Out on the edges
Interesting to be in Barcelona, the day of the Madrid derby and the day after the city's more famous team (with apologies to Espanyol) had won a difficult looking match (0-1) over the water in Mallorca. Not that they were too interested in such matters at the Cornella El Prat, out on the southern outskirts of the city. It's a five-minute drive from the airport, but it costs an arm and a leg by taxi because of the minimum charge of €20, wherever you choose to go. In a light-hearted protest to the driver, I make the point that you would expect nothing less from the Catalans, upon which he tells me that he's from Andalucia. Ah, the globalised world!
Once we arrive, the silver stadium squats and glints in the weak Easter sun amongst newish flats, supermarkets and a general mess of new buildings, expanding randomly into the less built-up outskirts. Outside, as I scurry around in search of the press entrance, clumps of Japanese youths stand in groups and politely ask passers-by to take photos. They look like extras in the film 'Desperately seeking Nakamura', and are presumably aware that he is now playing for Yokohama. Oh well, where there exists a link, stretch it to the limit. Perhaps they bought the tickets before manager Mauricio Pochettino sent the midfielder back to his roots last month.
Two Espanyol fans walking in front of me wear shirts with 'Tamudios' (Tamudo is God) on the back, but the local hero remains in dispute with the club and will not be playing, nor will Ivan de La Pena, still injured and on the point of retirement, it would seem. As these quality veterans fade, the Espanyol squad looks younger and younger, but is doing ok. A mid-table finish looks on the cards, as it does for their opponents, Sporting de Gijon. That will be fine for now, after last season's various scares. The last thing Espanyol want is to fail in the first season of their new 'project', as president Daniel Sanchez Llibre has called it - by which he means the new stadium and everything positive that it brings in its wake.
The last time I saw Espanyol play it was in their temporary home in the Montjuic against Barcelona, and the atmosphere was akin to that of a disused cemetery. I never went to the Sarria, their previous and historic stadium, but as I settle in my seat there is a sense that there has been some sort of homecoming, some sort of gathering of the strange clans that support this provocatively-named club, founded in 1900 as a snub to 'the foreigners of Barcelona FC'.
Moving now to the outer edges of the city, however, seems a small price to pay for the benefits that a real home ground can recoup. At the club's centenary, in the millennium year, the number of 'socios' (paid-up members) was a mere 18,000. Now it's grown to 34,000 and there is a decent-looking crowd (27,000) settling down to the game.
The players trot onto the pitch to the strains of what must be their club song, but its mix of Spanish and Catalan leaves me confused. I get the 'Na na na' bits though, and their duration far outstrips the similar lyric fest in the Beatles' 'Hey Jude'. Maybe they're going for the Guinness Book of Records.
The referee is Iturralde Gonzales, the mad Basque dentist, who has now entered the very same book for being the referee who has awarded most penalties in La Liga. As his name comes over the tannoy the crowd rises as one and bays for his blood. The journalist to my right, presumably from Gijon, leans over and asks me why this is happening. I shout above the din in Spanish 'Because he's crap', but my fourth-estate colleague looks unconvinced. 'I know he's crap' he yells back, 'but it must be something else'. I shrug, because it's too noisy to explain, but I think it has something to do with the penalty he gave against them in the last Catalan derby, plus the fact that he is (in)famous for awarding penalties to Espanyol's neighbour in general. I settle for the 'Maybe it's because he's from Bilbao' which at least earns me a smile.
The ground is pleasant on the eye, if somewhat bland in its overall visual impact, as new grounds tend to be. The walls are steep and two-tiered, with a small horizontal band running along the middle, like a fire-break in the mountains. The best part is the roof, with a wide thicket of white criss-cross girders whose height and reach keeps the crowd noise inside. The contrast with the Olympic Stadium on Montjuic could not be greater.
The visitors Sporting haven't lost there since 1992, but the crowd is unlikely to know that. Their manager, the affable Manolo Preciado, once peed next to me in the neighbouring urinal in Deportivo's ground some years ago, and then asked me for a light, but I suspect that he has forgotten this momentous occasion.
His team are big and workmanlike - La Liga's Stoke City. They have their own Rory Delap big-throw-merchant in Rafael Sastre, wear the same colours and start with a capital 'S'. Spooky eh? Espanyol are busy and quick, but imprecise. There's a mid-table look to the football, one in which you suspect a goal is more likely to be the product of a mistake than of a fluent move.
As the game trundles on, you become aware of the slightly uncomfortable fact that La Liga exists on two distinct levels. It's hardly a profound revelation, but you need to watch games like this to understand it. These two solid sides have made a noble enough contribution to the history of the Spanish league, and have lent it their particular colours and flavours. Neither of them has won much, but success for them is now based on survival, of hanging in there with the elite - a word which is rapidly translating into 'Real Madrid' and 'Barcelona'.
Sporting are in their second season back in the top flight, after an eleven-year absence, and this is their 37th season in the first division. Espanyol have spent 74, which is considerably more, but they are viewed in the same terms now, despite winning four King's Cups and reaching a couple of UEFA Cup finals since 1900. Ambition is now measured out in more conservative spoonfuls.
Of the Espanyol team on the pitch facing Gijon, the young Jose Maria Callejon keeps buzzing down the right and making a nuisance of himself, but it all comes to nought. The young winger on the left side, Javi Marquez, looks useful too, despite his bright yellow boots. But it's clear why Espanyol are La Liga's lowest scorers, with a mere 21 goals bagged all term. Sporting have rather more (36) but seem content to sit back for a point, which is exactly what they get.
Later on in the evening, I nip into a bustling pub in the city centre where the Madrid derby is being beamed onto a wall and is attracting the nervous glances of the bar-flies. Atletico, criticized for their lay-down-and-die performances in recent years against their rivals, are winning 1-0 in the Bernabow. Real Madrid are attacking with ceaseless intent, but the ball somehow stays out of the Fondo Sur net. Every time Real attack, the bar snaps quiet, then roars with approval when the ball misses the target. Is this to be an historic night - the night when the league title is decided, pre-clasico?
Whatever happens, the quality and speed of the game is light-years removed from the one I have just attended. Espanyol and Sporting offered up a half-decent game, but in terms of overall quality, the game was no better than the one I attended last week between Real Sociedad and Levante.
But I'm starving, so when I come back from the restaurant up the road Real Madrid are 3-2 up, which I kind of suspected might happen. The pub spectators look resigned, and shuffle and boo when the referee blows for time. Nevertheless, it keeps up the drama quotient for the clasico, although first Madrid will have to visit Racing whilst Barcelona entertain Athletic Bilbao.
Elsewhere, Sevilla continued their shocking run with a 3-0 stuffing at Villarreal. Their midweek draw at home to struggling (but improving) Xerez was the last straw for president Jose Maria Del Nido, who sacked Manuel Jimenez and installed Antonio Alvarez, but only after offering the job on a temporary basis to Luis Aragones. For two days the country held its breath, prepared for the return of the master of grumpy soundbites and hang-dog expressions, but in the end he turned the offer down, seemingly insulted at only being asked to stay until the end of the season. He'd obviously got bored with his vegetable patch and fancied a real return to the action.
Other slightly weird results were Zaragoza's 3-0 caning of Valencia, and Xerez' continued fightback from the dead, this time beating Valladolid 3-0 at home. Hope springs eternal. Deportivo, like Sevilla, continue to stumble, and lost 1-3 at home to Getafe, which means that Villarreal and Getafe can still aspire to a Europa placing for next season. Valencia sit in third place, 6 points clear of Mallorca but 21 points adrift of Barcelona and Real Madrid. That's not good for democracy, but it was still good to see so many people turn up to the Cornella-El-Prats, out on the working edges of the industry.
Is La Liga 'Scotland in disguise', as posited in The Observer last weekend? Good article, shame about the headline. There were 8,764 at Aberdeen v St Mirren last Saturday, very probably a result of the Old Firm dominance in that particular league. When 27,000 turn up for Espanyol v Sporting, something must still be right in the Spanish woodshed. As long as La Liga does not implode under the weight of its worryingly growing debts, there is clearly enough grass-roots sentiment to keep it alive and bubbling.