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Barcelona 1-0 Espanyol: A City Against Itself

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In the changing room, players prepared, putting on uniforms, cleats, shin guards, and tape, and going through their routines, superstitions, and prayers. Then began the walk up to Futbol Club Barcelona’s elevated field: through a small passageway lined with Catalan paintings, down a tunnel, past the cathedral then on to the pitch. To the left, the Barça museum which displays, among others, paintings by Dali and Joan Miró. Outside the front gate, a Donald Judd-like piece of minimalist sculpture. Above, a roof designed by a disciple of Le Corbusier. But this self-conscious sophistication doesn’t amount to much when Espanyol comes to the Camp Nou because this was a derby – two teams from the same city playing each other – and current standings be damned, anything is possible when the other team from Barcelona, the Periquitos, come to play in their white and blues.

On paper, Saturday’s derby should have been a rout with Barcelona easily dominating their as-of-late hapless inter-city rivals. Going into the game Espanyol had 13 points. Barcelona had 36. Perhaps even more telling, Espanyol, which was a scant 3 points above the relegation zone, had scored fewer goals than top-of-the-table Barcelona had allowed, an indication of just how toothless Espanyol’s offense has been this season.

But forget all that. This was a derby. This was a derby with one hundred years of history and Espanyol, La Liga’s sixth most successful team, was the very same team that defeated Barcelona in 2008 and then delighted in watching them subsequently flail to a clattering third place finish. This is the team that gave Barcelona a similar fright last year when Iván de la Peña,“The Little Buddha,” put two in the back of the net, one of which nearly unhinged Victor Valdes’ goalkeeping mind and made him a question for the rest of the season. Forget the statistics and the league table. Finishing at the bottom would be bitter for a team with Espanyol’s pride but the bitterness would taste like their wine if they defeat Barcelona.

To trace this challenge to Barcelona is to trace Espanyol’s history back to just before its inception. It’s 1898 and Spain’s colonial power has forcefully come to an end after a failed defense of its Caribbean colonies. After a 400-year run, Spain had been sent home.

The end of the empire echoed internally. Long dormant regional identities resurfaced and, seeing weakness, challenged the centralized government. In the region of Barcelona, Catalanist groups such as Lliga Regionalista won parliamentary seats. In a confrontation that would become increasingly efficient in its violence, the Spanish Army attempted to repress Catalan dissidence which in turn stirred its popularity. Football Club Barcelona was organized and with it the idea that politics and sport could be a part of the same collective subconscious was born.

Ten years later, Espanyol came to challenge Barcelona’s assertion as Catalan’s team. Playing in long trousers, a shirt, and tie, Espanyol’s dress code made it clear that they represented an alternative to the rebellious supporters of FCB. At a time when part of the city was declaring its independence, Espanyol sought and received patronage from King Alfonso XIII. To this day, Espanyol is one of the few teams that is granted patronage by the Spanish crown and is thus able to use the title Real in their names and to have a crown in its badge.

To some citizens of Barcelona, Espanyol’s declaration that it was aligning with the monarchy was seen as a violent insult. Others, however, saw Espanyol’s dress code and monarchist symbols as a reassurance in a time of change. When these two teams met it was a nexus for these tensions. The fights between players, the verbal warfare between fans and the battles between managements played out in the media all came to reflect the underlying fears and tensions in the city itself.

Saturday’s derby was a typically tense match between these two teams. Espanyol was without their unfortunately brittle talisman and captain, de la Peña, a product of Barcelona’s youth system and once-upon-a-time heir apparent to midfield captaincy. And while Espanyol missed his imagination, they played with resolve and formation strength, just as Barcelona’s coach, Pep Guardiola, had warned they would.

Barcelona dominated possession and the midfield throughout the first half with Xavi and Iniesta feeding the forward line of Ibrahimović, Henry, and Pedro in for Messi who was nursing an ankle sprain picked up against Dynamo Kiev. The goalkeepers for both teams, Valdes and Kameni, had top-drawer saves to keep their teams in the game until a poorly called penalty gave Barcelona the chance to end the tie. Ibrahimović, who had dominated Espanyol’s defense, making them pay whether they played off him or marked him tightly, buried the pk to Kameni’s upper right.

The second half left much more in doubt with Espanyol clamping down on the midfield and using fouls to disrupt Barcelona’s patterns. Barcelona was unfocused and with the exception of a good run at the 77th minute, their passes were not crisp, they were miss-timed with several give-aways that turned into goal-scoring opportunities for Espanyol.

Barcelona held on to win 1-0 and in so doing tied its record of playing its first 15 games without a loss, a testament to their mental strength. A game like this, with the history and tensions being played out by 22 men in a spectacle under dark skies, is never determined by the current league table or Xs and Os. Like the history of a city, it is determined by the ability to absorb the tenacity and will of your rivals without allowing them to stop your progress. This is the kind of a game champions win.

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About Earl G. Lundquist

  • Doherty

    Wow. This author is one of the best sportswriters I’ve read in a while. I’ll be following him.

  • Over the summer I saw Barca play Sounders FC in Seattle. My goodness, it was like watching a ballet. 4-0 Barca was the result.

    Cross town rivalry in league play as you wrote about…can paint a different story.