Faced with watching another potential Dagenham and Redbridge defeat and some winter sunshine watching the world’s best team, it is not hard to understand why Brian and Dagenham Dan headed for the beaches of Barcelonetta, the monuments of Gaudi and the cathedral of football, The Camp Nou.
Last year, Dagenham Dan and I were able to make a couple of trips out to the Catalan capital to watch a team that would by the end of the season, be European champions. Since then, Barcelona arguably made the squad that they had last season even stronger, with the summer signing of Cesc Fabregas. However, it hasn’t gone all their own way in the league; a defeat last weekend to Getafe meant that they are now three points behind Real Madrid (and have played a game more), who finally seem to be justifying the huge expenditure that has transformed the team over the last couple of years.
This doesn’t disguise the fact that the Spanish League is rapidly becoming, like many of the major leagues in Europe, a two-team affair. Clubs like Villarreal, Valencia, Atletico Madrid and various others are now battling for third place, and the last couple of places in the bloated Champions league. In 2009/10, Barcelona finished one point ahead of Real, but their final point’s totals (99 and 98 respectively) were miles ahead of the third place team. Granted, that was an exceptional case, but the gap between the top two and the rest is widening to almost embarrassing level. The Spanish national team may be the best in the world, and present European and World Champions, but like England, it’s league is not entirely the competitive nirvana that some might have us believe.
Both of the big clubs have already qualified from their groups in the Champions League, guaranteeing them a further financial bonus when the competition resumes after Christmas. However, it could be argued that this is the result of almost constant participation in the tournament (and almost always the same teams getting through, although APOEL Nicosia qualifying is a welcome development), and that this just makes the financial gap between the have and have not’s even more pronounced.
This weekend Barcelona entertain Levante, who themselves are having a very good season so far. Fourth in the league, they are currently five points behind their hosts, and would seemingly have a good chance of European football next term. For Barca, the run up to Christmas is very busy, with their last Champions League group game, a visit to the Bernabeu for the umpteenth game this year against Real Madrid, and then to finish off, a trip to Japan for the World Club Championships After all that lot, if they can be closer to Madrid than they are now, then they will have done very well.
Saturday 3rd December 2011, Barcelona v Kadetten Handball, Palau Blaugrana
We arranged this trip back in August, and were joined for the first time by Dan’s other half, Aimee, with the promise that we wouldn’t drag her to our usual three or more games in a weekend. We had picked this weekend because, we figured that given the Daggers fairly woeful record in cup games over the last couple of years we would already be out of the FA Cup. However, we managed to defeat Bath City in a replay, so today, while we are out here, back at home, Dagenham are playing Walsall for a place in the third round. Text updates have already been requested, and so as we make our way into the Palau Blaugrana for the first part of today’s sporting entertainment, the game back at Victoria Road will soon be getting underway.
The first sporting event of the day is a handball game in the arena next to the stadium. Why handball you ask? Well, that’s a good question, and I shall now attempt an answer. Having obtained tickets for handball at the Olympics next year, both of us felt it might be a good idea to have actually seen a game before we go. Neither of us wants to turn up at the arena and then calmly ask the person sitting next to us what is going on. So, while we were picking up the tickets for the football, we also got some for this.
The Palau is an indoor arena with a capacity of just over seven and a half thousand, having been opened to the public just over forty years ago. It also stages the home games for the clubs roller hockey, futsal and basketball teams. Today’s game is the seventh game for both clubs in the Champions League competition, and like in the football, Barcelona are top of the group after six games, and have already beaten today’s opponents in the reverse encounter back in October.
Handball used to be played on football pitches, with eleven players per team, but the playing areas and teams eventually were reduced to their current dimensions and size, especially after indoor arenas started to sprout up all over Europe.
Having a competition called “Champions League” clearly means that the teams have to enter the arena to an operatic piece of music. There is also a specific ball for the competition, and a tournament logo; any of this sound familiar?
The game starts slowly, and it’s a bit like you attack, then we attack. Unlike in football, where a team can dominate a game, handball is actually a bit like basketball. It’s certainly high scoring, and inside the opening five minutes, there are six goals. Goalkeepers appear to be nothing more than human coconuts in a fairground game, and stop nothing in the first few minutes.
As the game settles down though, it starts to become an entertaining game, and it stays close up until half time, when Barca open up the biggest lead of the half to have a three goal advantage over the visitors from Switzerland. Around fifty fans have made the trip from central Europe to attend the game, and cheer each goal scored by the visitors in their heavily sponsored orange kit.
The second half sees Barca open up a five goal lead, and they appear to be cruising to another win. However, their most influential player of the first half, Laszlo Nagy is glued to the bench for most of the second, and eventually, with 8:27 remaining on the clock, Barcelona’s lead has been reduced to one goal. Now they re-introduce their big players, and by the end of the game, they have managed to regain their five goal advantage, to win by 33-29.
For a first game, it’s been very interesting, and we all walk away from the venue having gained a bit more understanding about the game. The idea of retaining the ball, like the football team do, isn’t here, and it’s just attack after attack, with each team seemingly taking turns to have a shot at goal. There is the occasional break when a player will be in a one on one situation with the opposing goalkeeper, but generally its all very civilised, and especially as there are no histrionics when either of the referees (there are two) makes a decision.
Saturday 3rd December 2011, FC Barcelona v Levante, Estadi Camp Nou
So having now experienced our first handball game, it was time to wonder across the complex to enter the Camp Nou for the main event of the trip. The home team are not doing too badly at home (seven wins from eight games, and no goals conceded), but it’s away from the sanctuary of the Camp Nou that things haven’t happened the way that they would like. Although it’s only three points (or one win), to be behind the despised Madrid at this stage makes the game in the national capital even more crucial. Remember, it’s still only December.
On a cool night, the champions take only three minutes to go in front, when Fabregas finds himself with half the stadium to himself on the edge of the Levante penalty area. His low shot beats the visiting goalkeeper, and the pattern is set for the rest of the evening.
People who haven’t been to a Barcelona home game ask us what the atmosphere is like at a game. Well, I can only speak about the games that I have been to, but on most of those occasions, it has not been the best. On the way from one trip, we spoke to a couple of English people who had been to the same game as us that weekend, and they said that they had been very disappointed with it. Tonight, it’s amazingly quiet, given that the attendance is just under eighty thousand. It’s almost funeral like at times, and only the fact that we are at the back of the lower tier prevents us from hearing the shouts of the players. Either that, or it’s just an awe inspired reverence that means that the supporters don’t want to interrupt the players concentration. There are a hardy group behind the goal at the south end of the ground who try to make noise, but it just disappears upwards into the sky, as the rest of the crowd admire the slick passing and chew in sunflower seeds.
By half time, the score has progressed to 3-0 (Fabregas gets a second, and Cuenca, a graduate from the B side, gets the third), which is soon four, then five just after half time. Lionel Messi has had a quiet night, aside from a run in the first half where he seemed to go past half the opposition, but still nets his obligatory goal, before Alexis Sanchez scores with (what looked like from our viewpoint) a massive deflection to complete the scoring for the night. The atmosphere doesn’t improve a great deal, although a wave does start with about fifteen minutes to go, which is a bit sad if you think about it. The best team in the world, winning again, and yet the fans have to entertain themselves with a wave. Surely they could just sit back and enjoy the football?
Andres Iniesta is denied a goal courtesy of the assistant’s flag for offside, but the final outcome was decided long before. As the clock runs down, people head out of the ground and into the night having witnessed another home win. The record of not having conceded at home is still intact, and the gap to Madrid has stayed the same as it was at the start of the day. To have witnessed sixty seven goals in two games isn’t bad going (ok, sixty two were at the handball), and it has been a fun day out. I just wish we could go next week to the Bernabeu; now that would be a trip worth doing.