The real-life tales of a football writer
I write from the press box at Camp Nou as Spain’s top vs bottom clash between Barça and Xerez kicks off. A memorial service has just been held in memory of Juan Antonio Samaranch, the corrupt Catalan and former Franco ally who headed the IOC for 21 years between 1980 - 2001.
His venality is overlooked by many in these parts who remember him for his role in bringing the Olympics to Barcelona in 1992, a sporting event which transformed the fortunes of the city.
The crowd is again above 80,000, the Camp Nou’s huge capacity allowing Barça to nudge past Borussia Dortmund and Manchester United as the best supported team in world football this season. Barça are averaging 81,000, Dortmund 76,000, United 74,000, Madrid and Bayern Munich 69,000.
Wednesday night will see another full house against Internazionale. Tickets are changing hands for €300 – although the face value on most is around €100. Barça have become well versed in taking advantage of the tourist dollar and the average ticket price for the Arsenal game was €82, whereas those who pay up at the start of the season benefit from prices well below the Premiership average.
A man has just walked past in a full Real Madrid kit with ‘Sergio Ramos’ on the back - and a blond wig. It’s popular to dress a stag as a Madrid player. Last week, I saw a poor soul wandering around Espanyol’s new stadium dressed as Guti Hernandez. He was carrying a blow-up doll decked out as Lionel Messi.
Guti is cast as a failure here, a joke of a person beyond parody. He must be devastated at how his life as turned out: international-class footballer with 14 seasons as a first-team player for his hometown club, Real Madrid. Some failure, that. Doubtless he looks at his three Champions League medals and five Spanish league title medals and wonders where it all went wrong.
Still, the Catalans obsess about him. I saw hundreds of Barça fans on Rome’s Spanish Steps before the European Cup final last season, not enjoying the moment and celebrating their brilliant side, but singing endlessly about Guti being a homosexual.
Last weekend before the Catalan derby, Barça were on the receiving end of the bile which is part of football culture.
The few tourists who worked around Europe’s no-fly zone and made it to the first-ever derby at Espanyol’s new Cornella home seemed stunned by the hatred. Most were Barça-supporting glory-hunters who had bought overpriced tickets from dubious agencies to see the planet’s team of the moment in their home city. They didn’t appear to have registered that the game wasn’t at the Camp Nou, but 10 kilometres south. There, a new stadium has been squeezed between a motorway and the edge of an uninviting working-class neighbourhood far from Barcelona’s well-worn tourist trail.
Also not understood were the nuances of the cross-city rivalry. The police had told some of the tourists to cover their Barça shirts up, but if they didn’t heed the warnings, hardened Espanyol fans slung so many invectives that they quickly got the message. Barça are loathed there and not welcome.
It didn't matter that Barca coach Pep Guardiola paid a visit to Espanyol’s sparking new 40,000-capacity home the day before the game. He came in peace, brandishing a Barça shirt to swap with his opposite number Mauricio Pochettino. There is a respect between the coaches, but nothing Guardiola does can alter how Espanyol feel about their neighbours.
Espanyol can’t compete with Barça on the pitch. Despite being the seventh-best supported team in Spain this season with average crowds of over 26,000, they haven't finished above their neighbours since 1942. The last three times the Blue and Whites have finished third in the Primera Liga, Barça have occupied second spot.
Off the pitch, it’s different. Espanyol’s fans created a din fit to startle visitors to the frequently sedate Camp Nou. Twenty one minutes into a febrile encounter which finished 0-0, all but the 600 travelling fans in the stadium rose for one minute to applaud the memory of Daniel Jarque, the Espanyol captain who wore number 21 until he died with a heart defect on a pre-season training camp last August.
It was a stirring, emotional sight, but only a brief respite from the anti-Barça abuse which created the most hostile environment Guardiola’s side have encountered all season. Only Madrid come close to equalling it.
The home fans unfurled a giant flag which read "You are not our rivals. You are our enemy." The Barça players had gathered as much when their arrival on the pitch attracted deafening jeers and whistles. Lionel Messi may be lauded around the world, but he’s loathed on the other side of the tracks of the city he calls home. Every time he went to take a corner, a welter of abuse flew his way. There were no pig’s heads, but it was still ferocious.
With just 26 goals all season, Espanyol are the league’s lowest scorers - Messi alone has scored more league goals than the entire Espanyol squad. They were worth their point for the commitment shown and felt they had riled Barça enough for Daniel Alves to be dismissed for a rash tackle. That created another huge din, one which perhaps masked the fact that Espanyol have had a poor opening season at Cornella. They will avoid relegation and few teams take points off Barça, but a club with their infrastructure should be pushing for European places.
Espanyol hate the media’s obsession with Barça. This is frequently justified, but their own fixation with their bigger, better neighbours is just as intense. If only their team could raise their game more frequently and not just save it for when they play Barça. The match certainly gave the football tourists a memorable experience – if not quite the Barça love-in they were expecting.
Confessions of a Correspondent
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Excellent article ,Andy, Nice to see a Barça article that doesn't pull it's punches. Glad to see you pointed out the Tourists wearing Barça shirts at Espanyol are not welcome. I have spent so many derbies saving Brits from getting a kicking. Would you wear a Man Utd shirt to Man City if you've never been there before ?.Are people so stupid they think as it's Barça they are fine because everyone loves them ?
Anyway top stuff and an antidote to that Suck up fest that bloke from Football focus did.
Very interesting article. You have something very similar here in Portugal with Benfica and Sporting Lisbon.
"You are not our rivals. You are our enemy." indeed.
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