The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Barca: More than a club

Posted by steigs on December 20, 2007

This Sunday is one of the great matches in the five billion person party — Real Madrid vs. Barcelona.  I see even Time magazine has noticed.  It’s one of those great rivalries where everyone should pick a side.  Me?  I’m like Franklin Foer and side with Barcelona, one of the great romantic teams in the world.  Style, glamor, and a history of being repressed.  Oh, and a history of great Dutch and Brazilian players too…

Want to hear about how I got on the field at the Nou Camp and stayed in an Orwellian hotel?  Read on!

Barcelona B February 2004 

I have really made it to the big time now, I say to myself.  I am on the field at the Nou Camp in Barcelona.  The grass is immaculate, almost worthy of a golf course.  The famous stadium rises up and up and up, the most immense in Europe, with a capacity just under 100,000. 

 Actually, I should confess, I am not on the field itself, just on the sidelines, right where the coaches stand in front of the team benches.  And I am not in a soccer uniform, either.  I am merely on a tour of the stadium, home of FC Barcelona, one of the world=s most popular teams, affectionately nicknamed ABarca@ (pronounced Abar-saw@).  I am not receiving any special treatment.  There are 25 of us on the tour, which also takes the group to the team=s dressing room, director=s box and the team museum.  It isn=t that hard to get a tour either B they leave every fifteen minutes. 

You laugh.  Those crazy soccer-loving Europeans.  In Barcelona, this cosmopolitan center of culture, boasting an artistic heritage with the likes of Picasso, Miro and Dali, the most visited museum in town is…that of FC Barcelona.

I take a seat on the bench.  Actually, there=s no bench per se.  Instead, there is a line of comfortable individual chairs.  There is a roof overhead, so low that one can barely see the stands above the field.  It is more like a baseball dugout than a traditional bench.  What=s the point, I wonder, of cutting yourself off from the tremendous fan presence?  Of course visiting players may be grateful for the limited view.

Our tour guide is named Vicente.  He reminds me of a friendly grad student, young and dashing, casually well-dressed, with glasses and a Barcelona scarf.  The tour is in English, which makes more sense to me when Vicente begins by asking each of us where we are from.  There are a clump of Dutch B there is a tradition of Dutch stars playing for Barca B and a host of Brits or citizens of former British colonies.  England, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand are all represented.  A quiet pair of Japanese and me, the lone American, round out the group.  No Spaniards.  I suppose they already know all about FC Barcelona.

Vicente shows us through the backstage areas B the neat, empty dressing rooms, the trainer=s tables, a whirlpool, the chapel in the tunnel on the way to the field B and explains the organization of FC Barcelona.  It is a remarkable operation, a vast non-profit sports association with more than 100,000 members or Asocios.@  It is like a city YMCA gone multi-national.  This is a common arrangement for Spanish soccer teams.  While Italian teams are often the play-things of millionaires, Spanish teams tend to be non-profits owned by their fans, with the millionaires competing to win over the membership to control the team.

In the case of FC Barcelona, the chairman is elected, bringing periodic elections by the membership.  (A common campaign strategy is to promise to buy new stars for the team.)  One thing that sets Barca apart is the magnitude of the membership.  The team has about 94,000 season ticket holders.  Their reserve team plays in a 15,000 seat stadium across from the Nou Camp.  Heck, even the Pope is an honorary socio. 

 

FC Barcelona is about a lot more than soccer.  For one thing, the club offers many other sports to its members B there=s an ice rink near the Nou Camp, for example.  Socios can participate in plenty of athletic activities, even if they are not world-class Brazilian soccer players.  FC Barcelona has a basketball team that competes in the Spanish basketball league too. 

More importantly, the team has long been a central symbol of Catalan nationalism.  Spain is a nation with fierce regional identities.  Americans hear most about the Basques, defiant in their difference, and the ETA terrorist organization that sometimes uses violent methods in pursuit of Basque independence from Spain.  However, the Basque area is hardly the only Spanish region interested in more room to pursue a local culture.  Galicians, in the rainy northwest of Spain, have been pushing for their own language to be used more broadly in government.  Catalonia, the now prosperous northeast coast of Spain, has long resisted being melted into the broader pot of Spain as well.

The struggle of the Catalans goes back centuries.  Barcelona has been a port city since the days of the Romans, long a home to busy merchants.  The Catalans developed a reputation as good businessmen.  However, Barcelona went into a decline back when the Spanish empire was wealthy B the Catalans sided with the losers during a war of succession and were banned from the lucrative trade with the Americas.  More recently, Barcelona was one of the main points of resistance to Franco during the Spanish Civil War.  George Orwell=s memoir of his time in Spain during those confusing days is titled Homage to Catalonia.  Once again, the centralizers won and Franco did not forget that the Catalans had been troublesome.  Their language B which sounds similar to Spanish, but isn=t exactly B was banned and political repression was common. 

It was during these dark years when the idea that FC Barcelona is, as they often say, Amore than a club@ became ingrained in the team=s mythology.  At one point during the tour Vicente offhandedly states that both of his parents were jailed for political reasons during the Franco years.  He says that rooting for Barca became the Aonly way to say >fuck you= to the dictator.@

 We think of Spain today as sleek and modern, as being just another part of the EU, a place where they stay up late, eat tapas and watch edgy Almodovar films.  This Spain is a very recent creation.  To me, Franco was the punch-line to a joke heard in childhood B AFrancisco Franco is still dead.@  In Spain, however, he is still a part of living memory, a country where as recently as the early 1980s there was a failed coup to restore his style of rule.  Spain was an intensely conservative and Catholic country under Franco, economically behind and isolated from Europe after World War II.  Few countries in Western Europe have changed as rapidly as Spain. 

As we near the end of the tour, a tall shaggy-haired young man bursts out of a side door and limps rapidly past us, scowling at the group.  We look at each other.  AHey, was that…?@  Vicente quickly confirms our suspicion.  AYes, that was Carlos Puyol.@  Puyol is a mainstay of the Barca defense and, as a native Catalan, is particularly beloved by the socios.  AHe is unhappy because he has been injured lately.@  Ahh.  Yeah, he did seem unhappy.  Good thing I didn=t recognize him in time to ask for an autograph B he might have bitten my head off.  It is how he plays defense too.

The tour concludes in the team museum, room upon room upon room of trophies won and rather artistic posters advertising games played long ago.  In keeping with the team=s air of sophistication, it also includes a collection of modern art that supports Barca as well.  The club=s founder, Joan Gamper, gets his due.  Barca may now be an icon of Catalan nationalism but Gamper was actually Swiss, a turn of the century businessman in Barcelona looking for a recreational outlet.

Soccer took off early in Spain, brought by British railway builders.  A national cup competition was under way soon after 1900.  The Spanish league, the Primera Liga (often just known as ALa Liga@ in the US), began in 1928, just before the Civil War tore the country apart.  FC Barcelona were good from the outset, winning their first title in 1929.  Athletic Bilbao, from the Basque country, were another top team in those early days and maintained a long winning tradition for years afterward, although they have rarely challenged for the championship in recent seasons.  Athletic Bilbao have been a vehicle for Basque nationalism, much like Barca has served for the Catalans, a role magnified by their long-standing tradition of fielding only Basque players.  Other parts of Spain have generated good teams, such as Real Betis and Sevilla in Seville and Valencia, from the city of the same name.  During the 1990s, the rainy northwest coast of Spain saw Deportivo La Coruna and Celta Vigo become contenders. 

Oh, but one team rises above them all B Real Madrid.  Those of you who don=t speak Spanish may find the name confusing.  It is pronounced ARe-al@ and translates as ARoyal Madrid.@  (As an aside, I once heard of a college intramural team that dubbed itself AFake Madrid.@)  They have been regal indeed.

There are other Areal@ teams in Spain B Real Betis, Real Mallorca and Real Sociedad, to name three.  All the Areal@ designation means is that at some point, probably in the pre-civil war era, the team received an endorsement from the Spanish royal family.  You find golf clubs with a similar blessing in Britain, such as Royal Lytham and St Anne=s.  In the case of Real Madrid, it came in 1920 from Spain=s King Alfonso XIII.

With Real Madrid, however, this symbolism has acquired a much deeper meaning.  For one, the team represents Madrid, the capital, and thus can easily symbolize the center in Spain, making them an obvious rival for teams that have come to represent regional aspirations, particularly Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao.  It also makes Real Madrid a comfortable team for those, in Madrid and elsewhere, who resent such regional pride in place of Spanish patriotism.

This attachment of Real Madrid to Spain=s center was made more explicit during the Franco years.  There is some dispute about whether Franco was actually a Real Madrid fan, at least in the beginning.  (Some claim he preferred Madrid=s other major team, Athletico Madrid.)  What is evident is that once Real Madrid became a winner B or perhaps earlier, because of the useful royal linkage B he jumped on board. 

 

What did this mean, in practical and sporting terms?  Tough times for teams like Barcelona.  A Barca club president was executed by Fascist troops during the Civil War.  At another point, the team was banned from playing for six months because their fans booed the Spanish national anthem.

The worst single defeat in the history of Barca came in 1943, 11-1 to Real Madrid in the AGeneralissimo=s Cup@ as the Spanish cup competition was then known.  (The Spanish cup was originally known as the Copa del Rey, or AKing=s Cup,@ the name it carries again, now that Franco is gone.)  Here=s the story of what happened in that game, as described in Barca: A People=s Passion, by Jimmy Burns:

ABefore the second leg in Madrid, Franco=s >Director of State Security= dropped by the dressing room to tell Barca=s players >Do not forget that some of you are only playing because of the generosity of the regime that has forgiven you for your lack of patriotism.=@ 

With the Spanish Civil War still fresh in everyone=s mind, and many on the Barca team having been associated with the Awrong@ side, well, they knew what to do.  A11-1″ lives on in the folk memory, as a symbol of either Real Madrid superiority or Fascist repression B it depends on which team you root for.

There are other examples of how Franco made his influence felt B he installed a pro-regime set of Catalans on the board at Barca, to name one.  The most enduring story of Franco=s pro-Real Madrid meddling is from the early 1950s.  Barcelona was seeking to sign Argentine forward Alfredo di Stefano, who would prove to be perhaps the best player of his generation. 

Di Stefano had starred for River Plate in Buenos Aires before jumping to Colombia=s Millonarios.  When Millonarios toured South America and Spain, he attracted the notice of both Barca and Real Madrid.  As would become common in future transfers of South American stars to European teams, there were complicated negotiations, posturing, and murky legalities involved.  While the two teams were attempting to strike their respective deals, the Spanish soccer authorities instituted a new rule against the buying of foreign players. 

This was hardly the attempt to stop the deal it might appear to be.  It was a way for the powers that be to insert themselves into the middle of the negotiations.  Barca and Real Madrid were then informed that di Stefano would be an exception to the ban, provided the two teams shared the player, each team getting him in alternate seasons for the next four years.  This appeared to be a Solomonic Asplit the baby in half@ deal.  However, many on the Barca side thought they were closer to getting the player and that it represented official favoritism for Real Madrid.


 

When news of this Acompromise@ was made public, it caused an uproar in Barcelona and the Barca president was forced to resign.  His successors, faced with an unhappy membership, opted to be bought out of their di Stefano seasons by Real Madrid.  If you are a Real Madrid fan, this is a case of the Catalans being too proud to take a fair compromise.  If you root for Barca, on the other hand, Franco=s interference cheated your team out of the greatest star of 1950s soccer, and the league titles and European Cups that came with him.

For Red Sox fans the point where things started going wrong was, of course, the 1919 sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees.  For Barca fans, the definitive proof that the powers that be were against them was this theft of di Stefano.  The difference is that Barca fans believe they lost out because of a dictator, not by the foolishness of the team=s own management.  Di Stefano went on to lead Real Madrid to the first five European championships (1956 to 1960), a string of excellence that has yet to be equaled.  Franco=s Spain was isolated from the rest of Europe during this period and the regime used Real Madrid as an unofficial set of ambassadors to build bridges to other countries, only further cementing the dislike of the team by Catalans and Basques.

Meanwhile, FC Barcelona was building the massive Nou Camp, filling the stands with a great 1950s team of their own, starring Hungarian refugee Ladislao Kubala.  (If only they could have added di Stefano to that side!)  Barca has almost always been good, given the substantial resources the team=s large and devoted fan base has provided, with more than 15 league championships to their credit.  (Real Madrid, by contrast, has won nearly 30.)  And they=ve always been paranoid, seeing much of the national press as biased in favor of Real Madrid and still seeing political favors from the right for Real Madrid, even after the end of Franco.

Barca fans may not be entirely wrong.  Real Madrid=s stadium is still named for the team=s long-time president B who was of course a crony of Franco=s B Santiago Bernabeu.  The Real Madrid ultras are known for their right-wing views and their racist insults of visiting black players.  The Real Madrid spending spree of the early 2000s, which brought Agalacticos@ like Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Ronaldo and David Beckham to the team, was financed in part when the right-leaning Madrid city council agreed to pay the team a huge amount of money for some of its land.  Hmmm.

All in all, it is easy for romantics like me to root for Barca, a mighty martyr to the team of Franco, Real Madrid.  They usually play with style and win a lot, though not quite as much as they should, and represent a fantastic city.  AMore than a club@ indeed.  FC Barcelona exerts a magnetism that draws neutral from all over the world.

For a country with such a powerhouse league, Spain has a remarkably poor record in international competitions.  Spain has been in most World Cups, hosting in 1982, yet have only managed a solitary fourth place finish, way back in 1950.  The Spanish have done somewhat better in European Championships, winning the tournament as hosts in 1964 (when it was much smaller than today) and reaching the final in 1984, losing to France.  All in all, though, the Spanish have given themselves an enduring reputation for falling short of what, on paper, they should achieve in these major tournaments. 


 

The reaction to such disappointments can provide an insight into a nation=s psyche.  In the case of Spain, a common explanation for these repeated failures is that the various regional loyalties B Catalans, Basques, Castilians B interfere with the national team=s performance.  It is the enduring fear of Franco B and plenty of non-fascists B that the center cannot hold and that things will fall apart.  The Catalans continue to agitate for ever more autonomy and even have a ACatalan@ national team play an unofficial game annually.  The Basques do this as well.

Perhaps.  There is certainly plenty of Spanish soccer talent B it seems inevitable that some year they=ll make a real run in the World Cup.  Me, though, I won=t be betting on them until they prove it on the field.  Real Madrid or Barca in the Champions League?  That=s a better bet.  Real Madrid alone is closing in on its tenth European Championship, well ahead of any other team.  Barca actually only have a single, solitary European Championship so far but I am hopeful they will add to this total in coming seasons, now that Franco is no longer available to help Real Madrid snap up South American superstars.  (A second did arrive a couple of years later, in 2006.)  

I am staying in the heart of old Barcelona, in a hotel at the top of La Rambla, the largely pedestrian tourist street.  The hotel itself, the Continental, has a bit of history B Orwell stayed here during the Spanish Civil War, an edgy time when there was street fighting and disorders in Barcelona.  Here=s how he described the scene, which sounds like something out of Casablanca:

ANo sooner had the fighting started than the hotel filled to the brim with a most extraordinary collection of people.  There were foreign journalists, political suspects of every shade, an American airman in the service of the Government, various Communist agents, including a fat, sinister-looking Russian, said to be an agent of the Ogpu, who was nicknamed Charlie Chan and wore attached to his waist-band a revolver and a neat little bomb, some families of well-to-do Spaniards who looked like Fascist sympathizers, two or three wounded men from the International Column, a gang of lorry drivers from some huge French lorries which had been carrying a load of oranges back to France and had been held up by the fighting, and a number of Popular Army officers.@

No sign of that kind of cast of characters today.  These days the Continental is just another convenient, comfortable hotel with some quirks and history.  The bed in my room takes up most of the floor space and to reach my room involves traversing a maze-like series of hallways.  No matter, I won=t be here much.

La Rambla is street as perpetual festival.  The Hotel Continental is near the Placa Catalunya that marks the beginning of La Rambla.  It is a wide street with a broad sidewalk running down its middle.  Narrow lanes allow auto traffic, often halting and jammed, on the sides.  La Rambla rolls down several blocks to the harbor.

I walk down the center sidewalk, browsing the newsstands, avoiding the mimes, and admiring the flowers in the florist kiosks.  One block of La Rambla is filled with men selling birds.  The birds squawk in their cages, providing their own commentary on the goings-on.  Sidewalk cafes tempt the tourists.  Couples stroll along hand in hand while packs of Spanish teenagers look for trouble or at least something which is not, you know, boring.  There are historic theaters and souvenir shops and, of course, a McDonald=s.

The area around La Rambla feels urban without being immense.  The buildings are four or five stories high, often dating from the 19th century.  This is old Barcelona and, as I walk to the sea, the Barri Gotic is to my left, the ancient heart of the city.  That is where I spend my Saturday evening.  It has that tight, pre-auto scale, the sense of an organic neighborhood that grew over the centuries, rather than coming to life as neat lines on an urban planner=s design sheet.

 

Around every corner in the Barri Gotic you might find a quiet square or a neglected historic church.  It is filled today with trendy B and not so trendy B hole in the wall restaurants and odd boutiques.  Worn buildings host cheap hotels. The atmosphere, especially at night, is overwhelming, almost like a Venice without the canals.

The Catalans, like everyone in Spain, are night people, starting dinner at 10 or 11 in the evening, if not later.  The streets of the Barri Gotic ring with voices late this Saturday night.  I track down a few remnants of Rome, ancient temple columns discovered centuries ago and put upright again.  I also visit the city=s Picasso Museum, which involves several connected medieval townhouses.  It=s an odd collection, a bunch of precocious portraits and a bit of his Ablue period@ and B wham B decades later it picks up with his late abstract work and including experiments with pottery and sculpture.  It is inspiring to see the way Picasso refused to settle on one style, no matter how famous and popular he became, and always experimenting with new things.

I do my best to be a Catalan, stopping in corner bars and cafes.  I nibble ham sandwiches B in Spain they take their ham seriously and the quality and variety is excellent.  I end the evening where young Picasso often did, the Els Quatre Gats (AThe four cats@) café.  It is a bright and busy place today, very yellow, with historic paintings on the wall and vibrant tiles.  I imagine it was a scruffier place when Picasso hung out with his cronies.

Then again, Barcelona is a much brighter and a busier place than it once was.  It recovered from tough days in the 17th and 18th centuries to boom in the late 1800s, when Catalan talent for business brought industrial development.  The L=Eixample neighborhood, inland from Barri Gotic, can attest to that boom, clean lines, innovative architecture, a modern place for those with money, away from the old warren of the Barri Gotic.  Antonio Gaudi took things even further with his surrealistic buildings, curving and melting even, a theme that culminated in the still unfinished Barcelona landmark of the Sagrada Familia cathedral.

Then came the Civil War and the repression of Franco, another time of decline for the city.  Barcelona has burst forward since the end of the dictatorship, marking its latest renaissance with the 1992 Olympics.  It has become a leading tourist city, a top city for conventions, a model of what an urban area can do to grow and prosper.  It is no wonder, given that Barcelona boasts a fabulous mixture of the different historical urban areas that draw people B a lively old quarter, graceful late 19th century neighborhoods, avant garde architecture and contemporary residents who like sophisticated bars and restaurants in all of them.


 

It occurs to me that the Barri Gotic may have survived intact precisely because Catalonia was ruled from Madrid.  If the king had lived here it would have been inevitably cleared out for new palaces.  AEnough with living in Grandfather=s old place!  I want my own!@  The neighborhood would have become a political center or would have been rebuilt time and again to serve as a show place of the king=s ability to keep up with urban planning trends, fads that in Europe usually involve imitating Paris.

Barcelona is booming again.  Perhaps the EU, with the way it reduces the power of national capitals, is allowing regional centers more room to prosper B better for Milan than Rome, for Munich than Bonn or Berlin.  The merchants are back and living large.

Or maybe, I realize, I=ve had one beer too many.  So I head back to La Rambla, enjoying the feel of the shadowy streets, like I=m on my way to a rendevous at the Continental, noticing that many of the others seem to be just going out to dinner.  My daily rhythms are no match for the clock of the Catalans.

The soccer schedule in Spain is maddeningly flexible.  While the match-ups for each weekend are established at the outset of the season, the day and time of the kick-off are often determined only the week before.  So a traveler arranging an itinerary weeks in advance and trying to see a Barcelona (or Real Madrid or Valencia) game has to allow the whole weekend.  I had done so, with a ticket out of town for Monday morning, which proved wise when the game was set for 7 pm on Sunday.  Games in La Liga are often in the evening, unlike in, say, England, perhaps Spanish nights are more comfortable than those further north.

I had bought a ticket for a Barca game in person on Saturday before taking my Nou Camp tour, having been baffled by the on-line Barcelona equivalent of Ticketmaster.  (It turned out that part of my problem was the preference for the team=s socios and not being able to figure out how to navigate beyond that.)  It had been an interesting experience, involving asking a number of security guards where to go.  Strangely, the ticket booths were not in the team=s Amegastore,@ a two-level warehouse of Barcelona teamware, such as jerseys and backpacks and videos.  The stadium tour had exited through the store, presumably because the tour would put you in the mood for some Barca candy or inspire you to buy some Barca shoes.

I finally found a primitive row of ticket windows along the street.  They looked like places you would buy tickets to the county fair.  They were shut up tight when I first arrived, not opening until 11 am, which was still a half-hour away.  I browsed the megastore to kill time and when I returned there were ten men loitering, waiting for the windows to open, mostly tourists like me.  A couple of older Catalan men worked their way around, looking to sell scalped tickets.  I checked one out.  It was cheap and appeared to be in the upper upper deck.  So I took my chances with what the official sellers could offer. 

A few minutes later a woman hung a plastic sign up with the ticket prices for the various areas and we were in business.  The opponent being Albacete, hardly a traditional power, there were a bunch of seats available.  So I picked up one in a decent location for about $30.


 

I return to the Nou Camp as darkness is falling on Sunday.  I get off the efficient Barcelona subway at a stop along the Avenida Diagonal right by the dark hulk of a bank skyscraper.  Across the avenue are huge apartment complexes.  A left turn on Avenida de Joan XXIII (AJohn XXIII@) street B remember, the Pope is a socio B and I=m soon at the Nou Camp and the vast FC Barcelona complex.

On the fringes of the stadium are stands offering scarves and a few grills for food.  Not many, though, given the huge size of the stadium.  The neighborhood is busy with groups of fans yet it doesn=t feel crowded B there is just so much space.  The evening is comfortable for February and fans are dressed in sweaters and light jackets. 

With little to explore in the area I did not already see yesterday, I go into the Nou Camp grounds.  Hot dogs, sodas and souvenirs are available from booths.  There is a separate kiosk just for assisting the socios.  The scene is calm B no loud groups singing or dressed in a silly manner.  It=s like we are out for a night at the theater, almost.

The Nou Camp is immense, of course, with its nearly 100,000 capacity.  However, from the outside it appears to be a normal large-scale stadium, like a 60,000 seat NFL stadium.  It is only when you go inside and see the four tiers rising high that the scale becomes clear.  On the tour, Vicente had explained with pride how the Nou Camp is built into the ground, reducing its silhouette, and making it much easier to reach the higher levels.

I get some fries for dinner from the concession stands B they are popular even here in the land of tapas B and they prove surprisingly good.  The beer hits the spot as well.  I=m in the second tier, around what would be the 35 yard line on one side.  The side opposite me is the Tribune stand.  It has a roof and is, therefore, more expensive.  On a night like this, though, it makes little difference.  The cheap seats, as usual, are behind the goals.

As I take my seat a singer is just wrapping up a pre-game show on the field, like a lounge singer working the world=s biggest room.  A lot of empty seats in the upper deck tonight B maybe 60,000 in attendance.  The socios, you see, are restless.  It is around the midway point in the season and mighty Barca are in seventh place.  That=s not acceptable, especially not with a star like Brazilian Ronaldinho in the side.  The critics are out in force for first-year coach, Dutchman Frank Rijkaard.

There is a thickly populated section in the top tier, right under the modern video scoreboard.  They are rooting for the visitors, unassuming Albacete, a team glad just to be in the top flight after several years in the lower divisions.  Albacete is currently in fifteenth place, just barely out of the relegation zone.  Unlike, say, England or Italy, there is relatively little tradition of traveling support in Spain, a geographically large nation for Europe and one which was relatively poor until recently.  The no-name nature of the opponent probably has something to do with the lack of a full house as well.

Albacete, it turns out, is located in La Mancha, land of the beloved Don Quixote.  They have come to the Nou Camp to tilt at some windmills of their own, day-dreaming of glory perhaps.  The city itself has a population of about 150,000 and is a little south and inland from Valencia.


 

As the Barca fans filter in the PA plays a cheer/song along the lines of ABar-ca, Bar-ca, Bar-ca!@ with recorded clapping.  No one much joins in.  The Catalans, I will see, are generally too cool for that sort of loud passion…well, unless Real Madrid is in town.  Then they go mental.  A few years back, someone chucked a pig=s head at Luis Figo when he returned to the Nou Camp after leaving Barca to play for Real Madrid, a betrayal of a most fundamental nature.

My section is calm.  There=s an elderly man beside me wearing headphones.  He barely responds to my Agood evening@ and spends the night intent on the action on the field, apparently listening to the radio commentary.  A family with three small kids takes up the row in front of me.  The two boys, perhaps eight and six, engage in a slow-motion, low-level boxing match, continually drawing the mother into serving as their referee.  To my right, a middle-aged couple greet me politely.  Carlos is a lawyer, concerned about the team=s form.  But he is hopeful that the addition, on loan from Juventus, of Dutch midfield hard man Edgar Davids for the second half of the season, will add an edge to the team.

The video scoreboards show a highlight reel of Barca=s leading goal scorers to a classic blues soundtrack worthy of Beale Street.  It is followed by a goofy cartoon featuring the team=s stars as knights in The Lord of the Rings.  The two boys in front of me do pause long enough to watch the latter so maybe it is effective with its target audience.

It takes awhile to locate the Barca ultras section, a small area behind one goal.  They make enough noise to be heard, barely, and look to me to be hardly more numerous than the ultras at a DC United game.  (I later read that the ultras were feuding with the team=s management about ticket policies at the time, reducing their numbers.)

Barca come out in their famous jerseys, vertical stripes of Agrenadine@ red and blue.  They don=t take sponsorship money for their jersey, meaning that unlike almost every other team in international soccer there is no ad directly in its middle.  Barca likes to think the team is above that sort of commercialism, although there=s plenty of it around the Nou Camp and the Amegastore.@  Albacete are in white, looking rather like Real Madrid B though they hardly will play like it.

Barca may be in seventh place but Albacete treat them like potential champions, playing most of their men back in defense.  Barca, in turn, comes out attacking.  The starting line up tonight includes Javier Saviola and Edgar Davids among other stars, and, by my math, about one-quarter of the starters on the Dutch national team.  Ronaldinho, alas, is not playing.

The first goal comes early, just 12 minutes in.  Barca midfielder Xavi takes a shot.  It gets deflected and the Albacete goalie can=t manage to change direction in time to stop it.  1-0, Barca.  Ah, things are going according to plan.  People relax.  They=re not big talkers, the Catalans.  They are intent watchers.  My section and those around it are usually quiet.  It takes an especially excellent pass or tackle to get a cheer.  On the other hand, they do manage a hearty round of whistles when it is announced that Real Madrid won earlier in the day.


 

After the first goal, it remains Barca=s game.  The team isn=t quite clicking, though.  The nifty flick-on pass goes a shade too far.  Or the dribble move beats the first defender only for a second defender to stop things.  The Albacete players are doing their best to disrupt the attack and commit a lot of fouls in the process.  I get used to seeing a Barca player dart past an Albacete defender and then go flying, tripped up.

The Barca fans get a little tired of this and about a half-hour into the game they begin to whistle or hiss at hard tackles.  Albacete only manage to get forward a handful of times to attack and never seem threatening. 

At the half the game remains 1-0, with Barca looking comfortable.  The Catalans converse in low tones B smart, sedate, serious, the very model of sophisticated Europeans. 

The second half quickly becomes something different, better, almost magical.  Suddenly, as if a switch has been thrown, the Barca offense becomes more fluid and assured.  They=re going for it now and they=re in synch.

The second goal comes five minutes into the half.  Argentine forward Javier Saviola gets to a cross.  The shot is saved but the rebound comes, like a gift, right back to him.  No mistake on this effort and it=s 2-0, Barca.  Now that=s more like it!  Even the old guy listening to the radio seems to relax.

Only three minutes later young Portuguese winger Ricardo Queresma dances through the Albacete defense, dribbling this way and that.  The shot is true and it=s 3-0, Barca.  The goal is a real individual effort, a single-handed bit of flair.  The crowd is cheering now.  That=s really more like it.  Ole!

That wasn=t it.  Only two minutes later and the ball is, yet again, loose in the Albacete penalty area.  Edgar Davids gets to it and shoots.  4-0, Barca!  Three goals in about five minutes.  Whoa.  It=s a blitz!  The headphone man is grinning ear to ear now.  The boys have paused their fight long enough to clap, excited by the commotion, entranced by the video replays of the goals.  (It=s like watching on television!)

The game can=t help but relax after an intense flurry like that, with the outcome so clearly decided.  Albacete probably haven=t managed four decent shots all night.  They are certainly not going to score four goals.  In fact, they do not even really try to go on offense, apparently afraid sending more players forward will merely expose them to further embarrassment and more Barca goals.

We enjoy the skillful passing of Barca as the game takes on a festive air.  Maybe the season isn=t over yet.  Maybe, like Carlos suggested, picking up Davids will help give the team more muscle to go with its art.  Or maybe an easy win like this will give them more confidence in their game.  The ultras, meanwhile, take to serenading Albacete with B in English B  ANa na/na na/hey hey/goodbye!@ 


 

In stoppage time, a fifth goal arrives, like dessert after a tasty feast.  It starts out a bit comic B an Albacete pass is intercepted in the midfield by Barca veteran Luis Enrique.  He bolts towards the goal with it, dribbling almost all the way into the goal before shooting, scoring almost casually.  5-0, Barca!

So it=s a happy bunch of socios who make their way out of the Nou Camp afterwards.  Carlos shakes my hand, clearly cheered up by what he has witnessed.  As I walk up Avenida de Joan XXIII a horde of scooters zip by, like there=s a Quadrophenia remake going on.  Time to head back to La Rambla and the old quarter.  The night is young B and it=s especially young in Barcelona.  

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2 Responses to “Barca: More than a club”

  1. ceeelcee said

    Great story. Even accessible for the casual fan like me. Keep `em coming!

  2. Digámosle NO al Barça.

    http://sinblancaporelmundo.wordpress.com/2008/03/27/el-barca-fuera-de-la-liga-espanola-%c2%a1ya/

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