surinenglish

A LOOK AT LA LIGA

The end of an unremarkable era

Defeat to neighbours Barça last week sealed Espanyol's fate.
Defeat to neighbours Barça last week sealed Espanyol's fate. / EP
  • After brushes with mild success, Espanyol have dropped out of the big league for the first time in 20 years

I used to give a tip to tourists who, through bad luck, visited the beautiful city of Barcelona on a weekend when the main team in town was away: "Get the tourist bus and stop off at the Olympic Stadium."

It was easy to pick up a ticket for an Espanyol game when they used the vast auditorium for matches between 1997 and 2009. It was also a pleasant escape from the hustle and bustle when they moved to the purpose-built Estadi Cornellà - el Prat, a few stops from the airport.

Now, though, the club has disappeared from the football map and it's not clear when it will return.

It was cruel that the poor relations of Catalonia would be relegated by the noisy neighbours with three games to go. A single-goal defeat in front of zero supporters sealed their fate and they departed from the Primera División with a whimper.

In truth, very few tears were shed for a club - best described as niche - which has fewer fans among the local population than Real Madrid. It's a club that has continually hung onto elite status, giving the fans very few thrills in recent years.

People are surprised when they learn that 'the Budgies' have been in the top flight for twenty unbroken years; in fact only Real Madrid, Barcelona and Athletic have spent more years in Spain's top flight. They have flirted with success in the past: in 1987 they finished third, they've won the Copa four times and reached the UEFA Cup final twice.

When Chinese businessman Chen Yangsheng invested heavily four years ago people were beginning to get excited about the possibility of a new footballing force in the city.

Mild success became the curse though. Last season, they did enough to qualify for the Europa League but like so many middling teams, touring the continent and playing three games per week stretched them too far.

Rubi the architect of the success departed for Real Betis. Pablo Machín who turned Girona into an unlikely force from rural Catalonia lasted only eleven games. Abelardo was next. He's the man who inspired Gijón to promotion and kept Alavés in the top league. He soon realised that it was beyond his motivational talents, so Francisco Rufete stepped in to try to guide them into port, but instead he took them into stormy waters and hope was sunk.

Now the team needs to be reconstructed, a new coach needs to be appointed and the owners have to keep their nerve. Chen has issued a letter of apology to the fans and is making noises about restoring the pride. What they need is to unearth an unlikely leader like Mauricio Pochettino who stepped up of coach of the women's team to lead the men to victory over Pep Guardiola's Barcelona.

Pochettino helped preserve what was to be an unbeaten 26-year stay in La Liga; four coaches combined failed to save them this season.

They've spent 85 years as a top-level club yet haven't finished above their great rivals Barcelona since 1942. Now the target is to get back to the promised land before 2022.