Consider this scenario: your opponent is a Cinderella side from the Segunda B, but having inexplicably scalped Racing Santander and Villarreal, you fear the improbable. Cornellà was a hospitable host for the small club from Miranda de Ebro, but now they were going home having blown a 1-2 lead as Espanyol scored twice in the last 5 minutes. In the newspapers the jabatos were declaring a sporting war, the battle of the River Ebro they called it, and if they wanted it so Espanyol were more than willing to treat it as such.
It hardly started well. Anduva holds 6,000 people, the lights are faint so the ground looked shadowy and sinister, and the stands are right up against the pitch like Craven Cottage must have looked at the early part of the last century. The English connection is overt. The Spanish game, especially up north, is indebted to English culture. Miranda de Ebro is one of many like Real Sociedad or Athletic Bilbao, Real Union de Irún or a slew of others that reflects football through an English colored prism. It´s the chilly weather sure, but when you see the ¨This is Anduva¨ sign you realize that the place sees itself as a continental Kop, cup nights in Burgos to match any that Liverpool could muster even on a much smaller scale.
The place was full. The home supporters drowning out the 150 Espanyol fans that were crammed into one area behind the goal. It was not an auspicious setting. Espanyol are not the best travelling side in Spain but this was not looking good. The broadcast was worse than usual and the one camera set-up reminded me of preseason friendlies against semi-pro sides. The match was edgy, and the ref was letting the minnows push the pericos around, tackling and swarming the midfield. It was rather miraculous that both teams entered the break in a goal-less draw, but as expected Pochettino had Espanyol come out with greater energy and Portuguese winger Rui Fonte did not disappoint. Despite being well-covered, Fonte somehow managed to slip in a boot and deflect the cross into the Mirandés goal for the lead. Espanyol had more of the possession from that point, and continued to press them, but their midfielders were isolated. Like Arsenal when they played at Highbury, Mirandés used the lack of space especially in the midfield and the lack of experience and cohesion that players like Thievy and Weiss brought to play. By the time Verdú came on, the game was set and there was little they could do to change the momentum. Semi-pro forward Pablo Infante, bank-teller by day and Copa del Rey pichichi by night, curled a rocket-shot by a diving Kiko Casilla to draw level, but the winner would come with seconds to spare in injury time.
Mirandés had won and not only all of Spain cheered, but it became the trending topic through all of twitter for much of the days following the match. Mirandés has become the darling of all football fans, or so the national sports dailies cried out. It´s as if modest Espanyol had walked into a casting call for 300 Spartans and were inexplicably cast as the villains. I know that racinguistas and submarinos are feeling a similar sting, but this is a much more humiliating loss. It´s a quarter-final. Espanyol had made one of those once in a decade runs and the stage was set. The final, while not set-in stone, was at least open. Barça and Real Madrid would play their another of their often toothless clásicos in the other bracket where Valencia and Levante were facing off there as well. This was a perfect chance defeated not only by a perfect storm of hype and circumstance, but also by their typically foolish complacency.
To be an Espanyol supporter like myself is to suffer sure, but this has been a far crueler. The team picks you. There is no other choice, but it´s times like these that I sometimes think how it might have been if either merengue or blaugrana had called instead. Would the constant rewards be better for my psyche or would I take them for granted as many do? Then I think of my friends. ¨Ánimo amigo¨, they said. Courage. Chin-up. Europe is still at reach and our rivals are just as flawed if not moreso than we are. Our strength is not in our increasingly fruitful youth-team. It is not in our inspirational young manager. It´s us. We suffer the condescending jibes from culés who had never even heard of Mirandés before and were now buying jersey commemorating our defeat, but also the patronizing pats on the head from Real Madrid supporters that have annexed us as part of their anti-culé cantera and yet we wear our colors with dignity and with pride; two things in this life that cannot be taken away from us unless we abdicate them.
So, here I am holding my chin up despite the scoreline. It´s a long season. Visca L´Espanyol.