Friday, 25 March 2011

Zonal Marking in Barcelona

Have I Got Nous For You

Michael Cox of Zonal Marking fame puts down his chalkboard to head to Barcelona.... 

Well, I must say, I’m rather disappointed. We’ve come all this way to Barcelona to see a game at the Nou, and it’s not what I expected. OK, the little number 6 is controlling things from the centre of midfield, and the number 10 is a threat upfront, but it’s a tiny little ground and it’s not even full. Mes Que Un Club, seriously?

Only joking! We are indeed in Barcelona for a football match, but this is not the Nou Camp, it’s the Nou Sardenya, home of CE Europa. Europa can’t make any claim to being ‘more than a club’ – they compete in the Tercera Division, the fourth level of the Spanish pyramid, in one of eighteen regional groups.

Me enjoying a San Miguel

CE Europa 3-0 Palamós (20:03:11)

The club has a proud history, however. Their glory years came nearly 90 years ago when they won the Championat de Catalunya and were Copa del Rey runners-up in the same season, but after decades in the wilderness, they won the Copa de Catalunya back-to-back in the mid 1990s, beating the mighty FC Barcelona in the final both times. For Barcelona, it was very much a lesser competition and a reserve side was fielded on both occasions, but look at their line-up for the second final, in 1997/98, and it’s still packed with big names - Hesp, Couto, Bogarde, Reiziger, Amor (Sergi), Roger, Oscar (Xavi), Giovanni, Mario, Pizzi (Anderson), Jofre (De la Peña). To beat those players is remarkable achievement for a little club like Europa.

Their opponents today are the rather less illustrious Palamos. Palamos have brought a travelling army of seven supporters, two of whom look like girlfriends of two of the other five – the girls sit together talking, paying little attention to the game but enjoying the San Miguel from Europa’s quaint little clubhouse in the corner of the ground. The Palamos squad emerges from the tunnel, and with more players than fans, it’s a slightly bizarre pre-match ovation between the two.

Europa come out a couple of minutes later. I immediately like their kit – white with a blue ‘V’ across the front, reminiscent of the Brescia away kit sported by Roberto Baggio in his final seasons as a professional. More significantly, in the wake of the previous week’s tsunami, the Europa players are carrying a Japanese flag, and pose with it for the team photo. There’s also a minute’s silence before kick-off.

 Europa emerge with their Japanese flag

(Incidentally, this week Richard Littlejohn wrote a column in the Daily Mail on the subject of the tsunami, claiming we shouldn’t feel sympathy for Japan, because of events that happened in a war some 70 years ago, in classic Littlejohn ‘try and turn topical event into cause for race hate’ fashion.

If you missed it, choice quote – “Before every one of the weekend’s Premier League football matches, for instance, fans were forced to stand and observe a minute’s silence for Japan. Why?... Of course, there is a commercial incentive here for the Premier League. No doubt the Japanese TV rights are up for renegotiation soon.”

Well, I doubt there’s much demand in Japan for television rights for the Spanish fourth division. Maybe people simply want to show respect? Football is actually very good at this sort of thing – more on that later.)

The sensible older fans in the seats with their newspapers

Anyway, there was a lovely atmosphere around the ground. Before kick off, the stand was populated mainly by elderly locals who sat reading the club’s free Catalan language newspaper, but the ground filled up as the game went on – with younger fans, families, groups of girls. There’s a reason for that - immediately after this match, first Europa’s juniors and then their women’s side plays in the same ground – it’s essentially a whole Sunday of football for the price of a single admission, and with the fantastic weather and cheap drinks on offer, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience simply sitting on the warm steps and casually watching. I recalled reading an interview with youth coach Pavl Williams on Tom Williams’ (no relation) excellent blog, where he said (excuse the long quote):

“Spain, Italy and France have all won World Cups in the last 15 years and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that these countries have more community-focused sport programmes than we do here. For example, I went to watch some junior teams in Catalonia last year and remarked on how smart the teams looked in their full matching kit and tracksuits (they were about nine years old). A friend of mine who lived in the area picked up on this and informed me that the boys all arrived on their own team bus, having been picked up from their deportivo in the middle of their town where hundreds of locals regularly turn up to watch them play. The boys weren’t playing at any sort of high standard, but the sports club was a symbol of pride for the local population and they backed it heavily. In turn the local government provides superb facilities including great playing surfaces and top coaching. This is all part of a national strategy for sport development that has a strong vision of how their football should be played.”

From only three hours sitting in the sun at the Sardenya, the family spirit around the stadium was obvious, and Europa hold a place in the local community that equivalent sized clubs in England can only dream of.

 Half time meant a chance for some kids to run around on the pitch

There were still some proper ultras, however. Europa (like many Spanish clubs) have a designated plonker who stands behind one of the goals and chants songs throughout the game through a tannoy (“Public address system. Tannoy is a brandname.” /Partridge). I say songs – often this seemed to descend into making noises in the vague tune of a classic chant, particularly the one to the tune of ‘Go West’ by the Pet Shop Boys. He was accompanied by a hardcore of about twelve, one of whom set off a ridiculously loud firecracker a mere thirty seconds after the minute’s silence had ended.


I’d never been to a non-league game abroad before, and was very impressed by the football on show. Not necessarily by the quality itself – there were wayward passes aplenty and some terrible set-pieces – but by the intention to play good football. Europa insisted on trying to play short goal-kicks from the back – there was never a desire to hit long balls, and an artificial surface (which was watered before both halves) kept the game flowing nicely.

The standout player was the Europa number six, Ivan Alvarez, who played in front of the back four and sprayed passes from flank to flank – kind of an amateur version of Xabi Alonso, though with the appearance of Daniele De Rossi.

 The ultras celebrate the first goal – firecracker man can be seen getting his matches out again in the top left

Europa raced into a 1-0 lead in the first few minutes, before Palamos went down to ten men later in the first period, which rather killed the game as a spectacle. There was still time for two more Europa goals, however – the second was superb, a long passing move worked its way like a rugby attack from left to right until the player at the far post, Remo, found himself in space. He brought the ball back inside, beat two players, before slotting a shot past the Pepe Reina lookalike in goal. By the time 90 minutes came, the game was long over as a contest – but, as the spectators remained in their seats or moved to the clubhouse, the day’s action at the Sardenya had only just begun.

Barcelona 2-1 Getafe (19:03:11)

I was one of 850 supporters at the Sardenya – the previous night at the Camp Nou, there were one hundred times more people around me, for Barcelona’s 2-1 win over Getafe.

I’d been told not to expect much of an atmosphere at the Nou Camp, that the ground was essentially another tourist stop these days – great against the top teams and for the derby against Espanyol, but soulless and quiet for the normal matches. Getafe falls into the category of a ‘normal’ opponent.

This was not a normal match for Barcelona fans, though. The previous Tuesday, French defender Eric Abidal received devastating news – doctors had found a tumor on his liver. As a result, this game was about Abidal – the fans flocked to the stadium to put up banners wishing him well, both sets players emerged from the tunnel wearing t-shirts saying ‘We love you, Abi’, and before the game a video was played of Abidal’s memorable moments in a Barca shirt. There was a solid three minutes of applause whilst this played, tears from some fans around us, obvious emotion from the players. Xavi told El Mundo Deportivo that hearing the news was the worst moment he’d experienced in his career, the lowest he’d seen a dressing room – and we can assume the rest of the playing squad felt the same. Abidal watched the match from his hospital bed across the city, having undergone an operation on Thursday – Barca, of course, wanted to win for him. This, I can assure you, was the very opposite of a ‘soulless’ sporting atmosphere.

The Camp Nou

The game itself was decent – Barcelona played great football but wasted too many chances, and Getafe got a late goal which caused panic around the stadium. We were sat in the right-back spot for the first half, so were in a good position to watch Dani Alves – though of course, he spent most of his time much higher up the pitch. I’ve outlined before how important Alves is to Barcelona, and sampling his pace and stamina from close quarters was great. He is nothing if not entertaining – within seconds of the start he committed a terrible late tackle on Getafe’s left winger and got himself booked, but midway through the first half he opened the scoring with an absolutely sensational swerving half-volley from 25 yards that flew into the top corner. It was an exceptional goal.

The main man, of course, was Lionel Messi. As someone who spends his time writing about tactics, I’m wary about talking too much about the football on the pitch in this piece. A large part of what makes EFW great is the detail about what happens off it – but I must make an exception for Messi, simply because he’s the best player I’ve ever seen play. You can rest assured that if I had encountered the best burger, pint glass, ticket stub, crowd chant or toilet roll holder I’ve ever seen, I’d discuss those too.

Messi took my breath away twice in the first half – first with a clever flicked pass by the corner flag, played by one foot, off another, into the path of his teammate, and then again with a Zidane-style pirouette to win the ball in a 50-50 challenge. On another two occasions he did things that were so good I laughed out loud – before half time he picked up the ball on the left of the box and dribbled all the way to the right looking for a pass. Seconds later he got the ball once more, and dribbled all the way back to the left again. In the second half, he won possession on the halfway line and was fouled at least twice on his way to goal, but managed to keep his balance and, even more amazingly, the ball.

Two things struck me about him physically. One, his amazing upper body strength which helps him hold off defenders and keep on running. In an age where so many attacking players are content to fall to the floor and buy a free kick, it’s brilliant to watch Messi relentlessly hold onto the ball, like a kid in the playground who knows there’s no referee to give a foul, and so has to play on. Secondly, a strange one – his ability to stop quickly. He can be running at full speed and then suddenly puts the brakes on, coming to a halt within two yards. Because of that, he gets to loose balls first, and his movement becomes even more difficult to pick up. He didn’t score, but he was wonderful. Ludicrously, in the newspaper Sport, a readers’ poll published on the Monday showed he only received 8% of votes as Barca’s best player. That only sums up how much is expected of him, as he was the best player on show by a distance.

The final relevant football trip in Barcelona was the journey up to Montjuic, a large hill in the south of the city. This area has considerable historic significance – most notably, the President of Catalunya, Lluis Companys, was executed at the castle by the Franco regime in 1940. Some 150 years earlier, the fortress at Montjuic was crucial in determining the length of the prototype metre – two French astronomers measured the distance from Dunkirk to Montjuic (the two are on the same longitude), and the ‘metre’ was decided as being one ten-millionth of that distance. Remember this – it will come up in a pub quiz one day…

The Olympic Stadium

Companys was commemorated by having the stadium at the top of the hill named after him, which was used by RCD Espanyol, the city’s ‘second’ football club, from 1997 to 2009. It’s more famous for being the main stadium in the 1992 Olympics, though, and you’ll probably recognise the part of the stadium that holds the Olympic torch – famously lit by an Olympian archer firing an arrow into it in the opening ceremony.

The Olympic torch

The surrounding area formed the main Olympic Park for the 1992 games. It’s a strange, mysterious, slightly eerie complex. The Olympic Stadium sits at the top of the hill as the centre point, and is in decent shape - good enough to have hosted last year’s European Athletics Championships, in fact. Down the hill is the Palau Saint Jordi, which hosted the gymnastics, volleyball and handball events nineteen years ago, and now is an O2-style multipurpose venue, most frequently used for concerts. Across from that are the Piscines Bernat Picornell – an outdoor pool which appears abandoned, and an indoor pool which I thought was the same, until I saw three fully nude old men sitting on the side of the largest pool. I didn’t take photos.

There’s also an Olympic Museum up there (though it was closed when we went, on the Sunday), and a large plaque recalling the years when the Spanish Grand Prix was held on a Montjuic Street Circuit – which looked a bloody brilliant track, but bloody dangerous too – two-time Emerson Fittipaldi withdrew from the 1975 event because of safety concerns, and he was sadly provided right, as five spectators died following a huge crash. The race never returned to Montjuic.

The old Grand Prix circuit

It’s a fascinating place to visit, but as a Londoner visiting an expensively-assembled but largely desolate Olympic Park, it does make you worry…

West Ham fans would be interested in Espanyol’s decision to move away from the Companys, too. It says a lot about football that the stadium is considered fit for European athletics’ most prestigious event, but not good enough for a mid-table club with modest ambitions. The stadium has a certain charm about it, but the running track and inaccessible location mean it’s simply not a football stadium. 20,000 people in a 55,000 stadium looked terrible.

Espanyol now play at the Cornellà-El Prat, a proper football stadium located outside the city, not far from the main airport. The supporters are much closer to the pitch and much more numerous. Everyone’s happy. The one shame is that the new stadium has not been named after Dani Jarque, the Espanyol captain who suddenly died of a heart attack aged 26, in the same month the club played their first game at the new ground.

I hardly need to tell you that Barcelona is a fabulous city – fantastic architecture, famous museums, great food. Most of what I got up to can be found in your standard guide book. However, as a British male, and therefore seeing any foreign landform as something of a challenge, I’d recommend climbing up Mount Tibatabo, previously only known to me because it was part of a joke in an episode of Friends. It’s to the north of the city, and most people get up there by taking a tram and then a ‘funicular’ (a type of shuttle train), but if you like a mildly challenging climb, give it a go.

I couldn't find any instructions about how to get up there on foot on the whole internet, so here's a quick guide - take the Metro to Penitents, and cross the main road onto the Carreterra de Sant Cugat, the mountain road. Head up that for about 20 minutes, past a road on your right and past a couple of abandoned-looking restaurants on your left, then take a path on the left, which runs past an old house on your right. Continue upon that path until you get to a road, and when a sign points you turn right and join the mountain road, carry on along the path to the left of centre, which takes you directly to the top.

The ground is occasionally very steep and unstable, so wearing walking boots is very important - and the path was completely deserted from the bottom to the top, so probably not best to do it alone, It took about 90 minutes from the Metro to the summit.

At the top is, bizarrely, an almost completely empty theme park - the oldest amusement park in Spain, apparently, and seemingly retaining most of the original rides.

Dominoes and dice on a game of chess? This is what happens when you bring up a generation with those '99 board games in one' sets

The park isn't worth bothering with, but the beautiful church, the Sagrat Cor, certainly is. Slightly strangely, you can get a lift to the top - and then after climbing some spiral steps, you reach the highest point for mile around - and all your climbing is rewarded with this stunning view over Barcelona...

We drifted somewhat from football here, so to round this report off, here's a picture of the Olympic Stadium (just right of centre, near the coast) and the Nou Camp (dead centre) from the top of the Sagrat Cor..

Most people I've spoken to seem to have been to Barcelona already - if you haven't, I'd fully recommend it.

You can follow both Michael Cox and European Football Weekends on Twitter

Michael is the genius behind the football tactics website Zonal Marking. You can also catch him on the Football Weekly podcast and if you do Facebook - he's on there as well. (And so are we - Ed).

Like this? You might also like Juliet Jacques on Marseille v PSG

- Feel free to comment below - 


Chaz NYC said...

A wonderful dreamy report, the perfect homage to Barcelona … I wasted my visits there stalking indifferent women on the Ramblas…I especially liked your expert enthusiasm for Mr Messi…Strange as it may sound, sometimes it seems that Leo doesn’t get the props he deserves…Then again, I don’t read the Spanish press…Next time in Barcelona, I want to make the climb to that surreal amusement park…Nice work!

dollymix said...

Great piece but I have to quibble - "Go West" is actually by the Village People, the Pet Shop Boys covered it.