Football in the shadows: Why Espanyol, Malaga can't wait on La Liga's season to end
You couldn’t ask for a more undesirable fixture than the one I witnessed last Sunday.
Circumstances, politics and the footballing stars had aligned to render Espanyol v Malaga a thoroughly pointless prospect, devoid of any kind of allure, as depressing and bland as a rainy Monday morning or a 1970s school dinner. It was the deadest of rubbers.
That said, if there is one thing to which Brits cannot say no, it is a bargain.
Credit must be given to Espanyol for swallowing their pride and accepting the fact their game against La Liga bottom feeders Malaga was not the hottest ticket in town. They slashed ticket prices for the season's final home game to get bums on seats in their plush but perennially half-empty Cornella stadium.
Along with my four flatmates, I snapped up five tickets for a little over €50. To put that into perspective, the same crisp note would have gotten you half of one ticket in the nosebleeds for Barcelona’s final game of the season against Real Sociedad at the Camp Nou.
Despite their generously low ticket prices, Espanyol attracted only 15,000 fans for their showdown with beleaguered Malaga.
The city of Barcelona has a population of over 1.5 million inhabitants. So, the math tells us 99,999 out of every 100,000 had something better to do. I'm not certain how that reflects on my mates and me, but this season Espanyol have managed to attract an average of only 17,645 fans to each of their 19 home games.
Yes, they happen to share a city with one of the most popular teams, and tourist attractions on earth. In a city packed with museums, the FC Barcelona Experience is the most visited, but that isn’t much of an excuse. Real Betis and Sevilla cohabit a city with less than half the Barcelona's population but attract 46,000 and 33,000 per match respectively this season.
In 2010, Espanyol's first season in their new ground, after moving from the Olympic Stadium in the heart of Barcelona, the Blue and White averaged close to 30,000 for home games. Attendance has steadily declined since the new stadium failed to boost performances on the pitch.
Espanyol have never won La Liga. Their last major trophy was the much-maligned Copa Del Rey, 12 years ago, but they suffer not only from poor play. They are victims to the rampant fervour for independence in Catalunya.
FC Barcelona is synonymous with the push for independence. During General Franco’s dictatorship, when speaking Catalan was outlawed, the Camp Nou was a sanctuary where oppressed Catalans would go to denounce the tyrannical leader in a safe environment.
Barca is an all-consuming behemoth, a corporate giant, political talisman and fantastic football team all rolled into one. They are, as the motto emblazoned across their seats proudly boasts, 'Mes Que un Club' [more than a club].
Comparatively, Espanyol are very much just a club. For years, they were the second best club in Catalunya, but as they continue to flail in Barcelona’s slipstream, they have been overtaken.
This season, newly promoted Girona, from the north of Catalunya, surprised everyone. Having been tipped for an immediate return to the Segunda Division, they have defied their status as minnows and are set to finish above Espanyol.
Wondering if we should have splurged on Girona v Valencia rather than attending the bargain basement of football matches, we took our seats on the back row of the stand behind the goal at the Cornella end.
Our lofty position seemed strange given that there were entire rows of empty seats before us. At least the seating policy was consistent. In their wisdom, the club did not allow fans to bunch together to form pockets of atmosphere. Instead, the sparse seating arrangement meant any prospective chant would take roughly six weeks to reach the ears of the nearest neighbour, by which point the moment of passion would have passed.
Going to the football is not as much of a ritual here in Spain as it is in England. In the Premier League, you would be hard-pressed to find any empty seats for a league game not at the Emirates, let alone 25,000.
Malaga emerged from the tunnel in bright orange. Their players looked sheepish and self-conscious. Their lurid kit seemed to poke fun at their status as La Liga’s traffic cones. In fact, the home side would negotiate through them with few problems at all.
Andalusia is a notoriously underperforming region in football terms. It is the most populous part of Spain. Although historically poor, it recorded the third highest GDP in Spain in 2016 behind Madrid and Catalunya. It is surprising then that, since the inaugural La Liga campaign in 1929, Andalusia has only boasted the winner on two occasions, Real Betis in 1935 and Sevilla in 1946. Malaga has never tasted such success.
The Anchovies highest ever league finish was fourth in 2012, aided by Qatari benefactor Abdullah bin Nasser bin Abdullah Al Ahmed Al Thani, whose wealth turned out to be more limited than his names. This year they have won only five games. Next season, they will be playing their football in the Segunda Division.
One reason for Malaga’s demise is their failure to hold onto prized assets. Despite finishing fourth and qualifying for the Champions League in 2012, Santi Corzola and Soloman Rondon, the club’s two top scorers, left.
They were knocked out in the Champions League quarterfinals by Borussia Dortmund the next season thanks to two stoppage-time goals that should have been ruled out for offside. Following that cruel exit, there were more high profile departures.
Nacho Monreal, Jeremy Toulalan, Isco and Joaquin, as well as manager Manuel Pellegrini, all left in the wake of their Champions League heartbreak, never to be satisfactorily replaced.
On this day, as the Periquitos and Boquerones lined up for kick-off, the two teams looked forlorn; 22 men shouting into the abyss; Espanyol perennially in the shadow of their larger, more successful neighbours; Malaga, rock bottom, playing for nothing but bruised pride.
The game finished 4-1 to Espanyol, but the match had an empty feel. There were no full-blooded challenges, no showboating, nothing to suggest that any of the players realised they were being watched.
When the final whistle blew those in attendance headed straight for the exits, leaving behind the soggy, discarded husks of sunflower seeds, the Spanish football fans’ snack of choice.
While Malaga’s weary charges trotted off down the tunnel, those in blue and white lingered, weighing up whether it would be worth performing the traditional lap of honour that traditionally follows the final home fixture of the season.
After a few moments, it became clear it would be a pointless endeavour. The fans were leaving. Eventually, the players followed suit. They trudged into the stadium's bowels, towards the changing room, one step closer to ending another season of obscurity.