Monday, January 7, 2008

Jo t'estimo Espanyol

Ets l'orgull de l'esport i de Catalunya gloria

I know I've mentioned Espanyol in passing on the blog, but I thought it was finally time to write a little about Barcelona's "other" team, especially since they're in an surprising third place in La Liga, one point behind Barça and eight behind pace-setters Real Madrid. Also, I now have pictures.

Scarves on display for player introductions

Real Club Deportiu Espanyol, or Espanyol for short, was founded in 1900 as the first all-Spanish football club (other clubs, like Barcelona, were founded in part by expatriates) and was a founding member of La Liga back in 1928. However, after the conclusion of the Civil War, Espanyol found themselves in the Segunda for two decades, only to begin bouncing between La Liga and the Segunda for another thirty-odd years. They were last promoted in 1994 and have not gone down since. Espanyol has never finished higher than third.

It's sort of fitting that Espanyol is historically the sixth best team in Spain. It's good enough to be surprising, given their history of bouncing between divisions, but not good enough to draw attention to itself. They're currently in the middle of a sixteen game unbeaten streak and, as mentioned above, are in third place in La Liga. If the season ended today, they would qualify for the Champions League, which they have never done.

Espanyol are endearing for a number of reasons, though they are different reasons than crosstown rivals Barcelona. Barça is, famously, mes que un club (more than a club), since during the Franco regime, the only place you could go in great numbers to anonymously express your displeasure with the generalissimo's facist, anti-Catalan laws was the Camp Nou. Today, Barça is a global brand with a Catalan identity. They are the cosmopolitan side of the city, incorporating the foreign (Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry, Giovanni Dos Santos, even the name Football Club Barcelona) with the Catalan (Carles Puyol, Victor Valdez, Xavi, etc.). F.C. Barcelona is the team of cosmopolitan, independent Catalunya.

Espanyol has traditionally been seen as the Royalist side in the city, and its name change from Real Club Deportivo Español to its current form in 1995 was met with some derision by the locals (especially the most fervent cules). But not so fast, say Espanyol fans. These fans say that in their effort to become a global brand, Barça has lost its Catalan soul and now it is Espanyol that truly represents the city. In fact, there is typically a large banner that runs along the track at the stadium reading Catalunya es mes que un club, nicely turning the Barça motto implying a transcendence of football into a cry of, "We are Catalans, too!" Sadly, it was not out for Saturday's game.

We are Catalans, too!

The fans dislike Barça with the passion of the picked on younger brother, breaking into chants of "Puta Barça" (lit. whore Barça, idiomatically F*ck Barça) at every game and cheering when a scoring update shows Barcelona getting scored on as though they had scored themselves. Espanyol are the plucky underdogs you can't help but root for.

If Barça are the international team with a Catalan heart, Espanyol are now the local team with the cos Catalá. Espanyol doesn't have the money to buy splashy international stars, so they stick to the tried and true model of team development - land one or two stars and develop the rest of your team in house. Amazingly, they have only one international of note, superb Cameroonian goalkeeper Carlos Kameni. The vast majority of the team is Spanish, and of that majority, most are Catalan. Espanyol's best player, Catalan striker Raul Tamudo, is worshiped by fans not only for his excellent skills, but because he turned down huge money to stay with the local side that has been the only team he has ever played for.

¡Gol de Raul TAMUDO!

All this is enough to pull for Espanyol, but what I love most is the stadium. While Barça plays in the Camp Nou, a 99,000 seat modernist jewel close to the city limits, Espanyol makes their home at the Estadi Olimpic Lluis Companys, located in the heart of Montjuïc and built for the 1929 Expo Barcelona. You may recognize it as the main stadium of the '92 Olympics. It's a classical stadium that blends in seamlessly with its surroundings, which means that it's not just the stadium that is a delight, but the journey to it.

Montjuïc as seen from Park Güell

Montjuïc (literally mountain of the Jews, due to the Jewish cemetery located on its side) is an enormous public park situated on a mountain overlooking the city. It features formal gardens, the national art museum, Olympic venues converted for public use, several ancillary museums such as the Joan Miro museum and the Olympic museum, and public art including the 450 foot tall Montjuïc Olympic Tower. You take the Metro to Plaça Espanya, hop on some escalators, and climb the mountain, walking through the park and past all of this. Imagine going to see a Cardinals game in Forest Park, or a Yankees game in Central Park. The closest I can come to this experience in the US is Chicago's Soldier Field, but even this doesn't do the experience justice.

Sadly, this is Espanyol's last year at the Olympic Stadium, since they are moving to a new stadium next season. The best I can say about the new stadium is that it's incredibly environmentally friendly - all of the electicity to run the scoreboard and lights will be generated by solar panels on the roof. I'm sure it will be a nice stadium and all, but it won't be the same. I'll be sad when I walk from the stadium to the Metro for the last time.

So that's Espanyol in a nutshell. If you like underdogs, you could do a lot worse than the Parakeets. I'll root for Barça, but Espanyol will always have a place in my heart.

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