Catalan Summit

October 18, 2004
By Phil Ball
(Archive)

I was at the 'Derbi Catalan' on Saturday night - at Espanyol's ground up on the top of the Montjuic hill overlooking the north side of Barcelona. The Catalan press had been drumming the game up all week, and were really going for it by the Friday, describing the game as potentially the most evenly-contested in the recent history of the encounters.

Poorer neighbours Espanyol, after struggling for most of last season, have started reasonably well, and although their ten points from six games was overshadowed by Barça's sixteen, you got the point.

The programme printed for the game pushed the same point, that it was 'El derbi més igualtat de les darreres temporades' - which I presume means something like 'The most even derby in recent seasons'. The folks in Barcelona labour under the curious belief that everyone understands their language - an almost endearing habit that has at least ensured the development and current healthy state of Catalan.

Whatever - they certainly know how to put on a show. Walking up in the dark from the Plaça España towards the Olympic Stadium on the hill, there was an absolute bedlam of lights and music as the city celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Montjuic fountain.

Coloured cascades spewed and frothed up into the night, classical music pounded out into the air and blue laser lights cut pathways into the black sky above the Palau Nacional. Folks waved sparklers and swayed along to the music, as if oblivious to the fact that 300 feet further up the ascent a football crowd was also gathering.

The Estadi Olimpic was actually built back in 1936 for an alternative Olympics to the notorious one being held over in Berlin, and was redeveloped for the 1992 event. It may not be a great football stadium, but since Espanyol decided to make it their temporary home after the Sarrià finally closed they can boast probably the most stunning setting of any football ground in Europe.

Problem is that you can easily get caught out up there, on a night match. The game started at 10 p.m., and although the day had been warm in the city, by the end of the game, as the midnight chimes drew near, my thin jacket was being cut to shreds by the piercing night winds that were howling around the top of the shallow-sided Olympic bowl.

The other problem had occurred earlier on, during the climb up to the stadium. As you get higher and higher, past the Miró, past the Palace, past several more wonderful fountains, the elevators take you onto an ever narrowing path that leads you through the woods up to the summit. At a small bar on a bend of this path, a group of Espanyol fans were sitting, watching carefully for any Barça fans unwise enough to go to the game.

It reminded me of that series of Cath Tate postcards in which aliens, having visited Earth, swap observations with each other regarding their experiences. In one of my favourites, two aliens hover above our planet, one of them having just made a visit. One of them asks, 'Well - intelligent life or not?', to which the other replies 'Those with brains seem ok. Those with testicles I'm not too sure about...'.

Watching the group of Espanyol fans mercilessly abuse any Barcelona fan who walked peacefully past was enough to make one ashamed of being male. Nibbling on a cheese and ham sandwich and sipping a beer to one side, I watched while kids as young as nine or ten, hand in hand with dad, were subjected to some really nasty stuff.

Amusingly, after some twenty minutes of this spectacle, two enormous skinheads out of your worst nightmares emerged onto the path, Barça scarves dangling conspicuously from their bomber-jacketed sleeves. The group of Espanyol fans went mysteriously silent, and failed to utter another word until the two chaps had waddled out of sight. Ah Brave New World, that hath such people in it!

Enough. Onto the game. Barça won 1-0, courtesy of a weird but spectacular early strike from the excellent Deco, and Espanyol were truly awful. Tamudo looked traumatised by his experience in Lithuania in midweek, De la Peña was well shackled by Marquez, and there was precious little threat from anyone else.

Empics / SteveEtheringtonThe Olympic Stadium, Barcelona.

It still seems odd to watch De La Peña play against Barça, the team in which he rose so spectacularly to prominence, but Xavi Hernandez is a worthy successor. Whilst everyone else strolled around indifferently, Xavi always looked purposeful - turning the direction of the play in an instant, and always looking neat and tidy in his distribution. He's taken a while to develop, but he suddenly looks the most accomplished of Spain's midfielders.

As a spectacle, any atmosphere there might have been was killed off by the sheer open magnitude of the stadium, its gently curving walls panning back out into the night and allowing the noise to float away, muffled up into the huge black sky above.

Try as it might, the place just doesn't look right for a football match. The dark perimeter track cuts the players off from the stands, so that from the top of the bowl they look like subbuteo players on a dining table.

When Deco scored, no-one seemed to notice at first. The action seemed so far away, in some other space-time continuum, that there was a mysterious gap in time between the ball hitting the net and the gradual grumbling and groaning that bubbled up from the home spectators.

The stadium was only two-thirds full at most, and as derbies go in Spain, the atmosphere in no way compares with the anarchic madness of Seville v Betis, the Real Madrid v Atlético matches, even the Galician encounters. Most Barça fans had stayed at home to watch the game on TV, fearful, one suspects, of the hardcore Brigadas Blanquiazules fans who do not have the friendliest of reputations.

The relationship between the two sets of fans is a complicated one, and is not easy to explain unless you live in the community. Espanyol (or Español as it was spelt up to 1994) were founded exactly a year after their more illustrious neighbours, and have only been out of the top flight for four seasons since 1928 when the professional league began. For a team on their more limited resources and much smaller fan base, that represents a considerable achievement.

They've had their moments, winning the first King's Cup of the professional era in 1929, winning it again in the millennium season with a UEFA Cup final appearance in 1988 sandwiched in-between. But in purely sporting terms, they've never been really rated as a rival to Barça - who of course have always been more focused on their dog-eat-dog affair with Real Madrid.

The name 'Español' is obvious in its cultural and political connotations, in the city that is the flagship for all things Catalan. In terms of being provocative, it's a bit like naming a team 'Orange United' to play in the local Dublin league.

The usual notion that the team was founded to attract the working-class immigrant vote in the city is not strictly true, since the founding member was the son of the University rector, and anyway, immigrants to the city have always found identification with Barça the more logically integrating move - but it is nevertheless true that the club eventually attracted a right-wing element in Catalan circles that simply didn't buy into the 'Catalanista' credo.

But it's a tricky one. Espanyol fans emphasise the fact that they too, are Catalans - but with a different interpretation of what that means. It certainly makes for a fascinating mix, but the atmosphere at the derby was slightly edgy, as if it was desperately looking for a fight. But over what I'm not sure.

In terms of the football, Barça were massively superior. They suddenly look solid at the back again, and even with several players out injured, the midfield is a neat and threatening collective. Unless they suffer a big drop in form or confidence, they could go all the way.

It looked like an evenly-contested derby before the kick-off, but ninety minutes later reality had kicked in. Espanyol are scheduled to move into a new home in the 2005-2006 season, down in the suburbs of Cornella. They'll be hoping it can give them back some atmosphere and identity, as in the good old days of Sarrià.

Meanwhile, the season ahead looks like being another struggle, made even worse by their neighbour's recovery.


  • Phil's latest book, An Englishman Abroad, Beckham's Spanish Adventure, is out now.

  • Also still available are White Storm, Phil's book on Real Madrid and his splendid story of Spanish football, Morbo.

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