A mischievous grin appears on Joan Capdevila’s face when he’s told that foreign visitors to Barcelona are often surprised to learn there are two top-flight football teams in the city.
“Really?” he jokes. “There are people that have never heard of Barca?”
Capdevila, a World Cup winner with Spain in 2010, is back working behind the scenes at Espanyol, the other team in Barcelona. Just over six kilometres (four miles) separate the stadiums where the two clubs play, but the gulf between the two sides on just about every other metric is huge. This season, though, the gap is as small as it has been at any point in the past decade.
Barca and Espanyol still have different objectives in LaLiga this season — the former’s fighting for a top-four spot, the latter hopes to avoid being dragged into a relegation fight — but just 11 points separate them in the table heading into Sunday’s Catalan derby at the RCDE Stadium, which most tourists unknowingly pass on their taxi ride into the city from El Prat Airport.
Espanyol have already beaten league leaders Real Madrid at home this season and believe they have a chance to record another statement win against Barca, who, despite last weekend’s impressive 4-2 win over Atletico Madrid, have been inconsistent this season.
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Three points would represent a first-ever win over Barca in LaLiga at the RCDE Stadium, too, which they moved into in 2009. In 11 league matches played there to date, there have been five draws and six Barca wins. Espanyol did win a Copa del Rey game at home in 2018, only to lose the second leg away, but those numbers illustrate the one-sided nature of this fixture throughout the years.
That doesn’t make the rivalry any less fierce, though, and ESPN spoke to people associated to Espanyol to get the story from the other side of the city on the club that dub themselves the “minoria maravillosa” (the “marvelous minority”) because they feel overlooked and outnumbered.
Anyone who’s visited the city of Barcelona, even non-football fans, will be aware of Barca. Bars are draped with the club’s memorabilia, posters greet you on every corner, beckoning you to the next home match or to visit the museum, and the tourist buses drop you outside Camp Nou.
It extends beyond tourism, too. While cities like Madrid, Manchester and Milan might have a fairly even divide between the supporters of the clubs in those cities, in Barcelona — and all of Catalonia — most people are Barca fans.
“If there’s a neighbourhood where there are more Espanyol supporters than Barca, I don’t know about it,” Capdevilla, who came through Espanyol’s academy before making his first-team debut in 1998, tells ESPN.
A survey in 2017 revealed that more people in Catalonia even support Real Madrid than Espanyol, with 77.5% of those questioned supporting Barca, 10.4% Madrid and just 3.6% Espanyol. Aleix Vidal, who has played for both Barca and Espanyol and will be involved for the latter this weekend, admitted to ESPN that he leaned towards Madrid as a kid born in Catalonia, although he points out he “moved around a lot” and was never a “huge fan.”
“It’s normal that there are more Barca fans, but I think Espanyol fans feel it more,” Vidal says of his experience playing for the two clubs. “They are a humbler team. They are more of a family.”
Those that do follow Espanyol have suffered against their rivals in recent years. They haven’t beaten them in LaLiga for 23 games, dating back to February 2009 when, coached by now-Paris Saint-Germain boss Mauricio Pochettino, they beat Pep Guardiola’s Barca 2-1. You have to go back even further for their last home win in the league: January 2007.
“I’ve been Espanyol my whole life, thanks to my uncle who started taking me to games at the old ground in Sarria,” Capdevila says. “I quickly became hooked. It was seen as strange at school because everyone was so pro-Barca, but I liked the idea of seeing things differently.
“I think of LaLiga’s derbies, it’s the most uneven. Sevilla-[Real] Betis, Athletic [Club]-La Real [Sociedad] and Madrid-Atletico are all more even, but the magnitude of Barca is just so big. So there is more suffering, but that makes the wins even sweeter.”
And if an Espanyol win or draw brings bad news for Barca, then even better.
One of the most famous derbies in modern history took place at Camp Nou at the end of the 2006-07 season. A Raul Tamudo brace, after Lionel Messi had scored with his hand, earned Espanyol a 2-2 draw and denied Barca the chance to move top of the league with just one game remaining. Madrid went on to win LaLiga.
“Even if I wanted to forget that game, no one will let me,” smiles Tamudo — who had a trial at Barca in 1992 before joining Espanyol, the club he supported as a boy, in exchange for a bag of footballs for his local club, Santa Coloma — in an interview with ESPN.
The game became known as the “Tamudazo.”
“After that, Barca fans, whenever they saw me on the street, were really angry with me,” Tamudo adds. “I opted to stay at home for a few days after the game, just until everything calmed down a little bit.
“I was always jeered [at Camp Nou] after that. I remember coming on there for Rayo Vallecano with 20 minutes to go once. Everyone was whistling me and then, two minutes later, I scored. And that was that, [quiet]!
“I still get recognised because of that moment, even in places like Dubai. Two or three years ago, before the pandemic, I was at passport control in Miami and the guy goes: ‘You’re … are you Raul Tamudo? El Tamudazo!’ In Miami! Fourteen years after! It was a blessing actually, because you know how passport control can be, and after that he let me through quite quickly!”
Capdevila, who also played for Deportivo La Coruna and Villarreal during a stellar 19-year career, remembers celebrating Barca’s 4-0 European Cup defeat to AC Milan in 1994 in his hometown of Tarrega with his mum as a teenager.
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“I remember my mum popped a bottle of champagne because she [supported] Madrid,” he says. “She had a headache for two days after because she never drank. I will remember that day for my whole life, but they’re things I wouldn’t do now. You see football in another way after being a professional.
“When I was younger, I would go days or weeks without speaking to friends after a derby, it seems stupid now. Now I just want Espanyol to win.”
For that reason, Capdevila prefers the Espanyol win under Pochettino in 2009 to the “Tamudazo.”
“The Ivan de la Pena brace is the one that stays with me,” he adds. “We were bottom and it was a huge win. It was nice to draw at Camp Nou [in 2007] but it was just a point, although talking about that game, no one speaks about the Messi handball, do they!?”
Espanyol have been owned by the Chinese manufacturing company Rastar Group since 2016, with Chen Yansheng the club’s president for the past six years. Along with the signing of forward Wu Lei, it’s helped them expand their reach in Asia, even if they still remain in Barca’s shadow. Capdevila attempted to spread the word of the club in India, too, where he wound down his career in 2014.
“I tried to tell them that in Barcelona it’s not just Barca, there’s also another historic club: Espanyol,” he says. “People have to come to the stadium. I am convinced that if people see an Espanyol game, they’ll end up loving the club, because it’s a team that hooks you, you know?”
Espanyol play at the RCDE Stadium in Cornella, on the outskirts of Barcelona. It’s an impressive 40,000-seat ground, though it’s usually only half full. They’re still fighting to make it a home. They moved there in 2009 after lodging at the Olympic Stadium in Montjuic for more than a decade following their departure from Sarria in 1997.
“This is our home,” Tamudo says. “I wish I could have played my whole career in a stadium like this. The fans are on top of you and the players enjoy that.”
Given their state-of-the-art stadium, their unique location in one of Europe’s most desirable cities and their rich history, it’s perhaps surprising their rivalry with Barca is so one-sided.
In all the all-time LaLiga table, Espanyol sit seventh, behind Madrid, Barca, Atletico, Athletic Club, Valencia and Sevilla. Of 91 LaLiga seasons, they’ve been absent for just five, and they have never spent longer than one season in the second tier — they were last relegated in 2019-20 but bounced back at the first attempt last season. They have won two Copas del Rey and lost two UEFA Cup finals, both on penalties. They are, by several measures, one of Spain’s biggest teams.
Relegation in 2020 gave them the chance to rebuild and a more even split of television money has enabled other clubs to cut the gap on Barca and Madrid. They have also received a slice of a €2 billion investment package from CVC Capital Partners into LaLiga this season.
That agreement stipulates that part of the money must be spent on investments. Sources have told ESPN that Espanyol want to build a new training ground close to their stadium. Their current base, which is on the other side of the city, would then be made a hub for the women’s team.
“Two years ago, we were in the Europa League, the fans were buzzing and we ended up going down in the same season,” Capdevila says when asked about the club’s aims. “The objectives have to be ambitious, while also knowing, both the club and supporters, that everything takes time and requires patience.
“We’re not a Manchester City that can spend €100m on a player. An example [for us] could be Villarreal. I would like that model, around the Europa League every season. That’s built with a solid base. The club is changing, creating a good structure and when we achieve that, we can strengthen the sporting side of things.”
Success at Espanyol has often been rooted in the academy, from Tamudo and Capdevila through to Dani Jarque, who sadly died following a heart attack when he was the club captain in 2009. Andres Iniesta dedicated his World Cup-winning goal to Jarque in 2010, Espanyol fans still honour him in the 21st minute of each home game and the training ground is named after him.
“The academy here is one of the best in Spain and has been for many years,” says Capdevila, reminiscing about yesteryear’s games against young Barca sides including Carles Puyol and Xavi. “We’re competing well with Barca. We’re there with them at the same level. Espanyol can beat Barca across all age groups and teams … OK maybe not in women’s football because they’re on another level, but across the youth teams especially, it’s really competitive and any of the two teams can win.”
Eight of the current team, including Vidal, have either come through the academy or B team or at least played for them at some point. Sergi Darder controls the midfield and Javi Puado is a talented young forward capped by Spain. The standout players, though, are perhaps 40-year-old former Real Madrid goalkeeper Diego Lopez, who Vidal says is a “phenomenon who can still dive like a cat” and Spain striker Raul de Tomas, who’s scored 12 league goals already this season.
“Look, Raul gives us something important with his goals, but unless you’re Messi or someone, it’s a mistake to highlight one player,” Vidal says. “Football is a collective sport. If you’re not as one, it’s difficult. [Coach] Vicente Moreno has clear ideas. He likes to play. I think ignoring the obvious big sides, we’re one of the teams that have the most possession in games and we have the perfect players to play that way.”
The rivalry within Barcelona extends beyond the pitch. Espanyol fans feel looked down on in their own city.
“Being an Espanyol supporter in this city is very difficult,” Darder tells ESPN. “You go to school and there are 17 Barcelona fans, one who likes Espanyol. That kid — let’s not call it bullying, but it’s hard because they’re alone. Everything leads you to Barcelona: the size of the club, the front page of the papers, the environment.”
It’s that environment that creates the lack of balance between the two clubs within Catalonia that motivates Espanyol supporters most on derby day.
“What Pericos (Espanyol fans) feel before a derby, for me, cannot be matched,” supporter Marc Raymundo told ESPN. “In the sense that it’s a passion, a very strong feeling with respect to the treatment we receive in Barcelona from the institutions, the politicians and the media. It’s not as shameless in the Seville or Madrid derbies, with the media and politicians positioning themselves so clearly in favour of one of the city’s teams. There’s division, but the difference here is huge.
“Espanyol is alone in the city against the world: 30,000 fans against everyone. It’s more than three points or the league table, it’s about defending our identity. Espanyol constantly feel undervalued. The public media, paid for by both sets of supporters, are brazenly pro-Barca. Politicians pose with Barca shirts to boost campaigns. They question if we are from Barcelona when we were founded in Barcelona just because we play in Cornella. Our Catalan identity is questioned. When we play Barca, we’re fighting all those elements.”