While perhaps lacking the sheer intensity of their showdowns with Real Madrid, Barcelona’s meetings with city rivals Espanyol have been stirring up passions in the Catalan capital for 80 years now.
Though the two clubs have grown irrevocably apart over the years, they were founded in similar circumstances by groups of friends who wanted to do nothing more than play sport. In the case of Barça, it was the Swiss Hans Gamper who brought the club into being in 1899 with the assistance of several fellow foreigners, while Espanyol were created a year later by a group of Spaniards (most of them from Catalonia), hence their name. Strangely, over the decades the clubs have swapped roles, with Los Azulgranas now proud to proclaim their Catalan identity and Los Blanquiazules preferring instead to project a less nationalistic image.
Political and cultural considerations aside, however, the Barcelona neighbours have played out an eventful rivalry on the pitch, one that has divided the city’s football fans since the late 1920s.
This Saturday the Camp Nou will provide the venue for the 151st Catalan derby, just over 80 years after the first meeting between the sides at Barça’s then home ground, Les Corts, on 7 April 1929. The hosts took the honours on that occasion, with Sastre scoring the only goal of the game. Barcelona went on to win the league that year and Espanyol the Copa del Rey, though the fortunes of the two clubs since then could hardly be more contrasting.
Facts and figures
Los Azulgranas have gone on to become one of the biggest and most successful clubs in world football, collecting 19 Spanish league crowns, 25 Cups, eight Spanish Super Cups, three UEFA European Cup/Champions League titles and four UEFA European Cup Winners’ Cups. In contrast, all Espanyol have won over a similar period of time are four Spanish Cups, though they have twice finished runners-up in the UEFA Cup.
Barcelona’s dominance is also reflected in their home record in the fixture. Los Culés have chalked up 57 wins and nine draws in playing host to Los Periquitos, although the men in blue and white have pulled off a notable result or two in their neighbours’ backyard over the years.
In June 2007, for example, Espanyol idol Raul Tamudo, who has made more appearances in the Blanquiazul jersey than any other player, scored a last-minute equaliser in a 2-2 draw that all but handed the title to Barça’s avowed enemies Real Madrid.
Tales of derbies past
Both clubs are currently coached by distinguished former players. As a tender 20-year-old, Pep Guardiola was charged with pulling the midfield strings in Johan Cruyff’s fabled 'Dream Team.' Having remained faithful to the Dutchman’s teachings, the cultured midfielder has spent the last 18 months honing and shaping a team that, if anything, produces an even more compelling brand of football. Curiously, Guardiola’s grandfather Sebastia was a loyal Espanyol fan but, after failing to persuade his beloved grandson to take up the Periquito cause, he switched his allegiance to Barcelona.
Pep’s opposite number is the Argentinian Mauricio Pochettino, who began his playing career with Newell’s Old Boys and signed for Espanyol in 1994. After six seasons there, he tried his luck in the French league before returning in 2004 to play for two more campaigns and retire with 275 matches under his belt for the club, more than any other foreigner in their history. That CV made him the ideal candidate to take up the reins last season and steer the club away from the relegation zone and up to the safety of tenth place.
The history of every legendary rivalry features a clutch of players who have performed on both sides of the divide. The most recent case in the Barcelona derby is Ivan de la Pena, who rose to prominence as an exciting Barça prodigy in the mid 1990s before failing to fulfil his early potential and moving on for fruitless spells with Lazio and Olympique Marseille. As fate would have it, the Little Buddha’s shot at redemption came with Espanyol, where he rolled back the years with a string of classy displays, earning a call-up to the Spain side in the process. Not for the first time in his stop-start career, however, De la Pena will be absent on Saturday through injury.
The rivalry today
The chasm between the two sides has been as wide as ever this season, with Barcelona riding high at the top of the table and their neighbours lying just three points clear of the drop zone.
Surprisingly though, Los Pericos have lost just once on their last five visits to the Camp Nou and pulled off a stunning 2-1 win in February this year despite starting the game at the bottom of the table. Predictably, it was De la Pena who scored both his side’s goals as they won on Azulgrana territory for the first time in 27 years. Should they repeat the trick this weekend, the Espanyol players will no doubt dedicate the win to late club captain Dani Jarque, who died suddenly during a pre-season team get-together in August.