Independence, Plastics and the Biggest Brand in the World


Barcelona 3 v 0 Celta Vigo (26.03.2014)

By Tim Hartley

It was a long shot really. I was working in Barcelona and on impulse asked the hotel receptionist in my cronky Castiliano, “Hay billetes para el partido de Barça esta noche, por favour?” Barcelona’s Camp Nou is a must see for any football fan. Tonight they were playing at home to Celta Vigo, and we were in luck. Without hesitation from behind the desk Juliet proceeded to rattle off a price list. I could have been asking for a ticket to see Cats, an open top bus tour or the London Dungeon. “€100 for ‘lateral’ view, €65 for the lower terrace. Si?” she said nonchalantly but probably thinking ‘Tourists ah?’ I plumped for the cheap seats, in the gods behind the goal. A snip at €45 eh?

Two hours later Juliet handed me the tickets in a neat plastic envelope complete with complimentary Barcelona magazine, two postcards of the Catalan capital and a map of how to get to the ground. We were on our way. Well almost. My normal pre match routine usually takes in a pub near the ground and a couple of beers. Not this time though. My Nigerian colleague Abdulrahman had to pray before we left the centre of town. “Sorry Tim. It’s that time of day.”

Having presumably thanked God for the surprise tickets the normally quiet Abdulrahman couldn’t stop talking on the metro. “Barça has always been my team. Really. Since I was little you know. And now they have Messi and all. I can’t believe I am going to see them live,” he said and then repeated to himself more than once in apparent disbelief, “Live.”

Barcelona is no ordinary team. Founded in 1899 by a group of Swiss, English and Catalan footballers, the club has become a symbol of Catalan culture and pride. Its motto is “Més que un club” (More than a club). Superlatives about Barça abound. It is the most successful Spanish team of all time and the best attended club in the world. Despite having a turnover of UD$613, the supporters own and operate Barcelona. Its distinctive purple and blue colours are worn across continents and there are 1,335 officially registered fan clubs around the world.

The club’s long-standing rivalry with Real Madrid, the ‘El Clásico,’ has the added edge that one represents imperial Spain, the other a seven and a half million strong nation with its own language and culture which feels downtrodden and wants to break away from Madrid. The Sunday before we arrived, Barça had beaten Real in a thrilling seven goal match and brought themselves right back into contention for the La Liga title.

The animosity between Madrid and Barcelona, indeed between the Spanish state and the Catalan nation, runs deep. On 14 June 1925 the Barça crowd jeered the Spanish national anthem in a spontaneous protest against Miguel Primo de Rivera‘s dictatorship. The ground was closed for six months as a reprisal. During the civil war Barcelona players fought for the Republicans and, after the fascists’ victory, the club was forced to remove the Catalan flag from its badge. Supporting the team was a clandestine way of showing your support for the opposition, indeed for Catalan independence.

SAM_0465This club is big. Every corner of the city seems draped in the colours, scarves, flags, posters and murals, of the football team. Abdulrahman and I looked at each other and grinned as we took our seats in the dizzying heights of the Camp Nou stadium. It has a capacity of 99,787 and there are plans to increase that to 105,000. But tonight empty seats stood out on all five tiers.

We had obviously been placed in the tourist section. Young girls with long dark hair were holding nylon Barcelona flags and taking photographs. Lots of photographs. There were ‘selfies’, me and my friend shots, group pictures. Even Abdul got into the swing of things and made me blag a banner from the girls and snap him against the pitch way down below us. How many of these people had ever attended a football match before? Had they too read the morning paper? The headline in ‘La Vanguardia’, the Catalan daily, was that the Spanish Constitutional Court in Madrid had ruled the Catalan Parliament’s January declaration of sovereignty as ‘unconstitutional.’ I also couldn’t quite work out how the club as an expression of national identity could reconcile itself with also being a hugely successful international brand. Perhaps the next 90 minutes would offer some clues.

There was an excited buzz of chatter across the ground as play got underway. Barça dominated Celta from the word go. The Brazilian, Neymar, scored after just six minutes. There were celebrations of sorts but the young students had missed it all. They were still busy snapping pictures with their backs to the action. Abdulrahman stood up in his seat and peered through his phone at the game. He slowly moved it to the right and to the left, taking in every corner of the stadium all the while recording his own commentary. Not on the match but on the experience. “I am here at the Nou Camp watching Barça. Live! Look there is Messi on the pitch.” I hope he had a good zoom facility. We were miles away.

The Barça locals below us tried to inject some passion. They stood together in the very bottom tier but there can’t have been more than fifty of them. They clapped and chanted to the bang of a drum and every now and again they raised eight or nine Catalan flags turning the stand, well, part of it at any rate, temporarily into a sea of defiant yellow and red stripes.

On the half hour Abdulrahman’s prayer was fully answered when his boyhood hero, Lionel Messi, scored. I jumped up in anticipation of Messi’s shot, punched the air and applauded loudly as the ball went in. “C’mon Barça!” But as I sat down a firm hand was placed on my shoulder. The guy behind me gestured to the pitch and then back to me. “No stand up,” he said sharply. “I miss goal.” I couldn’t believe it. This was football as tourism. No passion, no belief and certainly no standing when my team for the night were about to score. There was just more camera snapping from this unofficial tourist section and a tick in the box to say ‘I’ve done the Camp Nou.’

It was as if I had stood up during the second act of Les Mis and spoiled everyone’s view of the workers as they were about to storm the barricades. This guy and the chattering girls could have been anywhere in the world. It was just another excursion for them. Being there in the moment and being passionate about football was not the point. Having been there was.

As if to underscore my contempt for these sporting daytrippers, they all then got up and left the ground with twenty minutes of play remaining. The purple and blue nylon scarves may now adorn the walls of student digs for a month or so and the selfies would no doubt be beamed across the Facebook world that night. But what was it all for?

In this country we call them ‘plastics.’ Man U has plenty of them, Liverpool too. Indeed any football team which has had success down the years has its share of plastics, thousands of supporters who have no affiliation with the club, live nowhere near it but who might, just might, go there once in a lifetime. The clubs themselves love the plastics. Because it is they who buy the scarves and pennants, pay through the nose for stadium tours, who drink from a red and white mug at work, wear the replica shirt at the kids Saturday morning training. They build the brand and are happy to pay for the privilege. It’s all about marketing, never mind to whom. I was confused. Wasn’t this after all a fan owned club?

Back on the pitch Barcelona were in full control. Celta Vigo huffed and puffed but when Barça scored a third goal it really was game over. But the football had been so professional, so controlled that it, like the crowd, lacked passion. I’m not asking for a return to the blood and guts performances of the 1970s or a skinhead on every terrace. But this particular football experience was just so, boring.

Not for Abdulrahman though who was still on a high as we wound our way down the endless stairs to the main concourse. I took his photo, here in front of the branded fast food stall, there beside the mini club shop and again with the stadium floodlights in the distance. I felt good for him but a little sad for myself. I too had allowed myself to be processed. I’d been given the opportunity to be a small part of the Barça brand and just like those stupid students with their stupid scarves, i-phones and cheap flags, I’d grabbed it. It had been a fine night out and I am glad to have visited the Camp Nou. But football as tourism? No thank you. Never again.

Tim Hartley is a manangement consultant working with CTP Interntational.

You can follow Tim on Twitter @timhhartley

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