AC Buzz

Espanyol: Barcelona’s Invisible Team

Forza_Sentiment(By Sam Borden/NYT) In a phenomenon probably familiar to fans of RC Cola, Gatwick Airport or any Baldwin brother other than Alec, Aguirre is passionate about something that is not so much overshadowed as it is eclipsed. Specifically, Aguirre is the manager of Espanyol, a soccer team typically known as the other club in Barcelona, if it is known at all.

Confusion is not uncommon. This is why Aguirre, when he is not fuming about his team’s lack of newspaper coverage, already has stock answers to the questions he is asked when he tells people that he is a soccer coach in Barcelona. No, he does not know Lionel Messi. No, he does not know what it is like to win at the Camp Nou stadium. No, he is not friends with Pep Guardiola.

PUMA-FOOTBALL-homePanel-Espanyol“We are the New York Jets or something like that,” Aguirre said in a recent interview at Espanyol’s training complex, pausing only to thrust the newspapers — which featured stories about Barcelona on virtually every page — toward a visitor.

“We are the second team of the city,” he added. “But there are some good things about that, too. And our fans are very passionate, very strong about a lot of things — especially hating Barça.”

Reasons for this distaste abound and cover the usual issues: money, reputation and basic geographic antipathy. But while intracity rivalries are common throughout the sports world, the divide in this city is more charged than the typical neighborhood tiff because here the instigator is freedom.

Through the years, Barcelona fans have been associated with the Catalonian independence movement. Espanyol fans have generally been linked to those in favor of a unified Spain. The issue of Catalonian independence is a constant source of impassioned debate in this region, and for many Barcelona fans it is enough to make Espanyol an even more odious enemy than Real Madrid.

periquito+indepe.jpe-725140“I actually hate Espanyol more than I hate Madrid,” said Albert Riera, 28, who has followed Barcelona since he was a boy. “Espanyol fans feel more Spanish than they do Catalan. Unfortunately, politics play a big role in this.”

He shook his head. “In my opinion, Espanyol should just move to another country,” he said.

Such a drastic parting seems unlikely, and team executives from both clubs have recently gone to great lengths to play down the acidic political associations. Espanyol officials are particularly sensitive to the subject. Joan Collet, the team’s president, conceded that there might have been a time when the club did not distance itself appropriately from the nationalist label. Still, he insisted, the club is now focused on being as open as possible.

The rhetoric of détente has done little to actually dull the passion among the clubs’ fans. Matches such as Friday’s clash between the teams at Camp Nou remain highly charged events, albeit for different reasons.

For Barcelona, a juggernaut with 22 league titles and 4 European championships, the match is critical in the way that big brothers often find it important to take time to play against (and typically beat up on) their younger brothers. In the past 12 matches played between the teams, Barcelona has eight wins and three ties. In the series, Barcelona has lost only 43 of the 191 games played.

EstadioRCDE_PanoFor Espanyol, Barcelona’s dominance makes the so-called derby matches that much bigger. Even in a period when the club is mediocre (Espanyol currently is eighth in the 20-team league standings), a positive result against Barcelona can make an entire season memorable.

In 2007, for example, Espanyol finished 11th in the league, but the season was widely seen as a rousing success among its fans because Raúl Tamudo scored in the 90th minute of the season’s last game at Camp Nou to earn Espanyol a 2-2 tie. That the draw essentially took that year’s league title away from Barcelona (and handed it to Real Madrid on a better head-to-head record against Barça) only made the experience that much sweeter. To this day, Tamudo said, fans remind him of the goal, which is known throughout Spain as the Tamudazo.

“Everywhere I go, there are Madrid fans thanking me,” Tamudo said. “Barça fans, not so much.”

Alas, those sorts of moments have been few and far between for Espanyol. The club’s last victory in the rivalry was in 2009, and while Barcelona is a regular in the latter stages of European competitions, Espanyol has struggled even to qualify for European play in recent years. Even its highlights are bittersweet; the club reached the final of the second-tier UEFA Cup (now the Europa League) in 1988 and 2007, but lost each time.

espanyola-articleLargeWith Barcelona always looming — Collet likened Espanyol’s neighbor to “a monster” and “a big tree” — life for the club is challenging on all fronts.

The overwhelming money received by Barcelona and Real Madrid for television rights and the relative pittance reserved for the rest of the teams in the Spanish league is an enduring thorn for clubs like Espanyol, and Collet has brought up the idea of a boycott to protest the top two clubs’ receiving more than half of the league’s TV revenue. Beyond that, Espanyol and other area clubs must also deal with Barcelona’s plucking of their best youth players. “The greatness of Barça has hurt sport in Catalonia a lot,” Collet said.

Lucrative local sponsorships are also difficult to arrange because of Barcelona’s omnipresence, and jersey sales are limited, too. According to José Maria Gay de Liébana, an economist and professor at the University of Barcelona, the most popular Espanyol shirts in terms of sales are ones with no name on the back; ones with the fan’s name on the back; or ones with the former player Dani Jarque’s name on the back (Jarque died at 26 in 2009).

Nonetheless, Espanyol fans (known as periquitos, or parakeets, after the club’s mascot) remain proud of their club’s quirky existence. In a city full of children hoping to be the next Messi or Xavi, there actually are a few hopefuls who choose to embrace the unpredictability that comes with rooting for a perpetual underdog.

“If you are an Espanyol fan, you have feelings,” Sergi Fischer, 13, said during a break in a pickup soccer game. “Barça wins all the time, so there’s no suffering.”

Espanyol fans also revel in the club’s playing style under Aguirre, which is more direct and aggressive than Barcelona’s famed possession attack. Additionally, the club has a new stadium, opened four years ago, that brings to mind some of the most charming German arenas.

Selling the naming rights to the stadium is a top priority, Collet said, and it is not hard to see why. The stadium cost roughly 70 million euros (about $96.5 million), and Espanyol has a total annual operating budget of about 50 million euros.

To put that into context, consider that Barcelona — which is believed to have an operating budget nearly 10 times as large — reportedly spent about 57 million euros to acquire the Brazilian star Neymar.

Pere Bosch contributed reporting.

Full post on NYT

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