as more illustrious neighbours,— and even knocking Real Madrid out of the Spanish cup in the Bernabéu in 2018 which they would make a ‘cup fever’ reference to in a future poster — Leganés aren’t trying to offer the same kind of experience as those teams at the peak of the European game.

Instead, their focus is on offering accessible, local, community football, in a familial environment, with its own strong, unique, and proud identity. Cid agrees that his match posters have “helped the people identify more strongly with the club, as they feel proud and represented by our way.”

For the people of Leganés, “every game is a final and we count every victory as though it were a title,” the designer recalls, proudly. “As well as attracting more people, our identity has made most opposition fans like us as well. We’ve gained this fun image from the humour we use in our match posters.”

“Being a small and family club allows us to be a little more risky in our designs.” Cid believes that, in general, neutral fans like smaller clubs more than they like bigger clubs. If Real Madrid, for example, were poking fun around the league with their posters, perhaps they may not be as well received as how Leganés have been, and the club has “always tried to de-dramatize football.”

The good relations built with other clubs have even seen Leganés be fed a taste of their own medicine. Real Betis are one of the most fun-loving clubs in Spain, with a fanbase to match. The Andalusians are a club with personality that have enjoyed the Leganés match posters more than most.

One poster for a late-season encounter between the sides with Lega fighting against relegation from La Liga, had the words “Nada de whassa con este partido” splashed across it, meaning “No joking with this match,” but with “whassa” substituting the real word in Spanish, ‘guasa’, which also served as a phonetic colloquial spelling of WhatsApp in an Andalusian accent. An image of a flamenco dancer emoji in the colours of Real Betis accompanied the text.

The poster found the message that the team must take the game seriously, in a way that wasn’t the club taking itself too seriously, mixing wordplay and playful iconography.

Betis would have their retaliation down the years too, with the poster for a game between the two teams in their Benito Villamarín stadium once declaring to their opponents, “On paper, you are great.” A Betis player is then shown firing a ball so powerful through three previous Leganés

match posters for other games that they all burst into flames, followed by the message, “On the pitch, it’s another story.”

The Andalusians aren’t the only side to react to the brilliance of Leganés’ marketing. Arguably, Leganés’s famous poster design met its match in 2017 when they traveled to Eibar in the Basque Country, whose poster for the game featured two Lego figurines, wearing Eibar colours chopping through a cucumber.

“Que viene el Lega” the poster read (‘Leganés are coming’), with the name of ‘Lega’ written in the iconic style of the Lego logo.

Before the 2019/20 season was paused due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, La Liga initially announced that all matches for the weekend of March 14/15 would be played behind closed doors. This decision drew immediate criticism for failing to grasp the seriousness of the health crisis, and also for trying to continue with business in a manner that cut fans out of the picture.

Before the weekend arrived, though, all football was indefinitely ceased for a pause that would last months, but Leganés had already designed their poster for the scheduled game against Valladolid. It read: “Nothing to announce. Without fans, there is no football.”

2019/20 was only the fourth season Leganés spent in La Liga, eventually relegated on the last day of the season in late, heartbreaking fashion, as they almost saved themselves with a dramatic comeback against Real Madrid. They could be back for the 2021/22 season though, as they fly high in the second tier.

The impact that this humble outfit from the cucumber fields south of Madrid had on one of the biggest and most commercial leagues in the world has been wonderful. Their original, contemporary take on the match poster has been a refreshing jolt of life into a traditional aspect of the game that could just as easily be neglected. Long live the Leganés match posters.

Cillian Shields is a Barcelona-based journalist working for the Catalan News Agency. He is most interested in football culture, politics, and underdogs. Follow on Twitter: @pile_of_eggs