HER TEARS BEGAN just before the penalty kicks. I wanted to ask her why she was crying, but I didn’t speak Spanish, she didn’t speak English, and I’d already seen her turn and snap at her companion for attempting conversation while there was action on the pitch. Still, you’re not supposed to cry until the game’s over. At least, that’s how I was raised. And anyway, this was supposed to be a friendly.
No soccer is ever really friendly at the Camp Nou, though. Not in front of up to 100,000 screaming Catalans who’ve been baking in the August sun, swilling whatever liquor they could smuggle in and having all kinds of conflicted feelings about the return of Barca legend Ronaldhino with his new club, AC Milan. Besides, if ever there was a football team capable of moving a fan to tears, it was the 2010 edition of FC Barcelona. La Liga champions, Champions League victors, its players forming the core of Spain’s World Cup–winning squad—it was one of the greatest teams in the game’s history.
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You have to work at it to visit the Camp Nou as a tourist. You have to buy the tickets well in advance, plan the dates and, once you’re in Barcelona, make the trek to the stadium, which is not in the tourist heart of the city, the Gothic quarter, but out in Les Corts, an old housing district west of downtown. It’s the sort of place where you slip your wallet into your front pocket after dark and offer a clipped, “Yes, keep walking,” when your partner asks you if you’ve just witnessed someone getting mugged for a Messi jersey.
But that’s where this stadium belongs, in the same way a church should be built amidst its congregation. FC Barcelona belongs to Catalonia and its people, not to the gawking tourists who visit. It belongs to the young woman in the seat to our right, sandy-haired and devout, alternately clutching her hands together in prayer and snapping hundreds of pictures with maniacal determination. Why she brought someone to the game with her, I will never understand. It was clear that in her heart she was alone with her team, in a place she felt she belonged.
We say that hockey is a religion in Canada, and maybe it is, sometimes. But it’s not our true identity—it’s an identifier and a touchstone. Did you cry when Sidney Crosby scored the golden goal at the 2010 Olympics? Maybe. But did you cry that time you went to a Montreal Canadiens pre-season game, just because you were there? Did you feel much of anything beyond the buzz from a few overpriced Molsons?
In Catalonia, football is the voice of a minority ethnicity looking for equal footing; it is who they are. Barca’s motto, “Mes que un club” (more than a club), can seem pretentious and focus-grouped to those used to North American sports, but when you stand amidst the joyful madness that follows the missed Milan penalty that gives the home side the win—a totally meaningless win, remember—it seems less a marketing slogan and more a statement of fact.
With every triumph over the great clubs of the world, Barcelona etches its nationalistic Catalonian brand deeper into the psyche of its citizens. Here, football is the tear-streaked-but-grinning visage of the young woman to my right. And it is us cheering along and wishing we could feel something in sport this deeply.
Back in the Gothic quarter, I visited Barcelona’s historic churches. And as with the Camp Nou, I walked in, admired the beauty and aspiration of the architecture, experienced the sense of myth and permanence and something greater than myself that churches can stir in us. Sometimes there were regular people in those churches, sitting in the pews or quietly lighting candles, and they were there for a different reason. I was looking. They were praying.
This story originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Sportsnet magazine.