What will happen when everything is different?
Supporting a football club is a weird thing, when you really think about it. We gather as a collective, no matter the time zone, to watch the exploits of a football club to which most of us have a tenuous connection in every aspect except the heart. Some don’t even have that, but are there in support of a player.
The difference between being a Barça supporter and being culer exists for some. For others, all supporters are culers. It depends. For some, being culer is that weird state of being all in, of suddenly having it all matter to a distressing degree — worrying about presidents, and budgets, and board comings and goings, and club actions and worry about the future, of youngsters capering about and what they mean for the future of the team. It’s strange.
As we gather, we have come to the club at different times and for different reasons. Some of us go back to that Rivaldo chilena. Others go back to the first treble. Still others are more recent, while others have grown up with the club. The difference — the personal difference — between being culer and a supporter was clear for me in 2007, the last year of Frank Rijkaard.
Barcelona Football Blog was Offside Barcelona then, and the blogging game was still relatively new. Making my first trip to Barcelona for an extended stay gave me occasion to meet up with a reader of the blog and a man with whom many a set-to over Thierry Henry ensued, a fellow named Genis. He told me the best apartment to choose, and said that when my wife and I got there, to look him up and we would tour the city, a view through his eyes.
Genis had been a soci for decades, long before I even knew that soccer existed. And we toured. Had food, argued some more about Henry, and learned. He bought me caganers and we learned about Caga Tio. We learned about that crappy-looking, pockmarked wall that wasn’t, as Genis explained about Plaça Sant Felip Neri and what it meant.
As our tour was winding up, he asked what we were going to do with the rest of our stay. “Oh, probably visit Montjuic and stuff,” I said. Genis and his mother exchanged a glance, then silence. He said, “We don’t go there.” And that was that. It seemed odd, but being a history devotee, off my wife and I went.
Above the main entrance of the castle courtyard that day was a splash of red paint, which struck my wife and I as odd. As we entered the castle, strolling down this corridor to access the grounds, a feeling that is difficult to explain, even now, came over me, as though this was a place I shouldn’t be. The tears came, and it became impossible to proceed. We wound up leaving, not getting much farther than that corridor.
Some research into the history of Montjuic explained some of that feeling, one that my wife said she felt while visiting a prison in Northern Ireland, that feeling that horrible things had happened at a place, history that was still there, like a fabric rent just enough to let an ill wind through.
It was on that day, on that trip, that I transitioned from a supporter and relatively new soci to a culer. The club suddenly mattered to me more than any player ever could, and everything changed. Walking around the city, there were Ronaldinho shirts galore, as he was still the magic man, even as night life and poor habits conspired to make him mortal.
Messi wasn’t Messi then, and the team was conspiring to find ways to lose, ways to screw up and squander a championship battle that it really had not much right to be fighting for, even as those of us believed until the math called us liars, dashed our hope even as we were only getting a listtle taste of winning, of a team that had a Liga and a Champions League in its recent past, times of wonder after years of futility. It all seemed so amazing.
And then came Guardiola, Messi became Messi, and everything was different.
What will happen when Messi leaves? What will the club mean to people? Many supporters, when their icon is gone, will stop supporting Barça and move on. Others will discover that the club has their soul, that it doesn’t matter who dons the shirt because it’s that blaugrana that makes their heart beat a little faster. We can revere and respect the players and coaches for what they do, and understand how great Messi is. And even as the Camp Nou will seem a little more quiet, significantly less dusted with the possibility of magic in his absence, that love for Barça will remain.
You won’t know it until it happens, that transition from supporter to culer to crazy. But Barça is a beautiful thing. You look past the board you wouldn’t trust as far as you can throw it, the one that even as it does so many of the right things, still earns sideeye. You look past warring supporter factions on social media, past cadres of people who have decided that x or y player is a toxin. And you look past that because at some point, all you see is blaugrana. And your soul stirs with passion.
Being culer is a state of grace, a blessing and a curse. It isn’t casual. Even as we say “It’s just a game,” it isn’t. A loss can ruin a weekend, a win makes one better. And we’re all in this together.
Sometimes it’s easy to look askance at people who criticize the club, and they do it for various reasons. It’s trendy, a big Twitter account has planted seeds. But there are those, culer to the core, who bring to mind the James Baldwin quote that explains so much:
“I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”