Sunday, November 18, 2012

There is no decent place to stand in a massacre...

... but if a woman take your hand, go and stand with her. - Leonard Cohen

Barcelona versus Real Madrid.

In the Camp Nou.

I haven't stopped bragging about being at the match and I'm not likely to stop in the foreseeable future, either. You might as well get used to it.

Most things are more than what it says on the tin. Milk is not just something you add to coffee to make it taste better, but a prelude to a life of fame and achievement via faster brains, bigger muscles and so forth. A bottle of soda is not just carbonated water, but something that lets young over-achievers (bred on milk) brood on whether they've "made it large;" whilst wistfully thinking that if only alcohol advertisement were legal, they wouldn't look like such asses.

In the world of sport, if there were one game that is more than just a game, it would be El Clásico, between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. And that is because the two clubs in question are more than just football clubs. When Spain was under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, the success of Real Madrid gave the country and his regime a sheen that only sporting over-achievement could give. On the other hand, FC Barcelona from independence-minded Catalonia, with its echoes of resistance and democracy, represented much of what he hated.

To the Catalans, living in a time when their own language was banned and much of their culture was being suppressed, supporting Barça was one of the few legitimate means of expressing dissidence: in a stadium of over a 100,000 people, it's not so easy to police the language they speak, the flags they wave and the songs they sing. Culture and football don't often come together in the same sentence, but here was a football stadium being the last bastion of a culture under siege. I still find this last a little hard to believe - there seems only so much you can do in two hours a week: and that is including the time spent moaning about the referee - but I wasn't actually there and it's an evocative notion. If ever a club could claim to be a national team, it is Barcelona. And hence their motto: més que un club. More than a club.

The establishment club versus the separatist underdogs of Catalonia. That was, and in many ways continues to be, the image the rest of the world carried of the two. When Johan Cruyff signed for Barcelona, he declared that he chose them over Real because he did not want to play for a team associated with Franco. Not just that, in defiance of the rules then against registering traditional Catalan names, he named his son after their patron saint, JordiLess than a month before the match this year, 1.5 million (or two million, according to some) of the region's population of 7.5 million had demonstrated in the streets of Barcelona, demanding independence from Spain. So, with the eyes of the world trained on the Camp Nou, there was bound to be something from the club, to show its solidarity with its people...

That's the Catalan independentist flag
The Camp Nou has a reputation for being a bit on the quiet side, as far as football grounds go. Like a slightly unruly library. But never in this fixture. In 2002, the Camp Nou welcomed Luis Figo, their ex-vice-captain who'd defected to Real Madrid, with a pig's head and a sign that said, "We hate you so much because we loved you so much." Play was held up while they restored order. It's stories like these that made me determined to watch a clásico live one day. The fixture usually happens in November or December - a little too cold for a trip there that, for me, would involve a lot more than just football. And so I was first disbelieving and then thrilled when they announced the fixtures and I learned that the clásico was to be on October 7th, bang in the middle of my trip.

Despite the capacity of 98,000, tickets for this match are almost impossible to get through the normal  (read "relatively cheap") channels. I went through their official international agent, who sold the tickets as a package involving a museum tour, a Barça scarf, two nights stay in a hotel, etc. The museum tour, I didn't have the time to take, but the hotel stay paid unexpected dividends in that it was the same hotel that the team used before the match. Who knows, maybe Messi was in the room next to mine?

I had no clue about this, though, until I saw this huge crowd milling about in the lobby of the hotel. It took a while for the team to make their appearance: every time the elevator doors opened, there would be a buzz of anticipation, soon to be replaced by the disappointment of seeing guests of the hotel making their way to the reception. Not that this stopped us from keeping ourselves entertained. Among the very first to walk out of the elevator were this middle-aged couple, who were absolutely astonished to see the proverbial multitudes waiting for them in the lobby, waving and cheering and blowing kisses at them. The guests to follow - many in Messi and Villa shirts - took the thing more in their stride and gave us waves in return and one even did a little dribble through the hotel lobby for us.

When the team finally appeared, Messi came down via the stairs on the other side of the elevator, which was a couple of metres away from me, sadly. I'd imagined him making his way over and thanking me for coming all the way over from India, and then continuing on with broken voice and a tear in the eye - what the hell, let's have the works, tears in both the eyes - that none of this (he waves a vague hand to indicate all the fame and the trophies and the goals) would've been possible without my support. As things turned out, the little bugger did not even look in my general direction. Xavi and Iniesta, though, took the stairs closer to me: Xavi, in fact, passed by about two inches from my nose. I could've clapped him on the back - one of my eternal regrets from the trip will be that I didn't do so.

At the stadium, a few hours later, I was disappointed that my seat was a little higher up than the ones I had for the two earlier matches. In the end, though, while I couldn't see the players' faces from where I was, it turned out easier to follow the game from up there. All the seats around mine were occupied by women. It was no different to watching a match surrounded by men, except perhaps that the girl to my right would follow up a volley of abuse at the Real players, or at the referee, with a sidelong glance and an embarrassed giggle. The chap at the Sevilla stadium didn't bother with embarrassed giggles.

The pre-game rituals were all the same, except that everything had an edge - the cheering for Barça and the whistling for Real - as they warmed up. Because of my elevated position, this time I had eyes for more than just Messi pinging the ball to Alves. The entire team had split into pairs arranged rather haphazardly and balls flew across the grass, criss-crossing each other in complicated patterns. If you want a visual metaphor, try the flyover sequence from Tarkovsky's Solaris.

And then the moment I will remember forever. As the Real Madrid players emerged out of the tunnel for the kick-off, they were greeted by the whole stadium transforming itself into a Catalan flag and erupting into the Barça anthem. It was a spine-tingling moment. I'm not a particularly political person and, in any case, only an idiot would take a position on a matter like this, having been in the country for just a month and knowing very little of the history and the emotions involved. But all the same, I couldn't help but be moved by being in the midst of such a poetic (and non-violent) cry for independence.

As for the match itself, I remember only bits and pieces. This was a match Barça didn't need to win, so given that practically their entire first-choice defence was out injured and the quality of Real's attack, they were more cautious than normal. Real still went a goal up and for all money should've been up 2 goals in the first 25 minutes. Then the only first-choice Barça defender left, Dani Alves, went down with an injury and had to be substituted by young Montoya - and Barça's play at the back actually improved from that point on.

Then there was Iniesta. He'd been out injured for over a month and so I was over the moon when they announced that he would play. Can't say that he was at his best, unfortunately; but even so, everything he did was very elegant - an action as simple as bringing the ball down, he does with remarkable grace.

And then there was Real Madrid. In each of the wins I'd seen of Barça live, they snatched victory in the last few minutes. But even so, no one was under any illusions about Barça's superiority. But for this match... Though Real is historically the more successful side, since 2008 they have been well and truly under Barça's boot. In this period, it took them until 2011 to register their first win against Barça - by a solitary goal. Along the way, in addition to seeing the rest of the world slavering over their hated rivals and exalting them as one of the greatest teams ever, they'd been at the receiving end of historic maulings; like the 2-6 at the Santiago Bernabéu and then the 5-0 at the Camp Nou (José Mourinho's first clásico since taking over Real).

After that disaster in the November of 2010, Mourinho lined up very defensive squads for the next few clásicos. Matches descended into kicking contests and tempers flared on and off the pitch. In addition, fans were unhappy at the style of play he imposed on a team with such a history of attacking football and as much wealth of talent (their current squad is the most expensively assembled in history) as Real. Their biggest legend, Alfredo di Stefano, at one point noted that they were playing like mice against the Catalan lions.

But Mourinho slowly turned things around and ended Barça's run by winning the league in a record-breaking campaign. So the team that turned up to play at the Camp Nou this time was not one wracked by self doubt, but one that has slowly started to turn the tide against their most unforgiving rivals. This was not a team obsessed with preventing Barça from scoring but one that was looking to win themselves - and pugnacious as hell. Even when Barça went ahead via a glorious Messi free kick, they were never anything less than threatening. Particularly Ronaldo. Shame he's such a prat, though. If everything Iniesta does is elegant, everything Ronaldo does on the pitch, apart from when he has the ball at his feet, is seemingly designed to aggravate anyone but the most thick-skinned fan. His gestures after scoring a goal... even the way he shapes up to take a free kick... you just want the ground to swallow him up. Great player, admittedly, and sent nervous jitters through the home fans every time he got the ball.

Above all, there was Messi. He was the reason I picked Spain for this trip and he saved his best for this, the last match I would see him live. He did not play up front for much of the game, preferring to stay deep. Which is why it's sometimes a shame to see his goal records getting so much mention. There's so much more to him. It was quite something to see him slaloming his way through the crowded centre of the pitch, holding the ball way longer than seems possible and drawing multiple defenders toward him. And then finding teammates, now in acres of space, with pinpoint passes. Again and again. That he still ended up scoring both of Barça's goals points to a problem for them, maybe. The Camp Nou has this rather mournful chant for him that goes "May-siiiii, May-siiiii" like zombies calling to their brethren from beyond the grave. Maybe it was meant to give Real the willies. I wonder what it feels like to be the recipient of such unrestrained adulation week after week.

The crowd were fun, as expected. In front of the old enemy, they were not quite as unforgiving of mistakes as they were in the match against Granada. Solidly behind their team, they sang that chant of theirs that goes "o le le, o la la, being a Barça fan is the best there is" every few minutes - even (and especially) when the team were under the cosh in the first half. Even the 4-year-old to my left knew the words and she would sing along whenever the chance came. Though there were the planned shouts of independencia during both halves, the atmosphere was rather restrained (a trifle disappointing to me, I'll admit) and mirrored the generally well-behaved game on the pitch. Yes, the crowd did chant hijo de puta (very gallantly in Spanish and not Catalan) every time Pepe touched the ball, but then who wouldn't?

The only time they displayed a hint of frustration was when Barça were a little too intricate. Even when presented with an opportunity for a counterattack, they more often than not choose to hold the ball up and start another slow, short-passy build-up toward the opposition goal. This, I think, the Camp Nou has resigned itself to and even takes quiet, if rather snobbish, pride in. What gets their goat on occasion is when the same happens inside the opposition penalty box. Messi apart, they have a tendency to pass the buck when it comes to shooting. In the dying minutes of the match, Barça had a glorious chance to score the winning goal as they found themselves outnumbering the Real defenders in the box. But they kept patiently passing the ball to each other, forming a nice pentagon inside the penalty area, while all the while I could hear veins popping all around me. I didn't need to know any Catalan to know what was being muttered across the length and breadth of this giant stadium, "Shoot, goddammit, shoot! Somebody, for the love of Gaudí, take a punt at the fucking goal!"

That was that and the match ended 2-2. I suppose a great victory for football. But great victories for football don't interest me very much. What matters for me is that I got to see three Barça matches live, all of which went down to the very last minute. And two of those were in this magnificent stadium. Well after the ground had emptied, I was still in the stands looking at this stand, then that, then peering over the parapet into the sections below, until finally a security guard detached herself from the shadows and asked me whether I intended to leave. "Two more minutes, please," I said, "let me just take a picture of the pitch from here." All right, she said, two minutes.

I used up every second of those two minutes feeling those mixed feelings everyone talks of. On the one hand, this was it. It was goodbye to the Camp Nou. But then again, I'd just watched one of the greatest sportsmen of all time weave magic against his team's oldest rivals, in one of the great cathedrals of sport. Definitely my most memorable mixed feelings.

The Trip

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