Football in Barcelona revolves around the megastars of the Camp Nou, but Messi & Co. aren’t the only team in town. For a different take on Catalan football, the small but lively bunch following CE Europa, a team from the Gracia district of the city, continue to keep the flame of a proud history alive in the shadow of one of the world’s greatest teams.
The Nou Sardenya stadium doesn’t feature on any tourist routes. Nobody rushes to take selfies in the dressing rooms here, or gape at a bulging trophy cabinet. It was pure chance, and the noise of the drums, that lured me into a 2003 game against AE Prat in the fourth-tier Tercera 3A Group 5 during a visit to the Catalan capital. But stumbling upon the club and its tidy 7,000-capacity arena introduced one of the forgotten names of Spanish football.
It’s a huge leap – in terms of facilities and status – from here to the Camp Nou, but Europa and Barca once rubbed shoulders in the inaugural years of La Liga. Spain’s national championship came relatively late, playing its first season in 1928-29. To form the competition, teams were drawn from the top end of the various regional championships and Europa’s proud record in Catalunya in the 1920s earned them a place alongside Barcelona.
The seat at the top table didn’t last long – after three seasons Europa were relegated and, with the exception of a brief spell in the Segunda in the 1960s, never again got close to the top flight.
There’s also an English connection, in common with so many teams across Europe. CE Europa had one Conyers Kirby, also known as Ralph, as manager from 1922-24 and again for their final season in La Liga. Kirby, a Birmingham lad, was a sporting star of the Royal Army Medical Corps before joining Southern League Fulham in 1906. The following season he went home and made his only recorded Football League appearance for Birmingham City in a 4-2 defeat against Newcastle Utd. An extensive spell in non-league football with Worcester City, Kidderminster Harriers and the Dickensian-sounding Willenhall Pickwick before returning to Fulham just in time for the outbreak of WW1.
After the war he moved to Spain where he refereed before taking over as manager at Europa where he led them to victory in the Campionat de Catalunya and a cup final defeat to Athletic Bilbao in the 1923 Copa del Rey. Kirby, who went on to manage Barcelona soon afterwards and also had a stint in Bilbao, returned for the 1930-31 season but was unable to save the team from relegation out of Spain’s fledgling top flight.
Another Englishman, Bobby Robson, was on the receiving end of Europa’s greatest modern-day achievements. In the 1997 Copa Catalunya, they beat Robson’s Barca in the final. Don’t assume that this was merely some half-baked reserve line-up; Robson picked Hristo Stoichkov and Spanish international midfielder Guillermo Amor in his team, only to suffer a 3-1 loss. The following year a stronger Barcelona line-up included Amor once again, as well as Sergi, Ivan de la Pena, Michael Reiziger and Fernando Couto, as they sought revenge in the final. This time the big names did better, forcing a 1-1 draw before losing on penalties.
That end-of-season game in 2003 was a relegation showdown. Defeat could have seen Europa slip into the drop zone. Instead, a 4-1 win kept the drums beating into the evening at a venue rather happier than the more illustrious Camp Nou that evening. The team edged above AE Prat and secured its survival, jubilant fans threw toilet rolls onto the pitch like confetti, a happy throwback to English First Division footbal of the 80s. The following year wasn’t so successful; Europa went down to the Catalana division, but bounced back immediately. Recent seasons have brought better results – a string of third-placed finishes in the last four campaigns and a third Copa Catalunya triumph in 2015-16.
Nou Sardenya, Barcelona, Spain
May 18, 2003, Tercera 3A, Group 5
CE Europa 4 AE Prat 1
Att: about 1,000