It’s just under a thousand miles, between London and the city of Barcelona. For those fanatical about either of Catalonia’s two football teams - Barcelona and Espanyol - you’d perhaps think that the city might as well be on another planet.
But just because fans can’t be there in person, it doesn’t mean that they can’t bring a piece of Catalonia to London. “Peña culture” has existed in Spanish football for decades and it’s much more than just being a part of a fan club abroad. This weekend, the peñas of Espanyol and Barcelona will come together at LaLiga’s viewing party in London.
“Peña culture is relevant even in Spain, when the team plays away,” says Jaime, an Espanyol fan. “Matches are quite late in LaLiga. Say it’s Atleti vs Sevilla - if it’s the last game on Sunday, 8pm, UK time, if the following day, people have to work and you cannot expect thousands of people to travel two hours for the game. In the Premier League, there’s a culture of 3 o’clock kick-offs.”
The peña means that the fans can all congregate for the games in London and watch together - as fellow Periquitos fan Josep says, following a midsized club like Espanyol means that often, the hardest thing about being a fan is finding somewhere to see the game. That’s where the peña comes in.
“Espanyol is difficult to follow because the team doesn’t play in Europe often,” he explains. “It’s very rare that you will see Espanyol in England - I’ve been to one or two matches in five years here. Trying to find a pub that shows the game is difficult because Espanyol is not a very appealing team.”
Barcelona have their own peña, too. Eduardo is a part of the official supporters club, who all meet on a boat on the Thames to watch the matches. There, they drape the scene in Catalan flags, the Blaugrana colours and have a traditionally ‘Barca’ atmosphere - and yes, that includes Catalan beer, of course.
“We have Estrella beer - that’s the beer of Barcelona and it’s very popular,” he says. “Although recently, they’ve brought in a Polish beer which is popular and cheaper and that’s taking over a bit - so money rules here!”
Perhaps the best thing about being a part of a peña, however, is not the football - and both sets of fans have made self-deprecating jokes to FFT while telling us about their teams (we thought that was a British thing…). Being in a peña is all about the atmosphere, the sense of belonging and getting to meet new people. Eduardo explains that his wife isn’t even particularly interested in football - but she loves the feeling of community and the fact that a piece of Catalonia is there in London.
“The match is almost an excuse to get together - not the reason,” he says. “We get there early, have a beer, have a chat and that’s the whole point of following a team. You follow it better together when other people have the same emotions.
“I suppose the main reason I got involved is to get together and meet new people. Many people when they come to the UK, they don’t have friends. So if you support Barca, it’s a good way of meeting other people and having fun. That’s a big reason people come to the peña. They meet new people and have fun.”
“The best moment we’ve had with the peña is when Espanyol came to Wolverhampton to play in the Europa League and we met up before the game,” Josep says. “During the game, not so much!”
“Oh the game was a total disaster,” Jaime says, remembering the Diogo Jota-inspired 4-0 loss. “One great moment was at Josep’s where Espanyol played Real Sociedad and we were watching the game with quite a few people from the peña - and we all got to celebrate together. As an Espanyol fan, you don’t expect to celebrate nothing!”
And it’s not just Catalans and Spaniards that are invited. Both sets of fans say that there are more and more English people becoming fans these days - perhaps because they fell in love with the culture or the city of Barcelona - and so the peña is a multicultural club that reflects London as a whole.
“We have Dutch people, people from Australia, there are some great stories about how people have started following Espanyol,” Jaime says. “There was a guy who wanted to attend a Barca game and ended up at the other end of the city at the Espanyol stadium. He didn’t know how to get back to the Camp Nou… and that’s how he got involved.”
“We have a lot of English fans who come to the peña, too,” Eduardo says. “All in all, we have 30 nationalities. Some people have a Premier League team and they want to find out a little more about the culture and we can slowly introduce them to Barcelona as a culture. Many people make Barca their second team as a result - some of them their first team. We welcome all fans.”
“Some of the English fans are more passionate than us,” Josep says. “Some of them fly to Spain just to see Espanyol. When I go to Spain, I go to see family and Espanyol is secondary.”
So when Barca and Espanyol lock horns this weekend in the Catalan derby, it’s not just in the city of Barcelona that flags will be draped, Estrella will be consumed and fans will meet early to discuss the closing of the gap between the two sides. Fitting, there’s not much between our fans’ predictions.
“I’m optimistic - 2-1 for Espanyol because I can’t remember for the last 15-20 years a more even derby,” says Jaime. Josep says he switches between being a pessimist and a realist: “I will say a draw,” he reckons.
“Always, my result is a Barca win - we’re going to win 2-1,” Eduardo says confidently, “but the way we’re playing, it’s going to be hard to keep a clean sheet…”
With no Lionel Messi and this being the first match of the Xavi era, perhaps this is the perfect time for Espanyol to be playing Barca. It’s not just Catalonia that will be glued to the TV on Saturday night…
LaLigaTV and Stonegate Group will be running fan events throughout the season to celebrate the best of Spanish fútbol. For more details, follow @LaLigaTV and @WeLoveSportUK on Twitter. And to sign up for LaLigaTV, visit: premiersports.com/subscribenow
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