The Camp Nou is on the west side of the city and surrounded by three or four metro stations within walking distance. I got off at Les Corts and after each stop along the way, the number of Barcelona jerseys in the car increased more and more. I was wearing Arsenal Red, though just the colors, not the jersey. I emerge from the metro on Travessera de les Corts, a busy street lined with bars and Barca supporters spilling out of the entrances. Everyone is holding a cold beer, Estrella presumably, and I'm beginning to worry about scalping a ticket since so far nobody has yelled out, entradas!
The stadium from the outside is not special at all. It's mostly gray cement and covered with broad stairs that lead to narrow passageways. The sidewalk lights are draped with Barcelona colors and paraphernalia. Pep Guardiola, so far, is the most common face on billboards and bus stops. I am about 50 yards from the ticket counter when I see the first stadium volunteer. He's wearing an official Champions League orange mesh vest and I can no longer suppress a gigantic smile. Grinning, surely like fool, I am immediately approached by a scalper.
It's a short, tan, worn out looking fellow with a hardly comprehensible smokers voice. "100 euros, pero te lo doy por la mitad," he says, grabbing my shoulder. "No lo tengo," I reply, ready to brush him off. "40", he counters. I smile - that was easy. No lo tengo. 35! "No tengo efectivo," I say - and it's true, I only have 20 euros cash. "Dimé," he says. That means say a number. "Tengo veinte." He throws up his hands - imposible, he mutters, and walks away.
By the time I make it to the counter, 5 other individuals, each with an increasing number of facial defects and each more and more tan approaches. They're a touchy bunch, constantly grabbing you like they would a rescued prisoner. I make it to the window, a small 2ft by 2ft square with a younger, volunteer-looking-fellow sitting with a keyboard in his lap. "Lo mas barato que puedas," I say, asking for the cheapest thing he's got. 42 is his reply. I almost throw my credit card at him. Meanwhile, at the window next to me, a man is debating rather loudly with a scalper while also talking to a ticket agent. It's quite a scene and nobody leaves happy. I get my ticket, a glossy silver paper with silver threads offset from the center. It's in the Champions League font - they spared no detail - and I ascend toward the stadium, almost jogging.
More Champions League vests, I nod hello to them all. I emerge from the tunnel and wow. The grass is glowing green, the pitch is perfect. It sounds silly, but it looks exactly like it does on TV. What you don't see on TV is the sun setting behind the hills outside of the stadium. A few minutes later Panathinaikos comes out to warm up. Booooo! says the half-full stands. It would only fill to about 70% capacity - 68 thousand said the regular-tron.
Barca FC comes out to cheers, of course, and Carlos Puyol looks just a silly as I imagined. The starting line-up is: Victor Valdez, Abidal, Pique, Puyol, Dani Alves, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi, and David Villa. Um, yeah. Looks like Barca want the win. They'd get it.
Messi and Alves warm up together, closest to the sideline. They like to be seen. Triangle passing, some cutting-drills, some stretching and they're done. The only thing of note is that they didn't do any 3-vs-1's. I thought that was required by all teams at every level. It must be a sign of weakness because the Greeks get smashed. Cue the official Barcelona song. In order to re-create the effect, find 60-thousand volunteers to do the "clapclapclap" and then Barca!, Barca! BaaaaarrrrrrrCA! Just mumble the rest. Next cue the best soccer song ever. Yes, they play it over the loud speakers and yes, they shake the tarp. I pinch myself.
Barcelona comes out of the gate on fire. They instantly dominate possession and the first crowd OHHHHH, comes at the 2 minute mark. It's easy to say now, but it immediately looks like this is going to be a rout. I'm perfectly fine with that. So is Panathinaikos by the look of it. They settle in defensively and quite literally by the 1oth minute it has a feel of a 1-nil lead that the away team is trying to hold. Everyone knows that isn't going to happen.
Or is it. Uh-oh in the 20th minute. By my estimate it was the 4th pass connected by the Greeks. A long-ball by the goalie reaches Gibril Cisse, who flicks deftly onto Govou. Mr. Govou outruns Abidal, who looks caught in slow-motion. The side of the net ruffles, Valdez looks at Abidal confused and the crowd mutters for a moment. I begin to swear - I'm trying to fit in - but just like that, less than 5 seconds after the goal, the stadium erupts in the loudest song to this point. Puyol gesticulates at David Villa, Pedro and Messi. Xavi is still working on his 5-o'clock-shadow look, without fail. The game resumes exactly where it left off, Barcelona with 78% possession to Pana's 22%. Three minutes later Barcelona scores, and the first standing ovation is unleashed. Messi lulls his defender asleep and Xavi (I believe) gives him a bouncing through-ball that Leo handles quite well. 1-1.
At this point it is worth mentioning that if you have a hot girlfriend you are apparently required by Catalan ordinance to take her to the Camp Nou. This is where couples go to be seen. A tight fitting Barca jersey, skinny jeans and some nice sandals is the dress code. The girls pay attention to the game too. Not that I was staring at one sitting one row down and 9 seats over, but she seemed to understand what was happening. In the seats and in Barcelona in general, couples are very affectionate. They pet each other constantly and girls often gaze for longer than 30 seconds into their partner's eyes. If you yelled at them to get a room, they would probably appreciate the suggestion. There is no attractive girl at the game by herself, only fatter ones.
Villa scores the 2nd from a Busquets, aka, Boooo-see header. It's well taken but horrible marking is most responsible from the corner set. Right before half, this happens. After the first give-and-go I begin to laugh sarcastically because everyone sees what Messi is trying to pull off. Um. What? He actually puts it home after a double give-and-go? Now we get the loudest cheer and many members of the crowd are gesticulating "NO MAS, NO MAS", like a hurt fighter. Jack Buck, I don't believe what I just saw. I'm cheering a little too much for an Argentian and I start to feel embarrassed.
Half-time. Everyone pulls out their sandwiches wrapped in foil. It's thin french bread with soprata/ham/salami, cheese and peppers. It looks delicious. Say dude, where'd you get that? "My wife made it at home, (his 3 friends with their mouths full nod in agreement), but you can get a hotdog outside." I pass. Not after seeing them eat those sandwiches. The women do not eat in public.
The first half felt long. I was happy about that, I was afraid it was going to fly by. The second half starts about 30 seconds after Barcelona took the field. They waste no time. Messi at the penalty spot for a hattrick. He misses. I give a small, unnoticed fist pump; that makes up for all my cheering before. It's still Messi... Messi... Meeeeessi. Two moments worth noting in the second half. Pedro gets a through ball, has a great angle on the keeper, and I'm not kidding, he looks to pass! He fumbles the ball a bit, tries to pull it back out (the goal mouth still gaping) and eventually turns it over. Xavi scolds him. Why didn't you shoot man! Are you crazy!, he probably said in perfect Catalan. Messi hits the post from no angle, twice - off the inside of one, off the inside of the other - and Pedro finishes to a hint of sarcastic clapping. This game is officially over, though it has been over for an hour. On the death, Dani Alves heads home a scoop pass from Leo, who has looked semi-desperate for his hat-trick after missing that PK. The crowd heads for the tunnels, factions of songs break out, smiles abound. Just another Tuesday night in Barcelona.