Barcelona FC: Catalonians against the world

My first ever travel piece. I could have written about many things on my trip to Spain but I figured an experience at a soccer game would be the most compelling, especially since Barcelona FC has made the Champions League Final.

By Jesse Ferreras

The walk to Camp Nou stadium is less a stroll than a pilgrimage.

Walking to the massive stadium at the Universitat de Barcelona, you find yourself ducking in and around a sea of red, blue and yellow, a legion of fans here to bow at the altar of Barcelona FC, football’s greatest club.

It is May 9, 2011, and I’ve been in Barcelona for four days. I’ve seen sights like Sagrada Familia, the city’s iconic cathedral, as well as magic fountains, beaches and architecture standing there since the early 1900s.

Before coming here I worried about being confined to tourist traps. I wanted a glimpse of the real Barcelona, and what better way than to go to a soccer game featuring the best players and the world’s most passionate fans? Camp Nou is their home; Barcelona FC is the team.

About a month before my departure we booked tickets to a game against RCD Espanyol, the latest in what’s known as the “Barcelona Derby,” a series of matches between these two clubs. Barcelona, now at the top of the Spanish League, won in their last meeting and there’s little doubt they’ll do it again.

“More than a club” is how Barcelona FC describes itself, and there doesn’t exist a more accurate descriptor. Founded in 1899 by Swiss entrepreneur Hans (Joan) Gamper, it has since evolved into a nationalist symbol for Spain’s Catalonian region.

In 1899, Gamper put an ad in a newspaper seeking “anyone who feels enthusiastic enough” about the sport to meet at the paper’s offices any Tuesday or Friday.

From there 11 players met at the Gimnasio Sole and founded Foot-ball Club Barcelona. It would share a coat of arms with the City of Barcelona, demonstrating a commitment to the city, and its colours would be blue and claret.

Once a symbol for the city, it has become a proud symbol of the country’s Catalonian region, where Barcelona resides, and a focal point for distinction from the “Spanish” identity.

At a game in 1925, during the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, fans jeered the Spanish national anthem. Rivera, a supporter of rival team Real Madrid, shut down the old Les Corts stadium for six months and forced Gamper to give up his presidency of the club.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, pitting Republican forces against a group of conservative generals led by Francisco Franco, several Barca players joined a war of independence to keep “Spain” from eclipsing a distinct cultural identity. Later on, the dictator Franco would ban the flying of the Catalonian flag altogether.

In the succeeding years the club continued to compete aggressively as it increasingly became a symbol of Catalonian nationalism. In 1951, crowds leaving a match refused to catch any trams in the midst of a transit strike. The strike drew many Barca fans to its ranks, garnering the club a reputation as a defender of rights and freedoms.

In 2011, the team is recognized as much for its nationalism as its competitive success. By the time I arrive in Barcelona it has already beaten archrivals Real Madrid five games to nothing in a season series. They take the league title while I’m still there, eclipsing nearest rivals Madrid by four points. They qualify for the Champions League final, playing Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on May 28.

Superstar players like Spaniards David Villa, Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernandez contribute to their success. So too does Argentinian forward Lionel Messi, widely regarded as the world’s best footballer.

I’m a total fraud when I go to the game. I know the names Xavi and Messi. I know a yellow card is a warning and a red card an ejection from the game. I ask a local sitting next to me whether Cameroonian star Samuel Eto’o is playing. Turns out he’s played for Inter Milan since 2009. I might as well have asked if Pele was playing.

The game is bookended by an anthem and just about everyone knows the words. At 90,000 people, the game hasn’t quite sold out but it’s a spirited group nonetheless.

They derive their energy from a single section behind the Espanyol goal. Waving Catalonian flags, that section is on its feet the entire game, leading a massive crowd in just about every cheer the whole time. You must have to audition to sit there.

Messi moves his legs about as fast as the Roadrunner, absolutely ripping through Espanyol’s defenders but he never scores. He seems a gentlemanly player. Knocked down, the crowd protests when there’s no yellow card, but Messi doesn’t. He just gets up and takes his shot.

Goals come from Andres Iniesta, who scored the winning goal to garner Spain the 2010 World Cup, as well as Gerard Pique, a central defender.

Barcelona FC wins 2-0 and the crowd is jubilant. They swarm the streets outside Camp Nou trying to get home and it just isn’t worth it to catch a subway near here.

With swagger in their steps they saunter home, confident in the ability of their team to win the league and the Champions League thereafter.

As I duck in and around the crowd back to my hotel I’m confident of one thing: Barcelona FC is more than a club. It’s a nation.

More information

If you happen to be in Spain and you want to attend a game yourself, go to http://www.barcelona-football-tickets.com.

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About jesseferreras

Sea to Sky-based journalist. Snowboarder, cyclist, cinephile, bon vivant.
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