By no uncertain terms, one giant of European Football has had an exceptionally poor start to the 2021-2022 season. It takes only seconds for the visitor to the Museum of Football known as Camp Nou to appreciate both the legacy as well as the monumental resources of FC Barcelona. So high is the global commercial demand for a slice of what the media brands as the Football club that embodies the Catalan spirit that “La Rambla del Barça”, a 150 walkway of sideshows, facilities and entertainment outside the actual stadium, accommodates bidding customers from the world over on any day of the week, regardless of whether or not there is a match to be played on the day of their visit.
Once through the main gate, a young Brazilian (easily identified as such thanks to his bright yellow CBF jersey) on holiday asked me to take a quick snap of him among the gathering crowds along the pedestrianised strip. He thanked me and immediately dashed off to the “Vermutería”. This boulevard is sports marketing at its best – channeling and then commodifying the romance of successful community Football in a meticulously designed combination of tarmac, steel, glass, plastic, paint and cash registers. A mother from France will dip into the three-storey FC Barcelona gift shop to purchase a three-figure replica kit to appease her son’s pestering while her husband may take a shot at ordering a €7 IPA delivered in a “FORZA BARCA” plastic cup in Catalán a couple doors down in a sterile bar that resembles any middle-England restaurant carefully positioned in its market. Compared to a sticky-floored, stale boozer with fading scarves and photos covering its walls in a working class Lancashire town where an old-timer can sip his pint of best before going to watch his team for the thousandth time, La Rambla del Barça is not recognisable as a place for your pre-match drink. At least to me.
But apart from being a very profitable distraction, La Rambla del Barça clearly demonstrates the scale of the full operation. FC Barcelona is not a club that should go wanting, and it often doesn’t. For that reason, 6th place and 8 points from the top of La Liga (currently occupied by Sevilla FC) a third of the way into the season is not acceptable. The return of Xavi to the Club of Catalonia as coach therefore brought much anticipation of a change in fortunes that must lead to silverware. Such expectations are never easy to handle, but last night the local hero had the added pressure of being initiated into the position on the day of the local derby.
The two of us in attendance finished our malty alcohol-free beers and trotted our way round to gate 4, enjoying listening to the catalogue of languages being spoken in the queues. With 10 minutes to kick-off, we hiked our way up the steep colosseum to block 583 (a detail I mention only to emphasise its size) as a round of jeers greeted the 11 blanquiazules walking out onto the pitch. Though FC Barcelona has bigger fish to fry in sporting terms, its fans reserve a particular pocket of vitriol for their crosstown rivals. Espanyol never has matched FCB on pitch and never will, but its fan base is far more populated from the families of 19th and 20th century migrants from other parts of Spain to the industrialised outskirts of Barcelona. Their relative indifference to the essence of Catalanisme marks them out as different to the perceived archetypal FC Barcelona fan whose grandparents have been speaking Catalán for generations (even when doing so was a criminal act).
The game kicked off with muted fanfare, clapping and drumming from down below to our right. The Boixos Nois ultras occupied their usual shallow strip of seating (that they usually stand on for 90 minutes), leading the chorus of chants that occasionally rippled up to the second, third and fourth tiers of the stadium. Its members had separated themselves into 2 separate sides, with the chanting and more vocal factions on the right and the “rougher” members of the controversial ultra group (often associated with far right politics) bouncing around and crashing into each other on the left. At several key moments of the match, the volume crescendoed around us, particularly during anti-Espanyol chants (my favourite being something along the lines of “You’re just a second-league club” if my poor grasp of Catalán is to be trusted). However, the open air and sheer scale of Camp Nou consistently compromised the atmosphere that ultimately attracts me to Football. In a nutshell, I prefer the Bernabeu.
Xavi did get a lot of attention from the capacity crowd. His name was chanted on several occasions, unusual for a Spanish crowd but commonplace in the United Kingdom. Given his achievements with the club, it will take a lot for him to lose this popularity. But if the result of the Derbi Barceloní is to be used as a marker, he has a lot of work to do if he is to deliver the trophies that are expected of him this season and next.
Reial Club Deportiu Espanyol has established itself as a stable mid-table side in the past couple seasons, but the second club of the Catalan capital is struggling to keep clean sheets this year (in spite of a shock home win against a mercurial Real Madrid in October). And it says a lot that FC Barcelona, with its legions of fans and enviable resources, could only score in their home derby courtesy of a dubious first-half penalty. The blaugranes did improve notably in the second half with the addition of a lively Philippe Coutinho to work around the robust Busquets. The outcome was to hammer the final wall of Espanyol defence for 20 minutes but to no avail. And in spite of a scare in the final minutes before the whistle, FC Barcelona walked away from their derby with 3 valuable points. However, it was by no means a comfortable victory.
My companion, himself a player to a good level, summaried very well; “they have no clear on-the-ball magician. It’s very well playing the passing game and regaining the ball back quickly when they lose it, but this Barcelona team is not good enough”. The pageantry and spectacle that has been built around this club will only contribute to the pressure placed on Xavi in his first season as manager of FC Barcelona.