Camp Nou football stadium, Barcelona: The mecca for football fans

The message is clear. "I only want to go to Barcelona to see Barcelona Football Club play," says the husband, shelving any ideals of visiting Sagrada Familia or eating at world-famous restaurants.  

We're staying at one of the best addresses in town – the new suites in the Mandarin Oriental Barcelona – and the entrance is a dramatic catwalk up from street level. The lobby is sleek and hushed, the staff as polished as only five-star staff can be. Yet in Barcelona, football transcends gender and poshness.

"Barca's not the same without Messi," says the glossy guest relations manager, her commiserations to my husband are heartfelt that his hero, Lionel Messi, is out of play due to injury. 

The willowy Clef d'Or concierge adds his mournful bit: "There is a match, but it's not Barca." With his glasses and soft hands, he's a world away from the Barmy Army stereotypes, but the football fire is strong in his heart.  

"There is always Neymar jnr on the field," says my husband with hope, and the trio brightens noticeably. 

In Barcelona, football certainly appeals to shoppers: the city's new-town grids and old-city lanes conspire to walk me into one of dozens of official FC Barcelona boutiques selling balls and caps, water bottles and pencil cases. A genuine FC Barcelona shirt will set you back €80 ($124), even though it's a sweaty 100 per cent nylon and manufactured in Vietnam or Bangladesh. 

Budget Barcelona fans head to the souvenir shops selling unofficial shirts for half the price. Otherwise, at a pinch, you can snap up your Barca clothing from one of the illegal sellers on the footpaths, where shirts are laid out alongside fake Michael Kors and Prada handbags, all swiftly rolled into a swag whenever the police are spotted, the vendors hotfooting it with a hoot of laughter. 

"Are they like faux Gucci bags, where Gucci is spelt Guchi?" I ask the concierge. I'm envisaging a generation of small boys dressed in No. 10 shirts that read "Messy" on the back. 

"No, but they're not the original," he sniffs. For €27 we can pick up a last-season shirt (the stripes are vertical) or €35 for the new shirts (with horizontal stripes). For a few euros more, you can have your own name printed on the back. The neck is cut slightly differently, and there's a little trim missing, but they'll do the job. Ladies, don't feel navy and maroon fit into your wardrobe? Try an official pink-and-white FC Barcelona scarf.

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"Of course!" coos the scarf salesman, smiling encouragingly at me. "Barca is for everyone." But this is all cosmetic: the real experience is at Camp Nou, the home of FC Barcelona, a 25-minute metro ride north-west of the central Placa Catalyuna, and we're going for a match. We're going to the hallowed hall, which is also home to the largest FC Barcelona shop in the world – are you surprised?  

The night before, over a Beckham Sour at to-the-minute restaurant Boca Grande, where Messi and Neymar have been known to frequent, the husband runs through tomorrow's itinerary. Rise late (we need to save energy for shouting), long breakfast (we may not be able to leave our seats to eat at the match), a light shop (for another FC Barcelona shirt and scarf). Then onto the metro to arrive at the stadium at least 90 minutes before kick-off to watch the players warm up. 

Today's match is between Barca and Eibar, a team generally held in little regard, although they have made a recent meteoric rise on La Liga's table (the Spanish league), and without key Barca players Messi and captain Andres Iniesta, it's a more evenly contested match.

A warning: Barca fans are a loyal crew, and the home matches sell out early. Don't have a ticket? Pick it up at the airport, at a newsstand on the street, or you may get lucky at the stadium. Seats range from €45 in the blind spot behind the goal to €125 in the dress circle. We bought our tickets online a week beforehand, at €59 apiece. They're just beside the €95 seats, with a good view of the Barcelonistas, the ultra-fanatics with their huge flags and massive lungs. 

The English father and son sitting beside us are on a mission: they saw Paris Saint-Germain play in Monaco, a snip at €30 a seat, but forked out €500 to scalpers for two tickets to a sold-out Bayern Munich match in Germany. "These Barca tickets are cheap compared with the English league," they say, as we drink non-alcoholic beer sold in FC Barcelona-branded plastic cups and chomp on FC Barcelona-branded potato chips.  

Kick-off is at 6.15pm, but first, the stadium sings the Barca song and a band of Catalan separatists runs onto the pitch brandishing a gigantic flag that reads, "Freedom of expression!" Everyone sings the Catalan anthem and we all settle down to the match.

 Sergi Roberto is filling in for Messi. He misses. And misses again. 

"Messi would never miss," mutters my ever-loyal husband. 

When Eibar kicks the first goal, just 10 minutes into the match, the Barca fans are stoic. The Barcelonistas kick up a chant to jolly our spirits, there's no time for castigation or angst. So when Suarez places a goal for Barca, minutes later, the stadium erupts with a roar. But the celebrations are brief, and everyone sits down quickly. There's work to be done. 

Hands are thrown in the air to dispute referees' calls and the middle-aged man behind us, clad in a beige windcheater and big 80s-style reading glasses, is going to burst a blood vessel, so great is his indignation. His diatribes are long, detailed and heartfelt. Meanwhile, the man in front of me takes any excuse to leap to his feet, both arms thrown out in supplication. "Why?" he shouts. "WHY?" 

Half-time is a blur of cigarette smoke outside the stadium, and the second half continues with more chanting, a few Mexican waves and an outpouring of protestations against a red card, followed by Barca's second, then third and final goal.  

It's not a memorable match, finishing 3-1 to Barca, but the top team in La Liga did their job by winning, the fans did their job helping them over the line.

It's a passion, it's a religion, it's a lifestyle. 

FIVE MORE TOURS FOR TRAGICS

1. Take a guided Legends Tour at Old Trafford's grounds and museum of Manchester United – or if you swing the other way, Arsenal has a self-guided audio tour of Emirates Stadium, recorded by star players. See  manutd.com, arsenal.com.

2. Home of Real Madrid, the tour of Estadio Santiago Bernabeu​ is regarded as one of the best stadium tours. See realmadrid.com.

3. La Bombonera is the heartland of the Boca Juniors and now includes the world's first football-themed hotel. See bocajuniors.com.ar, hotelbocajuniors.com.

4. FC Bayern's Allianz Arena in Munich has daily tours and a special tour on home match days that runs you through the players' tunnel hours before the stars go on. See allianz-arena.de.

5. Despite its current scandals, the new FIFA World Football Museum in Zurich opened in February, and displays the original World Cup trophy. See fifamuseum.com.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

luxecityguides.com.

STAYING THERE

The five-star Mandarin Oriental Barcelona's new suites are designed by Spanish superstar Patricia Urquiola. Stays cost from €535 a night, Passeig de Gracia 38-40, Eixample. See mandarinoriental.com.  FC Barcelona usually play two matches a week during the season, mainly weekends. Buy tickets online at fcbarcelona.com.

The writer was a guest of Mandarin Oriental Barcelona.

 

 

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