It is always an enlightening and captivating experience heading to a foreign country. The sense of the sheer unknown and undiscovered unfolding in front of your very eyes is unique to say the least. Barcelona, the heart of Spain’s Catalan community is no different. Spain’s second biggest town is particularly renowned for its art, with many works of Pablo Picasso and Antonio Gaudi standing proudly for the culture-thirsty tourists and locals alike. And then there’s the football team. Some of the finest footballers ever to kick a football in anger have worn the famous blue and red stripes of Barcelona. Forever heralded names such as Ronaldo, Diego Maradona, Romario and Johan Cruyff have all etched an everlasting legacy with the club. Last week, Dan, a friend from University and I decided that our trip to Barcelona was not complete without a mouth-watering venture to Camp Nou to watch the current European champions take on Seville in La Liga action.
The match was to be played on the Saturday evening, the day after we landed. We spent the early hours strolling around Gaudi’s almost violently eye catching Sargrada Familia, whilst feeling very smug about it being close to 15 degrees, unlike the treacherous, blizzard like conditions back home in England. Like many of Barcelona’s overpowering stone structures, this feat of architecture purely demands your attention. Craning your neck to the top of the almost never ending structure was almost scary in itself. The exterior of the faded golden brown building cuts an impressive figure. An upturned V shape supports numerous thin, circular towers which dominate nearby skylines.
Throughout our first 24 hours in Barcelona, we noted a sheer enthusiasm and pride within the local fans. When we trudged away from Sagrada Familia not wanting to join a horrendous queue upstairs, we found many people handing out flyers for the team and talking about the football with other fans. Like lazy, ignorant, English tourists, Dan and I could just about muster up half a “hola” in Spanish between us. Thankfully the locals were more intelligent than two wooden planks glued together and spoke OK English. When talking to two girls dressed in luminous peach Barcelona merchandise, Dan asked where to get off of the metro on the way to the stadium. As if luck was shining down on us like the mediocre, breeze filled sun we were feeling so cocky over, Camp Nou was on the same line as our hotel. Perfect! Being the worrier than I am, I asked if we could sit anywhere, as I had heard it was a bit of a free for all. There were not enough tickets left for us to sit together, leaving Dan and I a row apart, plonked unceremoniously in a scrum of angry, volatile, Spanish football fans. As soon as I opened my mouth, the language barrier had been efficiently hauled up and the girl answered a completely different question to what I had asked, smiling back at me dressed in her Day-Glo uniform. Like so many times on this trip, I hadn’t the heart (or patience) to correct her, and I smiled, thanked her, and Dan and I carried on with our apparent walking marathon.
That evening, we left the metro at Maria Cristina at about 8pm local time, 2 hours before kick-off at 10pm, which by English standards is a bizarre concept seeing as all TV games kick off at 7.45pm or 8pm. After disorientation in the night-time drizzle arrived, we finally found our route and about 10 minutes later, we could see Camp Nou tantalisingly poking its head over the roadside fences and ubiquitous palmtrees. Although it is a magical spectacle in its own right, Camp Nou is hardly the modern, flashy, “plastic bowl” type of stadium which is the trend in England at the moment. The exterior features mammoth strips of concrete diving vertically with blue and red banners hanging down. These banners depict the likes of Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique and Lionel Messi, arms around each other and fists raised to connote masculinity, celebrating yet another goal or victory. The hundreds of stairs spiralling towards the pinnacle of the stadium can be seen between the aforementioned, gargantuan concrete slabs on the stadium’s exterior. I don’t know about you, but any sign of the inside of the stadium from outside leaves butterflies dancing in my stomach. We were at the gate and I could hardly wait to get in.
In textbook tourist fashion we rushed in to the gate before dithering and pondering over where our seats actually were. We then tackled the assault course of hundreds of stairs as we were of course at the very top. Considering I am about 5 foot 8 and 9 and a half stone when soaking wet, my pathetically puny frame was in need of a good sit down as Dan rushed off ahead like so many other times on this trip. As we finally reached our block in the encapsulating cube of concrete which is the concourse, we were so high up we had to walk down a set of steps to get to our seats. My heart leapt as we finally caught sight of the red and blue stands which gave way to the pristine, eye wateringly green pitch. As I attempted to soak up my immense surroundings, I then noticed just how high we were. It looked as big and daunting as four or five average sized stadiums placed on each other. We were within a close proximity to the nearest of the few floodlights and in the most vulnerable spot at the top due to the gushing pouring of fine but persistent rain. I started to think to myself “Christ, nobody lean forward please.” It is one of those heights where you feel like gravity has forgotten its primary function and your limbs feel higher than they are supposed to be. Despite my immense vertigo, the height did add a feel of theatre as we really were looking down as opposed to looking at the action.
Despite Seville dumping Barcelona out of the Copa Del Rey in the 5th round earlier that week, the stadium was sparsely filled and the frequent sight of empty seats around our tier in particular did not help with acoustics. To be fair, the stadium can hold almost 100,000 fans and 63,000 supporters in attendance is hardly a pitiful turn out. This also meant that Dan and I got to sit wherever we wanted in our block. The only downside of big stadiums is that the amount of people inside the stadium makes it difficult to get one chant around the whole ground and create atmosphere.
However, give the Catalan fans their due. As I stood sipping the strongest espresso known to man, Dan and I exchanged looks of shock and wonderment at the deafening whistles which greeted the Seville team as they ran out to warm up. It is the type of animosity towards an away team which almost evokes an unwanted air of sympathy. As I watched the Barcelona team run out to applause worthy of being for a heroic army on their homecoming, I raised my hood to combat the now searing rain. If you thought the English were adverse to rain, the Spanish acted as if they had been jetted in to the set of Day After Tommorow, and thrown into the flood’s rapturous claws. Everywhere you looked you saw men sporting ridiculous ponchos and using all sorts of objects to keep their head shielded from the downpour. Dan spotted a man near us wearing enormous, black headphones and a thick plastic bag, hilariously enough perched delicately on his balding head. To top it all off, he was sat with a sombre expression on his face as if he was rendered bored to the brink of tears by what he was watching. This was one of those moments where you could not help but dissolve into heaving, involuntary spasms of laughter. There was an old bloke, with a face like a smacked arse, sitting near us with a plastic bag on his head. Hilarious! Dan of course obliged to take numerous photos of the poor sod in question. This was all on Facebook soon after, obviously.
The first half was a frustrating one for the reigning La Liga champions, they had a wealth of possession, only for the final ball to be insufficient, or Thierry Henry or Zlatan Ibrahimovic to miscue a run and stray offside. There was of course the surging, almost unbelievable runs of Lionel Messi, who constantly dribbled the ball as if it is stuck to his feet and weaved in and out of rash challenges by men much taller than his meagre 5 foot 7 inches. There were also a few flashes of brilliance in audacious, delightful flicks by Andreas Iniesta, who at times looked on a different planet than the other 21 players on the pitch. The things he does with the ball are so unexpected and inventive. Iniesta uses every player on the pitch and every part of his boot to create chances. Ibrahimovic missed a few opportunities which were purely licked with guilt and the home side should have been leading by two or three goals as the referee’s half-time whilst was only a preliminary to yet more unspeakably shrill whistles from the Barcelona fans. The first half was entertaining, but La Liga’s leaders needed a goal, and badly.
Thankfully, the goals in the second half mirrored the weather, unrelenting. The home side’s inevitable breakthrough came when a Pique ball across the six yard box was unfortunately poked in by Sevilla’s Nicolas Escude into the back of his own net on 49 minutes. 20 minutes later, Xavi stroked a defence splitting ball for Pedro to delicately chip home to make it 2-0 with another unsurprisingly graceful Barcelona goal. Messi began the dark, wet night on 99 Barcelona goals and decided it was his time to shine under the lights. Pedro rose well and flicked on a Dani Alves cross which left Messi unmarked in the middle. The diminutive Argentine then calmly cushioned the ball on his chest for control, took a touch and placed the ball past Andres Palop in the Sevilla goal. It was an emotional experience and an honour to see Messi’s 100th goal for his club. It may be a slightly obscure nugget of a statistic, but Dan and I witnessed a small slice of Barcelona history that night. Five minutes later, with Barcelona having already won the match and the seconds ticking into injury time, Eric Abidal rolled a ball through the Sevilla defence which Messi again obliged to take and finished well, tapping home easily. The formidable Catalans had won 4-0, and now all we needed to worry about was dodging crazy scooter drivers who appeared completely dumbfounded to actual humans walking across the road on the way home. It was a very long, wet journey back to the hotel, and I didn’t collapse on my bed until about 1.30am, but it was worth it for something every football fan needs to experience once. May the man with a bag on his head “enjoy” many more Camp Nou visits like we did.