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​Espanyol, Girona flying in Barcelona FC’s shadow


Espanyol players sandwich FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi during one of their recent Catalonia derbies.

When you hear Catalonia, the first thing that comes to mind is European giants, FC Barcelona – undoubtedly one of the world’s biggest football teams. And if you follow politics, chances are you might also have heard about the region’s referendum and quest for a Catalan independence in recent years – a referendum declared illegal by the central government in Madrid.

But this city absolutely breathes football and FC Barcelona is a recognised global brand with a trophy cabinet that puts them on a different level.

Founded in 1899, a trip to Camp Nou courtesy league organisers La Liga gave 15 visiting journalists the opportunity to see 25 La Liga titles, five Uefa Champions League trophies and 30 Copa del Rey (Spanish Cup) Cups proudly on display at the FC Barcelona Museum.

Regarded as the poor cousins of their most illustrious neighbours – Espanyol and Girona complete the Catalan representation in Spain’s top football division.

La Liga provides a stage for the duo to compete against the rich, glamour and mighty neighbours, Barcelona, in the league, but both clubs admit they are focusing on building personal legacies and not the tough task of beating Barcelona.

Nicknamed Periquitos, Espanyol, the Catalan capital’s second biggest club, whose fans are considered to be pro-Spanish, has a fantastic 40,500 capacity stadium known as Estadi Cornellà-El Prat.

Formed in 1900 by Ángel Rodríguez Ruiz, an engineering student at the University of Barcelona, the club enjoys the notable honour of being the first Spanish team formed exclusively by Spanish fans.

The stadium provides a platform for members and fans who want their remains to rest at Espai Memorial del RCD Espanyol. It is also a rest place for late captain Daniel Jarque.

The club’s training and youth centre —Ciutat Esportiva Dani Jarque — is also named after the defender, who passed on in 2009 from heart failure while on a pre-season tour of Italy with the club at the age of 26.

“Espanyol is a club that loves to play football and is dedicated to its own philosophy, belief and grooming of players from the academy,” Coordinator of Academies, Albert Saus, explained to visiting journalists.

“We are the best at recruiting talents in Catalonia and even the other clubs come here to our academy to sign players. It is very easy to recruit players in this region because they know for a fact that they have a chance to play in the first team here.

“To further underline how we value our academy, it is named after Dani Jarque, who started as a kid here and progressed to playing in the first team and rose to captain here as well.”

Saus insists youngsters prefer to come to Espanyol by making a subtle reference to Barcelona as the monstrous neighbours, who are spending millions of euros on foreign stars to the detriment of players from its famed La Masia.

“Half of our current squad came through the youth system and our target is to have the entire team of 100 per cent from the academy by 2021. Even if we manage to get 80 per cent by our target, it is a success. The other monster cannot say that because they spend millions to sign big stars yearly,” he said.

With only four Spanish Cup titles and two Uefa Cup runners-up achievements, it is clearly an indication of a success-starved club, but Saus disagrees.

He added: “We are not competing against anyone. Success is achieving our targets, fulfilling the ambition of our philosophy. Our fans understand this, they are always proud when they can relate to the players wearing our colours. Yes, we raise players and make profits when they choose to leave us – I can say we are winning in our own ways.”

As a former player, Tottenham Hotspur manager, Mauricio Pochettino’s managerial career began with Espanyol in January 2009, with his first win coming soon after against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in Camp Nou in February. It was Espanyol’s first win there for 27 years. You truly win some.

Nicknamed Blanquivermell (White and Reds) and originally formed in 1930, it is a different life at the other Catalan club, Girona.

How many La Liga clubs can say that they play in the city that inspired a world of dragons and magic famous across the globe? Girona FC can.

Many of the most iconic settings from the award-winning fantasy drama series Game of Thrones – King’s Landing, Antigua, Braavos – were all filmed right here in Spain’s north-eastern corner in the beautiful city of Girona.

Games of Thrones tell us that even the humblest of warriors can prove decisive in the battle for the Iron Throne. And it would be hard to find a better metaphor for the city’s La Liga club, Girona FC, as they shocked the football world and performed so impressively in their debut La Liga Santander season in 2017/18.

In fact, Girona had the best season of a LaLiga debutant in history. Draws against title challengers, Atletico Madrid and a famous 2-1 win over reigning Spanish and European champions, Real Madrid were the ultimate show of defiance against the so-called giants of LaLiga. The club hasn’t just survived in the top flight, they’ve prospered.

Leaving Montilivi, Girona’s 13,500-capacity stadium, isn’t easy. It has become a fortress for the likes of LaLiga Santander top scorer Cristhian Stuani, Portu, Aday and Granell, players who are quickly taking on a hero status to match that of Jon Snow and Jamie Lannister.

On the pitch, Girona has benefited immensely from the investment of English side Manchester City. In August 2017, it was announced that City Football Group have emerged co-owners of the Catalan club.

City’s decision to invest in Spain has strong footballing foundations, rooted in the club’s and manager Pep Guardiola’s persistent quest for the development of young players.

By buying a stake in Girona, City intend to provide a missing link for promising youngsters who are ready to move beyond youth football but not yet ready for the first team.

“The partnership with Man City gives us visibility and improves our football club,” says Girona marketing manager, Aran Navarro.

“Players come to our beautiful city and realise the importance of the club to its core members. They have a platform to play against the best players in La Liga and our opponents will tell you it is difficult to beat Girona.

“Whether they come on loan or stay here permanently, the players enjoy amazing support from the locals. We do things the Girona way and so far both club and fans are winning.”

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