I realize this is an English soccer blog, and I realize — especially because my trip there was sandwiched between games at Luton Town and Oldham Athletic — that Barcelona is emphatically not in England.
But I am going to share a little bit about my Spanish side trip, because I assume you enjoy some combination of soccer and travel. And if either of those is true, you should really head off to Barcelona for a game. And for Barcelona.
In fact, this fits into an English soccer discussion because quick and cheap access to the rest of Europe is one of the greatest things about living in, or traveling to, England.
You can skip ahead to the stadium tour and game at FC Barcelona here.
The Glories of European Travel
Consider: On a recent Tuesday night I was in Luton, 30 train minutes north of central London, seeing Luton Town FC win a game in a ground not so much lifted from the 1970s as left there. It is a glorious, bizarre dump which I can’t wait to go back to — although next time I will get a seat without a floodlight tower in front of it.
The next morning I was up early, took about a $10 taxi ride to the airport, and used a $125 EasyJet ticket to fly less than two hours to Barcelona. About $40 of that fare, by the way, was to ensure an aisle seat up front with early boarding and room for my carry-on. I’ve gotten soft that way
And just like that, after dinner in near-freezing Luton, I was having lunch and a cafe cortado in the medieval quarter of Barcelona. And it was about 65 degrees.
I won’t bother with any kind of travel guide to Barcelona, except to say it’s everything you’ve probably heard. I was there in late November, so the crowds weren’t bad. In addition to the airfare, I paid $15 for a roundtrip bus into the city, another $15 to ride the metro for two days, about $100 for a perfectly nice hotel room in the old part of the city, and about that much again twice, for a guided tour of the FC Barcelona stadium and for a walking history, architecture and tapas tour one evening. So it’s not a (total) bank-breaker once you get there, and you could definitely spend even less than I did.
So I walked, and I ate, I gawked, I flailed at Spanish, and I took pictures. Here’s a gallery from the city visit; click on the first one to start scrolling through, and the captions will describe things for you. We’ll get to the game at FC Barcelona down below.
A Game and a Stadium Tour at FC Barcelona
Barcelona is, of course, one of the biggest clubs in the history of football. They like to say they are mes que un club, or “more than a club,” but to me they were more like a club than most of the “clubs” I’ve been to. That is, while they aren’t by any means a simple outfit, they are in fact owned by the fans and run by a president who is elected every five years.
And seeing a game there is quite old-fashioned, the 99,000 seats and six-time World Player of the Year not withstanding. It’s just a big concrete bowl of a stadium, with plastic seats and a tiny video screen way up high at each end, on which they play goofy shit like the camera panning over the crowd with congo drums on the screen, so people see themselves up there and then try to “bang” on the drums. One of the clocks in the stadium showed the wrong time by about 25 minutes, and there were swallows flying around throughout the game. And it was the only stadium tour I’ve ever been on that did not include the sanctum santorum of the home dressing room.
In fact, the name of the stadium is perfect for them. They built it in the 1950s and wanted to name it for local Catalan hero, but Franco wouldn’t let them, so they just settled on they had been calling it to that point. “Camp Nou” translates to “new field.”
Here are the teams coming out to the club anthem:
There is no on-field nonsense at halftime, no mascot, and not much in the way of music blaring. The home players came out to warm up to AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” and there’s a very old-fashioned anthem they all kind of sing, especially the bit at the end where they all yell “Barca! Barca! Barrrr-CA!”
Of course, what’s on the field is epic. I am not much of a “bucket list” guy, but at least I can say I saw Messi score at the Camp Nou. So too Suarez and Greizmann in a 3-1 win over Borussia Dortmund.
My really good seat came through my broker at about $300, but I am told that tickets are generally available. If you take the usual factors of who they are playing and when — in other words, Getafe on a Tuesday is a different animal from Real Madrid on a Sunday — and then expand the total number of the seats to “the most in Europe,” you get the idea.
The tour was great, as well. It’s all self-guided, but there are guides available just inside the turnstiles. What I did, though, was book a tour with Camp Nou Visit; they are a local company whose guides are all working journalists who cover the club and sport. They know their stuff, and having access to that knowledge, history, stories and charm added layers I would have missed entirely.
Just a few things that came out of the tour and the game.
- The flag-wavers behind the goal are at least three separate supporters groups, two of whom reside on opposite ends of the political spectrum. So when most of the stadium is singing some Catalan independence song, one end of the “ultras” goes quiet.
- It’s the third-most visited tourist place in Spain, behind the Prado and the Alhambra, and the tour alone generates … wait for it … 56 million Euros per season.
- The statue of legend Johann Cruyff outside was built by the current president just a few years ago — right before a club election. Because it never hurts to honor a legend right before you face the voters.
- When Messi scores, they all just chant his name and do their arms in the “bow down before your Lord pose.” A little awkward for me.
- Messi and Suarez are apparently best pals, practically live together, and they had a little one-on-one kick-around before the game. That’s about a billion dollars worth of footballer right there.
- The game I went to started at 9 pm, which apparently is pretty common. They once played one at midnight because the opposing club wanted to change the date, the association said no, so they kept the date but played at 12:01.
- Away fans sit about 3,000 feet above the field. Okay, a slight exaggeration, but they are in the top corner of a 99,000-seat stadium, behind glass. Seeing (usually not many of) them up there is the one thing that reminds me more of MLS than anything in England.
- In England, when somebody scores, everyone yells “Yeah!” In Barcelona, they yell “Goal!” It sounds completely different. Listen for it on TV sometime.
- I was there for a Champions League game, so there was no beer served in the stadium and all the usual sponsors had to be covered up. The next day they were taking down big EUFA signs to reveal, mostly, Nike swooshes.
- The club store is a triple-level hallucinogenic immersion experience. Tottenham’s may be bigger, but this thing puts it to shame