Comparisons are odious. Especially in football.
For some teams, unfavorable comparisons are a part of their lot in life. There is certainly merit in being the second most successful club in your geographical area, but it is a merit often ignored. If your club has one of football's world renowned "super-clubs" as a neighbor, then you know the frustration that relative obscurity brings.
Torino, Everton, Atlético, 1860 Munich and many others can attest to the difficulty of living in the shadow of a more successful neighbor. They all strive to step out of that shadow to receive the recognition they deserve.
Barcelona's second team is no different, and they have always had dreams of one day challenging their cross-town rivals FC Barcelona. To do this they set ambitious long term plans for the club. The 2009-2010 season is when these plans were set to come to fruition. But football, like life, is unpredictable. For Espanyol the past few months have been like a roller coaster ride.
The plan to make the club more competitive was set in motion more than a decade ago.
With property values booming in the 90s "economic miracle," RCD Espanyol became the first of many Spanish clubs to sell their stadium for a hefty profit. After selling the Sarrià stadium in 1997, the team played for 12 years at the Estadio Olimpico at Montjuic, which was too big to fill and suffered from a chronic lack of atmosphere. Like any true fan, els paricos (the parekeets) made the best of it, and at the very least scared away as many Barça fans as possible. The money from the deal went toward the construction of the new, modern, 40,500-seat El Prat-Cornellà stadium on the outskirts of the city.
The construction took much longer than anticipated, and after years of delays the fans were ready to finally inaugurate their new home at the kick-off of the 2009-2010 season. That dream very nearly turned into a nightmare as they found themselves sitting last in La Liga with 22 points out of 28 games. Eight points from salvation and only 10 games left, it would take a miracle to keep their new stadium from debuting in the second division.
A miracle is exactly what they got. Their new coach, former defender Mauricio Pochettino, decided to climb 12 kilometers to the historic monastary on the nearby mountain Montserrat, to ask the virgin for help keep them up. It worked.
There may have been more to it than divine intervention, like a newfound defensive organization, or the key winter signings of Nené and Iván Alonso, but salvation is salvation. Nobody argued over the result.
Avoiding the drop and the economic repercussions that go with it has allowed Espanyol to invest in a new crop of talent. The team had been reliant on the talents of Iván de la Peña and Raúl Tamudo for too long. As they get on in years, the team will have to look elsewhere for inspiration. Apart from the aforementioned Nené and Iván Alonso, they have signed Nakamura (Celtic), Ben Sahar (Chelsea), Verdú (Deportivo la Coruña), Forlín (Boca Juniors), Marqués (Iraklis), Pillud (Tiro Federal), Baroni (Iguaçú), and Roncaglia (Boca Juniors).
The new players have hit the ground running and the team seemed to gel in preseason games. They are undefeated in five preseason games, including a 3-0 victory over Liverpool.
It seemed as if all was wonderful in the Espanyol camp, when tragedy struck.
The team was in a Napoli hotel when the unthinkable happened. Daniel Jarque, the 26 year-old youth team product who had recently been named captain, collapsed while on the phone with his preganant girlfriend. She immediately called a teammate to get help, but by the time they found him in his hotel room he was already dead. Spanish football was shocked by this sudden and unpredictable heart attack.
This is the third such incident in Spanish football in the past three seasons, but familiarity is little consolation. Thousands turned up at gate number 21 (in honor of his shirt number) to pay their respects. Spanish footballers all over Europe showed gestures of solidarity, but the most affected will be those closest to him. It may seem crass in the face of such tragedy, but life waits for no one, and even football must march on.
Espanyol will have to build their future without their captain. The players and fans have to summon their courage, because none other than Real Madrid arrive to play the first official game at El Prat-Cornellà on Sept. 12.
It will no doubt be an emotional occasion for els pericos. We can only hope the football on offer lives up to the expectations, and for once Espanyol receives the attention it deserves.