Espanyol move offers lessons to West Ham

BARCELONA - West Ham United's plan to take over London's Olympic Stadium after the 2012 Games and their pledge to keep the running track has many people scratching their heads, not least at Espanyol.

The Barcelona-based football club and their fans had more than a decade at the Catalan city's Olympic Stadium at Montjuic where the atmosphere in the half-empty arena sometimes resembled a funeral and the track kept the supporters at a distance.

Espanyol, who had their first home near the city's famous Sagrada Familia church, now boast a fabulous purpose-built site, without an athletics track, at Cornella-El Prat and chief executive Joan Collet said it was a massive improvement.

"The move the club has made from the Olympic Stadium has been nothing but positive in economic, social and sporting terms," Collet said in an interview with Reuters in the VIP section of the stands.

"An athletics track creates a much colder atmosphere and the distance between the spectators and the players was much greater. For us, playing in the Olympic Stadium cannot in any way compare with the atmosphere we have here.

"The only thing I want is for West Ham to have that too but I think they will notice the atmosphere," added Collet.

"I believe that in sporting terms it's going to be negative for the club playing in the Olympic Stadium."

The London Olympic Park Legacy Company decided last week to make West Ham their preferred bidders to take over the 500 million pounds stadium ahead of Premier League rivals Tottenham Hotspur.

Tottenham said that retaining a track made no sense financially or from a fans' perspective.

However, West Ham's owners say they can provide their club with a 60,000-seater stadium while satisfying the needs of athletics with a venue capable of hosting major international meetings.

Fans of the east London club will take some convincing a move away from Upton Park, their home since 1904, will not have a negative impact.

Espanyol are one of the founders of the Spanish football league and Collet said the new stadium had given the club a boost to help them compete for lucrative places in European competition.


The club are now sixth in La Liga - which would put them in next season's Europa League.

"I have spoken to the players about it and they said that when they played (at Montjuic) they felt a bit isolated," Collet said. "There had to be a lot of noise for it to reach the centre of the pitch and for the players to notice it.

"Here by contrast we immediately had a great atmosphere and you can really live the football. The fans are on top of the players and the experience on the pitch and for us has been very positive."

Collet said Espanyol's move to the new stadium, which is about a 20-minute drive from the city centre, had also brought economic benefits.

The number of season-ticket holders fell after the switch to Montjuic but has increased by 7,000-8,000 since the Cornella-El Prat opened in August 2009.

"People have the feeling they are playing in their own home because the stadium belongs to the club," said Collet.

"There, we were playing in a municipal stadium and we couldn't exploit our resources."

Collet estimated revenue from catering and the hiring out of VIP areas had increased as much as 20 percent.

Juan, a scarf-draped Espanyol fan attending Sunday's game against Real Madrid, said West Ham supporters should be prepared to buy good binoculars and loudhailers.

"An athletics track affects your ability to lift the team and I think the players notice it too," Juan told Reuters. "We were a long way from the pitch at the other stadium whereas here we are very close.

"We are very well placed in a perfect location and the truth is it's great and we are very pleased."