A man shifted awkwardly in the seat beside me. He wasn’t anxious, far from it in fact, just inside a place where expectations were understandably high and, for this minute of the match anyway, not being met. He held tight the flag of Catalonia which was grasped inside his fist and occasionally in between his teeth in moments such as this. The world’s best player had just given the ball away again, a regular occurrence in the opening ten minutes. He didn’t look himself, not sharp to a pass and lazy in distribution and my temporary neighbor was disturbed by it.
Five minutes later he received a pass, and as the defenders in front seem to part like the red sea, he slotted the ball to the side of the goalkeeper with considerable ease. 1-0 Barcelona, Lionel Messi. Fitting it was him who was the instigator for 99,000 plus all standing in my first ever Camp Nou experience. Seconds earlier, some had already stood in awe as arguably the greatest player Spain has ever produced, Xavi, dribbled his way around four opponents deep in his own area to help start a play that led to the goal. The magician had seemed to be running into one blind alley after another but somehow, with incredible close control and technique, escaped the onrushes of the Zaragoza players and came out of the huddle with the ball where it belonged. At his feet.
It was to be Xavi’s night. Sure, Messi would score again, a blinder of a strike from 25 yards out on his left that found such a precise angle to steer its way into the net, yet it was Xavi who passed and moved time and time again. Alex Song, still finding his way in this side and still culpable of giving away a ball now and again, a sin in this city, also opened his Barcelona scoring account on a night when the home side won 3-1 but even his goal had to go through the main men before he was allowed to finish it off.
Some say Barcelona don’t take corners properly, but this side is obsessed with keeping the ball and with the game 1-1 after half-an-hour, Xavi played a corner short to his partner in crime, Andres Iniesta. Messi then came deep to receive the pass before weaving his way towards the byline and withdrawing defenders away from their spots. Song, now free inside the box, waited for the pass to come from the Argentine and knowing full well it would arrive he was ready to side foot home.
Three goals and three significant pieces of evidence stored in my memory from a whirlwind trip to Barcelona. 18 hours in total, two spent in an airport, one on a bus, another in taxi’s, two spent shopping, one eating, five spent sleeping and six spent in and around Camp Nou. Beside the goals, the memory bank stored the standing ovation for Carles Puyol, back from injury, who lasted 75 minutes. Barcelona fans are blessed with many things these days but having a player and personality like Puyol wear their shirt is close to the top of the list. My head archived the Alba-Iniesta-Villa threesome down the left that so intelligently worked together to create overlaps throughout the game. They made it look far easier than it is. I will recall the megastore which was mega, the atmosphere around the stadium with stalls selling anything you can imagine connected with the club, and the feeling that took over me at the final whistle.
For many inside the Camp Nou that Saturday night it was just another game but for those there for the first time, like me, I’d hope they got the feeling I got at the climax. As one world class player after another walked off the field, the famous Barcelona anthem bellowed out for one final time that night and I said to my friend that must have been what it was like to watch Real Madrid in the 1950s.
Barcelona have not always been successful and have never been this great for this length of time. Watching them play in 2012 was a special time. I’ve seen enough sport in my time to know the difference between watching good and watching great. I was fortunate enough to watch the Australian cricket team of the late eighties and nineties dominate their sport. Watching Wigan Rugby League team during the same era brought the same spine-tingling emotions, as did watching Ayrton Senna at the wheel of a Formula One car. Another level.
I’d often tell people how different the sport of Formula One is live in person than on television. You see so much more than what a programmed, slow-thinking television director shows you, plus you need the strength of all of your senses to sample it the right way. Watching Barcelona is very similar. You just see things you don’t on TV. With Pep Guardiola no longer in charge, Barcelona are under different stewardship now, in Tito Villanova, yet the same magnificent showings continue. They are a box office hit, a must-see show when they are in any town and I am just thankful to have witnessed one of the greatest sides of all time in person. No wonder the smile never left my face.