x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Espanyol's hatred for Barca striking

The few tourists who worked around Europe's no fly zone and made it to the first derby at Espanyol's new Cornella home seemed stunned by the hatred.

The few tourists who worked around Europe's no fly zone and made it to the first derby at Espanyol's new Cornella home seemed stunned by the hatred. Most were Barca-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 did not appear to register that the game was not at the Camp Nou, but 10km south. There, a new stadium has been squeezed between a motorway and the edge of an uninviting working class neighbourhood far from Barca'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 up their Barca shirts, but if they did not heed the warnings, hardened Espanyol fans slung so many invectives that they quickly got the message. Barca are loathed and not welcome in these parts. It did not matter that Pep Guardiola, the Barca coach, paid a visit to Espanyol's sparking new 40,000 capacity home the day before the game. He came in peace brandishing a Barca shirt to swap with his equivalent, Mauricio Pochettino. There is a respect between the coaches, but nothing Guardiola does can alter how Espanyol feel about their neighbours.

Espanyol may not be able to compete with Barca on the pitch. Despite being the seventh-best supported team in Spain this season with average crowds of more than 30,000, they have not finished above their neighbours since 1942. The Blue and Whites have come third in the Primera Liga on five occasions - each time Barca have been second. Off the pitch, it is different. On Saturday night, Espanyol's fans created a din which would overshadow any Camp Nou atmosphere.

Twenty one minutes into the 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 No 21 until he died with a heart defect on a pre-season training camp last August. It was a stirring, emotional sight, a brief respite only from the anti-Barca abuse which created the most hostile environment Guardiola's side have encountered all season. Only Real Madrid come close to equalling it. A giant flag was unfurled by the home fans which read "You are not our rivals. You are our enemy."

The Barca 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 is 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 (one was thrown at Real's Luis Figo by Barca fans in 2002 after he moved from Camp Nou to the Bernabeu), 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 combined. They were worth their point for the commitment shown and felt they had riled Barca 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 Barca, but a club with their infrastructure should be pushing for European places. Espanyol hate the media's obsession with Barca. 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 Barca.

sports@thenational.ae