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.
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.