Friday, 26 August 2011

Barcelona v Napoli

And now… Camp Nou

Barcelona 5-0 Napoli (22:08:10)

I’m guessing that, for many of us, FC Barcelona and Camp Nou was the beginning of the dream: the dream of continental football adventures, the first foreign stadium on our ‘to visit’ list should we ever save up enough pocket money to get beyond Croxley Green on the bus, writes Nick Davidson. The reasons for this obsession will vary according to age but could include: Kubala, Cruyff, Neeskens, Schuster, El Tel, Archibald, Lineker, Laudrup, Stoichkov, Guardiola, Romário, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi. Or maybe you’d been inspired by the role the club played as a symbol for Catalan resistance during the Franco regime, or were mesmerized by Jimmy Burn's incredible club biopic Barça – A People’s Passion. Or like me, perhaps, your interest was pricked by those cheap, counterfeit Barcelona shirts that hung tantalizingly out-of-reach at the back of every tourist shop on the Costa Brava in the early 1980s. Yep, it was spotting those exotic replica shirts on a cheap package holiday to sunny Spain that first alerted me to Barça – although, I never did have enough spending money to buy one.

Anyway, back to the present. It’s not often that both authors of Modern Football is Rubbish get to attend games together, so when Shaun announced that he was in Spain on a family holiday towards the end of August and fancied a trip to Camp Nou, we began to hatch a plan. We scanned the La Liga fixture list, but Barça were away at Malaga on the weekend he was in the country – darn it. But hang on, what was this: Barcelona v Napoli at Camp Nou, in the 46th Joan Gamper Trophy on 22nd August? Could we be in luck? A quick bit research (nods, sagely in the general direction of Jimmy Burns) revealed that Joan Gamper should really have had pride of place at the head of our list of legends at the top of the page (fortunately the predictably lame, “sounds like they’ve named it after the tea lady,” jokes were dispensed with fairly early on,) combining, as he did, the role of founding father, player and, later, president of FC Barcelona. Sure, it wasn’t a league game, and they did have a league fixture the day before so chances were that most of the first team would be rested, but this was an opportunity to watch a game at Camp Nou! (I’d done the tour on a trip to the city 10-years previously, and although it’s impressive, it’s not the same as watching a game there.)

It is fair to say that, like the rest of the world, we’d been mesmerized by last season’s performances as the team marched to another La Liga & Champions League double, with the various demolitions of Real, and that night at Wembley (Eek, I’m going all Tyldesley) being the closest thing I’ve ever seen to football perfection. We’d talked about watching this Barcelona team at the top of the curve, before for whatever reason their powers started to wane. And with Pep Guardiola only signing those one-year contracts we had the feeling that we needed to act soon.

The Gamper had the added advantage of being the only fixture where season ticket holders don’t get first dibs at their tickets, meaning of a reasonable(ish) price of €56 we could bag central seats in the middle-tier, rather than sitting up in the clouds or paying a fortune through a third-party ticket agency. So, whilst Shaun sorted the tickets for us all, I busied myself in booking flights and a hotel for me, Kathryn and our two girls (fortunately, K didn’t need much persuading to re-visit Barcelona, grab a bit of sunshine, check on the progress of the Sagrada Família and immerse the girls a bit of Catalan culture.) Flights, hotel, tickets – sorted. We were all set.

As I said, we were all reasonably content with seeing a makeshift Barcelona side at Camp Nou – but then the strike happened. At first we were overjoyed, with no league fixture, Pep would surely give a run out to many of his established stars ahead of Friday’s European Super Cup fixture against Porto. But then, whispers (oh, alright, Tweets) started to emerge that the Napoli game would be off too. With the strike called between Friday and Monday, the teams weren’t even supposed to train, let alone take part in friendly matches. I spent a good couple of hours slumped on the sofa in a state of depression at the thought of getting so close to a match. But as our departure drew closer, things started looking up – despite a worrying lack of pre-match build-up on the official website – a statement released to the press by club vice president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, confirmed the match was going ahead. The Joan Gamper trophy, is not only the traditional curtain-raiser to the new season, but is also used to present the squad to the fans and this event simply couldn’t be re-scheduled. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Like a rogue Status Quo lyric, the game had been, ‘on and off, and on again’ but our Barcelona bridges were far from burned (sorry, it’s not often you can legitimately shoe-horn The Quo into a match report these days, it’s an act so foolhardy even the legendary Stuart Hall wouldn’t attempt it!)

So, we made it. The game was on and we were ensconced in our hotel which, apparently served as the headquarters of the republican youth movement, Joventut Radical Republicana at the beginning of the 20th century – the inside had been completely rebuilt but the façade did have an air of Catalonia grandeur about it (and you could see the Sagrada Família from the roof.) We managed to successfully rendez-vous with Shaun and the kids at the Plaça de Catalunya and had a leisurely stroll down Las Ramblas (on a state of high-alert against the pickpockets – despite the dire warnings, we didn’t spot any.) Then, Kathryn and my youngest daughter headed back to the hotel for a swim, while the rest of us (including my other daughter Bess – previous European football experience SC Freiburg v FC St Pauli last year) took the wonderfully air-conditioned metro to the stadium.

From the outside, Camp Nou doesn’t blow you away, but as I explained to a slightly under-whelmed Bess – wait to you get inside. Shaun had set aside ‘an hour minimum’ to peruse the club shop, little did we realize that it would take nearly that long to battle through the entrance and get near the replica shirt section – it was heaving. With named and numbered shirts flying out the door for nigh on €74 a pop – it wouldn’t take too long to pay of Cesc’s transfer fee? Due to the ticketing situation, this fixture appealed to the casual fan and tourists like us – perhaps, this was the reason the game was going ahead – the average spend in the club shop per spectator must be way above that of a regular league fixture. Anyway, Shaun’s son emerged with a Messi home shirt (good choice as it turns out!) and Bess was happy with a water bottle for her lunch box and a big postcard of a smiling Lionel Messi (are you spotting a theme?) Showing enormous self-restraint, I managed to avoid spending €44 on a beautiful clay model of Camp Nou (but it is my 40th coming up in November, hint, hint!)

Model stadium in a presentation box only €44, you say?

Club shop done, it was time to head towards the stadium. The gates hadn’t opened, but there were thousands of fans milling about outside. And, it was here that we had to face down a dilemma that every parent will know only too well – your offspring’s sudden and desperate need for the loo. The problem was that there were a grand total of four Portaloos serving, say, 4,000 people. The queue was huge. But we had no choice. So we stood. For about 35-minutes. Then just as we neared the front, we spied a decidedly drunk looking Napoli fan, hovering shiftily to the side of the queue. In a flash, as the door opened, he queue jumped and made a desperate lunge for the door. Now, I’ve been going to football for thirty years, and I’ve never once considered an act of aggression, but having made our – absolutely bursting kids – hold on for over half-an-hour, I was livid that this bloke had jumped in ahead of us, and so was the rest of the queue. One chap in front, mimed pushing the loo over with our ‘friend’ still inside it whilst others settled for a lot of gesticulating and shouting in Catalan. Our response? Rather than provoke an international incident, we opted for a very mean stare at the rest of his mates. Napoli Ultras or not, they looked pretty sheepish under the glare of an 8 and 11-year old girl and their dads. Fortunately, the other cubicles became free, and on our exit, the Napoli fans had disappeared into the crowd.

Toilet drama over, we finally made it inside. Phew, it was impressive! Our seats were fabulous, as Bess pointed out, my yellow one formed the top part of the ‘N’ on Mes Que Un Club. It was a pleasure to sit in the evening sunshine watching the stadium fill up. Pre-match entertainment consisted of the usual dance troupe, navigating their way around some giant inflatable balls, each depicting one of the club’s European Cup wins. This was followed by something akin to a 21-gun salute by men in traditional dress standing in both goalmouths, and the mysterious appearance of a piano in the middle of the pitch – perhaps Cesc was going to belt out some Barry Manilow by way of a homecoming? Now maybe, the excitement had got to me, but I can’t for the life of me remember what the piano was actually used for, and before I knew what was happening, Pep and the squad were being introduced to the crowd, one by one. Xavi, Puyol and Iniesta got pretty loud cheers, but the volume only really got turned up to eleven for Leo. If the roar didn’t get you, then you were certainly left reeling by the explosion of 78,000 flashbulbs.

Stupid hair? Yep. MFIR author 1: Nick at Camp Nou

Piano. Check. Now where's Cesc?

Slightly less stupid hair, MFIR author 2: Shaun at Camp Nou

At last the football got underway, the strike had done us something of a favour with Guardiola opting for a mixture of established stars and squad players in his line-up. Fabregas made his first start alongside the experience of Iniesta, Piqué, Keita and Villa. Of course, we were all a little disappointed there was no Messi, but we knew it would be unlikely, after all the lad needs a rest, he seems to play virtually every minute of every competitive fixture Barça play. Before long Fabregas had marked his full debut with a tap-in and then Keita made it 2-0 at the break. Poor old Napoli had looked well of the pace (Shaun was especially disappointed as Napoli are his FIFA team of choice, due to their adventurous 3-4-3 formation and wealth of attacking options.) We anticipated that Pep would ring the changes at half-time and contented ourselves that we might catch a glimpse of a future star in the making. True to form, aside from Villa swapping for Pedro, the half-time subs were mostly squad players. But then on 57 minutes, the noise level rose again. Who was that little figure striping out of his tracksuit? Another La Masia starlet? It couldn’t be Lionel, surely? It was indeed – a straight swap Messi for Fabregas. The flash-bulbs went ballistic and kids young and old, leapt from their seats in delight. World’s best player, right in front of us? Check.

Within five minutes Messi had made one goal and score one for himself. First, he crashed a free-kick against the bar which was then deftly nodded home by Pedro, then Pedro returned the favour providing a cross for Messi to turn home. There was still time for Messi to grab a second and make it 5-0 with a low shot across goal. Fabulous stuff, seemingly achieved without breaking sweat. Somewhere in the middle of all this, Napoli brought on the famous left-winger (cum centre-forward,) Cristiano Lucarelli, which pretty much completed a perfect evening for me (along with a timely text informing me of my beloved FC St Pauli’s 93rd minute winner against MSV Duisburg, which put us top of 2.Liga.)

Top tier seats from  9 filling up nicely.

Pretty decent sunset

It was another perfect Barcelona performance orchestrated by The Flea, the diminutive little chap who’s name and number is on the back of 100,000 shirts – including, no doubt, those hanging at the back of tourist shops all along the Costas. Bess summed it up astutely when she said, “he’s like a little magician.” I can’t really add to that.

With that, we legged it for the metro, whilst Shaun and family waited for their taxi back to their resort along the coast. We had two days left to explore the rest of Barcelona and we were going to enjoy it – my top-tip – if you find yourself in the city during July or August head up to the Piscina Municipal de Montjuïc, a swimming pool used for the diving during the 1992 Olympics. Today, it’s sadly neglected but offers a peaceful swim and the most amazing views of the city.

I’ve been lucky this year, ticking off the Westfalenstadion, Anfield and now, Camp Nou on my travels. Barcelona might be an obvious starting point for a European adventure, but it’s most definitely a worthwhile one. It’s not often you get to tick off: a team at the peak of it’s powers; a fabulous stadium; a beautiful city and the world’s greatest player – all in one weekend.

The Flea, not actual size.

Final score: Napoli handed Champions League warning.

The pool at Montjuic (also the location of Kylie's Slow video, pop pickers!)

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1 comment:

Nick Davidson said...

Worth noting (unless you're an Arsenal fan) Cesc now has three trophies from three games for Barca: Spanish Super Cup, Joan Gamper Trophy & European Super Cup... they'd better make sure he gets awarded the Man of the Match atrophy on Monday against Villareal, or he might throw a wobbly ;-)