(This is a guest post from someone you should follow on Twitter, @barcelista. This is an account of their first Camp Nou visit, an extraordinary experience for any culer, graciously chronicled here for us to live vicariously through. Enjoy!)
It starts as a dream, as a kid watching Barca from Lebanon on grainy, pirated cable bought through the guy next door, and over the years grows into an ache, a desperation to make it to Camp Nou. Finally managing it this year was a whirlwind: uncontainable anticipation, anxiety and everything in between leading up to it, and then the crazy rollercoaster that was Barca 4-2 Sevilla. FC Dramalona really couldn’t have given me anything less for my first live match and I’m still reeling.
Many have described the experience as akin to a pilgrimage and it really does feel that way. I don a Barca shirt and make my way first to the Plaça de Catalunya, site of many a Barca celebration and fan congregation. Across the street is the Nuria restaurant that used to be La Rambla, the newspaper run by Josep Sunyol before he became FCB president. Fans would gather here to follow games in those pre-television days as he had large blackboards up on which the Barca score would be written as it was wired in. The nearby Canaletes drinking fountain is a fixture of Barca celebrations and its inscribed legend says that if you drink from it, you will return to Barcelona. I fill a bottle, and continue to the stadium.
It’s some kind of feeling to be one of nearly eighty-nine thousand on the night, thronging through the streets and filling the grounds of Camp Nou, everyone with this team in our hearts.
I’m fortunate to be sitting in the Tribuna (premium) section for the match, near the front and just to the side of the Barca bench, in full view of Valverde in his trademark squat. I get there early, the stadium still filling up. It is dizzying: the massive MES QUE UN CLUB on the opposite stands; the Almogavers in the Gol Nord with their steady drumbeat and never-still flags – they will go into different singing, clapping, jumping renditions all match long, echoed back from different points of the stadium; the vast immaculate green pitch; the cheer that erupts as the team runs out to warm up; the swell of the Barca anthem and pride of singing along.
It is so surreal to see all the players there in the flesh. We joke that Barca has small players but from where I’m sitting they feel so huge, larger than life. Pique in all his height and glory, right there. Ter Stegen flashing around his goal practicing saves. Messi facing me as he runs alongside Suarez. In front of my eyes. It’s a little bit breathtaking.
And the thing about Messi is, he is everything, so much so that a match where he only played seventeen minutes still ends up being all about him, the heartstrings of every person in this massive stadium tied to that man.
Before kickoff Messi presents his La Liga player of the month award to our cheers. The whistle goes and he is off like a whirlwind, assisting Coutinho in the second minute. It happens so fast, I’m barely settling in to the excitement of the match starting before I’m screaming and leaping up to celebrate with the masses all around me.
The team is on fire those opening minutes and it’s everything you could hope for, aafter having come so far to see them play. In the direction they’re attacking for that first half, the sideline I’m sitting on is the Barça right wing. It’s an incredible vantage point from which to see Semedo give an absolute killer performance, Pique play his heart out despite visibly pushing through some pain, Messi work his magic. Minute 12 Messi scores Barca’s second and we are screaming again, all the nervousness about how this match — a huge test for a recently struggling Barca against an in-form Sevilla right after international break — would go, now completely dissipated. Barca is owning this. Messi is running this. He celebrates joyfully to the camera as we trade our screams for applause. His shirt has been torn in the front at some point; he comes up to the Barca bench, right in front of me, met with even more applause, takes it off and pulls on another. He is visibly buzzing and happy, and it just makes your heart sing to see him like that.
Then five minutes later, the turning point. Messi goes down, near the sideline I am sitting on but in the other half, off the Sevilla bench. We in the stands leap up, calling for a foul, but our protests quickly die down in horror as we see how he is writhing so much, in real pain. Messi never embellishes fouls so it is instantly terrifying to see him like that. He also hasn’t been injured in three years and has started to feel invincible to us. You never expect this to happen, and it is the worst nightmare of this entire stadium, almost ninety thousand people now fearfully watching with bated breath.
The world stops
Play stops, players and ref checking on him. My heart is racing as the medics run onto the pitch. Valverde rises from his squat, looking on from his box. At some point play resumes but I don’t remember exactly when; unable to look away from where the medics are working on him, their backs to me blocking the view of what’s happening. That’s the worst part — with no TV close-up or replay, just seeing him there in agony yards away, not knowing what it is that’s wrong. All I can think, based on how much he is in pain, is it’s hamstring, it’s his knee, it’s the worst.
Dembele and Rafinha start warming up. My hands are over my face and my eyes are welling up with tears. The longer it goes on, medics still working on him, Valverde alternatively glancing between him and the ongoing gameplay, the worse the fear and concern. And Barca are playing with 10 men for what feels like ages, with Messi lying incapacitated just beside them. The atmosphere in the stadium has shifted and you can feel the players’ distraction, but they hold it together fantastically during that time, which to me feels like the most immense thing they did all night.
The Camp Nou sings and chants for Messi. Eventually I see one of the medics turn to Valverde and signal for a substitution, which after so much time is startling. I had thought a substitution was definitely imminent, especially with the subs already warming up, but it seems they took their time to absolutely rule Messi out from continuing — because that’s Messi.
When they do get Messi up and his bandaged arm becomes visible, the relief of: arm, not leg, is enormous.
Dembele comes in and I can focus more on the match now, though I remain in tears through halftime. Busquets takes a ball to the gut, goes down and stays down too long, the Camp Nou singing Buuuusi, Buuuusi. Pique detours to the sideline for a drink, grimacing as he clutches his back and neck, which he continues to do all match, clearly dealing with some pain. It all just feels like too many blows, too much of our players suffering in a short space of time, and I’m a bit overwhelmed.
But there is such a resilience to the team during this time as well, a feeling that they are not about to let this match go wrong after such a strong start just because they’ve lost Messi, and they step up massively to keep things going. After halftime we’re all a bit more composed and ready to take on the second half.
It’s not hard to get caught up in the atmosphere of a rallying Camp Nou: the protests on every ref call and completely deafening whistles on both Suarez penalty shouts, everyone on their feet when he’s awarded the second, erupting when he scores; the applause at every move a player pulls off, and every move he doesn’t; chants of every player’s name when something happens to him; different songs and Independencia chants interspersed throughout; the absolutely epic slow-to-fast clapping buildup the Gol Nord gives for every freekick. The section I’m sitting in seems to have a lot of older socis and season-ticket holders and I’m flanked by two older, somewhat fussily-dressed ladies and it is amazing to see them getting worked up, yelling at a player or the ref, celebrating a goal.
Ter Stegen gives us an absolute masterclass which is an unimaginable delight to see in person, saves celebrated as if they were goals. Coutinho is pushing so hard and punches the air in frustration at one point at a missed shot. We concede one but then Rakitic beautifully volleys in another and it feels good to yell and celebrate again. At 4-1 now some of the fans who no doubt are in here week in week out go “Right, I’m good” and start to leave; unthinkable to me but it does mean a lot of space frees up where I’m sitting, so that when a ball comes sailing into the stands it bounces off the empty seats and into my arms, and I somehow knew it would, as if everything that could happen in this match was absolutely going to happen. A young boy behind me asks for the ball and I toss it to him to toss back to the pitch. The rest of the match plays out in a mad back and forth between the two teams where Sevilla get another, but Barca sit prettily at 4-2 by fulltime. The whistle goes, the Barca anthem starts to play, we sing along and break into applause. It’s been an absolutely crazy night.
The come down
As the team flows back into the tunnel and fans start to leave, I linger as long as I can, taking it all in. Pique speaks to the press at the sideline and young boys in the stands near me scream out to him, asking for his shirt. Rafinha alone runs out onto the emptied field. He had peeled the Captain’s armband off of the immobilized Messi and warmed up to take his place, but ultimately returned to the bench. Now he takes over the pitch, kicking a ball around and running some drills, as if to vent his pent-up energy from the match, and I feel that so much. The groundskeepers come on to tend to the grass, moving around him.
The emotions run so high as I finally leave Camp Nou, passing by and paying homage to the statue of Kubala on the grounds, and head into the perfect Barcelona night. Just taking in everything that had happened, the joy of this team compounded with the sadness about Messi. The club is quick to release his prognosis, and the fact that it’s so much less severe than initially feared is a relief. Even if he’ll miss the next couple of matches; even if seeing him was a big part of my drive to finally make it to Barcelona for the first time. But if this had to happen, still he did everything he possibly could have in the short time he was on the pitch; assisting, scoring, a magnificent seventeen minutes.
Champions League finale (bonus Rafinha)
It’s funny how things end up working out though. Rafinha is a player I am a big fan of and one who I never thought I would get to see start and score in his possibly limited time left at Barca, yet Messi’s injury meant that there he was in the starting lineup, in a Champions League match no less, when I was back at Camp Nou for the Inter match a few days later. This time I was sitting in the lateral midsection, in the U of the UN of MES QUE UN CLUB; facing the benches and among a younger faction of the fanbase that was a lot more animated, yelling and reacting to the gameplay. It was fantastic to be among them.
There was Messi, sitting off the Barca bench with his son. I caught wind that Rafael Marquez, an all-time favorite of mine, was also at the match and it felt exciting just to know he was there. Goosebumps as the Champions League anthem played. Minute 1, Camp Nou sang Messi’s name. Barca came out in full force and put on a brilliant show. Rafinha scored and my heart swelled, jumping, screaming, applauding. When he was subbed off we were all on our feet, clapping and singing his name, Rafinha, Rafiiiinha. And the same again for Arthur, who was sensational all night. It was so incredible to be a part of that outpouring of love and support for these players in that stadium. Alba scored his banger right in front of me as my yelling at him to shoot turned into a celebratory scream. 2-0, Barca completely shut Inter down, everything was beautiful and I was buzzing all night.
It is an indescribable feeling to be in Camp Nou, to watch these masterful players and be a part of it all. It’s surreal, it’s magic, it’s pride and beauty, it’s so much love. And what an incredible first — but surely not last — visit. Gracies Barca, and hopefully, as is written on the stadium exit: see you soon.