Cathedral of Football: A Pilgrimage to Camp Nou

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.

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Jamon y Pan Con Tomate: I could live off of this traditional Catalan food!

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.

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My golden ticket

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.

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Part of the Barcelona family now!

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.

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Messi about to take his penalty kick

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.

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View of Camp Nou from our seats

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Why Everyone Should Experience Carnival in the Netherlands

Everyone has heard of the legendary Rio Carnival, where silicone-enhanced Brazilian beauties dance the samba clad in a blinding array of sequins.  You have probably also heard of Mardi Gras in New Orleans (with festivities of the Bourbon Street drinkin’, boob flashin’, bead throwin’ variety), and maybe even Carnevale in Venice, famous for its masquerades.  Chances are, however, that you have never experienced the particularly Dutch spin on this popular celebration.

The Dutch incarnation of carnival (or “Vastenavond”) is traditionally only celebrated in the Catholic regions of the country, and especially in the southern provinces of Noord-Brabant and Limburg.  Protestant influences in the rest of the country mean that major cities like Amsterdam and The Hague do not celebrate carnival.  Living in Tilburg (and having a significant other who hails from another carnival-crazed city of the Netherlands), I had the good fortune to be located in the heart of carnival country.  Here are a few of the many reasons why I think everyone should experience carnival in the Netherlands:

The 2013 Prince of Carnival parties with his Kingdom of Fools in Neede, The Netherlands

The 2013 Prince of Carnival parties with his Kingdom of Fools in Neede, The Netherlands

  • It is a non-stop party.  Dutch carnival officially runs from the Sunday through Tuesday that immediately precedes the first day of Lent (Ash Wednesday).  The Dutch never turn down an excuse for more beer and tent parties though, so many places begin the celebrations as early as Thursday or Friday.  On Sunday, the town mayor hands over the keys to the city to the previously-crowned Prince of Carnival.  For three days, the prince technically “rules” over his “Kingdom of Fools” and can even issue proclamations valid during the carnival season.
  • Towns change their names.  During the three days of carnival, the town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch (which, incidentally, is also the town where the first recorded mention of Dutch carnival celebrations took place in 1385) changes its name to “Oeteldonk”, meaning “Frog Hill.”  The town of Breda becomes “Kielegat”, and Eindhoven becomes “Lampegat.”  This particular tradition may be completely unnecessary, but how can you NOT get in the silly spirit of carnival when you are running around a place referred to as “Oeteldonk?”
  • Crazy costumes.  Carnival in the Netherlands is essentially one major costume party. This is the Dutch equivalent to Halloween, and everyone participates.
    Lindsay Lohan and her non-sexy costume would not be an outcast at a Dutch carnival party!

    Lindsay Lohan and her non-sexy costume would not be an outcast at a Dutch carnival party!

    For Dutch people though, carnival costumes are NOT all about sex appeal.  This may come as a surprise to Americans, since Halloween in the U.S. is often considered the one day of the year when a girl can wear whatever sexy attire she wants without being labeled “slutty.”  Sorry guys, no Playboy bunny costumes to be seen here.  Instead, the goal is to dress as wacky as possible, preferably with obnoxious neon colors and crazy wigs.  If you like to dress in character, Dutch carnival is definitely for you.

  • Carnival is for everyone.  One of the nicest aspects of carnival in the Netherlands is that everyone participates.  In other places around the world, carnival is definitely a celebration for young, drunk revelers.  Not in the Netherlands.  There is, of course, a fair share of those young partiers, but young people by no means hold a monopoly on carnival fun.  It is not unusual to see an 8 year-old in a bar, or a 60 year-old couple dressed as pirates drinking beers in a tent next to a group of teens in bunny suits.
  • Parades.  The centerpiece of carnival is each town’s carnival parade (optocht).  Groups spend thousands of hours over the course of several months creating elaborate parade floats that are then driven through the city, led by the Prince of Carnival. A prize is awarded to the best float of the day. These floats are definitely a sight to behold.  My boyfriend happens to belong to one of the float-building associations in his hometown of Neede, so I was lucky enough to see this carnival tradition from behind the scenes (and walk along with the Hansel and Gretel themed float on the parade route!).
    Group Beter! in front of its 2013 carnival float

    Group Beter! in front of its 2013 carnival float

    All dressed up as Hansel and Gretel for Carnival 2013

    All dressed up as Hansel and Gretel for Carnival 2013

    One of the elaborate floats from the 2013 carnival parade

    One of the elaborate floats from the 2013 carnival parade

  • Carnival music.  In addition to crazy costumes, carnival in the Netherlands is also known for its ridiculous carnival songs–think lots of accordion sounds accompanied by terribly bad (yet easy to sing-a-long) lyrics.  How bad, you say? Well, at one party I attended the DJ played a carnival cover version of “Sex on Fire” by Kings of Leon, only during the chorus line “your sex is on fiiiiiiiiiire,” the Dutch lyrics were changed to something along the lines of “have sex with a baaaaaald man”.  Other even worse songs included titles like, “I have a horn on my jetski” (Ik heb een toet-toet-toeter op mijn waterscooter) and “Fat girls have pretty names” (Dikke meisjes hebben mooie namen). Deep stuff. For the three days of carnival, though, no one cares about the lyrics.  The music, like everything else, is just there to brighten the silly mood.  And that it does. If you’re interested in hearing some of this musical gold, below is one of the most popular carnival songs from this year’s festivities:

 

  • Get off the beaten path.  Most visitors to the Netherlands only see the major cities- some never make it outside Amsterdam.  Carnival presents the perfect opportunity to visit some of the less-popular tourist regions of the Netherlands while they are at their best.  And since each town celebrates carnival in its own unique way, with its own prince, its own parade, and its own flag, you really can’t go wrong.

It may not be the be-all and end-all of your bucket list, but if you’re in the Netherlands in February and are looking for one heck of a party, then you can’t miss Dutch carnival.

Netherlands-Italy International: February 6, 2013

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A few pics from the Netherlands-Italy international soccer friendly played at the Amsterdam ArenA (normally home to Ajax) last week. The Netherlands fielded one of their youngest teams ever (with an average age of only 22 years!), but considering their lack of experience they played a really decent match against those Italian giants like Andrea Pirlo and Gigi Buffon.  Interestingly enough, the Netherlands have never won a friendly against Italy.  It seemed like they would finally earn their first victory when they went ahead by one goal; but alas, Italy scored a heartbreaker in the 90th minute and the match ended in a 1-1 tie.  One of my personal favorite moments of the game came when Mario Balotelli was called offside and he kicked the ball out of bounds in anger.  The entire stadium started cheering and clapping as he stormed away, as if it was a goal in itself to get into Balotelli’s head and provoke some of that infamous temper.  Hate him or not (and I admit I’m one of the haters–especially since his talent is so obvious), you can always count on Mario to provide some good old fashioned entertainment on the field.  This was my first international soccer match in the Netherlands, and after seeing this one, I can’t wait for more!

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Symbol of the Dutch Football Federation

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The Teams Entering the Field

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Amsterdam ArenA

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The Match Begins!

Superbowl XLVII: Let’s Geaux!

Superbowl Teams

It’s almost here. Superbowl Sunday!  It isn’t a national holiday, but it may as well be. The much-anticipated single biggest sporting event in the United States  (and second only to the UEFA Champions League Final as the most-watched annual sporting event in the world) airs tomorrow–at the ungodly hour of 12:30am here in the Netherlands, I might add.  I will be the first to admit that I am not usually the biggest fan of (American) football, but sitting here in Tilburg right now, my Superbowl excitement meter is pushing its limits.  Like any true American I go crazy for the hype, the tradition, and the atmosphere surrounding the Superbowl.  Every other day I am an American living in the Netherlands, eating Dutch food, learning Dutch culture, and following Dutch etiquette.  But on Superbowl Sunday, I get to tear up while hearing my national anthem, munch on deliciously-unhealthy American snacks, cheer for my chosen team, and generally feel free to be as completely, utterly, and unabashedly “American” as I please.

This year’s contest looks to be a pretty darn good one.  The AFC-champion Baltimore Ravens are taking on the favored NFC-champion San Francisco 49ers. I don’t really have an opinion as to who wins this match-up (my team is the New Orleans Saints).  Arguably the most interesting story in the lead-up to the Superbowl hasn’t even concerned the teams themselves.  Instead, it has been the coaches under the spotlight.  For the first time in history, the head coaches of the two teams are brothers.  I imagine there will be some tense dinner conversations at their house after tomorrow!

Superbowl Superdome2The game will be played in New Orleans, at the Superdome.  The stadium (home to my beloved Saints during the regular season) looks a little like a squat nuclear reactor from the outside, but boasts one of the most incredible stadium experiences (i.e. it gets loud in there!) in the country.  If there is one thing New Orleans knows how to do well, it is throw a rockin’ party.  This will also be the first Superbowl to be played at the Superdome since it suffered significant damage in Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  The Superdome (and the city of New Orleans) has certainly come a long way since almost 30,000 residents were forced to take refuge in the stadium during the hurricane and its aftermath.

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The game itself is only part of the Superbowl equation.  Some people (okay, women) watch the Superbowl as much for the commercials and the halftime entertainment than for the game.  This year, Beyoncé is slated to perform.  While most of the world is in love with her, I’m sure the network broadcasters in the U.S. will all be crossing their fingers and praying that no “nipplegate” à la Janet Jackson 2004 happens this time.  My boyfriend has an entirely different viewpoint on the matter.  By Dutch standards, the whole idea of censoring a nip-slip on TV is prudish American overkill.  In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen a Dutch movie that doesn’t have at least a few boob shots.  The nonchalant way the Dutch act about breasts, one would almost think half the population possesses them!

My personal favorite aspect of the Superbowl is without a doubt the commercials.  At a going rate of $4 million for a 30 second ad, you can pretty much guarantee there will be some good ones.  Last year, I missed the commercials because I watched the Superbowl on the BBC online broadcast in the UK, which edited them out in place of normal BBC advertisements (who does that?!).  Let me tell you, the Superbowl is beyond boring without my yearly dose of hilarious Anhueser-Busch/Doritos/Coca-Cola ad magic.  Chevrolet won my vote for the two best of last year:

 

As long as I have a broadcast of the game, commercials and all, the only other essential I need for a perfect night of sports is some good ol’ American food.  Because let’s be honest, the real reason watching the Superbowl is so much fun is because it is a no-guilt excuse to eat greasy, yummy food!   Unfortunately, the grocery stores in Tilburg are severely lacking in this type of grub.  There are no pizza rolls, no ranch dips, and worst of all, no BBQ chips!  What does a girl have to do to get some BBQ Lays’ around here?!  The closest thing I could find was “barbeque ham” flavor….yeah, the Dutch have strange tastes sometimes.  Other contenders in the Dutch supermarket “weirdest chip flavor sweepstakes” included “bolognese”, “Mexican peppers and cream”, and “cucumber and goats”.  Some part of me wonders what cucumber and goats taste like, but I decided to pass on that culinary experience for now in favor of the barbeque ham that I hope will taste as good as the chips back in the U.S. (Update: I couldn’t wait until tomorrow. The taste is closer to a chip version of lunchmeat than to barbeque; however, they are surprisingly not terrible).

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My Dutch Superbowl snacks–at least I found chicken wings!

If all of this doesn’t get you as excited for the Superbowl as I am, then you may be hopeless (or maybe just European).  Just in case you’re not quite convinced about the pure awesome-ness of this day, I will leave you with these Superbowl trivia facts.  At least you can impress your friends who do care!

  • The Superbowl is the 2nd largest day of food consumption in the U.S. after Thanksgiving. Over 1 billion chicken wings are consumed during the game.
  • The Monday after Superbowl Sunday is the single most missed day of work in the U.S.  Almost 7 million people call in sick every year. That is approx. 5-6% of the U.S. workforce!
  • In the entire Superbowl history, not a single game has gone into overtime.

Happy Superbowl Sunday!