08 November 2012

Eye on Spain: Focus on Espanyol

My first La Liga column for Eircom Sports Hub

Espanyol have been that rarest of La Liga beasts in recent years, a model of stability and financial husbandry. But a wretched start to the season in every way has coalesced into the perfect storm this past month.

A new stadium, which was supposed to be a lifeline, has proved something of an albatross around the club’s neck. Every transfer window for three years now, they’ve lost their best players to fund their construction debts.

Home at last: Espanyol's 40,000 seater stadium in Cornellá

Mauricio Pochettino’s work at the helm has been staggering given the constraints. But as they went down to Atlético in week 6 - rock bottom without a win - the man who had been linked with the Real Madrid job last spring faced catcalls from the support. His status as a club legend from his playing days failed to spare him.

As the disaffection reached boiling point the club president, Ramón Condal, dissolved the board on October 3rd. Shorn of last winter’s batch of loanees and with several first teamers out long term, another summer exodus had left the playing staff bare.

It’s a club with a curious heritage. Take the name, for starters. In a city where FC Barcelona - who barely deign to recognise them as rivals-  are never far from the vanguard of political catalanism, branding themselves as ‘Spanish’ could hardly chime a less propitious chord.

Yet it’s never been that simple. The name was chosen not as a snub against regionalist sentiment, but rather as a contrast from Barcelona’s early internationalism, founded by and for foreigners. In this, the initial divide was comparable to that between Milan and Internazionale.

It also reflected the fact that they were the first Spanish-founded club in the country. And their choice of colours was unmistakably Catalan, those of the Roger de Lliuría, admiral of the mighty Aragonese fleet of the middle ages.

Indeed, despite the wave of inward migration following the civil war, Espanyol hardly made inroads amongst these new Spanish arrivals. Barcelona were the rallying point of regional pride. The key to fitting in was to support them.

Nor was well-heeled Sarría an ideal location to be based. Unsuccessful and unloved, Espanyol became a magnet for cranks and misfits, including elements of the far-right. In 1992, the club sought the shed this image by changing its name to the current Catalan spelling.

Having sold their ground in the same decade, a move to the Olympic stadium in Montjuic was a disaster. Far too big, too remote, and devoid of any sense of atmosphere, it proved a funereal setting.
Little wonder then that earlier this century, ambitious plans for a new 40,000-seater ground were drawn up. The move placed a heavy financial burden on the club’s membership, but finally in the 2009/10 they had a home again.

And not just a home; also a chance to forge a new identity. Barcelona might have more members than any club in the world bar Benfica, but regular attendance remains a pipe dream for many. Ticket prices are amongst the highest in the world. In working class Llobregat, Espanyol had a ready-made market, shut out by the high costs of Camp Nou.

As well as putting down roots in the community they’ve also upped investment in their youth academy, already amongst the country’s most prolific; some fifteen Spain internationals in the last two decades, and some forty current regulars plying their trade in the top two divisions, as well as in top flights abroad.

Mark O’Sullivan, an Irish youth coach based in Stockholm was taken aback after a recent visit.
“There’s no comparison to other clubs I’ve visited. The facilities are fantastic, but more importantly the coaches create the right environment for youngsters to develop. The philosophy is clear.”

O’Sullivan had previously been to Ajax, and worked with Barcelona’s coaches. “Street football’s a lost art, but this comes close to the spirit. The right technique, the right movement, always playing with your head up, all the little details. You can see exactly how the Spanish sides have built upon the Dutch model, and now the Dutch are reimporting that expertise”.

Back at boardroom level, elections are pencilled in for November 19th. Their club spokesman was naturally reticent given the highly politicised nature of the issues involved. But what is clear is that the new board will be charged with maintaining a better equilibrium between short-term financial demands and long-term development.

And on the pitch, fortunately, things have picked up. Joan Verdú dragged them over the line for their first win against Rayo a fortnight ago. A further four points against Sociedad and high-flying Málaga has lifted the mood of despair. From luckless and feeling sorry for themselves they’ve recovered some belief as the injury list has cleared. This weekend, they host bottom placed Osasuna.

The criticism of Pochettino was always ludicrous, and the political upheaval has simply allowed the Argentine to get on with his job. Regarded as one of the best young managers in the league, one wonders if this will be his last season. “I’m Espanyol to the core. Every night when I put my kids to bed, they’re wearing Espanyol pyjamas”, he said when quizzed about those Real stories in April.

No-one can doubt his affinity to the cause. But should a club with better means come knocking for real next time round, nobody could forgive him for choosing to test himself on a higher stage.


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