Super Grounds: Nou Camp, Barcelona

Reds fan Neil Dunkin, author of Anfield Of Dreams: A Kopite’s Odyssey, brings us the next stadium in his world tour of Super Grounds.

NO Liverpool fan needs telling that Anfield is the most fantastic stadium in the world. For atmosphere, passion, fervour and sheer pulsating excitement, nothing surpasses it, least of all the Mogadon trio of Old Trafford’s theatre, Stamford Bridge’s bank or the Emirates mosque.

But we all love watching games in famous foreign arenas, so I’ve picked some of my favourites. After the Maracana, Azteca and San Siro, I now come to my fourth super ground, the Camp Nou, which I visited to see Liverpool play Barcelona in the Champions League.

Super Grounds: Issue 4: The Nou Camp
More than a Club
Nou Camp Stadium, Bacelona

BARCELONA is a city and a football club I’ve long admired and to understand what they both mean to the region of Catalonia, outsiders should look back no farther than the Spanish Civil War.

This began in 1936 when the military, led by General Francisco Franco and backed by the Catholic church and Establishment, sought to overthrow a democratically elected Left-wing government.

Pitting father against son, brother against brother, democrat against fascist, republican against royalist, regionalist against nationalist, Left against Right, the conflict went on to claim 500,000 lives, including Josep Sunyol, president of FC Barcelona, who was murdered by the general’s soldiers in the Sierra Guadarrama mountains near Madrid.

Despite Hitler and Mussolini dispatching troops, bombers and munitions to aid their ally, Franco’s army took three years to quell their republican foes in the peninsula, where Catalonia remained the principal stronghold of opposition until January 1939. Then fascist forces marched into Barcelona after a savage siege and instigated summary executions of so-called enemies of the state, the eventual death toll reaching 35,000 in the city alone.

Franco also exacted revenge on the region’s culture. He banned books in Catalan and its use as an official language, prohibited the Sardana folk dance, made flying the Catalan flag a criminal offence and even changed the English name Football Club Barcelona to the Spanish Club de Fútbol Barcelona. Likewise, he punished the Basques, turning Athletic de Bilbao into Atlético de Bilbao.

Catalans and Basques have never forgiven Franco’s tyranny. In 1964, the dictator marked the anniversary of his overthrow of democracy with billboards across Spain, stating ‘œ25 años de paz, 25 years of peace’. In Madrid, Franco’s capital, they were regarded with pride. In Catalonia, locals altered every one to read ‘œ25 años de paciencia, 25 years of patience’. Their moment would come.

It did, in 1975: Franco was summoned by his maker to atone for his many sins and Catalonia secured regional autonomy. Its language, books, flag and folk dance were back ‘“ and the football club reverted to its original title.

Against this background of the civil war, Barça’s football rivalry with Real Madrid assumes a political, cultural and military dimension not found anywhere else in Western Europe. Catalan fans hate Franco’s favoured club, Real Madrid, that symbol of fascist repression; supporters of the Merengues detest FC Barcelona, breeding ground of separatists and socialists.

Encapsulating Barça’s emotional hold is their motto, ‘œSom més que un club, We are more than just a football club’ ‘“ a tag-line that our friends in East Lancashire tried to misappropriate a few years ago. How original.

In shirts unblemished by any commercial sponsor, Barça represent a national team for seven million Catalans in the region, millions more who have emigrated to Latin America and the host of members of its 1,700 penyas, or supporters’ branches.

For many of them, Spain are a ‘œforeign’ side and any Catalan playing for Madrid’s selection is as disloyal as an Englishman turning out for Scotland.

Nou CampEqually galling is the Champions Cup/Champions League table, since Real, ‘œthe best club in history’, have won it nine times, compared with Barça’s twice.

The manager who first broke the Catalans’ jinx in the competition in 1992 was Johan Cruyff, El Salvador (The Saviour), who discovered politics were as important as tactics at the club. After winning unprecedented honours at home and abroad, he read newspaper stories that Bobby Robson had been appointed to his job. Disregarding these, he drove to training at the Camp Nou where the vice-president, Joan Gaspart, banished him from the stadium with a contemptuous ‘œYou don’t belong here any more’.

Cruyff’s contract had one week to run.

In spite of its chronicle of boardroom bloodletting, the club prides itself on being answerable to the fans, structured in a way that members of The Spirit of Shankly and ShareLiverpoolFC organisations would give their right arms to see at Anfield.

Barça is not owned by some faceless billionaire or distant multinational corporation but by 155,000 socis, or subscribing members, who run the club through elected nominees. They decide the budget, vote for or against the accounts, air their views on the team and bounce the president out if he’s not delivering.

As a non-profit-making association whose excess income is ploughed back into the business, socis receive no dividends. As and when necessary, they dip into their own pockets, paying in 1957 for construction of the Camp Nou, or New Ground, which originally had a 150,000 capacity but was scaled back to 93,000.

Abiding by their socialist principles, socis have rejected proposals for a share flotation to raise capital, have spurned fortunes for shirt sponsorship and are planning to generate more revenue by building a leisure, entertainment and theme park on land next to the stadium.

Nou Camp

Barça already possess one of Spain’s biggest tourist attractions, the Camp Nou museum, which draws more than a million visitors every year, and on the afternoon of our European tie in 2002 I joined the queue with my mates, Tim Ferrett and Steve Davenport.

Inside, we lingered over a line-up of match posters dating back to the Twenties, one publicising a visit by Ilford of the English Isthmian League, but the trophy display was my must-see. Although Barça have been victorious in four Cup Winners and four UEFA cup competitions, seniority was given to the Champions League trophy, an inscription above it declaring, ‘œLa historia continua, The history continues’.

And its chapters are not restricted to football. Facilities in the stadium complex extend to an indoor arena and ice rink, so the museum featured other sports: futsal, women’s football, American football, baseball, basketball, wheelchair basketball, handball (Europe’s crack team, with six European Cups), volleyball, rugby, swimming, roller hockey, field hockey, ice hockey, figure-skating, cycling and athletics (400 athletes in training). For older, retired supporters, Barça even has a thriving offshoot which organises social events, trips to away games and Catalan classes for non-speakers.

Som més que un club. That speaks for itself.

Having agreed the museum served as an excellent overture for that evening’s main event, the three of us returned to our hotel off La Rambla to get ready for the game.

We were about to leave when I noticed Tim was going out in his LFC shirt. No jacket. My reaction: ‘œIf I were you, I’d cover up.’ Rather a coward than a punchbag for Catalan kick-boxers.

In point of fact, Tim had figured in a similar, but more menacing, precedent a few years earlier, while working on the outskirts of Los Angeles for a computer company. As he had no car, he used to travel by bus to the office and arrived one day in a Liverpool jersey.

A Mexican colleague was appalled. ‘œTeem, Teem,’ he said. ‘œNo, no, no. They will keel you. Never wear red in the street. The Creeps will keel you.’

The Creeps were the Crips, the blue-garbed street gang whose sworn enemies, the Bloods, could be distinguished by their red attire. For any Crip dawdling past the bus stop in his Dodge Ram, Tim’s Carlsberg shirt would have been like a red rag to a bull, a brazen demand for a drive-by shooting.

In LA, Tim didn’t wear his top again on the street. In Barcelona, he concealed his Liverpool jersey beneath a fleece.

Outside our hotel, we asked a taxi driver to drop us off at a hostelry not far from the Camp Nou and he conveyed us to a bodega, where we had a meal and a tincture or two. In Homage To Catalonia, George Orwell remarked: ‘œHow easy it is to make friends in Spain!’ Well, Catalans are as warm as their Mediterranean sun and inside the bar we felt at home, chatting to matey locals, some of whom wanted us to win. Indeed, Cornishman Tim thought the atmosphere was almost as convivial as in his local, The Cobweb in Boscastle, and that’s saying something.

With kick-off creeping near, we set off.

As the three of us mooched in silence past the Miniestadi, or Mini Stadium, a modern 15,000-seat arena where reserves play, 50 or 60 teenage Catalans overtook us, flourishing scarves printed with ‘œBarça O Muerte, Barça Or Death’ and bawling a verse with puta, whore, in every line, doubtless a reference to Real Madrid.

Ahead, an interloper came around the bend, a Liverpool fan in red shirt and hat who sensibly took a wide berth into the road to avoid the gang.

Not far enough. One Barcelonista snotted him full in the face.

Hand holding jaw, the Scouser walked straight on.

What could he do against 50? And if Tim’s top had been visible, he, and us, might have got the same treatment.

Through our turnstile, we found seats amid the Liverpool contingent at the top of a terrace overlooking the Gol Nord, lair of the Boixos Nois (Crazy Boys), Barça’s hooligan firm. The rest of their supporters, those with some grey matter between their ears, are known as cules, or arses, after penniless youngsters who in past days would sit on a wall enclosing the ground, offering a row of backsides to passers-by.

From our specs, it was noticeable the stadium was not of uniform height all way round. It appeared like an enormous oval bowl tilted in a tectonic upheaval, its lowest side furnished with a narrow roof to shelter millionaires in their armchairs, rest of the arena open to the sun and rain.

Quite a venue. In 1981-82, average league attendances hit 100,000 when its capacity was increased to 115,000 for the World Cup, but now it has been reduced to a 98,800 all-seater, inciting a chant of ‘œShitty ground, shitty ground’ from some Scouse comedians.

At the far end, surrounded by red and yellow flags, was a long banner bearing one word, ‘œAlmogavers’, the 13th-Century Catalan knights who went into battle on foot against armies of cavalry and conquered large areas of the Mediterranean. A modern, political aspiration was publicised when, to chants of ‘œVisca el Barça, Long live Barça’ and ‘œVisca Catalunya, Long live Catalonia’, a poster was unfurled behind the goal, demanding in English, ‘œFreedom for Catalonia’. A message for Madrid and also King Juan Carlos, who was up in the presidential box.

Sun setting, floodlights on, both teams entered the white arena, with Barça in their traditional blue and scarlet jerseys which are believed to have been copied from Waterloo rugby club, since brothers Arthur and Ernest Witty, old boys of Crosby’s Merchant Taylors’ School, played prominent roles in founding the Catalan side in 1899.

Once the game kicked off, it developed into a cat-and-mouse affair, Barça probing and pressing, Liverpool absorbing and breaking. While their danger men, Rivaldo, Kluivert and tricky Saviola, got no change out of our defenders, we did create openings. From five yards out, goal gaping, Gerrard miskicked and then he outjumped their defence at a free kick, putting his header wide.

In the closing minutes, Baros came on as substitute and went on a mazy dribble across the edge of their box. With the Catalan defence spellbound, we bellowed for him to shoot but he took the ball too wide and, soon after, the referee blew for a goalless draw.

While the Boixos Nois dispersed, sinister-looking riot police, faces masked by black scarves, kept us in our seats as Sammy Lee led the Reds’ squad in their warm-down. Some 30 minutes later, we were allowed out to catch a bus to the Plaça Reial for a bevy.

Nou Camp (C) Neil Dunkin

Refreshed by this, Steve and Tim went back to our hotel but I elected for a nightcap in a bar next to the Boquería market where I picked over the bones of the match with a local called Joan (not someone awaiting a sex-change operation, Catalan for John).

I was sipping dark rum with Coke, so I bought him one and he reciprocated, toasting, ‘œSalud y dinero y amor, Health and money and love’. Then my new oppo inquired: ‘œYou like rum?’

I nodded.

‘œI can make rum,’ Joan continued. ‘œHere, in this bar.’

‘œIs that so? Prove it.’

Joan, a David Bedford clone with ringlets of black hair tumbling down his head, was wearing a white T-shirt with Sitges in blue across the front. He flexed his right arm like a bodybuilder tensing biceps and, with the index finger of his left hand, made arcane signs on his elbow while whispering an unintelligible incantation.

He unbent his arm.

‘œPut your hand out,’ he instructed.

I did. Placing his fingers over my open palm, Joan rubbed the tips together.

Drops of brown liquid fell into my hand.

I’ll be jiggered!

‘œTry,’ he said.

I licked my palm and the liquid was rum.

‘œAgain,’ Joan said. He repeated the procedure, bending his right arm and drawing symbols on the elbow with his finger.

Once more, drops of Nelson’s blood fell from his fingertips into my palm.

The impossible is not possible, yet I had seen and tasted it.

‘œHow?’ I had to know.

‘œI cannot tell you’ was Joan’s answer.

Several shorts later, from the bar’s bottle, not Joan’s digits, it was bedtime for me but, before leaving, I asked him: ‘œTell me the secret.’

‘œMira, look,’ he said, lifting the locks of black hair cascading over his right cheek. ‘œYou see …’

Wedged out of sight behind his ear was ‘¦ a ball of cotton wool. ‘œWhen you went to the caballeros, the gents, I wet it in my glass,’ he explained with a smile.

Crafty blighter. As he bent his arm and performed his incantations, my eyes focused on the finger describing cabalistic figures on his elbow. Meanwhile, the fingers of his right hand were squeezing rum out of the cotton ball, which then dripped into my palm.

A trickster bamboozling the gullible with sleight of hand.

Ignore the tatty old three-card trick ‘“ Joan is probably now making a fortune in Costa del Sol bars. You have been warned.

Neil Dunkin’s Anfield Of Dreams: A Kopite’s Odyssey From The Second Division To Sublime Istanbul has been shortlisted for the British Sports Book Awards 2009 in the Best New Writer category. You can buy Anfield Of Dreams for just £6.99.