Situated in the heart of Barcelona's principal residential area of Gràcia, you can find a paradise for lovers of lower league football. Within a concrete suburb, lies one of the Condal city's best-hidden secrets. A stadium situated in the middle of apartment blocks, just a stone's throw away from Gaudí's Park Güell calls lovers of a different form of art; the theatrics surrounding a team with real history. CE Europa.
My story coincided with the team that wear white and blue on a year abroad in the city. Whilst exploring my new surroundings, I soon found myself caught up with a crowd of elderly folk, slowly walking towards a building that looked like the entrance to a swimming pool. Much to my surprise, instead of heading for an afternoon dip, they were heading to watch a football match. A temple in which they could worship- I was compelled to follow.
CE Europa’s Nou Sardenya stadium is unparalleled in its charm and its history. Initially opened in 1940, it was renovated in 1995 as its concrete foundations and small master stand suggest. In total it boasts a 7,000 capacity, but on any given matchday that number is bound to be notched up by a few when considering the tall blocks of flats that overlook the pitch.
The club was established in 1907 and spent its first couple of decades competing regularly with the big hitters of FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol, especially in the 1920s under the leadership of Birmingham-born coach, Conyers ‘Ralph’ Kirby. The decade was one of the most successful that the club had seen, reaching the 1923 Copa del Rey final and ending the 20s as members of the first La Liga season. A final which they lost 1-0 to Athletic Bilbao, a team managed by another Midland manager: Fred Pentland of Wolverhampton. Two Brits abroad managing the 23rd ever Copa del Rey final.
The first game I attended of the team was in August 2019. Their opponents were a side from nearby, in an area called Sants where you can find Barcelona’s main train station. There was a certain buzz in the air, an anticipation of a new season ahead. Both sides lined up towards the crowd and unveiled a banner with the word “Gracies”, meaning thank you in Catalan. The crowd applauded their team, in a full circle of appreciation. It was time for the friendly fixture to get underway.
Kick-off spelled the start of another season in the Tercera for CE Europa fans, not that they minded. I, like everyone else in attendance enjoying a match in person, something that would become a luxury only a few months later. In this blissful state and the fast-paced passing and moving of the team, in truth, surprised me. As did seeing the die-hard fans waving their banners behind the goal, few in number but in full voice. Their chants echoing around the barrio that surrounded it, ensuring that their songs of CE Europa would be heard.
Half-time only furthered how unique CE Europa were as a club and as a community. The break was spent with locals discussing matters ranging from who was missing from the day's team sheet, to whether they would be attending the neighbourhood festival taking place over the next few days. These conversations spanned around the ground, to the small bar that was found pitch side, an ideal place for some tapas and a glass of Estrella Damm whilst waiting for the game to resume; pure Catalan hospitality.
At full-time, the home side had won 2-1, if I remember correctly. The first team captain, Àlex Cano, presented his newborn child to the crowd who again responded with pure adoration for one of their own; the CE Europa family had grown by another member. As was explained to me at the end of the match, it was a ceremonious fixture and resulted in the white and blue team of Gràcia lifting a relatively modest trophy. Nonetheless, silverware had been lifted and I left the stadium with a new appreciation for a team some 1,000 miles from my local team of FC Halifax Town.
After a few successful seasons in La Liga, Ralph Kirby returned to the Nou Sardenya after a spell with FC Barcelona, but even he could do little to keep CE Europa in the topflight, as they were relegated to the Segunda in 1931. This saw the team enter the wilderness years, from which they have never truly returned. The decades that followed their first relegation saw the side mainly linger in the Tercera with a few sparse promotions to the Segunda, along with multiple mergers with sides in the local area.
In the late 1990s, CE Europa made history for themselves in the Copa Catalunya. This is the regional title of Catalonia and boasts bragging rights between fans for the season that follows. Admittedly, the cup does not attract the attention that it perhaps deserves, but that meant little to the CE Europa teams of the time. In 1997, they defeated a Barcelona side featuring Hristo Stoichkov and managed by Sir Bobby Robson, 3-1. Their first Copa Catalunya. This feat would be repeated some 12 months later against the same opposition, with a penalty shootout win.
Since the turn of the 20th century, the club has largely been in the fourth tier of Spanish football (the Tercera) and slipped even further down the ladder in the 2003/04 season, when they fell to the general Catalan league. Fortunately, they were promoted back in one season. Having been stuck in limbo and fluctuating up and down the leagues, they needed to kick on and in the 2019/20 season, they reached third place. In a season hindered by the pandemic they had just missed out on promotion to the Segunda.
2021/22 changed everything. CE Europa bettered their third-place finish by topping the table with 44 points from 20 games. It was enough for them to reach the promotion group stages, which was a monumental achievement, allowing them to return to the Segunda División RFEF. The tier in which most La Liga teams play their ‘B’ teams for experience at a solid level. Now, CE Europa were back in the Segunda for the first time since the 1994/95 season, with a platform to improve and have greater opposition to test themselves against.