When you consider major footballing derbies in Europe you may think of those in Manchester, Madrid, Milan or Glasgow. In Spain however. there is another major derby outside of Madrid that occurs in La Liga. It receives next to no media coverage outside of Spain but has been a fixture on the La Liga calendar for over 20 seasons in a row and for many decades before that, with the occasional gap due to infrequent relegations. Espanyol versus Barcelona, for many fans, is the most important game there is and the rivalry is more fierce than you may realise.
Formed in 1900 by a Spanish student, Espanyol were granted patronage by the King of Spain at the time, Alfonso XIII, allowing them to use 'Real' (translated to Royal) in their name. With such an honour comes power and ability to make a change and in 1928 they became one of the founding members of La Liga. Their rivalry with Barcelona began from day one as Espanyol were formed solely by Spaniards, one year after the formation of Barcelona by a group of multi nationals. Their ideological differences have never disappeared and in modern times the Espanyol fans are usually those in favour of a unified Spain, whilst the Barcelona fans favour Catalan independence. The rivalry is therefore already in existence before anyone has even kicked a ball.
It is true that there can often be a hatred between the fans due to political issues rather than footballing reasons and you can read many stories about what the fans think of each other because of these views, but hey, this is a sports blog, lets stick to the football! Perhaps because Espanyol are not a giant in Spanish football, their rivalry with Barcelona is often overlooked by those outside of Spain. Sure Barcelona have won La Liga more times than Steven Gerrard scored for England and also have been crowned champions of Europe and the World on various occasions but Espanyol are no part-timers. When you look at La Liga, Espanyol are a comfortable mid-table club that have spent only four seasons outside of the top flight since the leagues formation. Their current run in Spain's top division has been going since 1994. They are very rarely a team looking over their shoulder, scared of relegation.
In terms of support, finances and quality of players, Espanyol, if they were in a race with their neighbours, would most likely be lapped, numerous times. Living in such close proximity to one of the biggest clubs in the world can be tough, but they are not without their own successes and attractive selling points. With a new stadium, completed in 2009 with a capacity of 40,500, they can call the 10th largest football stadium in Spain, home. Espanyol also have four Copa Del Rey titles to their name which is more than the likes of Real Sociedad or Real Betis and only one fewer than Sevilla, with their most recent success coming in the 2005/06 season.
European competition is also something that Espanyol have enjoyed during their history. As well as appearing in the less prestigious Intertoto Cup, the club has also featured in the UEFA Cup. The UEFA Cup (now the Europa League) is a competition that they have competed in on seven occasions, reaching the final twice but losing both times. Their 2007 UEFA Cup Final defeat to Sevilla will have arguably caused the most pain as they would certainly have been deserved winners of the cup that year. They navigated through a tough group winning all four matches, including a 2-0 win against Ajax in Amsterdam. After defeating Benfica and Werder Bremen in the quarter finals and semi finals respectively, they then lost the final on a penalty shoot out to their Spanish rivals. Espanyol did not lose a single match in normal time during the tournament that year, yet they still couldn't bring the trophy home.
Perhaps their European agony is a hangover from the rather unfortunate record that they hold in Spain. No club has spent more seasons in the Spanish top flight without winning the title than Espanyol. Whilst it is reassuring that they are always a top flight club, there is something quite depressing about their never winning it. Here we have a sizeable football club and one of the founding clubs of the league, yet they have never quite had enough to be crowned the champions of Spain. Their lack of silverware over a 116 year history, in comparison to the extra trophy cabinets that Barcelona have probably had to buy over the years, is perhaps, aside from the political aspect, another reason for the rather large difference in supporter levels.
Barcelona is a football shirt that is recognised across the globe. They are a team that field some of the best players in the world every season and their football stadium is visited, not only by the true fans of the club, but by tourists who descend upon the city as well. I wonder how many people on holiday in Barcelona decide to attend an Espanyol match. The answer is probably somewhere between zero and not very many. The attendances at Espanyol matches were encouraging when the new stadium first opened in 2009 as they averaged at over 27,500 for the 2009/10 season. As the novelty of the new stadium wore off, the cup success dried up and mid-table finishes in La Liga became all too common, the average attendance dropped and was down at around 18,300 for the 2015/16 season. Clearly something needs to change.
That change may have arrived in January 2016 as Chen Yansheng, a Chinese billionaire, took over the club. The businessman has a controlling stake in the club and was quick to state his ambition of reaching the Champions League in three years. In a more competitive than ever La Liga, that could prove quite the challenge, but one that would certainly let the world know that Barcelona has two major football clubs, not one. The next few years could prove to be quite interesting for Espanyol if the ambitions of Yansheng come to fruition.
Of course anything that Espanyol achieve in the future will likely always be dwarfed when compared to their vastly successful, and rather loud, Catalan neighbours. Espanyol will look to the future and hope that a new billionaire owner can bring their own slice of success and that they can also find someone as prolific as Raul Tamudo once again, to catapult the club in the right direction. Tamudo is perhaps the most celebrated player Espanyol have had as no one even comes close to his 340 league appearances for the blue and white side of Barcelona. He was prolific in front of goal and even represented Spain on 13 occasions at senior level. It is this type of player that the club will want, and need, if they are to start finishing in the top half of the table and challenging for European places.
Whenever there is a city of two clubs I always find myself willing the smaller of the two on. I've always liked an underdog. Barcelona however, are a difficult team to dislike and although I personally have enjoyed watching Real Madrid more over the years, when Barcelona turn it on, fans are entertained and that is to be respected. I do hope Espanyol can find some success of their own however because a one sided derby is no fun for either set of supporters. Espanyol have not beaten Barcelona in La Liga since the 2008/09 season and so it would be nice if they could start to force the Barca fans to go into these derbies with a little bit of fear that they might actually lose. After all, what is derby day without that daunting fear that your team may lose and you have to face your friends and colleagues the next day? The size of the stadium and the financial clout of the owner suggest that Espanyol have the foundations to be a dangerous club. Only time will tell if Chen Yansheng's big ambitions can squeeze into a city dominated by someone else.
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