101 Great Goals columnist Hugo Saye was one of the lucky souls to watch Barcelona play Real Madrid in the Nou Camp a week ago, here is his take on El Classico.
It is sometimes said that terrace humour among football fans is a particularly British trait, but try telling that to the people selling A.D. AlcorcÃ³n scarves outside the Camp Nou on Sunday night. In October the non-league outfit hammered Real Madridâ€™s superstars in the first round of the Copa del Rey, and something like that is not quickly forgotten in Barcelona.
BarÃ§a â€“ Real is a rivalry unlike any other in the world. Despite regular comparisons it is not the equivalent of Manchester United â€“ Liverpool in England; it is the oppressed against the oppressor, the nation-in-waiting against the â€˜foreignâ€™ crown, Catalunya against EspaÃ±a, the rebels of the resistance against the tyrannical General Franco. When El ClÃ¡sico comes to the Camp Nou a century of feuding manifests itself in the passion of 98,000 seething Catalans.
The global anticipation for this particular round was even more intense than usual, with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, KakÃ¡, Zlatan IbrahimoviÄ‡ and Karim Benzema being added over the summer to an already impressive cast. As Sky Sports noted, this was the most expensive football match in history. On the day of the game the â€˜blaugranaâ€™ colours took over the city and from La Rambla to Tibidabo there were BarÃ§a shirts and scarves everywhere. To say they were geared up for this game would be an understatement, and I was lucky enough (or some may stupid enough given the price) to have a ticket.
Walking along the Travessera de les Corts towards the ground an hour and a half before kick off the road was already swamped with fans. Some with megaphones derided the â€œputas de Madridâ€, while others set off firecrackers in the recreation area across from the stadium. A couple of ambulances rushing through the crowd added the sense of drama.
My own night looked to be going downhill when I was told my ticket was for a seat with Madrid ultras and that with a BarÃ§a scarf on (I had bought it outside, partly to get in the spirit, partly to balance out the potentially dangerous fact that my jacket was white) I was not going in there. Luckily, displaying a stereotypically Mediterranean approach to stewarding, I wasnâ€™t ejected but casually waved towards the home section and told to stand at the back and try to find somewhere to sit once the game had started. From there I watched the increasingly frustrated steward as he appeared to have exactly the same conversation (if the ramblings of his tiny amount of English and my even tinier amount of Spanish can be called a conversation) a further dozen or so times.
The game itself offered excitement and entertainment, despite giving little by way of goals. In the head-to-head of the worldâ€™s two finest players Lionel Messi won it on points. Playing quite deep, he was superb on the ball- always wriggling free of defenders and finding a way to retain possession even in the toughest of situations- but he seldom gave Iker Casillas too much to worry about. Ronaldo looked rusty after his spell out injured but every time he gathered possession, to the whistles of every BarÃ§a fan in the ground, he exuded a sense of threat and danger that the little Argentine rarely found.
KakÃ¡ was reasonably effective without being spectacular and Thierry Henry disappointed. Indeed, in the early stages Carles Puyol and Gonzalo HiguaÃn caught the eye as much as any of the megastars on the field. When the summerâ€™s two big-money strikers came on for their first experiences of this derby Barcelonaâ€™s IbrahimoviÄ‡ was immediately impressive and scored the only goal of the game, while Realâ€™s Benzema looked every inch an unpolished gem- working a couple of good opportunities only to then squander them- and not yet a player justifying a Â£30 + million price tag.
As the final minutes were played out a hundred thousand Catalan whistles implored the referee to blow his, when he finally did the stadium erupted. Countless scarves were whirled in the air as the â€˜culesâ€™ (literally meaning â€˜arsesâ€™- a historical, if fairly unflattering, term for BarÃ§aâ€™s fans) sang along to the Barcelona anthem in celebration of another win over their greatest rivals. The shouts of â€œVisca BarÃ§a, visca Catalunyaâ€ reminded anyone in any doubt that was about more than just a football match.
Over the following days the partisan local press proclaimed their team â€œheroesâ€, though in truth they were a bit fortunate. Given the chances Real created they could, and probably should, have won the game. A fully fit Ronaldo and an on-form Benzema- both of whom missed a couple of good chances- would likely have seen the points go to the capital. The two sides meet at the BernabÃ©u in April and Real will expect more from all their major summer signings, in which case the champions will need to perform better in order to repeat this win. For the time being though, the rebels of the east will just enjoy their continuing superiority over royals of the capital.