Keith Tamkei ex­plores the ir­re­sistible weav­ing of a city — and its spec­tac­u­lar at­trac­tions — with its love of fút­bol

Sunday Times - - Contents -

So many at­trac­tions, but the great­est is foot­ball

On the evening of July 25 1992, hun­dreds of millions around the world gath­ered for the start of a two-week slum­ber.

To Fred­die Mer­cury and Dame Montserrat Ca­ballé’s ser­e­nade of in­fat­u­a­tion, our lids, woozy from worldly care, closed.

And with the af­ter­im­age of a glow­ing gem on the coast of the Mediter­ranean in our mind, we dozed off to the “per­fect dream”.

Barcelona, the small cap­i­tal of the Cat­alo­nia re­gion in north­east­ern Spain, hosted then what was later hailed by many as one of the best Olympic Games in his­tory.

Ac­com­pa­ny­ing the Olympic news, beamed and printed across the globe, were vis­tas of the city from the hill­side Mon­tjuïc park, the set­ting of the sta­dium. Fa­mil­iar, too, be­came the pho­to­graphs of divers launch­ing against a back­drop of the spires of the Sagrada Fa­milia cathe­dral. The spotlight on the com­pe­ti­tion cast its light wider and en­tranced many to the beauty of this an­cient Ro­man town. Joaquim Ut­set, manag­ing ed­i­tor at Peo­ple En Es­panol Mag­a­zine, now based in New York but a na­tive of Barcelona, re­mem­bers the makeover of the city at that time. Res­i­dents were en­cour­aged by the lo­cal gov­ern­ment to clean and paint the build­ings, he says, so that the city turned from brown and grey, fol­low­ing years of ne­glect, to brightly coloured façades with mo­tifs and dec­o­ra­tions. In short, it was trans­formed.

Over a quar­ter of a cen­tury later, the games have re­mained as a deep reser­voir to fuel Barcelona’s glow, keep­ing it at the top of trav­ellers’ dream lists.

Those hazy mem­o­ries are some­thing that the city fondly re­tains. How­ever, when it comes to a dif­fer­ent game, the dream turns brightly vivid.

Span­ish foot­ball’s cur­rent global sta­tus is supreme. And Barcelona city is a mas­sive con­trib­u­tor. It is home to FC Barcelona, one of the most suc­cess­ful teams on the planet. Their nick­name, “Blau­grana”, is a ref­er­ence to the team colours — blue and gar­net — in the Cata­lan lan­guage.

Whether Span­ish foot­ball man­ages to achieve such heights due to tech­ni­cal abil­ity, man­age­ment or youth train­ing could prob­a­bly be ex­pertly dis­sected and an­a­lysed. But to ex­pe­ri­ence some of its emi­nence is to peek into the eco-sys­tem in which this suc­cess thrives. To this end, an in­vi­ta­tion was sent by Span­ish foot­ball body La Liga to visit and ex­pe­ri­ence the pride of Cat­alo­nia.

To grasp the scope of FC Barcelona’s place in Span­ish foot­ball, con­sider that the team are con­sis­tent do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional cup win­ners; their rev­enue last sea­son — ac­cord­ing to Forbes — was over R10-bil­lion, sec­ond glob­ally only to Manch­ester United.

Camp Nou, the 99 300 ca­pac­ity home sta­dium of FC Barcelona, a mere 5km from the cen­tre of town, is Barcelona’s largest tourist at­trac­tion, beat­ing such cul­tural high­lights as the Sagrada Fa­milia and the Pi­casso Mu­seum.

But sta­dia are lit­tle with­out the dis­played prow­ess of limb and foot. The soul and cult of foot­ball surely aren’t im­bued in steel and ce­ment?

When Camp Nou is sur­rounded by a tight mosaic of art and cul­ture — in­clud­ing the Gothic Quar­ter’s ar­chi­tec­ture; La Ram­bla, the fa­mous, tree-lined pedes­trian mall; and the mod­ernist work of artists in­clud­ing Joan Miró and An­toni Gaudi — what is it that can turn our gaze to a patch of grass and seats?

And how does one un­tan­gle the in­ti­mate weave of the city and peo­ple with fút­bol?

To an­swer, La Liga sub­merged us into one of sport’s big­gest dis­plays: the derby be­tween FC Barcelona and their equally il­lus­tri­ous ri­val, Real Madrid CF, a match known as the El Clásico.

Ac­cord­ing to sports pun­dits, ev­ery El Clásico car­ries as much weight for Spa­niards as a gut-wrench­ing te­len­ov­ela fi­nale.

Glob­ally too, this con­test stirs a buzz. Many have hoarded and sac­ri­ficed for the air­fare, ac­com­mo­da­tion and the R6 000 re­quired for the cheap­est seat in the sta­dium. Around the world, they would be joined by a 100-mil­lion­strong tele­vi­sion au­di­ence. Ev­ery­thing about El Clásico is ex­treme: big stars, big brands and big money.

I ex­pected great fan­fare in the build-up to the game, but Barcelona dis­played a more sim­mer­ing an­tic­i­pa­tion. In the days be­fore, per­haps over a bite of Cata­lan cro­quettes or a gulp of tinto de ver­ano — red wine with le­mon­ade and ice — a lo­cal would ex­press their sup­port for Messi or Piqué, or curse Cris­tiano Ron­aldo’s name — but there was hardly any ruckus.

José Luis Pérez Triv­iño, an as­so­ciate law pro­fes­sor at Barcelona Univer­sity, pointed out that all the iconog­ra­phy, organic struc­ture and fol­low­ing fer­vour of foot­ball are the hall­marks of or­gan­ised reli­gion. In other words, fans, whether hard­core zealots or couch warm­ers, are essen­tially be­liev­ers. And like reli­gion, lit­tle is un-per­me­ated by it.

For the 90 min­utes of El Clásico, Camp Nou and Barcelona fun­nel the at­ten­tions of a wide au­di­ence. For a mo­ment, once again, like on that summer’s evening in ’92, the pride of Cat­alo­nia, the pride of Spain, the spec­ta­cle of com­pe­ti­tion is un­der a spotlight and the lore of foot­ball is writ­ten again.

This is Barcelona, where “Blau­grana” that night lays on a feast in blue and gar­net that ra­di­ates from Camp Nou all across the city.

It is truly the ful­fil­ment of Mer­cury’s song. Barcelona, the city, is like “a jewel in the sun”, and they want all the world to see.

4 YEARS the age of some of the ham you can buy at La Bo­que­ria mar­ket


TRUE RELI­GION The un­fin­ished, iconic Sagrada Fa­milia Ro­man Catholic church rises up over Barcelona in a view from Park Güell.


TEAM SPIRIT The Plaça Reial is a land­mark square and pop­u­lar gath­er­ing spot in the Gothic Quar­ter of Barcelona.

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