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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Desire to please television is killing 'the marvelous minority' at Espanyol

Catalonia's second biggest club often have their games shifted to late on a Monday night, too late for young local fans to attend

Vicente Guaita, left, has joined Crystal Palace from Getafe. EPA
Vicente Guaita, left, has joined Crystal Palace from Getafe. EPA

The traffic signs on Barcelona’s orbital motorway warned of heavy traffic on Monday evening because of an event at "Espanyol FC".

Espanyol, the second biggest team in Catalonia and Barcelona, were at home to Getafe in a 9pm kick off. Those warnings were not needed. The crowd of 11,756 was the lowest for a league game since the club moved to their smart new Cornella home in a flush of optimism with a game against Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool in 2009.

The match was moved for television reasons. Every club which accepts television money, now the lion’s share of income for major clubs in England and Spain, also accepts compromise. As Alex Ferguson once said of television’s increasing influence: “When you shake hands with the devil, you have to pay the price.”

But Espanyol are getting it far worse than other clubs. The game was their fourth home match of the season to be switched to a Monday evening, twice the number that have been played on the traditional Sunday kick off. Only two of their opening 10 home games were scheduled during the day.

Crowds have dwindled and unhappy Espanyol fans held up a flag which declared: "Black Monday. The stands are 30% full." The attendance was even less than the banner predicted in a stadium which holds 40,500.

There were other factors. Winter has arrived in Barcelona and temperatures have plummeted, while Getafe, regularly the lowest supported team in the league until Eibar were promoted, are not quite as glamorous as their bigger Madrid neighbours.

It’s a shame and Espanyol are right to protest to the league, asking why they keep being lumbered with the graveyard shift. It doesn’t help that because they are not playing European football, they are seen as more flexible as to when they can play, but Espanyol don’t always help themselves. Season ticket holders benefit from good value tickets, fans who want to occasionally watch games don’t.

“I bought the cheapest seats for my son, who is eight, for the game against Valencia,” said Adam Porter, who attended one of those two day-time matches. “They cost €35 each low down in the corner. For the Barcelona game they’re €95 each. I cannot take my son to watch a game at 9pm on a Monday night.”

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The irony is that his son, Alfie, plays for Espanyol and trains at the club’s training ground where they do so much good integrating into the community of Barcelona. Their youth teams, where six year olds are encouraged to quickly pass the ball short distances to each other rather than hit long balls, have produced hundreds of professionals including Manchester United defender Eric Bailly.

Espanyol are a proud club, "the marvelous minority" to quote their well executed marketing posters. Even when the stadium is half full, the atmosphere is one of the best in Spain, but that’s a tall ask when only a quarter full.

The bigger issue is La Liga’s push to make itself as attractive as the Premier League to globalised television audiences. That shouldn’t come at the cost of match-going fans in Spain itself.

The league are more concerned with style over substance, fining clubs with too many empty seats on display because it might not be agreeable to the watching armchair fan.

Espanyol should offer reduced priced tickets, but football is not a sport that is played for the benefit of television. The players might not be too concerned as long as they continue to get well remunerated (and Espanyol’s average salary for a first teamer is a considerable €1.5 million per year) but the club is, with so many games kicking off late on a Monday night, further disenfranchising fans of a team struggling to score.

For Espanyol’s next home game, on Thursday night in the Copa del Rey, another poor crowd is expected. Their next home league game? That’s on a Monday night too, with another 9pm kick off, this time against Girona.

Television has brought vast riches into football, but at Espanyol the damage it has also inflicted is obvious.

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