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Photo by Lee Woolcock
Joan Collet, CEO of Espanyol football club
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Photo by Lee Woolcock
What do Espanyol, Torino, Everton and Munich 1860 have in common? Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock…time’s up. They all share the title of ‘the other team in the city’ and have to live in the shadow of their big rivals: FC Barcelona, Juventus, Liverpool and Bayern Munich, respectively.
When you are ‘the younger brother’, the situation is not always comfortable. Espanyol—the other Barcelona club in the Spanish Primera División—has lived with this reality for years. “We have to recognise that Espanyol exists side by side with a very big club, a world monster, FC Barcelona, and it’s not easy to co-exist,” said Joan Collet, the CEO of RCD Espanyol. “The rivalry that is present in schools, on the street and at work, is naturally difficult. Quite difficult. But, well, we’re proud of our team and I understand that lots of aficionados and tourists that come here have more feelings for Barcelona, because they’re the team that wins.”
In Barcelona—and in Catalunya—children are Barça supporters from birth. Those who decide to be Espanyol supporters (or supporters of another team entirely) have to move away from the masses. Furthermore, to be a perico—which means parakeet and is the name given to Espanyol fans as well as being the team’s mascot—is often associated with a Spanish ideology and being Spanish, which contrasts with the nationalist feeling that Catalunya has with respect to Spain. Since childhood, Collet has felt that he has gone against the tide. “But I didn’t feel this by myself. I’ve been made to feel it. The club has been badly treated throughout history and by the media. I’m from a town and the Espanyol supporters in my town, like in many others, are Catalans; we speak Catalan and we live in Catalan. We are from this land. I grew up hearing that Espanyol is a fascist team, a military team, a team followed by immigrants who had arrived from the rest of Spain and I couldn’t understand it. The Espanyol that I had lived, the one that I knew, wasn’t the one that they were describing.”
The fact that the team is called ‘Espanyol’ in a place like Catalunya, where a part of society supports independence from Spain, doesn’t help the image of the team at all. But, if we go to the roots, to the origin of the club, we discover what very few people know. The club was founded by a group of Catalan students in the Barcelona University gymnasium in 1900. When Àngel Rodríguez —one of the founders—and his friends were thinking of a name, they decided to baptise the team Espanyol to differentiate it from the club that had been created the previous year, FC Barcelona, and that consisted of foreign players (Barça was created based on the initiative of a Swiss man named Hans Gamper, who gathered players from the community of foreigners in the city in order to form a team). Therefore, the intention wasn’t to counter ‘Catalan’ but ‘Foreigners’ with the name choice of ‘Espanyol’. Furthermore, “at that time the nationalistic feelings, the feeling of being from Catalunya, this land, this country, wasn’t as deeply rooted as it is now,” explained Collet. “At that time, the bar that everyone went to in the morning to have a vermouth in Paral·lel, one of the hotspots of Barcelona, was called Bar Espanyol. The most important theatre was Teatro Espanyol…”
Espanyol is considerably less present on Catalan radio and TV and in newspapers than FC Barcelona. The social impact of the white-and-blue club (the colours of the team’s home strip) is also smaller: it has close to 36,000 members whereas Barça has 180,000. Despite this, three years ago TV3 (Televisió de Catalunya and the most watched station in the region) started a weekly programme dedicated to the team, aired on Sundays. The programme is called Hat Trick Espanyol and was created by Manel Fanlo, a veteran sports journalist who has been a perico for more than 50 years and was team press manager for five. “For me, supporting Espanyol is one of those feelings...That, [even] without power or money, you love the club and never say “no” to its colours. Not everything has to be about titles.”
Espanyol’s history has been affected not just by the shadow of Barça and its triumphs. On August 2nd, 2009, Liverpool was the guest of honour at the spectacular inauguration of the Cornellà-el Prat Stadium. Espanyol ended that night perfectly with a 3-0 win. However, the pericos’ euphoria dissipated and was consumed by intense sadness in a matter of days. Less than one week later, Dani Jarque, a player whose first appearance as captain took place at the stadium inauguration, died at the age of 26, at the team’s training camp in Italy. A heart attack claimed the life of the charismatic defender, who left an unforgettable imprint in the memory of the white-and-blue supporters. Even now, the fans stand up and applaud during the 21st minute of every match in remembrance of the player who displayed that same number on his shirt during his last season. At the Cornellà-el Prat Stadium, the 21st gate is marked with Dani Jarque’s name and it is where homage is paid to the figure who was a player with the club from when he was 12 years old. He has become an authentic symbol in the stadium.
Among the presents and tokens of affection left at gate number 21 is the undershirt that Andrés Iniesta was wearing at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when he scored the winning goal for Spain in the final. On that shirt is written, “Dani Jarque, forever with us”. Iniesta, FC Barcelona player and Jarque’s rival on the pitch, was also one of his good friends and they had played together for the Spanish national team in the youth categories.
Jarque was one of the team members hit by disappointment when Espanyol lost the UEFA final in Glasgow’s Hampden Park on May 16th, 2007. They lost that final on penalty kicks, after tying 2-2 against Sevilla during normal time. In 1988, Espanyol also played the UEFA final and again missed the trophy by inches.
The flip side of the two lost UEFA finals are the four Spanish Cup titles the club has achieved. However, Espanyol fans know that every year, Barça fights to win the Spanish League and the Champions League. Here, there is a different philosophy. “In Catalunya, we have to support Espanyol. To be a Barça fan is very easy,” said Quim Torrecillas, a lawyer from Blanes on the Costa Brava. “To follow Espanyol is to be the little shop owner, the small businessman…the person who doesn’t want to have it all and only wants what he truly deserves from the effort he makes in his everyday life. This is what identifies Espanyol and also the way Catalans are. It’s really ‘La força d’un sentiment’ (‘The strength of a feeling’).”
This phrase, ‘La força d’un sentiment’, can be read on the outer stadium walls as well as in the tunnel that leads the players to the pitch. The author of the sentence is Manel Fanlo. “In 1990, it was the 90th anniversary of the club and I was the press manager. I came up with the idea to print a poster for all the members. While trying to think of a good motto, I came up with this and the social area manager was really impressed with it. I am enormously happy to see the club is using it in so many places,” he said.
The club’s history could have changed on May 13th, 2006. Last game of the season. Final minute. Score: 0-0. Espanyol have to win so as not to go down to the Second Division. The referee is looking at his watch. Espanyol are looking for a miracle. Two minutes into additional time, Ferran ‘Coro’ Corominas, sends the pericos straight to heaven. Goaaal!!! “All the players in the field had tears in their eyes,” recalled the striker. “Everyone thought we were doomed to play in the Second Division. We had so many chances to score, the ball hit the post three times, but it didn’t want to go in. We suffered like never before and then, the explosion with my goal. I went pale. I remember I ran to the track around the field, and I threw a chair up in the air…”
Although Corominas is a Girona FC player now, ironically, in the Second Division, sometimes people stop him on the street to thank him for having ‘saved’ Espanyol. The club was walking on ice at the time and being forced out of the First Division would have been fatal. “If that ball didn’t go in, absolutely everything would have stopped,” said CEO Joan Collet. “With the team in the Second Division, the club would have been bankrupt. We would not have been able to finish the new stadium and we wouldn’t have been what we are [now]. That goal was very important for us.”
The Espanyol feeling is strong, loyal and it passes from parents to children. To understand what this club means to its fans, we should remember what striker Luis García said when he was doing his last press conference as a perico player. Although crying, he was clear and concise: “The best thing about Barcelona is being an Espanyol fan!!!”