Most neutrals will be glad to see the back of the Catalan derby this season. Barcelona and Espanyol have played each other four times: twice in La Liga, twice in the Copa del Rey. Barca have won twice, Sunday’s encounter ended in stalemate while Espanyol have inflicted their city rival’s only defeat of the campaign. Three of those encounters arrived within a three-week period, with football playing second fiddle to accusations and counter-accusations between players, fans, clubs and authorities.
Gerard Pique secured a late point for Ernesto Valverde’s side at the RCDE Stadium on Sunday. It had to be Pique. The Catalan defender who frequently provides the media with excellent quotes, usually through his eloquence and self-awareness but also at times by playing chief wind-up merchant. His wife – celebrity singer Shakira – and son have been the personalised target of chants and banners from Espanyol supporters, and his celebration – making a shushing gesture towards the home fans – only served to provoke many inside the stadium further. “Pique’s revenge,” ran Catalan daily Diario Sport the following morning.
Javier Tebas, chief of La Liga, was critical of Pique’s celebration and hinted he could face further punishment: “Pique cannot be making those sorts of gestures, we have seen the consequences of them and he is aware of this too, and before the goal we did not hear insults towards the player.
“To score a goal should be a fantastic moment but his provocation meant people then reacted, and sometimes it is the player’s responsibility to avoid these insults.”
A suspension may have little consequence – Pique is set to be ruled out for the next month due to an injury sustained following a rough tackle by Gerard Moreno. These matches have become littered with heavy tackling, personal duels and a genuine dislike between many of the players. Moreno’s foul was not the most unsavoury incident of the game, that instead involved strike partner Sergio Garcia who stands accused by Cameroonian-born Barca defender Samuel Umtiti of racial abuse.
“In many of these matches they are heated and what is said on the pitch must stay on the pitch,” wrote Garcia in a subsequent Instagram post, after stating he had friends and family members who were non-white. It was a defence which failed to convince many, but it sums up the structural issues within Spanish football that Pique’s actions are subject to greater scrutiny.
Indeed, the Spain international defender has been accused by ‘xenophobia’ himself, by stating Espanyol were not from Barcelona but rather from Cornella – a Catalan municipality. Technically, the RCDE Stadium – to where they moved in 2009 – lies within this jurisdiction, yet the club have historically always held their roots in the city of Barcelona. Their name changed to the Catalan version ‘RCD Espanyol de Barcelona’ in 1995 to reflect their heritage. Many of the club’s fans traditionally reject Catalan nationalism, yet this is a view largely formed over the fluctuating socioeconomics of the past century.
Quite how such comments can be interpreted as ‘xenophobic’ appears to be reaching a little *too* far to find offence, but Pique’s added comments that even Espanyol’s president was Chinese – to reflect their lack of identity – was needless and irrelevant, just as a retort that tens of thousands of Barca’s global fanbase flock to the Camp Nou each week.
Espanyol as a club were not holding back in this supposed lack of identity and took out advertising space in the Catalan press to further fuel the controversy. “RCD Espanyol de Barcelona, RCD de Cornellà, RCD de Prat, RCD de Sant Adrià…belongs to the rich, the poor, the strong, the weak, to you. To all those that dream.” A common line from the club’s loyal fanbase is simply: “you’ll never understand,” in retort to their more famed rivals.
All of this appears to show a lack of responsibility from both clubs to quell the situation and control the actions of their players, but the absence of authority from Spain’s governing authorities also, once again, leaves a lot to be desired. Football is often much more than a game, but that does not always add positive value to the sport.