As I placed the ball to take a corner-kick in Barcelona’s Nou Camp stadium, the grass was so thick, green and perfect that for someone who had spent his life on sandy park pitches, it was actually funny. Glancing up towards the goalmouth before kicking, I suddenly took in the towering stands opposite. The Nou Camp has 99,000 seats. It was a very theatrical moment: as a player here, you are aware of yourself as an actor.
Tragically, none of this happened during an actual soccer game. For three days last month I was let off my leash inside the club. So here is a briefing for Manchester United before they visit Barcelona for next Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final, possibly the match of this season:
● There is a psychological difference between the centre of the Nou Camp and the wing. Running around in the middle of the field, you can almost forget the setting. The Nou Camp becomes just another football field, not so different from a sandy park ground. Any pitch anywhere is reassuringly familiar.
But out on the wing, you feel the gaze of millions. You can see individual faces in the crowd. (The day I kicked around, there were quite a few visitors on stadium tours, and each time I fired into the empty goal, some cheered.) On the wing you are nearer to some spectators than to the goalmouth. If you look up you can have a relationship for a moment with an individual fan. It probably takes a special personality to play on the wing in the company of millions.
● Someone introduced me to Ronaldinho, the world’s greatest footballer of the 2005-06 era, wearing a bandana. While we exchanged pleasantries, I had nearly a minute to take him in at point-blank range. As he stood there, his legs were constantly in motion. He was bouncing, almost dancing on the spot. Nor could he stop looking around. This may just have been desperation to escape a British geek, but at that moment it struck me as temporary dose of attention deficit disorder.
● Perhaps no other football club draws as many journalists to its daily press conferences or is surrounded by as much chatter as Barcelona. Much of that chatter now concerns the perceived laziness of the players. When I arrived, they were jogging around in the early evening sunshine of this heavenly city, back from a two-day holiday. Afterwards I asked a player how intense training was. “Intense!” he scoffed, “it’s never intense here.”
Certain soccer stars – particularly Ronaldinho, who has mysterious personal problems – can’t even seem to manage relaxed training. Many fans want Barcelona’s coach, Frank Rijkaard, to corral his players more often in overnight training camps before games. I asked Rijkaard if he didn’t think the camps might help keep some of his team off the streets. “If someone has something in mind,” he shrugged, “he can do it anywhere. And that’s it. You do assume the integrity and professionalism of your sportsmen.”
● Barcelona won’t win the Spanish league this season. If they fail in the Champions League too, Rijkaard might have to go. But chatting to a couple of Barcelona’s directors, it was striking how much they admired him as a man. One said the calm urbane Dutchman represents the club beautifully. Another said it was unthinkable to replace Rijkaard with the rowdy Jose Mourinho, because the Portuguese was “the anti-Rijkaard”. Both directors suggested that Rijkaard would himself know when it was time to leave.
● When Rijkaard talks about what has gone wrong this season, he talks about his great creative players Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry, Leo Messi and Samuel Eto’o. The eight or so serving players behind them can take care of themselves, said Rijkaard. “The difference is usually made by the forward players. A team orients itself around the people who can make a difference. And we’ve had some bad luck with them.” Ronaldinho, Eto’o and Messi have had injuries, while Henry has missed his daughter after getting divorced.
● One evening there was a strange encounter between Barcelona’s president Joan Laporta and Seymour Hersh, the great American investigative journalist. Hersh, a soccer fan who was in town to collect yet another prize, had said he wanted to meet Barça’s “owner”. Laporta explained there was no such thing. Barcelona isn’t a business like an American sports team, but rather a sort of co-operative society. It has 161,000 socios or members. “They are the owners!” Laporta crowed.
● Thierry Henry sits in Barcelona’s trophy room, talking about English football. At first glance, the room looks like El Dorado, until you examine some of the trophies more closely. One cup bears the legend: “Sixth prize – Philips Junior Tournament – 1991”. The one behind it says: “Fourth prize – Philips Junior Tournament – 1990”.
However, the point is that the Frenchman Henry is giving his interview in very decent Spanish. This is impressive given that it’s his third language, and he’s barely been here 18 months. It’s also curious: Barcelona, famously, are what the writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán called “the unarmed army of Catalonia”. The Laporta regime are proud Catalan nationalists. Surely Henry should be speaking Catalan?
So I asked Rijkaard what was the language used in Barcelona’s multinational dressing room. “Spanish,” he shrugged.