More than 10 years have passed but I can still remember the sinking feeling. Sitting on a hotel bed, staring blankly at those match tickets. FC Barcelona v Deportivo La Coruña at the Camp Nou. It should have been my first time to see one of the world’s iconic football teams in the flesh. Instead, there I was, in the early hours of Sunday morning, trying to process the information that a game I had thought was due to take place later that evening had, in fact, already been played a number of hours earlier.
A decade later, lesson learned, I employ the ingenious tactic of actually reading the date on my tickets to ensure I show up on the correct day. Buoyed by this personal triumph, I settle in to watch Barca do their thing, coldly taking apart a vastly inferior Granada team. Leo Messi is in the crowd too, injury limiting his involvement to a quick pre-game ceremony in which he ambles out in jeans and hoodie to show off his latest Golden Boot award.
The world’s greatest footballer is not a man known for expressing strong political beliefs, so I can only assume he maintains a dignified silence when the chant goes up on 17 minutes and 14 seconds. “In-Inde-Independencia! In-Inde-Independencia!” I thought I was prepared for this moment but the sound of thousands of supporters at a football match calling for their region to become an independent state is arresting.
This ritual has been a regular part of the matchday experience here for well over a year. The very specific timing has its significance in the War of the Spanish Succession, which ended in 1714 when Barcelona fell to Philip V after a siege of the city. At the same point in the second half, the fans find their voice again. This time it seems a little half-hearted, interest possibly diverted by events on the field, where the Barca players have pressed their opponents into oblivion and are moving in for the kill.
Catalonia’s most famous football club, FC Barcelona, has traditionally been seen as an important barometer of the feelings of the Catalan people.
The rumblings inside the stadium in recent times reflect the gathering pace of the separatist movement, signs of which are easily spotted elsewhere in the city. My sightseeing stroll along the stylish Passeig de Gràcia is interrupted by a well-attended protest. Ostensibly a march against economic cuts, it also provides at least one clutch of demonstrators with an opportunity to carry a large “Independencia” banner.
The spectacular interior of La Sagrada Família church provides the surreal backdrop to another enlightening episode. My tour guide is a cool customer who gives the impression that he could spend the whole day dutifully dispensing information about Gaudí’s use of the hyperbolic paraboloid without getting too worked up. All it takes is one quick digression and he’s off on a lengthy, impassioned explanation of the economic reasons behind the upsurge in support for secession from Spain.
Not everybody in the city is consumed by the debate. The beautiful people who populate the trendy nightspots by the beach, for example, have more pressing matters at hand. Top priority here is to establish one’s place in the social pecking order. The skill set required to climb that ladder looks complex but I think I can discern a couple of key lessons: always try to look mildly disinterested in the conversation you’re having and never, under any circumstances, allow yourself to smile.
FC Barcelona will have no official part to play in the public discourse on independence; its motto "més que un club" (more than a club) encapsulates its strong links with Catalan culture but stops short of landing it in the middle of a political storm. The club has no public position on the question, prepared instead to follow whatever the people of Catalonia decide.
A visit to the impressive Camp Nou museum reveals a less circumspect approach to the politics of the past. On its walls, the club declares itself “in favour of Catalonia’s rights and freedom. It supported the call for autonomy at the end of the 1920s, as well as the Statutes of Autonomy in 1931, 1979 and 2005”.
Many Barca fans hope that 2014 is added to that list of momentous years in the region’s history. Home matches at the Camp Nou will continue to provide a time and place to voice those hopes.
This theme is explored by Sid Lowe in my holiday reading for the trip, Fear and Loathing in La Liga. One of the interviewees in the book is Toni Strubell, a member of the Catalan parliament whose father was an exile in England during the Franco dictatorship. Strubell's father, Lowe writes, "always told him that the day the Camp Nou chanted for independence would be the day independence arrived." I have no idea if that will be the case; I'm just glad I got my dates right this time and managed to see some football.
Barcelona: How To
Eoin McDevitt went with budgetair.ie, which also arranged match tickets. Ryanair and Aer Lingus fly direct to Barcelona and Ryanair also flies to Girona and Reus.
Hotel: NH Rallye (nh-hoteles.es; rooms from €75). A stone's throw from Camp Nou.
Match tickets: Barca's website (fcbarcelona.com) is a good starting
point. Price, availability depend on match.
Post-game tipple: Pepburg restaurant (Travessera de Les Corts, 229).
Near enough to the stadium to soak up the atmosphere, far enough away that you may get a seat.
Eat: Tasty tapas at La Tramoia (latramoia.com; Rambla de la Catalunya, 15) In the heart of the city
Outside the city: If wine is your thing, tour the Torres Winery (torres.es). Half an hour from Barcelona, near Vilafranca del Penedès.