Faced with a free weekend of football, our man behind the very successful Daggers Diary, Brian Parish and Dan Campbell headed off to Barcelona for a weekend of football.

When Dagenham Dan and I were on our way back from Qatar in January, the idea of another trip to Barcelona to watch a weekend of football came up. We went through the fixture list, and decided that we would have to wait until our season had ended before we headed out  to Spain. Unfortunately, after the Daggers relegation last weekend, this trip was going to be a welcome distraction from our end of season disappointment.

We’ve been here a few times before. Aside from a couple of visits to watch England play against Andorra in the Olympic Stadium, we generally manage to get a couple of games in whenever we visit. Aside from the obligatory game at the Camp Nou, the local area has quite a few third and fourth division teams in and around the city. There are four in the third division alone, with three on the city wide metro, the fourth (Sabadell) being a thirty minute train journey from the centre. In the fourth, it’s pretty much the same kind of story.

One of the quirks of Spanish football is that kick off times are not generally announced until about a week or so before the game is due to be played. In England, we like to know way in advance about our games, but not on the Iberian Peninsula. The only game before our trip to Peterborough that had been confirmed was the Barca B game against Las Palmas, which was handy as neither of us had managed to get to a game at the Mini-Estadi. After the post-mortem at work on Monday morning, by lunchtime, Barcelona’s game against Deportivo had been announced as a 9pm start, which meant two games on Sunday. This became three, when CE Europa’s fourth division game against Pobla de Mafumet was confirmed as a mid-day start. So, all this meant a day of sight-seeing on the Saturday, and then a whole day of football on the Sunday, which seemed like a pretty good way to get over the dreaded drop.  We could have had a fourth (this one being on Saturday evening) in the Catalan Premier League, but with a 5pm start and a 40 minute train ride (and 30 minute walk) each way, it wasn’t one that we were too concerned about attending. A good job really, as it started to pour down, just at the time we would have been leaving. Still, we can always save that for next time.

Game 1: CE Europa v Pobla de Mafumet, Estadi Nou Sardenya
Our first game of a very busy Sunday was in the north west of the city. Europa went into this game with no chance of making the play offs, while Pobla had a slim chance of winning the league. This would all depend on results elsewhere, but at just €10 to get into the stadium, it felt rude to pass up the chance to attend. Plus, it’s another new ground for us both. The forecast for Sunday had been for the occasional shower, so we took rain jackets with us, in that scout-like “be prepared” kind of way. Of course, when you take stuff with you “just in case”, it invariably means that you won’t use whatever you took, and this turned out to be the case. Bright sunshine and a cloud free sky greeted us when we left the hotel for the twenty minute metro journey to Alfons X station. Europa is a fourth division team, who celebrated their centenary in 2007; I know this because the signs are still up all over the place. To be going for a century is an impressive feat, particularly when you consider that the official attendance for the game is given at 600.

Of course when I say fourth division, I am right, but sort of. The top two divisions in Spain are national, and then it all gets regional. The third tier is split into four groups, and the fourth into eighteen. A series of play offs determine which teams will be promoted from the regional leagues, which can mean quite a long season for the players.

When we arrive, we take a quick wander around the outside of the stadium, before paying our €10 at the ticket office, and going in. We are able to watch the last fifteen minutes or so of a kids game taking place, and it’s good to see that, even teams in the land of the world champions put the bigger, less mobile kids in defence, as they are outpaced on several occasions. There is though some good technical ability, and while they may already be too old to have been picked up by a bigger club, there is enough on view to suggest that they may make the first team one day.

As with many teams at this level, Europa has a synthetic pitch, which allows them to have several games on it on the same day. The only thing the pitch needs is a serious watering, which is performed by several large sprinkler systems dotted around the pitch. The only problem is though, on a hot day like this, the pitch dries out within twenty minutes, and the bounce of the ball isn’t particularly true.

The teams emerge into the sun, and the home side form a guard of honour for one of their junior teams who have won their league. There is then a trophy presentation to one of the injured first team squad, and after a moments silence for the victims of the Lorca earthquake in Murcia, the game gets underway.

Pobla kick off in their Manchester United style kit, but it’s the home side that have a couple of early corners that don’t really achieve too much. The fans that have been sitting outside the bar are the only ones providing any early noise, although there is the possibility that they’ve had too much all ready. Within a quarter of an hour, the home side are in front. An in-swinging right wing cross is headed home by Rovira, who is clattered in the process by the beaten goalkeeper. There follows a couple of minutes of treatment, before the game can resume. A few minutes Europa has a free kick about 25 yards out, and it’s not particularly well hit, but it somehow gets through the wall, and hits the post.

The higher placed away team don’t look like they are in the game, which makes their equalizer just before the half hour a bit of a surprise, when Carbia slots home. There is some good all round play from both teams, but the pitch is starting to dry out, and the ball is not quite running true. There is no further addition to the score, and so at half time, it’s 1-1. Before the players have even left the pitch, loads of kids have invaded the pitch, and have started playing impromptu games. This forces the groundsman out of his shed, and to wander around, waving his arms and shouting at them to leave the area. Those in the furthest corner away get the longest game in, before they too are victims of the elderly windmill. He leaves the pitch just before the sprinklers start again.

For the second half, Dan moves to the man stand to watch the second half, whereas I’ve gone to sit in the shade provided by the tower blocks situated next to the stadium. The third and final goal comes just before the hour, when Cano scores with another header, this time from a corner. The remainder of the game is played out with a few close efforts, but the scoreboard is not troubled any further. The fourth official (well, a home team official who does all the substitutions) is the busiest person in the stadium for the last twenty minutes. However, they don’t have the electronic version that is used here; instead, it’s more like a toy version, which is tossed into a large plastic bin where the spare footballs are kept. Dan has by now walked round to the shaded section, and has almost immediately commented on how much colder it is, so for the last couple of minutes of the game, we walk back round to the exit, ready to make our way back to the station. Europa see out the game to win 2-1, and secure the 7th place that they held before the kick off.

Game 2: FC Barcelona B v Las Palmas, Mini-Estadi, Barcelona
From the north west of the city, it’s a relatively short metro ride back down towards Collblanc and to the Mini-Estadi. With a mid-day kick off, we have plenty of time to get back to the hotel, let Dan to recharge the camera batteries, and then head off to the next ground, which is about a five minute stroll from the hotel.

After the minutes silence, the game is underway. In charge of the Barcelona team is Luis Enrique, who played for the club after leaving Real Madrid, and took over from Pep Guardiola in 2008, when Pep was appointed first team coach over the road at the Camp Nou. The team won promotion last year from the Segunda B (third division), and at start of play, sat in fourth place. Their opponents,Las Palmas are only a couple of points away from the relegation zone, so both teams will need to get a result.

There are a decent number who has travelled from the islands for the game, but after 12 minutes, they are behind, when Muniesa scores after Barbosa in the visiting goal flaps at a corner. The flapping isn’t confined to the away side though, as Mino in the Barcelona goal tries to catch a corner, but gets nowhere near it, and Hernandez is injured scoring the goal. Like earlier in the day, several minutes of treatment follow, before the game continues.

Las Palmas are level for all of two minutes. A right wing cross is heading for Barbosa but before he can claim the ball, Soriano nips in ahead and pokes the ball into the net. Ten minutes later and Edu Oriol produces some excellent work down the left hand side before squaring the ball inside the area, where Tello steps inside one defender before placing the ball in the far corner of the net. A young Barcelona team are leading 3-1 and deserve to be there as well.

Over the remaining ten minutes of the half, and then the opening ten of the second half, the game is turned on its head. By half time, the lead has been wiped out, and the teams head to the changing rooms level at 3-3. Viera gets the Las Palmas second with a weak-ish looking penalty, and then the teams are all square thanks to another flap from Mino; he does redeem himself with a good save from a follow up shot, but can’t do anything about the rebound.

Within a minute of the restart, Las Palmas are 4-3 up, and it’s down to another mistake in the Barcelona defence. Viera is on hand again to score after a fumble by Mino, and nine minutes later, he completes his hat-trick.

The rest of the game may be scoreless, but it doesn’t let up; there is a penalty appeal for Barcelona turned down, and they also get the ball in the net, but it’s disallowed for offside. Dan has already reckoned that there should be another goal soon, but although there are several near misses for both teams, the scoring has ended. A really entertaining game has ended 3-5, and we still have the main reason of the trip to come.

Game 3: FC Barcelona v Deportivo La Coruna, Estadi Camp Nou
Having won the League earlier in the week away at Levante, it was probably inevitable that the team that took to the pitch would be greatly changed to the one a few days before. As it was, a few of the recognised first team started, but there were a few of the younger players named in the starting line up, which may help to explain the poor defensive display from the B side only a couple of hours earlier. There was a start for Eric Abidal, who it had been thought, was doubtful for the rest of the season after major surgery earlier this year, plus Bojan, Jeffren and Affelay, a mid-season purchase from Holland. Given the major changes to the team for this one, the quick passing game that has become a hallmark of this side is missing, and the first save of the game is made by Valdes after only a couple of minutes of the game played. The first half is, from a home team point of view, very disjointed, with only glimpses of the performance that we come to expect. It’s probably reflected in the attendance, as a crowd of just over 70,000 have turned up, which is still impressive, but it means that there are still around 20,000 empty seats.

One thing that I have heard from others who have attended games here is that there is a distinct lack of atmosphere. There is a knot of home fans behind the goal at the south end of the stadium and they are singing and waving their flags, but there are times when it’s really quiet. There isn’t too much to write about for the first half, so when the half time whistle goes, the score is 0-0, and the scoreboards hasn’t look like it was going to be troubled.

During the interval, those still in their seats are encouraged to wave bits of red card around like crazy people, in order to win a cruise. It wastes almost ten minutes of the break, in place of any other entertainment. The idea is to keep the camera moving around the stadium until the music stops and finally they stop on a ticket holder over the other side of the stadium. It’s probably a good job I didn’t win; I hate boats.

The second half starts, and with in a couple of minutes, Barcelona make two changes; Dani Alves and Maxwell are on, While Alves provides a bit more attacking threat on the right hand side, the front players are not on the same wavelength. Affelay had been quite good in the first half, but fades almost completely from view in the second. Bojan and Jeffren show that they probably lack enough games as they haven’t been in the game from almost the start. There is a chant of “campiones” during the second half, but the game is not inspiring anyone. With about ten minutes left, people are leaving.

It’s about this time that the screens in the stadium start showing a message that the trophy will be presented after the game. The departures still continue, but not quite so many now.

The game is heading for a 0-0 draw, which is quite unusual for a game here, but it’s been heading that way almost from the kick off. We’d had eleven goals in our first two games, so it was almost inevitable that this one would be scoreless; the one game we would have expected to produce a goal or two is going to end without one.

The whistle goes, and in the British sense, Barcelona has now won the title, with a four point lead with one game to go. Deportivo leave the pitch, and now the ground staff is trying to get the playing surface ready for the celebration to follow.

We had missed the bus tour through the city because it had finished just before we got to the city on Friday night. However, to see the trophy being presented is a more than adequate substitute, and after the trophy is handed over to Carles Puyol, the confetti cannons start up and red and blue rain down on the players. Not only that but then the stadium goes dark with only the light from the advertising boards lighting up the arena. The darkness doesn’t last long, before the fireworks start up, and the “ooh” and “aah” rival November 5th. Given that my team had been relegated just a week before, this is helping to make up for that a bit. The whole thing lasts about half an hour, before the lights go back up, and the players finally leave the pitch. This is the cue to leave, and stroll back to the hotel. It’s the first time that I’ve seen a 0-0 draw here in eight visits, and hopefully, it won’t happen again. And despite the fact that we’ve done three games in three different stadiums in eleven hours, it doesn’t feel like it, perhaps because there was a gap between the first and second games. It’s been a good trip, and we still have another overseas trip in a few days time to Dublin for the Europa League final. It’s time to get the passport out again.

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