Saturday, September 29, 2012

The day I watched Messi at the Camp Nou

This was how my Spain trip began. With the question, "How awesome would it be to see Messi live at the Camp Nou?" All the rest - the fact that Europe is easy to get around for an inexperienced traveller, that Spanish is easier for an Indian to learn than other European languages, and that Buñuel and Almodóvar are my favourite filmmakers - they were window-dressing. In the end, I just wanted to see a 100,000 Catalans roar their beloved FC Barcelona on and led by their talismanic Argentine.

The stadium is only half an hour or so from the hotel I stayed in and, like the rest of the city, well connected by bus and the metro. It is the largest stadium in Europe, with a seating capacity of a little over 99,000. (In the days before UEFA banned standing sections, the capacity was over 120,000.) But the stadium does not seem to be this big from the outside. I had heard comments that the stadium is a little old and that it could do with a few licks of paints here and there. That must be relatively speaking because what I saw was a sleek, good-looking building with bright, multi-coloured seating inside that makes for interesting viewing when it is empty. (I got there well in time - the only time in my Spain trip so far that I haven't reached somewhere with seconds to spare - and so got to see the stadium relatively empty.)

The game was against Granada, not one of the top teams in La Liga, and so I could afford to pay for the seat with the best view in the stadium: the middle tier, next to the corner flag, came the answer when I asked the more knowledgeable folks around. And that's the seat I got. Everyone around me seemed seated with hotdogs and coke and so I did the same. I was all set for the match. There was still over a half hour for kick-off, but a roar all of a sudden signalled the Barcelona goalkeepers stepping on to the pitch for practice. A while later another roar signalled the appearance of the rest of the team. To my delight, Messi chose a spot close to where I was sitting, and he spent much of the session pinging the ball to and fro with Dani Alves.

Close to the kick-off, they announced the players for both the teams. Xavi was on the bench and Iniesta was out injured. On top of that, their captain Puyol, his partner in central defense, Pique, and left back Jordi Alba were also missing due to injury. I was bitterly disappointed, particularly at Iniesta's non-participation. He is an impossibly elegant dribbler, the V.V.S. Laxman of football and, just like the cricketer, fitness is not his strength. Gets injured way too often. Someone at Barcelona needs to look into this seriously. You think I can afford to fly to Spain every other month? Anyway, every Barça player's name was cheered, with the loudest reserved for Villa and Messi, and every Granada player's name was whistled with equal gusto.

The game kicked off and I still couldn't believe that I was actually in the Camp Nou, a few yards away from Leo Messi. For companions, I had these English fans just behind me who kept up a running commentary through the game. Every player on view reminded them of some other player from the EPL. And I had an elderly gent, presumably Catalan, sitting in front of me, who reminded me very much of my grandfather watching cricket. Since not many of you may have seen my grandfather watching cricket, it goes like this: if you were on the lookout for a coach, and you saw him unoccupied, you would instantly offer him the job - unless a player pulls something absolutely magical out of the bag, there is always something he could've done better, and the elderly fan in front of me wasn't afraid to voice his opinions. Sandwiched between the two lots, I didn't have any trouble whatsoever following the game.

Granada played a game as impregnable as the Alhambra and Barcelona looked listless in the first half. Maybe that had something to do with the fact that so many of the regular first-teamers were not playing. Oh, one other thing. Don't expect any insightful analysis of the game here. I'm sorry if you read all these paragraphs hoping for that, but I'm not really a football fan. I just love watching Barcelona and Messi play. Think of me as a man who loves watching the Sun set, but couldn't be bothered with learning the equations for nuclear fusion and optics. I'd been hoping, though, that with a full view of the pitch at my disposal, I would finally understand what people go on about when they talk of 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formations. But sadly, no. All I saw was a mob surrounding the ball wherever it fell.

As far as the atmosphere in the stadium was concerned, it was electric. The stadium was nearly full and they kept chanting that song of theirs that goes "being a Barça fan is the best there is." The bunch behind the goal was the most boisterous with their drums and most chants started from there. But I tell you, they are a demanding lot. Barcelona keep possession three-fourths of the time, but lose possession for even a few seconds and the whistling starts. The slightest of mistakes by their players is met with exasperation and plenty of advice. The only one exempted being Messi, and, when he came on later in the second half, Xavi Hernandez.

Speaking of Messi, this must have been a relative off day. I mean, he was still glorious to watch and most of Barcelona's attacking play came through him, but he seemed rather grumpy - having a go at one or two teammates a couple of times - gave the ball away a fair bit, and didn't seem to move as much as the rest of his teammates off the ball. But the thing about him is, he seems to be standing off on one side, all bored with life in general, when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the afterburners switch on and he is a blur against the grass. One second, he's loitering listlessly away from all the action, and the next second Scotty's beamed him down near the 6-yard box, bearing down on a terrified goalkeeper at full pelt. In any case, whether he was below par or not, the crowd had not one reproach to offer Messi, no matter what he did.

Going back to the crowd, as a rule, Spanish people are a really friendly, polite and patient lot. You could walk up to a stranger and ask for some help, and he or she'd spend the next five minutes trying to make sure you got what you were looking for. But put them in a football stadium and they grow horns and the fangs come out. Every Granada player who wasted time or went down under a challenge was mercilessly barracked. And the referee, who did not give in to a number of penalty claims from Barcelona, was also castigated very loudly. It was all non-verbal, though - at least I could hear nothing apart from the whistling, the groans and the angry exclamations.

At half time, there was a performance of the sardana around the Catalan flag. Do follow the link. The video's shot from very low down and is jerky, but the music is haunting.

After half time, Barcelona attacked Granada with much more gusto than in the first half. Unfortunately, the Granada goal was now at the other end of the field, and it was hard to see with as much detail as during the first half. A goal seemed inevitable, but it just did not come. Either through plucky, last-ditch defending by Granada, or through Barça wastefulness in front of goal. Then Xavi was introduced and the roar in the stadium had to be heard to be believed.

Barça continued their siege of the Granada goal, but the goal still eluded them. In fact, on a couple of occasions, so all out was the Barça attack that Granada were given a couple of chances themselves - including a one-on-one against Victor Valdes that he somehow blocked. The minutes ticked by and the desperation in the stadium grew. The Granada manager was dancing about frenetically in his technical area. The crowd started getting louder and louder, with the chants egging Barça on reaching fever point. The tension was unbelievable. The only calm man in the whole stadium was Tito Vilanova, the Barça coach, who stood quietly by the touchline, like a man studying a painting in a museum.

And then, in the 87th minute, with just 4 minutes remaining on the clock, Xavi powered home a shot from outside the penalty area. The roof fell off. Everyone was on their feet waving and cheering, and Messi shook the net with uncharacteristic emotion. The match was won. But not before Messi ran at the defence one last time during injury time and seemed to produce a goal from an impossible angle. I was over the moon. I'd watched Messi score a goal at the Camp Nou! Later on, though, I found out that the angle was indeed impossible - his cross was turned into the net by a Granada defender.

All the same, I'm glad I scheduled my trip (this meant waiting for the Spanish federation to release the La Liga schedule, which they did just a month before my trip - leaving the travel tickets, hotel bookings and visa application impossibly late) to make sure I'd be in Barcelona for the match. And it was especially nice that it wasn't a massacre. For if it had been, I wouldn't have been able to experience those last 10 minutes. There is no way I can completely describe the tension and the sheer electricity of all those tens of thousands of people willing their team on with every last bit of telekinetic power in them. And then those few moments just after their impossibly late first goal.

But in the end, it still remains the day I finally saw Messi live at the Camp Nou...

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