Pitchside Europe

Just another Catalan derby…

“It’s your first time on the north terrace,” declares an older boy. His younger companion, nervous and excited, nods.

He’s 14 and with three mates. They’re queuing in the rain to buy tickets for the uncovered stand behind the goal. Six Euros dug out of his still dry jogging pant bottoms secures this lad’s entrance to this important rite of passage.

As they wait, a 50-strong group of older boys marches by behind a banner saying: ‘Nastic o Mort’ (Nastic until death). Chances are these lads won’t be going to games in 10 years. Falling in love, family, as well as the inevitable growing cynicism will see to that. Or they’ll get too close to the sun of their club and get burned when they realise how unsavoury football can be.

But it’s fun while it lasts, this life as an ultra for Gimnastic Tarragona, with their banners urging the players to have balls other than the inflatable sort in their derby games against Reus.

The wannabe hardcore do their best to look tough, eschewing umbrellas and the free flags handed out by a half-hearted assistant. They make a racket and one holds a flare. The police don’t bother to escort the likely lads as they make their way around Gimnastic’s 16,000 seater stadium to take their place behind the goal. They’re supporting their local team and going to the match. They’re part of a crowd, they smell the smell of football, see the steam coming off the floodlights in the teeming rain.

You don’t see groups of kids at Camp Nou.

You hardly see any kids at all, bar the Messi-shirted offspring of monied Northern European football tourists. Barca recently upset many of their socios by stating that kids couldn’t get in the Real Madrid game for free. There had always been an informal understanding of little ones being passed over the turnstiles. It happens around the world, but Madrid at home is when Barca sell normal tickets for between €92 and €243. Like passengers over two on an aeroplane, every seat needed to be paid for.

Barca then announced that kids could get in for their derby against Espanyol, which kicked off at the bedtime-busting 9pm.

Football in Spain can still be the working man’s game. The working men can, on the whole, afford to see Barça. They buy their season tickets early and aren’t subjected to the same prices as the football tourists. A seat behind the goal at Barca costs £18, yet the sons of the working man struggle. They can’t get a season ticket unless it is passed down through the family. There are a lack of youthful voices and faces at Camp Nou.

It’s different 100 kilometres down the coast in Tarragona, past the coastal palaces where most of the Barça players live, past the castle where Andres Iniesta got married. Nastic, the team who made the Primera Liga in 2006/07, when they felt confident enough to add another layer of seating to one side of their stadium, have slipped to the regional third tier, where they’ve spent most of their history.

They’ve had their moments in the sun, a three-year run in the top flight in the 1940s. Old posters still affixed under the main stand advertise games against Atletico Bilbao – the Basques had to change their name from the anglicised Athletic to the Spanish Atletico under Franco. Nastic did the same and were ‘Nastico’.

Times are hard in Tarragona and even for their local derby against Reus, only 3,152 show. The incessant rain that arrived in Catalonia on Saturday after the warmest, sunniest autumn on record played a part, as did live television coverage from the largely open stadium.

“They won’t come here, it’s not a good place for them, they’ll stay at home watching on television,” observes a well dressed middle aged man under an umbrella. ‘They’ are fans of Reus, the team from 15 kilometres away.

The two cities are similar in size 130,000 vs 105,000. The ingredients for a derbi are there, but it’s a new derbi. Reus have spent most of their existence in the four division, Nastic in the third.

There’s a rivalry between the two cities which extends to football. The smaller Reus boasts better shops and nightlife, plus an airport to land those Brits and Dutch who holiday in Salou. The architect Gaudi was from Reus and left his mark with a dozen modernista buildings, Issac Cuenca too, the youngster who was famous in his barrio for walking to school while playing keepy-uppy with a football. He took his skills to the top at Barça, though he’s now on loan at Ajax.

Tarragona has beaches, a Roman amphitheatre; a large port contains Spain’s biggest oil refinery. They can look each other in the eye and claim superiority.

“It will be a war in there,” says the taxi driver of the game. He’s full of emotion, yet the game can’t be that big a deal as he didn’t know it was happening until this writer told him.

“Tarragona capital, Reus sucursal (a branch of the city),” sing the young ultras, who aren’t old enough to pay taxes but are emboldened by civic pride. The 60 Reus fans (Nastic took 800 to Reus) holler similar as the rain batters them and groundsman becomes increasingly frantic as his pitch cuts up badly.

As Espanyol fans have long stated, there’s far more to Catalan football than Barça and a vox pop among Nastic fans at half-time has the same message:

“The (Catalan football) federation are obsessed with them.”

“People from Tarragona should support Nastic.”

“The Barca fans from here only watch on TV.”

“We wanted to draw Madrid in the cup, because at least they’d send a proper team. Barca would send reserves.”

Nastic drew Valencia, for a forthcoming game to take place over two legs. These opinions are exaggerated, but they indicate that not all are enamoured of Barça’s glamour.

Vicente Moreno’s brogues sink into the mud outside his box. Nastic’s 39-year-old manager has been in the job two weeks. He replaced Santi Castillejo, who was only appointed in the summer. He’d impressed at Reus and led them into the third division as they were funded by a Ukrainian group recently found guilty and jailed for money laundering, bribery and extortion.

Management can be brutal at this level. Six bad results and you’re out. You might not receive your pay-off, your next job might be on the other side of the country, if you get one. The human cost on your family is high. You can move around as a 22-year-old player, but you can’t move a family and kids twice a year when you’re older.

Moreno, a handsome former midfielder who played more games for Xerez than anyone, is soaked. His shoes are muddied, but he can live with that as his side have come from behind to lead 2-1.

An advert for the locally produced cava flashes on the scoreboard. Time to get the bubbly out, or it would have been for Nastic, who are 12th, until Reus, who are 6th, grab a 92nd-minute equaliser.

The drenched away support sings in the rain, the young Nastic debutant leaves the north terrace and, subdued, heads for home.

Football’s a glory game for some, but it’s about suffering for most, as any Nastic fan knows.

By Andy Mitten - on Twitter @AndyMitten