Girl walks into a bar.
Girl to the bartender: Do you have a Coke?
Bartender: Where are you sitting?
Girl: Um, I’m just standing right here. [Only came to watch the game]
–Actual transcript of my first few seconds in a bar in Barcelona.
“As we make our way to Montserrat,” Adria says, “let’s talk about the one religion common to most, if not all, of Europe.”
I look at him and listen intently, wondering which religion he meant. Certainly, there were a lot of churches in Barcelona and we were in fact going to a Catholic monastery, but surely Christianity isn’t that widespread in Europe these days? As our van speeds up the highway and a complex of fields comes up on our right, Adria continues.
“I am talking, of course, about football.”
Cue the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper, the training grounds of FC Barcelona, arguably the best ( 😉 ) football club in the world.
Adria is quick to point out that FC Barcelona actually refers to more than just the football team. There’s a basketball team as well, and teams for handball and futsal and rugby, etc. They’re all called FC Barcelona and they all train in the same facility but the football club is undeniably the FC Barcelona.
“Is that Camp Nou?” I ask Adria, because he hasn’t actually mentioned the name of the training grounds. It’s not Camp Nou — but I reckon I may be forgiven for my mistake. Such is the popularity of Barcelona’s football club, nicknamed Barça, that even near-total football noobs such as myself have heard of their home stadium, if for no other reason than that a visit to Camp Nou invariably comes up in suggestions for what to do in Barcelona.
A slightly more clued in visitor will perhaps have heard of another name tightly attached to Barça: their legendary youth academy, La Masia. Even football GOAT Lionel Messi, who has Catalan heritage but was born in Argentina, completed his training at La Masia. In 2010, all three finalists for the Ballon d’Or were La Masia graduates: Messi, Xavi Hernández, and Andrés Iniesta. And people still remember the day when, for the first time, all eleven of the players on the pitch for Barcelona were products of the academy — a proof of concept, as it were, and a source of great pride. La Masia was originally based near Camp Nou but both the training and residential facilities are now within the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper.
Friend: You’re in Barcelona during a Clásico?! I’m so jealous!
Me: [googles “What is a Clásico”]
Iniesta’s Last Clásico
If football were a religion, Leo Messi would be a god in Barcelona, and the devil would be Real Madrid. The rivalry between the two teams, Barça and Real, is so fierce that any match between them even has a special name: El Clásico. I’d actually entertained the idea of catching a match whilst in Barcelona and had checked out tickets for the one on May 6th, only to be stunned and put off by the astronomical prices. No wonder though: it was a Clásico. And not just any Clásico: it was going to be Barça captain Andrés Iniesta‘s last Clásico.
If football were a religion, Messi would be a god, sure, but Iniesta would be an equally venerated and perhaps even more beloved saint. He is one of a small handful of Barça players who can get a standing ovation at Bernabéu, home stadium of eternal rivals Real Madrid, but then again, Iniesta gets standing ovations everywhere in Spain. Everyone loves him: not only because he is an utter magician at midfield; not even just because he scored a goal against Netherlands during extra time in 2010 to give Spain its first and so far only World Cup victory; but because he is also reportedly such a nice, humble person. If you aren’t an Iniesta devotee yet, I challenge you to read any of the eight million tributes written about him this past month and see if you can stay agnostic (impossible).
I did end up watching Iniesta’s last Clásico, albeit from a bar in a side street off La Rambla. I ordered a Coke and watched the match standing up, leaning against a wall. There were a lot of moments: alternating goals, a red card against Sergi Roberto leaving Barça a man short, and a handful of yellows, including an uncharacteristic one against Messi who appeared to be avenging a teammate. But perhaps the most rousing moment came when Iniesta was subbed out at the 58th minute, prompting both a standing ovation from the Camp Nou crowd and loud, heartfelt clapping from the people at my bar.
In true Iniesta fashion, he saved the shirt he wore that match and gave it to Spain teammate/Real Madrid rival captain Sergio Ramos.
Més Que Un Club
It’s hard to spend any amount of time in Barcelona without gaining, at the very least, an outsider’s appreciation for their football. Barça’s motto is “més que un club” — more than a club — and they are that. Many times throughout its history, the club has been a symbol of resistance and Catalan nationalism. Even now, the Clásico matches against Real Madrid have a subtle political undertone, reflecting the ongoing Catalan struggle for independence. And yet, while Barça sometimes stands for the fist raised in defiance, it is also capable of being the hand that links different persuasions.
So if Blaugrana (blue and garnet) fever infects you? Well, there are certainly worse, less rewarding woes in the world. Even now, sixteen days removed from Barcelona, I find myself keeping up with the latest club news. That head-scratching loss to Levante! Why, why, why?! More lump-in-throat tributes for Don Andres, keeping me up past midnight. Gràcies Andrés, #Infinit8Iniesta, all that. Hope against hope that Messi will finally win a World Cup for his home country (quite unlikely). Adding watching him play to my bucket list.
If football were a religion, I’m not exactly joining the church but I sure am enjoying the hymns.