FC Barcelona casts a big shadow. Barça’s style of play, trophy cabinet and star players, like Messi, Cryuff and now Gavi, often overshadow those of all other clubs in Spain besides Real Madrid. The Catalan giants have a global footprint few clubs can compete with, making life in their vicinity very difficult for anyone. Regional rivals Girona FC, and crosstown rivals RCD Espanyol understand they will seldom reach the sporting heights or popularity that Barça does and thus are finding other ways to bring their own identities and flavor to Spanish soccer’s top two divisions.
Fans paying attention to this year’s competition will note that RCD Espanyol is absent from the standings. Unfortunately for the club in Cornellà – a municipality neighboring Barcelona proper – relegation from LALIGA last season means Spain’s top division only has two Catalan clubs this season. Still, the second division club continues to bring fans through the doors as it fights to regain its place amongst Spain’s elite. At the other end of the spectrum, Girona FC goes into gameweek thirteen top of the LALIGA standings with 31 points and more goals scored than any other club in the competition. So, what more should fans know about the Catalan clubs that exist in Barcelona’s shadow, and what does the future hold for them?
RCD Espanyol – The Underdog With A Good Heart
Real Club Deportivo Espanyol is a founding member of LALIGA. Created by students from the University of Barcelona back in 1900, Los Pericos (The Parakeets) are 123 years-old and have spent 87 seasons in Spain’s top division. Los Blanquiazules (The Blue and Whites) are four time winners of Spain’s Copa del Rey and were once home to LALIGA icons Ricardo Zamora, Alfredo Di Stefano, Raúl Tamudo and Mauricio Pochettino. Espanyol also holds an unbreakable record: it was the first club to score a LALIGA goal. Winger Pitus Prat netted the goal on February 10th 1929 against Real Unión de Irún.
Having wandered from the quiet, village-like neighborhood of Sàrria – to the top of Montjuïc – where Barcelona currently plays – in search of a permanent home, in 2009 Los Pericos finally settled in at Stage Front Stadium on the outskirts of the city. The state-of-the-art facility seats 40,000 spectators and is in contention to be one of the host venues for the 2030 FIFA World Cup. Espanyol was also one of the first European clubs to realize the benefits of environmental sustainability, equipping the stadium with over 2,700 solar panels on its roof, and a sustainable water recycling system to improve energy efficiency and reduce hydro waste.
Director of Communications, Sergio Aguilar, says that while the club always seeks to win on the field, it looks for ways to win off of it as well. Making a mark in the community and developing a strong relationship with fans is deeply important to a club that knows titles and superstars come few and far between. This is why Espanyol is consistently collaborating with local, national and international organizations to create positive social impact. As one club official puts it, “we want to be a purpose-driven company and create a sense of pride in being an Espanyol fan.”
This season the club has already won plaudits from around the world for its cute and innovative project, Els Perics No Abandonen (The Parakeets Don’t Abandon), which saw players walking out before the game with rescue puppies in their arms. The project is part of the club’s wider Superliga Solidaria (Superleague of Solidarity) charitable initiative which encourages inter-club collaboration and seeks to “allocate resources to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in society.” In this instance, the club was highlighting animal abandonment, a growing problem in Spain, where in 2022 over 290,000 pets were abandoned or given to shelters.
Superliga Solidaria is born from the club’s joint response – alongside the Catalan association “Es Per Tu” – to the invasion of Ukraine. Seeing the suffering of the Ukrainian people, the joint partnership sent the official team bus to Poland full of food, first aid materials and medicine. The goods were distributed to those in need in Ukraine and the bus was used to transport war-affected Ukrainian children to safe haven in Spain. Seeing the impact of its efforts, Espanyol decided to continue using its social platform to promote and support social causes.
Putting its money where its mouth is, Espanyol is committing 5% of the value of each season ticket sold towards Superliga Solidaria. Through the project, Los Blanquiazules have collaborated with over 200 organizations, including other LALIGA clubs such as Real Betis, Athletic Club and Girona FC. The club has helped organize food drives, it sent food and necessities to Türkiye and Syria after the devastating earthquake and it has helped distribute information to help local businesses get much-needed financial aid in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moving forward, Espanyol hopes to increase its efforts and visibility and will do so with the help of its volunteer network – created in 2015, which serves to strengthen the relationship between the club and its supporters and get fans involved in the club’s social work.
On the field, Espanyol is battling to return to the first division with a budget that has been slashed in half due to relegation. At the time of writing, the team is in 5th place in the standings, but the head coach was just let go. Despite the uncertainty on field, stadium attendance has increased this season as fans continue to buy into the club’s greater sense of purpose. Espanyol knows that life in the first division will allow it to attract a wider audience and share its brand with the world. It is seeking to become LALIGA’s third Catalan club in the top flight next season but will brave the ups and downs of professional soccer maintaining its local essence and focus on social causes.
Girona FC – The Stubborn Overachiever
Unlike its big-city neighbors Espanyol and Barcelona, Girona does not have a storied history in LALIGA. Founded in 1930 out of necessity after the popular UE Girona dissolved due to insolvency, the club has been a perennial battler in the lower divisions of Spanish soccer. In fact, it was not until 2017 – after three failed attempts in a row – that the Gironistes reached LALIGA. Despite momentary glory, the club was relegated to the second division on the last day of the 2018-19 season and has had to fight its way back to the top.
CEO Ignasi Mas-Bagà calls Girona a stubborn, persistent club that focuses on hard work, and the pursuit of excellence. Despite hailing from the capital city of the province (also named Girona), the club is a small fish in LALIGA’s rough waters. But Mas-Bagà insists this is a positive. Girona FC has capitalized on its lack of size to grow extremely close to its fanbase, providing it an authentic matchday experience. The CEO notes that watching a game at Estadi Montilivi – the smallest stadium in LALIGA, capacity 14,624 – is unlike going anywhere else in Spain. Fans can hear the ball being kicked, and can often even hear the players yelling to each other, or the orders being handed down by the coaches, such is the proximity to the field.
For all the glitz and glamor of elite level soccer, a day at Montilivi can remind fans of the simplicity of the game – twenty-two players running around with a ball at their feet, being spurred on by a fervent home crowd. And the players understand the club ethos, often staying on the field after the game to sign autographs and take pictures with their adoring fans.
The club is currently enjoying its moment in the sun. Girona is in first place after twelve games and producing some of the most exciting soccer in the division despite having the thirteenth highest salary budget in the league. But people around the club are remaining calm. The objective at the outset of the season was to remain in the league and thereby help consolidate the club’s economic and sporting future. So far, the club looks set to do that and more, but Ignasi makes it clear that while there is an aspiration to compete in Europe and win titles, the club has a long-term plan and is not obsessed with winning at all costs right now.
Part of the reason Girona FC – a club from a charming, albeit small, city, better known for Michelin stars than soccer stars – can take a long-term approach in the cutthroat world of sports is thanks to City Football Group (CFG). On August 23rd, 2017, CFG invested in Girona FC, and has since become the club’s majority shareholder. CFG is funded by the royal family of the United Arab Emirates and has an extensive portfolio of sports investments, most notably reigning Premier League and UEFA Champions League champions Manchester City. Ignasi admits that CFG has brought stability, necessary investment and the know-how to help implement a long-term vision, but insists that the day-to-day management of the club is done by his team on the ground. And while it is tempting to think that Girona’s success is down to huge sums of money, the club’s net spend on players is only $3.2 million since CFG acquired its portion of the club in 2017.
However, the stability CFG has brought has been pivotal for Girona’s growth as a club. Mas-Bagà, who took the reins as CEO in 2015, says he inherited a club that had no club shop, sold only 800 jerseys a season and had one of the oldest fanbases in the country. Instead of competing with the likes of Barcelona, Ignasi understood that fans could enjoy supporting both Catalan clubs. Through targeted social media campaigns, great matchday experiences and an exciting style of play, the club has been able to capture the attention of the next generation of fans. Now the club sells nearly 11,000 shirts a season, generating over 1 million euros on jersey sales alone. But what makes Girona’s CEO most happy is seeing young kids heading to school in their Girona jerseys: proof of the club’s appeal.
Girona’s transformation is also thanks to its daring attitude. Coach Michel has the team playing swashbuckling soccer that creates good goal-scoring opportunities which the players are currently finishing. In the boardroom, Ignasi says his staff is equally daring. Filled with young, hungry professionals who have local ties, the team looks to challenge an industry that Mas-Bagà admits can be quite old school at times. The club has seized opportunities to sign sponsorship deals with local businesses and leverages the CFG network, providing package deals to companies who may want ties in Catalonia and other places within the company portfolio, like Manchester, New York, Abu Dhabi or Mumbai.
Like Espanyol, Girona has also recognized the value of social impact through soccer. Locally, club players and staff members enter into schools in tougher neighborhoods to help educate children through soccer. The Red and Whites also use their platform to support the local NGO Open Arms, which helps rescue refugees abandoned in international waters off the coast of Spain.
Regardless of the success on the field, the club continues to emphasize sustained economic and sporting growth. It is looking to expand its influence on social media and is finalizing a new 57-acre training complex just outside the city. The club expects its first team will be training there by the end of this season and hopes to move all academy and staff members to the Vilablareix complex by the end of 2025, or early 2026. After that the club will begin renovating Estadi Montilivi, which it hopes to increase to 20,000 capacity.
Life in the shadow of one of the greatest clubs on Earth must be tough, but Espanyol and Girona both show the personality to step out of that shadow each weekend. Whether it is for sporting or social reasons, fans who neglect to watch these two pillars of the Spanish soccer community are missing out.