Friday, 7 December 2012

FC Barcelona: The Pride of an Incredible City (March 2012)

Instantaneously, as I arrive in the wondrous city of Barcelona, it is a captivating, welcoming place to be. Lush greenery lines the stone grey streets, which pass by whilst the glowing amber remnants of the European spring sun disappear altogether from the horizon. My over-friendly Taxi driver, transferring me from the airport to the hotel, takes zero notice of the speed limit whatsoever. 

There seems to be a lack of Catalan citizens and tourists to fill these relaxed streets; yet it is for a very obvious reason.

Satisfying my curiosity, the Taxi driver explains - in fluent Catalan - that Barcelona are beating Milan 3-1 at the Camp Nou in the Champions League quarter-final second leg. The excited tone in his voice confirms him to be a Barcelona fan, delighted that Messi's penalty brace and Iniesta's short range caress are sending his team through to the semi-finals, overcoming the stubborn Italians in the process. I try to make sense of the cab's radio, but can only pick out "Pique", "Messi" or the odd "Fabrégas" mentioned among the jumbled adjectives of the ecstatic commentary.

As expected, my driver is far from alone in his support: the ground floor of my hotel, albeit empty, has the final stages of the match proudly broadcasting from a television on the wall, making the familiar style of pass and move, near faultless football unmissable. I have already spotted one or two scarlet and blue striped shirts in the dark as I briefly explore the deserted concrete maze. A simple late night café, almost predictably, has a battered poster of the current squad pinned to the wall. Messi, Xavi, Puyol and colleagues look on, and in doing so, prove that Pep Guardiola's side means much more to this city than I had ever expected.

In my first experience of a Catalan morning, I see adjacent from my hotel room a number of rooftop football pitches, with wire mesh acting as a barrier stopping any rogue passes in their tracks; not that they are often needed of course, given the slick, tiki-taka style of play that is the religion here, practiced and perfected day in, day out by all ages. Barça, of course, are the role models for such modern interpretation of the game.
La Masia (the youth system), obviously promotes and exhibits this style of football. There are 12 treasured youth teams in all: 10 male and 2 female, plus Barça B who play in the Spanish second tier.

Unsurprisingly, a local  
Catalunya newspaper, el Periódico - freshly laid out in the hotel's reception - has dedicated the first 7 of it's pages to Barcelona's win at the Nou Camp, prioritising the 90 minutes over any politics or economics. The text bombards the reader with reviews, statistics, player ratings and (naturally) heavily biased opinions. "El Barca tumba al Milan," it reads. "Quinta semifinal consecutiva en la Champions".

Decorating the congested city centre, countless stalls sell unofficial merchandise, unique confectionary fills boxes in the markets and Barcelona crests are emblazoned on flags which hang proudly from the balconies of apartments. Shirts, jackets and scarves are never far from sight and various other newspapers, both of the city and nationally, continue the Spanish media's trend: the front pages are either decorated with a triumphant Cesc with his arm around Messi or a huddle of celebratory Barça players. A moderately busy restaurant I enter at lunchtime has a treasured banner in the window reading: "
Campions, 08/09, Copa Liga Champions"-it is signed by the whole team from Guardiola's incredible debut season in charge. Several disgruntled Milan fans, giving oblivious Barça fans a glare, are dotted about, their attention now turned to the numerous tourist attractions around the city. 

It is fairly clear why the club has such a communal connection not only with the people of Catalonia, but with a fan base of millions around the world that grows by the day. Watching Barça TV in my hotel room made it clear to me why exactly this is. The engrossing channel primarily focuses on the club's past and present success, however, Barcelona is not only a football team: there are no less than 15 sports teams that are the make up of the club (4 professional sections and 8 non-professional), including basketball, handball or futsal for example, therefore enticing many more sports fans in their worldwide followers than any other club ever could. The channel additionally shows that Barcelona aid children with disabilities partake in sport, is involved in democracy and has teamed up with Bill Gates (the founder of
Microsoft) to create the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation's aim is to help eradicate Polio across the globe. Gates explains that no other club has the same "passion for social issues like Barça". 

The most notable example of said involvements is the partnership with
Unicef signed in 2006, expanding Barça's work and image to increasing locations around the globe. However, the club's official guide states that the FC Barcelona Foundation promotes "solidarity based on sport but fostering values and education", an objective that the club works with children and young people to achieve. 

The spectacular club has the most members in the world: over 175,000 people from around the world meet, debate and help decide the club's well-being in the future, as well a voting for the President of Barça and their board of directors. Sandro Rosell is the current chairman of the club, as elected by members in June 2010.

The club's incredibly popular social networking sites provide this information and more to millions via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. A lot more goes on with this amazing club than the world's media brings to light (as the football side of things naturally takes the stage). The phrase "
Més Que Un Club" genuinely could not be any truer.

Plus, the players undoubtedly have a similar communal feel; at Premiership clubs, we see players come and go, whereas at Barça - in numerous cases past and present - players (like Messi, Xavi, Pique, Fabregas and Iniesta) fledge from
La Masia and spend mass amounts of time in and around the city as a result. Futsal courts and small stadia near the Nou Camp are evidence for the youth system's effectiveness. Guardiola himself, who I saw at a simple newsagent’s during my stay (which reflects and reinforces the bond between Barcelona, its people and the club) clearly is also attached to the city for obvious reasons. The Spaniard graduated through La Masia, played for the club, has managed Barça B and had been part of the setup here for years before achieving the unimaginable as manager of the first team. 

In Barcelona, Gaudi's surreal yet unfinished cathedral is not the only place of worship; the temple-like Nou Camp is unmistakeable from a distance, its authority and prowess attracting tourists from around the world. Scarlet and blue encircles the stadium, which, on the inside, is no less incredible as you would expect from the mythical ground.

Entering the museum part of the tour, countless trophies are displayed; from liga trophies from the early 1900s to the FIFA Club World Cup won in 2011, representing the momentous scale of achievements this club has to it's name. Iniesta's world cup winning boots, Valdes' signed gloves, the oldest Barça football shirt in history and Messi's Ballon D,Or awards from 2010 and 2011 are just a fraction of artefacts representing the club's illustrious footballing history, gradually collected since Futbol Club Barcelona was founded by Joan Gamper in 1899.

Multimedia, consisting of touch screen tables and large screeens, provides information and videos about Barça's past successes as well as player profiles. The centre stage of this section is a number of large screens, dedicated to Guardiola's cataclysmic achievements: ranging from the 2009 Champions League and FIFA Club World Cup victories, to triumphs over Madrid in the
Clasicos (the 5-0 and 6-2 thrashings are included with a rivalrous sense of triumph) and the already legendary 2011 Champions League final at Wembley.

Albeit virtually empty, the stadium on a non match day is still magical. The turf is expertly flat and the thousands seats create a unique pattern of the club colours, with the phrase "
Més Que Un Club" catching my eye brilliantly in bold yellow, etched into the middle tier. It is hard to tear my eyes away from those powerful words that mean so much to so many people involved or connected to FC Barcelona.

From literally every angle, the Nou Camp is visually stunning. Tourists are allowed into the press boxes, down the tunnel and into the simple dressing rooms which are often used by some of the world's greatest players. Fans from England, Scotland, America, Italy, Africa, China, Poland and New Zealand - who all have a similar link to the club – revel in the scale of it all. Barcelona, as a sports club, is an institution as well as possessing one of
the greatest football teams to live and play together at this present moment. The manager, players and iconic club itself are known for what they do on every continent in the world, replica shirts can be seen everywhere on the planet and the global media is in constant admiration.

I can only dream of what it must be like to live in the city and regularly witness Barcelona play. However, in the short time spent in and amongst the city I find it easy to see why, due to a number of factors, Barcelona deserves its reputation as not only the world's greatest football team, but the world's greatest and most influential sports club.
"Tots Units Fem Força"

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