Saturday, March 15, 2014


Balon. Meta. All you need to know.

We have come in our thousands to stand before yet another high altar of world football. We throng the tree-lined precincts of the Ramblas and Plaza Real with its gothic arches and extravagant Gaudi lamp posts. We cluster in expectant groups and drink in the sights, drink in the Volldam, the Cruzcampo, the Estreladam, drink in the wonderful warm sunlight. Cans litter the pavements where petals once fell. An Estreladam lorry trundles gently up the middle of the square just in case of emergencies. Plastic beach balls are kicked in to the majestic palm trees and flags announce our arrival from every pillar and post. Cafés disgorge aromas of freshly fried squid and great thighs of Serrano ham hang enticingly from every beam. We line their streets in our sweat stained polyester leisurewear where a thousand and one wool-clad hipsters have stalked moodily in their Pedro del Horno button downs. We fill their well-heeled alleys and terraces with the confident calls of Gorton and Collyhurst, Prestwich and Bury where the guttural shouts of Catalan and normally resonate. We drape little corners of this red and yellow striped city with the sky blue favours and prepare our gallows humour for the inevitable disappointment. A pasting? An embarrassment? A let-down? A near miss or a hard luck story? Few and far between are the voices expressing certainty of a two goal win and those that whisper it also slur it. 

Where some decide it is warm enough to have a swim in the hotel’s roof pool (a rectangle of icy water, seven feet by nine feet briefly houses three grown men who should have known quite a lot better. The icy surface is only broken by several ill-timed and haphazardly constructed bellyflops), the rest of us make do with sunglasses and a read of the paper in the gentle spring temperatures of a city coming quickly into bloom.

Gaudi's lamp posts: droopy
Expectations get the better of us amongst the heaving mass of humanity edging its way up the Diagonal to the stadium. We, the scruffy mongrels, filled up on chick peas and pork and Catalan creme brulée are on our unsteady way to the Nou Camp for another kind of feast.  

Outside the giant cliff face of Barcelona’s mythical home, quite a scene is developing as nearly 87,000 people make a concerted effort to gain entry to the same building. The ticket that has been in and out of my pocket all day, just to make sure it hasn’t melted or departed through a new method of osmosis through my pocket and out into the atmosphere, states somewhat precisely General 3 Graderia, Acces 19, Boca 533, Fila 0027, sient 0016. Even with a slow to stationary grasp of Catalan, I am onto it. Happily it also states “only for the visiting supporters”, which makes one feel kind of special.

Just how special Barcelona find us is to be revealed once we have climbed to the top of the mountain.

Do Michel Platini and his band of besuited canapé crunchers, being feted, wined and dined somewhere in the bowels of this cavernous stadium, know how far some of us have had to walk to get to our sients? And all uphill at that! Images of his face come to me, munching languidly on some thinly sliced salmon marinated in the juices of a million cadis fly larvae, as we haul our miserable corpses ever upwards. Only the secure knowledge that we are about to witness one of the crowning moments in City’s history drives us ever onward into the mists of a darkening Catalan night.

The Travessa de Les Corts, once jam packed with taxis, tooting cars and impatient pedestrians, all converging on the citadel, by now lies miles below us, its traffic thinning, its population emptying into the big building with the tall sides. The last flight of stairs becomes onerous and slow, as lungs fail and a queue forms to get back out into the open air. A steward appears, jolly of face, dapper of bib, to wave us on. “Go, vale, vale!” he shouts and gestures that it would be wise if we continue to climb to a section that appears to be full already. All those little numbers printed carefully onto our tickets suddenly mean nothing. Nothing at all. It is like boarding the late Ryanair from Magaluf, but with 5,500 other happy souls who have been at the trolley service all day.

Our sometimes jovial, sometimes serious, but mostly tremendously apprehensive steward, silently
From behind the nets "ripped by City fans"
mouthing entreaties to the Gods of the Sagrada Familia who have placed him here tonight as Barcelona’s sole representative before a rabble of English that will almost certainly riot at the drop of a hat, has bought into the theory that most of us have arrived unwashed and unreconstructed on a charter flight direct from 1983. Looking at us, you can see the area for confusion.

Possessing only Catalan, Spanish and a rudimentary ability to wave his arms, he tells late arrivals to keep on going. We are facing the heavens. We are just under the clouds. There are no allocated seats. My Boca 533 is correct enough, but the rest is as rooted in reality as Monsieur Lannoy’s grasp of a good tackle is about to be. People are just being waved forward and upwards into already packed stands. Bewildered, frightened and in a hurry, the gangways are filling with fans too. Heated words are exchanged between folk who know no Spanish and bibbed representatives of Barcelona who know no English.

When we finally manage to turn to face the other way, the temple reveals itself in glorious technicolour. Only there is a hitch here too. For, we will be the only fans to be afforded the same view you would have watching migrating wildebeest from a helicopter, through a thick camouflage tent. Pockets of City fans are beginning to make
Where the special funds are kept
themselves heard further below in the home sections. Three of our happy band –we already know- are at the other end of the stadium with other optimists, who had bought tickets on the Ramblas in the morning.

** Note to FC Barcelona: wonder if those in the know might want to put some of that Neymar leftover fund into shoring up the old edifice a little and perhaps paying for some English classes for Apprehensive Rùben and his jittery mates in bibs.

But there is no time for trifles like this. The teams are entering the surface to a mass of plastic red and yellow flags. The Barcelona anthem strikes up. It will be days before the dry little military ditty exits my head. As the sides line up the first swell of Blue Moon heaves out over the night sky. We are so high up, this probably doesn't even register to the folks back home, but the tightly packed City curva is in tremendous voice. The home fans will manage two more flag waving bursts after each goal and the occasional roll of tickled applause. I am struck by a lack of passion in the ground. They have seen it all before, I guess. One Champions League knock-out round morphs seemlessly into another and so on until the world stops turning.

The next day reasons for this are revealed. The little red and yellow flags are everywhere. In the old town, at the cathedral, on the Ramblas, at Plaza Catalunya and each one is neatly rolled up and poking from the back of a foreign tourist’s rucksack. Here lies the future and it is wrapped in canvas and speaking Swedish. 

"Is that Messi there...the smallish one?"
I digress. The action has started. City manager Pellegrini is up in the Gods for talking too much (only the dios know what he will say after this one), whilst Gerardo Martino, embattled and possessing the suave good looks of a bus driver coming off the late shift in Asunción, prowls the touchline alongside the thin fellow who assists our manager. Make no mistake, Barcelona are far from past it. Tales of their impending demise have been somewhat exaggerated. Whilst the morning press and its possessed by the Gods headlines are predictably over the top, there still remains enough class to make this Barcelona vintage a tough one to uncork. They still swarm at you with their short passes. They still overwhelm with their quick thinking. They still grind you into making mistakes in dangerous areas of the pitch. Most importantly, they still have an innate ability to be knocked from their feet by the slightest zephyr of breeze and make it look like Hurricane Hadley is in town. Our French stand-up, Monsieur Tannoy (shout it loud) is convinced and proceeds towards refereeing nirvana with his golden whistle and his warped sense of fair play.

Packed at the front, dishevelled at the back
City, hardly the underdog these days, hold on for dear life. An increasingly dogged, brave display begins to grow on us. Not cowed, not pressed back, City are winning corners and keeping possession. Against the owners of the ball. Chances come and go. Lescott upends Messi but the referee is busy filing his nails. Joleon’s trusty old legs are whirring as fast as they can, but every time he slides one in, the little Argentine has just departed. City go toe to toe and do not give an inch.

Again, as in the first leg, we are treated to a referee seemingly starstruck and whistling gleefully whenever Barcelona players go to ground (and boy do they go to ground). At one stage Iniesta lands on the turf, dispatched by an ordinary enough tackle, and lies in a diagonal mess with one arm stiff and in the air, like a board hard corpse. Whilst many of the Catalan newspapers and sections of the English press dismiss City’s efforts as puny, the wall of support from upon high suggests a different point of view. Referee Tannoy dismisses Zabaleta for asking for his penalty back. Messi does his famous little feint and dink routine. All is going round. Kompany digs an equaliser and the brattish Dani Alves immediately skips in for 2-1. Barça are not dead. Not yet. The press, who have murdered them all week, now flush up with hyperbole. It is all about dios and pasión. We have seen great players play well, but we have seen little or no passion. A place swollen on history and self-importance, pumped by thousands of tourists and half-believers does not easily make for pasión. It is already happening at the Etihad. This is the cult of the super clubs.

Amadeu arrives at Plaza Real
City are out of the Champions League, but have acquitted themselves admirably to what had always seemed a gigantic task.

Now they must lick their wounds and prepare to swap the sun-kissed Ramblas for the sobering surrounds of Humberside. Wigan-Barcelona-Hull in the space of a week. Time travelling at its best. Whilst the quality of opposition will not be nearly as intimidating, those heading to Hull can at least rest assured their accomodation will be safe and comfortable, their seats appropriately numbered and their “matchday experience” will mirror the standards expected of stadia in the 21st century. Michel Platini will not be in Hull on Saturday, but he will no doubt be fascinated to learn that even the biggest of European giants can still, it seems, learn some valuable lessons from their smaller brethren, if what the powers that be have turned into a “consumer experience” wishes to live up to its lofty and these days not inexpensive tag.

"Negative point: Manchester City fans again ripped the netting protecting the away section..." Mundo Deportivo

Those That Are Alive (When They Want To Be)   "Those that are dead are City." ... "Messi and Andrés assassinated them..." - Sport

"Nasri.timid. Lescott. Insufficient. Dzeko. Man of the Match."

"Gods return the faith to Nou Camp"  -  Sport

"Impressive support and passion for the team...." - Mundo Deportivo

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