Starman: Barcelona v Real Valladolid

Barcelona v Real Vallodolid

Camp Nou / La Liga / 29th October 2019

Cruyff, Laudrup, Camp Nou, Rivaldo, tales of Kubala, Xavi and Iniesta together, Koeman in 92, Ronaldinho, Camp Nou, the shirt, Ronaldo, La Masia, El Clasico, the Dream Team, Pep, Romario and Stoichkov causing chaos on and off the pitch, Messi. I really could go on and on and on. FC Barcelona are special. Més que un club indeed.

Més que un club.

At a young age, a liking for Barcelona blossomed within me – something I attributed to Championship Manager 97/98 in a recent blog post – but a liking that grew into a lot more, particularly during my teen years when my fascination in football truly exploded. Without a shadow of a doubt, I’ve read more books about FC Barcelona than any other subject (football or otherwise) and I’ve owned more Barcelona shirts than any other European club. Calling it a real ‘love’ for the club may be going a tad strong, but there was always something there. We’ll call it a strong infatuation and one which has very much always persisted. Writing a bucket list feels like a task too overwhelming for me, but I’ve always known that somewhere towards the very top I would write:

  • Watch Barcelona play at Camp Nou (preferably with Leo Messi playing).

An early disclaimer here: if you are one of those ‘Team Ronaldo’ folk who utterly denounces the idea of Leo Messi being the best player in the world, you may not want to read on. As much as this is going to be the story of my trip to Camp Nou, the Argentinian maestro forced this into being an ode to Messi – the greatest player who has ever lived bar none.

My only ever visit to Barcelona had come eleven years before and I left that time adamant that I would live there one day; it’s not quite happened, but, who knows, there is still time. So on my return this time, I was unsurprised to be reminded that Barcelona is an utterly magnificent city and certainly a competitor for the accolade of ‘Matt’s favourite city’.

It was my half-term holiday and I arrived into Barcelona a couple of weeks after political tensions had escalated following the trial of the Catalan leaders who had staged what was deemed an illegal referendum for Catalan independence. A whole book could be written about the conflict between the Catalan rebels and the Spanish regime and certainly by folk much more knowledged in the topic than myself, so I’ll leave that be, what I’ll say is that I arrived to find a city absolutely doused in pro-Catalan graffiti and with a heavy police presence on the street in case of further ruptures. Fortunately for me, I found a city where the clouds of the troubles still hung but the storm had dispersed. Overall, all was generally calm.

Arc de Triomph in Barcelona.
View of the city from the bar built into the 1992 Olympic diving pool.
On the beach.

Arriving into Barcelona to such a political backdrop felt fitting to me. I’m not usually so strong and forthright in my opinion on things, but anyone who preaches that ‘politics and football don’t mix’ are, quite frankly, wrong and really haven’t got football. Of course politics and football mix and are always going to mix. Football has been one of the biggest mouthpieces for politics all over the world and maybe no more so than at FC Barcelona – possibly the most politicised football club in the world; a club that is an institution and a symbol for a whole culture and identity. The troubles that had hit the city a couple of weeks before had prompted the Spanish football authorities to postpone the upcoming El Clásico because of worries of it inciting more trouble. So Barcelona’s first home game since the court rulings against the Catalan rebels would be a Tuesday night game at home to Valladolid. The game I’d be going to. The stand housing the Barca hardcore later that night would be awash with yellow and red stripes of the Catalan flag.

As I learned during my few days in the city, Barcelona probably has one of the best craft beer scenes in Europe at the moment. It is amazing (a future dedicated blog sort of amazing I reckon). I enjoyed my Tuesday afternoon perusing the city and sampling the delights of the beer scene so much that the 9.15pm kick-off at Camp Nou came at me a hell of a lot quicker than a 9.15pm kick-off should do. Also, 9.15pm really is a stupid kick-off time isn’t it? This was the latest silly Spanish kick-off time I had endured so far. Anyway, having left the hoppy beer of Garage bar and hopped on the metro, I was en route to Camp Nou.

Camp Nou at the end of the street.
Camp Nou.

When Camp de les Corts, the old home of Barca, was no longer able to be expanded, Barca decided to build a new home in 1954 – a home worthy of someone like László Kubala – arguably the first great in Barça’s history and the star of the time. It was planned to be a stadium to attract superstars: a stadium that would be ready for the artisan of Cruyff, a stadium that would be ready for the trickery of Maradona and eventually a stadium ready for the genius of Messi. That stadium would be Camp Nou – the largest stadium in Europe with capacity now hitting just under 100000 people. There have been redevelopments to many of the ageing stands and of course the bolstering of corporate elements, but Camp Nou still remains the colossal bowl it always has been.

For a stadium that is so big, it does sort of creep up on you. Even from my visits to the top of Montjuic Park and Park Güelll, which both offer panoramic city views, it is still difficult to spot Camp Nou. Once you are up close and personal with it though, my word is it huge. Completing a lap of the this behemoth prematch was an odyssey in itself, so much so that I eventually succumbed to one of the dodgy vendors selling cans of Estrella out of a carrier bag, as I needed refreshing halfway round.

The quick can of beer clearly went to my head, as I wandered into the club megastore next to the stadium and childhood me came bursting out again. I had to buy a Barca shirt I decided – for young Matt’s sake. The slight surprise came when I opted to go against the Messi tourists and picked up a ‘Griezman 17’ shirt instead. He’s been a huge favourite of mine over recent years in his pre-Barca days, even though I think he’s a bit of an oddball at times too. I really do not want to admit how much I paid here, but it’s the most expensive football shirt I’ve ever bought – and I’ve bought a lot. I posed for some photos as if Barcelona had recognised my efforts in my school staff football team, before leaving in search of more prematch cervezas.

The Megastore.
He was tempted to buy…
…and of course he bought it.
‘Griezman 17’
With the Boro lads in the bar prematch.

Around the corner from Camp Nou I found a little dive bar on Travessera de les Corts called Bar Casa Fin which wasn’t actually that busy considering I was literally 30 seconds away from my entrance gate to Camp Nou. The beer was a lot cheaper than the fancy boutique bar/restaurants that line the little alley alongside the club shop, which I had originally considered. Plus, I got to meet some really friendly Bristol City fans and Middlesbrough fans who were also here for their first Camp Nou experience too. After a couple more beers and then a very quick last ‘one for the road’, it was time to cross said road and brace myself for an epic climb to the summit of Camp Nou.

There was a little heart-in-mouth moment when the lady on the entrance seemed a bit annoyed at the state of the print out ticket that had been battered in my wallet all day, but she was never not going to let me in. I was in the climb began up masses and masses of criss-crossing concrete staircases. Eventually I arrived in the usually tourist-laden upper tier and gasped a monumental ‘wow’ as I emerged into the stand.

Camp Nou.
Camp Nou.
High up.

It is massive. Flipping ludicrously massive. As I stood at the top looking down, I genuinely felt quite overwhelmed. I’ve spent a large part of the last ten years watching football in either bog standard, replicated 20000 stadiums in the UK, little charming non-league grounds or deteriorating concrete bowls during my years live in central Europe. I’d been to big stadiums before, but nothing quite like this. I was about to see something else that was not quite like anything else too.

Lionel Messi.

Where do you even start here? Where do you even bloody start when you have to write about Messi? What superlative hasn’t already been used? How many times has the term ‘Alien boy’ paraded column inches? Well, here I am with my bumble little blog and I’m going to attempt the impossible of writing about Messi now, as really he is the story now. This was his night.

This would be the third time I’d seen Messi live. The first was a bizarre winter friendly organised between Portugal and Argentina at Old Trafford – a game setup as a Messi v Ronaldo showdown. Neither player was really up for it though and I think club matters dictated that both left the field at half-time, much to chagrin of the expectant crowd in Manchester that night. The second time was also in Manchester with him this time donning a Barca shirt, as he delivered an inspired performance to help Barca beat Manchester City 3-1 in a Champions League second round tie. What I learned that night about watching Messi live was that everything just looks…well, wrong. No way should a player have such a touch and no way should a player be able to make the ball stay stuck to him so easily. I’d never seen anything like it really – until this evening when I’d experience that same otherworldliness again.

Valladolid were actually in some good form and Barcelona certainly had not been their wonderful selves in previous weeks. However, Barca came flying out the blocks led by the triumvirate of Suarez, Messi and the ‘next big thing’ Fati; my boy Griezman was benched for the start of this game. Despite the attacking prowess on show, the early Barca goal was scored with a powerful deflected volley from French defender Clément Lenglet who opened the scoring after just two minutes. Undoubtedly many were still arriving to their seats. as the ball crashed in off the bar. The stadium did look fairly thin in parts on this Tuesday night, but whoever didn’t show up, it was their loss tonight. Messi was about to blow our minds.

Match action.

Against the run of play, Valladolid scored a scrappy equaliser from a corner where the ball seemed to pinball off defenders before being tapped in by Olivas for the away team. Now it was really Messi time.

He had a one or two mistimed dribbles, before truly finding his feet and then bossing everything. He turned the game back in Barca’s favour with a delightfully scooped pass over the whole defence for the onrushing to Artuo Vidal to toe in. A pass that no-one else on the pitch had seen – or maybe could see – as Vidal broke into the box. Messi’s mojo fired into overdrive now.

The touches, the passes, the running, the dribbling and the nutmegs…OH those nutmegs! It was all on show now. And then there was the scoring and what a way to score.

Messi lines up a freekick from 30 yards. What could possibly happen next…

30 yards from goal he earned a freekick and he put the ball down in a place I’d call ‘peak Messi territory’. I just knew it was going in. I found myself atop the stand behind the goal and witnessed as the ball powerfully, but gracefully, arched its way into the top corner. MESSSSIIIIII!!!!! A true postage stamper with it being the only part of the goal the keeper couldn’t reach. The 50th freekick of Messi’s illustrious scoring career. 3-1 to Barca.

It was then time for Messi to humiliate Valladolid’s Óscar Plano, as he spun a nutmeg through his legs and burst forward. This was towards Barca’s own box too showing how far Messi had actually tracked back. There was a wonderful image of Plano shown in the local papers the next day as he looked at one camera with a shrug that just said, “What can you do against him?”

If that wasn’t good enough, Messi finished the half with a nutmegged through ball through the legs of the Valladolid player named Guardiola of all things. Barca came close to scoring from it, but the resulting cross from the on-running Semedo eluded everyone.

By now, the stadium was chanting ‘MESSI! MESSI!” Such was the effect he was having on people that the woman sitting a few rows in front of me was hailing him and in tears at the same time. I almost joined her.

A breather from the Messi love-in for a second and a shout out to Frenkie de Jong too, who was also brilliant in midfield is clearly going to be an absolute star if you don’t consider him one already. Anyway back to Messi in the second half.

Catalan.

It was more of the same really. While the press all heralded his awesome freekick, his second was a thing of beauty too. With his back to goal and 20 yards from goal, the magician controlled the ball with his thigh while swivelling towards goal and arrowing a sudden shot straight into the bottom corner. It had all happened in such a beautiful, elegant movement that the Valladolid defence had no time to even think about what he was doing. Which I suppose is the problem playing against Messi; no-one thinks the same or as quick as him.

Emptying out.

There was still time for my mate Griezman to come on, but it was Messi’s mate Suarez who scored the final goal of the game. Who provided the assist with an inch perfect, defence splitting through ball? Well, you probably got the gist by now…

Barcelona 5-1 Valladolid.

I’d gone to Camp Nou and witnessed a Messi masterclass. Bucket list item ticked off. Two goals and two assists and he probably should have had a hatrick as he miscued a shot from inside the box right at the end.

As I checked Twitter post-match, Spanish football folk were going nuts about Messi’s performance. Some were saying it was one of his best in the league at Camp Nou, whilst others argued that it wasn’t even in his top 50. Again, he’s that good that it is easy to lose track of each and every single moment of genius. I’m sure if I ever met the great man and told him about this game, he probably wouldn’t recall it amongst the barrage of other maestro performances he’s delivered.

5 – 1

Away from Messi and on the Camp Nou itself – I loved it. I know some slate it as being over-touristed these days, but it is what it is I suppose. It’s still an incredible feeling to be in one of the world’s absolute super stadiums watching one of the biggest clubs in history. Many had said to me “You better bring your binoculars if you are going up there?” To be honest, i never really noticed the height at all (I’m scared of heights too!) and I actually quite enjoyed the view really, especially as I was pretty free to roam about the top tiers as the stadium had enough empty patches on my side. Admittedly, I had the best distraction from the height that I could possibly have: Leo Messi – Starman.

I made the long walk back from the stadium to the city to take in the Barcelona nighttime and pondered what was the best way to sum up Messi. Then, I recalled something Thierry Henry said about him during the excellent documentary Take The Ball, Pass The Ball (based on the equally excellent Graham Hunter book The Making of the Greatest Team in the World) all about the 2007-2012 team under Pep Guardiola. Henry rightly pointed out, “It’s difficult to talk about Leo and put him into our words because he is not of our planet.’

You’re right there Thierry – it’s bloody hard. So I’ll play it simple: greatest. A privilege to now say I’ve seen a Messi masterclass in one of the greatest stadiums in the entire world.

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