El Centrocampista

White Elephants – How West Ham United should learn from Espanyol

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The Olympic stadium – another bloated, over-budget stadium for the English capital city of London.

With the debate over its post-games future still raging, League One side Leyton Orient are not happy and chairman Barry Hearn has been taking to soap-boxing on the airwaves to express his views. Hearn believes a move to the ground for West Ham United will kill his club and has been informing anyone that will listen that the stadium is “not fit for football”.

It is hard not to feel sorry for him as he passionately and ever more desperately pleads on behalf of his club and fans. The belief that the ground is not fit for football stems from the usual complaints over stadia built with Athletics in mind. Think Juventus and Bayern Munich, to name two. Those pesky running tracks and the gentle slope of the seating. Manchester City overcame the problems with the restructuring of the commonwealth games stadium before they moved in – but that was a much smaller affair. The Commonwealth Games is the Anglo-Italian cup to the Olympic’s Champions League.

Some years back I travelled to Barcelona for a few days with my Dad – it was “the wrong weekend” and Barça were away from home. After the obligatory tour around Camp Nou – we stood in awe at the number and variety of trophies in the cabinet. Who knew there were so many hockey tournaments that Barcelona had won? – we decided to head across town to see if we could score tickets for the Espanyol v Las Palmas match. Not exactly a fixture to set pulses racing, but a foreign match experience in any event. It was held at Espanyol’s then home – the Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys at Montjuic. The beautiful, but very impractical legacy of the 1992 Olympic Games held in Barcelona.

The trail had to be one of the most surreal, but pleasant journeys to a football stadium. Unfortunately the cable-car  was closed at the time, which really would have elevated the transport to new heights, so to speak. Instead, it was the metro, followed by a funicular (cutting out a few kms criss-crossing the hillside) which left you with a very pleasant stroll through tree-lined avenues. Eventually, the spectacular sight of the Olympic torch towered in to view. As someone used to the packed tram from Manchester City Centre and a walk past the Lou Macari chippy and terraced houses on Warwick Road to Old Trafford, it was a very exotic experience.

Espanyol had left the comfy, but atmospheric surroundings of their la Sarria ground in the late 1990s. The local government had pressured the club for some time, desperately wanting a permanent use for their very own white elephant stadium. Mounting debts left the club with little choice but to sell to developers and lodge at Montjuic. Once outside the Stadium, we relaxed in a shady park (and that isn’t shady like edgy, like Stanley Park, but leafy) and pondered how to secure a ticket over a cool cerveza. We needn’t have worried – the match was far from a sellout and the oldest ticket tout in town had spotted us a mile off and made his way over towards his prey.

I knew enough Spanish to partake in a conversation with said gent, who eagerly took our cash, flashed three season ticket cards at us, beamed a toothless smile, and escorted us through the ticket barriers – once safely through the two checks, he waved an arm in a cursory gesture to the swathe of light blue seats that backed on to us (I think, to indicate we could sit where we wanted) and walked off, straight out through the barriers – presumably to go and spend his newly earned money at the local bar.

Montjuic was truly huge. There was no gasp as you walked up the steps to see the lush carpet of green spreading out below. No thrill as the crowd at the opposite side of the ground flashed in to view. Just an absolutely huge bowl of a ground, with an enormous orange running track circling a faded green patch of grass some distance away. Two gigantic banners, emblazoned with the club crest, covered each end of the ground behind the goals – the places where the ultras would usually whip up the fervour inside the ground – seemingly because those seats would actually be furthest from the pitch and no-one in their right mind would want to sit there. It also served to “herd” the spectators together along the sides of the ground, rather than have small pockets of fans here or there. The capacity without the banners would have been around 30 thousand to large for Espanyol to fill.

Without any sort of roof, other than on the main stand, probably just enough to cover the two or three rows of club directors and vips, the Sun beat down relentlessly. We were lucky in a couple of ways – the game was an enjoyable 3-2 win for the home team, and, despite the very, very shallow incline of the seats, the crowd was so sparse that we had no-one in front of us for 10 rows or so. Why did we not move further forward, you ask? Well, the shallow incline and the and running track, combined with the obligatory perimeter advertising boards conspired together so that should the winger be sprinting along the touchline, we had no view of the ball whatsoever – and could certainly not judge whether a tackle was well-timed or not!

The Espanyol fans didn’t want to reside at Montjuic in the first place, and finally got their way after twelve years on top of the hill, they moved again, much further from their traditional heartland, to the suburb of Cornella-El Prat. The new stadium opened in 2009 and is an outstanding FOOTBALL stadium. Absolutely a modern masterpiece which should be the envy of many. Atmosphere is building as the fans begin to feel at home – but results have not exactly gone the way they might have expected with the re-emergence of the twelfth man. This may come.

Many clubs have found that moving home across town needn’t be the displacement of their soul that purists may think. Franchising and moving wholesale out of the town or city they traditionally represent (a la MK Dons) is abhorrent even to the non-purists. But, with careful planning, fan bases can be renewed and reinvigorated within the local community – much like Espanyol. But they must be thoughtful in their application of these plans. Larger clubs muscling their way in to other’s backyards can never be a good thing either. There are many sensitive choices to make.

Whilst an enjoyable way to spend the afternoon, those few years back in Barcelona, the whole thing was a little soulless. It was serene and pleasant – much like the journey to the ground – probably, in fact, much like an athletics experience, rather than a footballing one. The 1992 Olympic Stadium was not fit for football.




5 Comments

  1. Mando

    6 April, 2012 at 16:19

    Montjuic was a rat-trap. I have a similar shot on my website from my trip in 07. No atmosphere at all other than on the curva where the ultras were making a ton of noise but it wasn´t projecting at all. Cornellà is a different story from what I´ve been told. One day I´ll see it.

    • Stuart Howard-Cofield

      6 April, 2012 at 21:02

      It was very surreal, but as a Manchester United fan that used to be an Old Trafford regular, the lack of atmosphere wasn’t a new experience to me!

      Hope to see Cornella soon myself also – looks like it will have to be next season at the earliest – I have family that live in Catalunya, so I’d better make an excuse to see them!

  2. Iain McMullen

    6 April, 2012 at 16:25

    I was lucky enough to have gone to la Sarria before it closed and I was unfortunate enough to go to watch Espanyol play on Montjuic…. The new ground is fantastic though and the fans create a great atmosphere there when it’s full.

    I agree that the stadium up on Montjuic was wholly unsuitable for football – in fact any ground that has a running track around should never see football played there!

    • Stuart Howard-Cofield

      6 April, 2012 at 21:06

      That is what makes West Ham’s clamour to get to the Olympic Stadium all the more strange – Upton Park/Boleyn Ground is one of the most atmospheric grounds in England – any move should be carefully considered

  3. Chris Clements

    8 April, 2012 at 11:40

    Nice article Stuart. It’s somewhat ironic that two of the biggest stadiums in Spain see very little action nowadays. Montjuic and La Catuja in Sevilla are purpose built for athletics, but no football team wants to play in them. The “Legacy-Team” at London 2012 may think that it is creditable to have a large athletics venue for the future, but their thinking is completely misplaced.

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