A View From the Stands: Finally Here

I am looking down on a putting green with 22 men on it and I’m smiling and I’m not sure quite what’s happened. I’m flustered and a little sad. I’m standing in the Camp Nou as the teams line up for the opening kickoff and while I should be floating on the final strains of the hymn still echoing in my ears, I’ve heard none of it. It was there, in the background, but I wasn’t there, not really. It was supposed to be a religious experience, but it wasn’t because I didn’t hear it.

You see, we were in the wrong seats quite by accident and the rightful owners of those seats had arrived just as the hymn broke out. The steward had directed us incorrectly, or anyway, not correctly enough. We shuttled around a bit, as others were in our seats and the seating in the Camp Nou is about as obvious as a needle in a haystack of needles; when we finally found our actual, proper seats, the Club World Cup trophy had been presented, the hymn sung, and the team handshake completed. We were surrounded by season ticket holders and tourists like ourselves, but it was a fairly packed stadium—attendance was just over 83,000 in the end, but I would have guessed (and did guess) slightly more as I couldn’t see any banks of seats open and there were literally no seats available in my midtier section.

The match kicked off at 8:30pm, but we had actually arrived at 4:30 to enjoy the museum, the botiga, and some food at the Tapas24 Camp Nou restaurant. My wife met the head waiter there a few years ago on a different trip to Barcelona with her family (in the pre-me days) and they reconnected for a few minutes, sharing pictures of each other’s children before we headed off to the museum, promising to return for a pre-match dinner. Our daughter was staying with my in-laws at the apartment we rented for a week for a family Christmas and New Year’s vacation so we had the afternoon and night to ourselves. We spent it at our own pace and the museum ended up rewarding us with lots of fun. Directly inside the entrance, people raced forward to the Champions League trophies, but I took a deep breath and turn around to see the giant trophy case that is the first real display you come to. The Copa Barcelona trophy from 1902-03, almost the first trophy the club ever won, sits in the upper right hand corner and just looking at it made me shake my head in disbelief that this thing I love has been the thing people have loved since before that time. Technically the first trophy is the 1900-01 Copa Macaya, but it’s not displayed with the others, instead it has its own case in a place of honor, as it deserves.

Some of the younger kids gaped in awe at the early league and Copa del Rey trophies, some taking pictures with the trophies from their birth year, but I just kind of wandered down the cabinet, in a sort of daze. There were so many trophies, so much history, so much to take in. It seemed a small museum, but every trophy, every Campionat, every Copa, every Liga…honors were piled atop honors and it had a way of slowing me down, making me circle back to see another detail—wait, who was the runner-up that year? How many had we won by this point? And at the end of the cabinet was another cabinet and at the end of that cabinet, another one.

And then one of my favorite cabinets: it had 14 trophies in it and a screen showing goals. An LED screen announced in red letters that this was Futbol Femeni’s cabinet and the goals were exquisite. I stood there and watched the video, timed out somehow for me to see Alexia Putellas’ stunner in the Copa de la Reina final. She’s incredible and her goal was rightly celebrated at the time and rightly memorialized in the trophy case, but she was obviously playing second fiddle to the men’s team, which is why we were all there, why I was there, why my wife was there, why any of us are even reading these words. But it was a touching addition to the museum—and in a fairly important location too, not a hallway to the side like Basquet’s trophy case seemed to be in—and it was a joy to simply stare at that goal while my wife muttered things in my ear about how our little girl might one day play here, in this kit. I smiled and reminded her that if genetics played any part of our daughter’s skills, she wouldn’t make it on the U-8s squad, even as a 16 year old. I can huff and puff out there, but I’m more Toquero than Don Andres, so the little one will have to learn elsewhere. Maybe they have summer camps and we can live in Barcelona and she can go play with Coach Putellas sometime.

And then we were at the Champions League trophies. And then we were at the larger-than-life picture of Abidal hoisted the 2011 trophy and my wife was saying “it’s been 4 years!?” and I was nodding. And then there were the Tapies and Miro posters and there was a big screen with pictures of the famous players, the big moments of the club on the field, and views of the stadium. And then we were listening to the hymn on headphones and a little girl, maybe 6 years old, was shouting it out for all the world to hear. She got quiet when she saw me looking at her, but girl, go shout it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. We need you, we need your passion, we need your love, and we need your presence.

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At the end of the downstairs portion of the museum, just as you go out to the stadium itself where you can sit in the empty stands and look at the great beauty that is the Camp Nou, there is a wall with photographic portraits of all the presidents the club has had. For whatever reason, the 1 year administration of Josep Soler does not have a picture, either in the museum or on the website, but everyone else does. A few rows down from Soler is another Josep, this time Sunyol, the young, charismatic, and ardently left-wing president of Barcelona from 1935 until his execution at the hands of Francoist troops in the Sierra de Guarderrama in 1936. I hope one day to see Sunyol’s picture sitting beside that of that little girl whose voice echoed through the museum pictured next to these men. This club must continue to evolve and continue to be part of Catalan society, which is ever more accepting and open; the club is ever more capable of being mes rather than menys, but only time will tell which direction things go.

The problem is that after all of this, after all the uplifting videos of the Iniestazo and the first triplete and Abidal lifting the trophy and a set of giant screens where the names of all the socis cascades down endlessly (I didn’t see my name or that of anyone else I knew), just before the exit, is a small room with Qatar Airways ads. It is hokey and it makes me question the mes part, it makes me wonder where we’re headed and whether this is what we really want as a club and a society. My wife, who does not follow the politics of the sport and only vaguely follows the commercial underpinnings, but has no real dislike or distrust of corporations, scoffed at the blatant advertising and the use of the team museum for such nonsense. This is where we are and this is where we will be in the future, but more so. The very next display was the Camp Nou renovation display, suggesting that we will soon see a very new campus, which while not bad, will inevitably be branded in a thousand ways, each more intrusive than the last. We have crossed the threshold of this new world and there is no going back. We can thank the men who came after Sunyol, who probably ordered the installation of the tribute to him, for this. One wonders what Sunyol thinks of so many corporate sponsors and cozy relationships with big business.

And here’s the thing: it’s really, really easy to push those thoughts out of your mind when you leave the museum, cross over the walkway connecting it to the building next door, and enter the Botiga. There’s really no way around it if you go into the museum. It is 3 floors of Barça Barça Barça, of Nike and Qatar Airways, of blau and grana, of shiny pretty things, of please-take-my-money-I-do-mean-all-of-it. There are big screens! There are neon lights!

We went to dinner and watched the first half of Atleti-Rayo while chatting with people around us. Even fluorescent lights have a way of seeming soothing after a trip to anything labeled a megastore. We ate and drank and I got more and more excited. Our waiter—my wife’s friend—was generous with the drinks and the buybacks. It felt like being somewhere cozier than a stadium that can house just shy of six figures worth of fans. And then it was time and we walked around the stadium to our entrance. The security was laughably bad and suddenly I understood why it was so prevalent to light up in the upper tiers.

The stairs and corridors of the stadium were the same dingy bowels of a stadium that you expect from any stadium that was built in 1957, but after the pulsing modernity of the museum, the store, and the restaurant, it felt decrepit. Well-designed, it turned out, but in dire need of a facelift. The Espai Barça project would at least put a fresh coat of paint on this, one can’t help but think, but at what cost?

And all of that is wiped away. All of that is gone when you step out and there is the field and there is the stadium and FC BARCELONA stenciled on the seats across the way is peppered with tiny figures slowly rendering it more and more invisible. There is the empty presidential box as the bigwigs do their glad-handing and schmoozing inside somewhere. There is the press box stretching for miles across the whole of the top. I sat in there during the tour many years ago and it was an absurdly great view. I have a great view too, until I’m forced to move, when I get an even better view, closer to midfield. But I’ve missed the hymn and the whistle goes and away we race.

The match seemed to start a bit slowly, actually, but with Barça always on top and always looking like they were going to win comfortably. Then Betis lost 400 players to injury, used every sub they had for the season, and I started feeling bad for them, kind of a little. But not much. Betis got a couple of chances and then Messi was thwacked by an oncoming Antonio Adan (a madridista, no less!) and the air rushed out of the stadium. No one even noticed a penalty had been called, it was just Messi chants and prayers to whatever or whoever one believes can help. It looks horrific from where I sat—“That looked bad bad,” I called it in the immediate aftermath.

They rolled out the stretcher car and it might as well have been a phalanx of helicopters. Get that man to a surgeon immediately! Get him morphine! Say the word “stat” a lot! Somewhere in there I noticed the Betis players milling about gesticulating and arguing and hey it was a penalty. And then Messi didn’t look so bad as he walked gingerly along the sideline. Maybe Adan had done something worse than originally seemed, but questions were all wiped away when the whistle blew and then Neymar slipped taking the penalty and we were all doomed and then Rakitic scored on the rebound, except they gave it to Westermann so apparently it had been an own goal. What a weird few minutes.

From then on, it was gravy. 4 minutes later and the returning Messi interchanged an excellent couple of passes with Neymar and pushed in the goal for 2-0. Knife through butter kind of stuff. The kind of stuff that makes you happy that Messi’s body more closely resembles steel than it does human fleshweakness. The kind of stuff that means you make it to 500 matches at FC Barcelona. The kind of stuff that means you can score a eleventy billion goals and everyone will simply wonder how come it wasn’t eleventy billion and one, even as they lose their minds. The kind of stuff that means your name is chanted to the high heavens by the crowd, their arms we’re-not-worthy-ing, smiles on faces.

The little guy scores goals, but he also moves differently than anyone else. He’s smoother, simpler, not exactly faster, but quicker, more direct, like he understands angles in a dimension you can’t even theoretically envision. And what’s insane is how good his teammates are and yet you’re simply shocked by how Messi makes them all look kind of second rate. He’s the bored guy at your pick-up league whose languid steps always put him in front of the ball even though he didn’t seem to move, who turns out to have played pro somewhere, who is simply using this as way to keep the blood flowing before he heads off to a better league.

Mixed in with this sort of “holy moly, I’m actually watching Lionel Messi,” were other random thoughts about how damned good Neymar is, which is a understatement: he’s getting into “I don’t have the vocabulary” territory and that might be bad because you’re not allowed to have more than one such player per team. It’s a rule, look it up. He demonstrated throughout the match why people say he’s heir to Messi’s throne, with constant jukes, dips, moves, spins, and outrageous assists. Live I was sure he was a magician and we all, collectively, as a stadium, flipped out. Outrageous is kind of a pedestrian term compared to the fireworks and strobe lights that are set off in your head watching this team. Busquets stepping up for the interception and assist on the 3rd goal is best described as adsfoiusdflkejslkjsdfisd. I spent about 80 minutes with my eyes wide like a 10-year old’s on Christmas when someone actually got me that pony!?!? Yeah, they did and it is made of goals and candy canes and beautiful dreams.

When the match ended and we had filed out onto Traveserra de les Corts, tens of thousands of people were clogging the roadway and keeping traffic, including a city bus, at a standstill for 20 minutes. We crammed onto a subway for a few stops and the quiet around our rented apartment in Plaça de Tetuan felt empty in some ways, but we can always have the attempt not to forget the neon green field under the floodlights, the dancing shapes, the chanting, the feeling of being, finally, here.

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The author in his original (and incorrect) seat.
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Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in the greater New York City area with his wife and daughter.

16 Comments

  1. georgjorge
    January 12, 2016

    How beautiful, Isaiah.

    I hope I will be able to collect some good memories as well on my trip in February for the Sevilla match.

  2. Davour
    January 12, 2016

    Sounds fantastic – I really need to get my butt there soon as well. No excuse, really, for missing out the opportunity to see this team live when you have the chance during your lifetime. How could I explain to my (future) kids I just couldn’t bothered to make the trip?

  3. kosby
    January 12, 2016

    Such beautiful writing ! I can only describe it as adsfoiusdflkejslkjsdfisd !

  4. lala10
    January 12, 2016

    Enter Your Comment…Beautiful. You make it real and closer to some of us who will nearly never make it in this lifetime. Bravo

    • georgjorge
      January 12, 2016

      “Messi only betrays defenders and goalkeepers”…priceless.

    • Jim
      January 12, 2016

      Thanks, Fotobirajesh. I’d already spotted it. There’s something about the honesty in the way he speaks that appeals to me. Barca manager of the future, no doubt. I would still love to know the part he played in resolving last year’s debacle with RS. I don’t think there’s another person that all involved would have listened to. Heard he’s now a father as well so congrats to him. Would love to run across him in a bar in Barcelona sometime in the future to buy him a pint to talk over his thoughts on Barca and football !

  5. raj
    January 12, 2016

    Almost got tears in my eyes..

  6. luisthebeast
    January 12, 2016

    Isaiah sorry to talk off topic but i am mad with the hipocricy of people.If the names of Gumbau Camara Dongou was today out of Barca B the same people that now crying and hate the board would be saying the opposite.Brave by the club to not change once again the coach and try to get rid off the deadwoods.Enough with the protection of mediocrity in La Masia.We pay players some years now they dont offer anything and they will take the team to Tercera.And we will always blame the coaches because some hate the board??Not again.

    • Jim
      January 12, 2016

      I’m assuming , Luis, that you’ve been on Twitter again. It just seems to get you riled. I’d stay away from it ( although to be fair, I do visit Barcastuff quite often ).

      It is an interesting topic you raise though, about the clearing out of some of the B team today. I’ve been steadily getting concerned about the next round of contract renewals for the firsts and I reckon some hard decisions are going to have to be made in the summer. We’re going to have to be clever in how we keep the mix of high and not so high earners. Got me thinking so I went to check on a site which purported to give current salaries and contract expiry dates. Some interesting reading there which I’m sure in Kxevin’s hands would make a great discussion. Just not sure whether now is the best time for it. You can bet your bottom dollar that this discussion is going on in the boardroom as we speak, though.

  7. Jim
    January 12, 2016

    Just watching the difference between good and exciting football in the Newcastle Man U match. Two awful teams but a momentum change and now can’t take my eyes off it !

    • Jim
      January 12, 2016

      Should point out that I’m watching a recording of it from earlier so don’t tell me how it ends 🙂

  8. luisthebeast
    January 12, 2016

    Jim i wish people have twitter come here and we have a discussion about Barca B.Because it s easy to blame always the board and the coach.But the hard truth is that with players like Grimaldo Samper Bagnack e.t.c the team is going to Tercera.Eusebio was shit,Lopez is shit.So who must be the coach?Jesus Christ?People watched Aitor against Villanovense and said ah ok nothing special.And today the same people are mad because he left!Babunski?Great person but he is 21 and nobody in the past said a good word.They say that Lucho and the board are dismantling La Masia.How?Can explain it to us?With over 70 new players for youth teams?Please people because i know u read the blog come and explain to us to understand.

    • barca96
      January 12, 2016

      So you’re fine with the club firing a player who suffered a long injury? You’re ok with the board firing Aitor, who Lucho seems to like. I wonder if they even discussed with Lucho before making the decision, much like how Chiggy was sold behind Pep’s back. And Aitor is the team’s top scorer for goodness sake. Babunski is another one who makes the first team training.

      Now they want to sign players from other low level clubs. What a way to run the B team. B team is for youth development. They’re not fighting for titles.

  9. bwullur
    January 15, 2016

    After being silent reader in this amazing site, i could not kept quiet.
    Like the story of your Camp Nou experience, … could easily related it to my self in 2014. I stand in awe to see how easily Messi move past players and make key passes. The museum experience is also very great. Hope to come back again…

  10. Kd
    January 15, 2016

    Lovely Isaiah!! Brought back memories too!! The meuseum is excellent ain’t it!! And there’s soo much to absorb. Was running around like a crazy teenager hopping trying to take it in. And you kno Davour, u must go and watch these guys in action!! Its poetry. And my reasons for going were the same. I couldnt think of myself not watchin Barca with Messi in it!! How would i explain this to myself and my kids in the future? Although im partial towards Iniesta and Busquets. So plz go. Its a pilgrimage really!!

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