They call it the beautiful game. For some individuals, football (or soccer, as we Americans like to call it) is more than a game. It is a perfect harmony, a grand showcase of human talent and coordination. It is a religious experience.
I have been a fan of FC Barcelona for as long as I can remember. When I visited the city of Barcelona for the first time back in December 2011, I caught my first glimpse of Barça’s home turf: Camp Nou. The largest stadium in Europe, Camp Nou can seat 98,000+ screaming supporters. After taking the stadium tour and standing next to that hallowed turf, I knew I just had to return. I did not want to read about Barça or watch them on TV anymore, I wanted to be one of those passionate fans swept along in the stadium’s electric atmosphere. Attending a home Barça match catapulted to number one on my football bucket list. I got my wish sooner than even I expected, when I received my Christmas present from Willem this year in the form of tickets to the upcoming La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Osasuna.
We decided to make a weekend out of the match. We arrived on Saturday night, and after dropping our backpacks off at our hostel (more on the hostel later) we immediately went back out to meet up with some friends of mine from Barcelona. Since my friends are all Barcelona natives, they took us out for a real Catalan dining experience at a neighborhood restaurant called Can Punyetes. It was one of those places that you would probably walk right past if you didn’t already know it was there. The unassuming entrance, however, revealed a beautifully cozy, old world-style interior. The first thing I noticed was that the restaurant was clearly filled with locals. There was a constant low buzz of familiar conversation, and the food smelled delightfully home-cooked. The menu was completely written in Catalan, which I took to be a good sign (in my experience, places with dedicated English menus generally cater to tourists, and are always overpriced and overrated), although this meant my Spanish skills were almost entirely useless. We started out with a platter of my favorite traditional Catalan food, pernil i pa amb tomàquet (Spanish ham on top of toasted bread spread with tomato—in Spanish, jamón y pan con tomate). It may sound like a simple combination, but trust me, this appetizer is pure genius. I would eat Spanish jamón every day if I could. We each had a different main course in order to sample as many dishes as possible. All in all, it was a wonderful, relaxed dinner—the perfect introduction to the local Barcelona lifestyle.
After dinner we returned to our hostel, Casa Consell. When I stay at hostels, I generally try not to expect anything more than a place to sleep and toss my stuff while out exploring. I realize that you usually get what you pay for. For the price we paid, though, this hostel was amazing. It was definitely not your typical dirty dormitory. The hostel was hidden on the second and third floors of a 19th century building near Passieg de Gracia, complete with one of those creaky, old-fashioned elevators with ornate wooden doors. The architecture geek in me could not get over the gorgeous vaulted ceilings, beautiful hardwood floors, and secluded outdoor terrace. We got our own key to the building, so it felt like we were real residents, not visitors. I was sad that we could only stay there two nights, and that it was winter so we could not fully enjoy the outside terrace!
The next day, we woke up in total match mode. We spent a few enjoyable hours wandering the streets of Barcelona without a particular destination in mind. As the day wore on, I started to spot more and more football scarves and Messi jerseys adorning pedestrians around us. The entire city was getting ready for the match, and I was getting more excited by the minute! Below are a few of the pictures I took on our pre-match wanderings around the city:
We took the metro out to the stadium, along with dozens of other fans that were traveling in the same carriage. As we walked towards the stadium, I could hear music wafting towards us from inside. The closer to the stadium we walked, the more energized I got. I felt like I had just downed a couple of energy drinks. We collected our tickets at the proper booth, and made our way to our gate. The process was surprisingly simple. Compared to the Dutch Eredivisie match that I attended a few months ago (read about that experience here), there were fewer security measures at Camp Nou. After finding the gate, we showed our tickets to the attendant and walked in. From the time we had our tickets in hand to the time we reached our seats, less than 10 minutes passed. The feeling in the stadium was also more family-friendly than in the Netherlands (and the male-female ratio was significantly better than every other European country where I have attended football matches). Hooliganism, apparently, is not a severe issue in Barcelona.
Before the match started we heard news that Cristiano Ronaldo had scored a hat trick in Real Madrid’s match against Getafe earlier that day. I jokingly predicted that Lionel Messi (a.k.a. my hero) would then score four goals in the match we were about to see, simply because he couldn’t bear to lose to Ronaldo. Willem laughed in the most skeptical way possible, as if to say, “I know you are Messi’s biggest fan, Sarah, but really? You’re setting your expectations a little high.” I bet you can guess what happened that night (hint hint, the woman is always right)!
Every Barcelona match begins with the Cant del Barça (Song of Barcelona), Barça’s anthem and an integral part of the team’s identity. The hymn is always sung in Catalan (and not Spanish), because Barça has long been a symbol of Catalan culture, and at times the center for the Catalan independence movement from Spain. During Franco’s rule, for instance, Camp Nou was the only place where traditional Catalan songs and protests for independence could safely be sounded, because Franco was afraid that crushing the protests would attract too much negative international media attention to his regime. Even today, most people are unaware that Barcelona officially supports the Catalan national football team (though it is not recognized by FIFA since Catalonia is not an independent state). As a bastion of Catalan culture, Barcelona supplies a majority of the team’s players, including its captain, Carles Puyol. So for many of the Barcelona players, their team is not just important for football, but also as a medium for preserving and promoting the idea of Catalonia. Whatever your politics, it is impossible not to get swept along with the passions swirling through Camp Nou when the entire stadium rises to sing. Though I knew few of the words, standing amongst the sea of supporters belting out the Cant del Barça with every power they possessed sent chills down my spine. To hear the anthem for yourself, click here.
It was clear to me that FC Barcelona’s motto, “More than a club” rings true for its supporters. Fans who have attended Barça matches their entire lives talked about the players as if they were family, never merely as entertainment. When Messi scored the first goal of the match, the old men sitting next to us smacked each other on the back, as if to congratulate themselves on the achievements of a successful son they had personally raised. And when Puyol, the defender often described as the heart of the team, made a particularly intense 80 yard sprint up the field to support the attack, he received an appreciative ovation from the crowd upon his next touch of the ball.
This family-style modus operandi results in an extremely fluid style of play, with an emphasis on teamwork and constant ball possession. Watching Barcelona’s players pass to one another is truly like watching a dance. Except it is a dance where half of the dancers are professionals and the other half are toddlers. Luckily for my fingernails (which would have been gnawed off in nervous anticipation otherwise), Barcelona handily defeated Osasuna. The final score of the match was a 5-1 win for Barcelona. Four of Barcelona’s goals were scored by Messi (that’s my boy!)—and all of them were perfect testaments to the beautiful game. An additional goal from Pedro brought Barcelona’s tally to five.
As amazing as the match was, I don’t think a different score would have changed my opinion of this team and this stadium. The history, the atmosphere, and the Catalan-steeped football culture in Barcelona are unlike any other place on earth. Camp Nou is a massive stadium, even by American stadium standards, and yet it retains an intimacy. Yes, the stadium may be well-worn, to the point where ramshackle would probably be a better word to describe it in some places (it is over 50 years old, after all), but it is also well-loved. Every year, the club brings the issue of the construction of a new stadium to the table, and every year the club members vote it down. They don’t want a new stadium. Camp Nou is their home. It is their cathedral. And now, it is mine too.