Living in the shadow of giants
SEPT 18 — All over the world, you can venture into any major city and find a football club that, however much success and support it might enjoy, is forced to exist in the unrelenting shadow of its bigger and more popular neighbour.
You know the type: in Liverpool there’s Everton; in Madrid there’s Atletico; in Munich there’s 1860; in Manchester there used to be Manchester City but now they’ve reversed roles so it’s Manchester United (ha-ha!).
And in Barcelona, there’s the case of Espanyol, who have to endure the added misfortune that their local rival just happens to be probably the biggest club in the world and in recent years has been lauded as possessing the best team ever. How on earth can you compete with that?
The complicated state of internal Spanish politics adds an extra edge to this particular rivalry. Despite being founded by a foreigner (the Swiss Hans Kamper), FC Barcelona have long been regarded as the public representative of Catalan nationalism, encapsulated by their motto “More than a club”.
Espanyol, on the other hand, historically possessed a much closer allegiance to the wider Spanish state — even their name means “Spanish”, a highly provocative term in a part of the world where many people firmly regard themselves as Catalan and definitely not Spanish.
Those distinctions between the two clubs have been eroded in more recent years as Barca’s phenomenal success and their venomous relationship with Real Madrid have allowed them to outgrow the more local rivalry with Espanyol, but there are still plenty of Pericos — as the Espanyol fans call themselves — around the city.
They’ve had a reasonable amount of success to savour over the years, winning the Spanish Cup on four occasions and reaching the UEFA Cup (now Europa League) final as recently as 2007. But they’ve never been able to escape the large and looming shadow cast by Barcelona — not helped by a relatively nomadic status as they’ve played in three different stadiums in the last 15 years.
On an objective level, it’s quite surprising that Espanyol still have any fans at all: in a cold, rational world, why on earth would you choose to support a mediocre mid-table team when you’ve got the mighty FC Barcelona on your doorstep?
But as we all know, supporting a football team is not a rational pursuit and Espanyol are therefore still able to call upon historical ties and family bonds to attract sizeable crowds — they averaged more than 25,000 last season despite a poor campaign.
On Sunday I made my first visit to their smart new Cornella-El Prat stadium, which opened its doors in August 2009 with a friendly victory over Liverpool.
Athletic Bilbao were the visitors and the main story surrounding the game was the return to action of their Spanish international striker Fernando Llorente, who was making his first appearance of the season after failing to get the move he publicly requested during the summer transfer window (he’s now expected to join Juventus in January).
But the game had plenty of meaning for Espanyol as well. The home team had lost their first three games of the season, conceding the decisive goal in the last five minutes of play on each occasion — their previous outing had seen them throw away a 2-0 lead at Levante and eventually lose to an injury-time own goal.
Bearing that in mind, it was understandable that the prevailing atmosphere inside the Cornella-El Prat stadium was one of tension. The nerves were lifted when the home side took advantage of poor Bilbao defending to race into a 2-0 lead at half-time, but Espanyol have specialised in second-half collapses and when Bilbao pulled one back after 54 minutes, the crowd immediately became fearful.
Sensing the moment was ripe, Bilbao manager Marcelo Biesla introduced Llorente from the bench... and the striker promptly scored with his first touch to make the score 2-2. At that point, with half an hour still remaining, Espanyol were clearly there for the taking. The defence was leaving huge gaps and the whole team was playing with fear and tension.
But Bilbao couldn’t take advantage, Espanyol managed to steady themselves and even retook the lead as the game entered the final 10 minutes. Bilbao came back to make it 3-3 almost immediately thanks to a brilliant volley by Aritz Aduriz, and despite a chaotic final few minutes that was how it remained.
Of course it helped that it had been a fantastic game, but my abiding thought as I left the stadium was: that was real football. The fans had been right behind their team — even when they were occasionally overtaken by nerves — the play had been committed and the whole occasion produced an intensity that can often be missing in bigger venues.
Watching football in a vast auditorium like the Nou Camp or Old Trafford is great, but it’s an altogether different kind of experience from cheering on a team like Espanyol. The atmosphere in a smaller stadium is much more intimate, allowing you to feel closer to the action and closer to the players.
And in many ways being an Espanyol fan is infinitely more interesting than supporting Barcelona: surely it can get just a bit dreary watching your team record comfortable win after comfortable win, week after week. Supporting Espanyol, with all its ups and down, is more like the ups and downs of real life.
They might never attract the same kind of attention as their bigger rivals, but the world needs clubs like Espanyol. Long may they prosper.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.