Barcelona's little brother is growing up

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Phil Ball roams the sideline of Espanyol football club as they emerge from the shadow of their world-famous crosstown rival.

Espanyol 13, Barcelona 9. Now there is an interesting scoreline. It comes from the world of football, but it never happened on the field of play. Rather it refers to the number of native Catalans in the respective squads of these two rival members of La Liga, both resident in the city of Barcelona.

The statistic is a provocative one, because it lends the lie - superficially at least - to the wearisome mantra that FC Barcelona is the "flagship" of all things Catalan, and it shows there is more to this region's football than simply the Camp Nou stadium.

Reial Club Deportiu Espanyol, the club's full name in the Catalan language, are currently enjoying a prominence to which they have become perennially unaccustomed, forever plying their trade in the shadow of their more illustrious, and much richer, neighbour. The Periquitos ("parakeets") lost 4-1 at Deportivo La Corun~a last week, but it was only the club's sixth defeat of a season in which they have briefly led the league and been in a Champions League qualifying spot for almost the entire duration. They currently lie fifth, but a good run would see them consolidating a place in European competition next season.

This campaign's success has been made all the sweeter by its unexpected nature. Last season was another poor one, and under the eccentric lollipop-sucking manager Luis Fernández, Espanyol preserved their top-flight status at the 11th hour, beating Murcia 2-0 in the final game of the season. Raúl Tamudo scored both goals to become the hero that afternoon, and the wild celebrations on the steep terraces of the normally half-empty Montjuic stadium were proof that Espanyol command a fiercely faithful following, smaller than Barça's but equally committed to the cause.

The average crowds this season have been nudging 20,000, which is an improvement on previous years but almost represents the number of security personnel who patrol Camp Nou every fortnight. The relationship between the two clubs and their supporters has never been particularly amicable, and the complex nature of Catalan culture and politics makes the Espanyol phenomenon difficult to explain.

The usual idea of the club is that they represent a more working-class sector of Barcelona, albeit a more rightwing version, but this is not strictly true. The club was founded in 1899, a year after Barça, and the original name of Espan~ol (literally "Spanish") was obvious in its politico-cultural connotations, in the city that is the model for all things Catalan. In terms of being provocative, it is akin to naming a team "Protestants United" to play in a Catholic League.

The notion of the club being founded to attract the working-class immigrant section of the city seems something of a myth since its founder, Angel Rodriguez, was the middle-class son of the university rector, and his explicit reason for establishing it was "to compete with the foreigners of FC Barcelona" - a reference to the fact that Barça had been founded by a Swiss businessman and largely funded by a family of English expatriate merchants.

But Espan~ol soon attracted a rightwing element that simply did not buy into the Catalanista credo, and the notoriously thuggish brigadas blanquiazules ultras still peddle neo-Nazi slogans - ideas and behaviour that form a link to the same group's enthusiastic support of Franco's original uprising at the outset of the Spanish civil war. But of course some of Barça's fans are no angels either.

The club's footballing record is remarkable, given their meagre resources and limited fan base. Original members of Spain's first professional league in 1928, they have spent only four seasons outside the top flight since. They won the first King's Cup - the country's domestic knockout competition - of the professional era in 1929, won it again in 1940 and also in their centenary season and reached the final of the Uefa Cup in 1988, only to lose to Bayer Leverkusen on penalties.

The past five years have been particularly fallow ones, so what has changed this season? A new manager for a start, Miguel Angel Lotina, who last season was sacked by Celta Vigo. After initial grumbles at the Montjuic that Lotina was a thoroughly decent man but something of a loser, no one is complaining now.

If nothing else, his quiet manner - the antithesis of Fernández - seems to have had a calming effect on the club, and his more cautious tactical approach has given a very ordinary looking squad a sense of coherence. Furthermore, the excellent first half to the season has been achieved largely without the best player, Spanish international and local hero Tamudo - known as "the other Raúl". He shares a name with Real Madrid's captain, but hardly the same fame. Nevertheless, there were many who felt that Tamudo, the third-highest scorer in La Liga last season despite his team's desperate showing, should have featured more prominently in the European Championships last June, instead of being passed over in favour of his out-of-form namesake.

This season Tamudo has managed only seven starts, but his scoring mantle has been assumed by Maxi Rodriguez (nine goals), an Argentine midfielder who had previously only managed 11 goals in two full seasons.

It is in defence, however, that Espanyol have most surprised, conceding only six at home. Their sensational goalkeeper, the previously unknown Cameroonian Carlos Kameni who was signed from Le Havre, has been attracting notice for his spectacular style and uncanny ability to save penalties, while the enigmatic midfielder Ivan de la Pen~a continues to look more like the incarnation that was released so spectacularly on to the football world by Johan Cruyff at Barcelona in 1995.

Reincarnation is an appropriate term for the man nicknamed "The Little Buddha" because of his bald head and stocky build, for there was a period between 1998 and 2002 when he seemed to disappear from the scene, both literally and psychologically. But now, aged 28, his long journey back appears to be almost complete. De la Pen~a, a player who on his best day can pass like no other in Europe, could yet play for Spain if he continues to perform in such commanding fashion.

The club's home, the Olympic Stadium, lacks the atmosphere of a real football ground but is stunningly situated on top of Montjuic Hill overlooking the city. It has been their temporary base since 1997, and they are scheduled to move next year into another ground in the suburbs of Cornella. Espanyol hope it can restore some identity and atmosphere, as in the good old days of the tightly packed ground at Sarri. And if the club can host some Champions League games, so much the better.

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