The European soccer experience
Despite playing soccer competitively for years and becoming full-out obsessed with game times whenever the World Cup rolls around, I’d never attended a professional soccer game. My professional sports world is dominated by summer afternoons at San Francisco Giants games, late winter nights at Sacramento Kings games and the occasional tailgate at a San Francisco 49ers game.
Basically, like many Americans, I spread my sports passion around: I’ve got a different team for every season, an ever-changing array of lineups to keep my attention fresh. I’ve always been intrigued by the European concept of obsession with just one sport: soccer. (Sorry to any European readers, but I just can’t bring myself to call it football.)
More than anything, I’m fascinated by the intensity of the fans. Sure, we have cowbells in Sacramento and there’s the Black Hole of Raiders fans that I’d never dare enter, but nothing seems to measure up to the frenzy of soccer fans worldwide. When I realized that my holidays in Spain coincided with an FC Barcelona game at Camp Nou, I decided that it was a can’t-miss experience.
Luckily, Suzy Guese was up for it and so we headed off to Camp Nou with beers and tickets in hand. A bit fashionably late, we strolled out of the Metro and were shocked by the quiet streets. I’m used to hordes of fans on Caltrain or Bart, or following Sacramento Kings stickers up the freeway. I had a moment of doubt–did I buy tickets for the wrong game?–before we heard cheers erupting out of the nearby stadium. Despite their apparent indifference about being on time the rest of the day, Spanish soccer fans don’t miss a minute of the game.
We were both a bit hesitant due to myths of hooligans and pickpocketing, but once we arrived, we realized that it was just like any other sporting event: the crowds were full of father and son pairs (and a few three-generation families), young drunk guys and a few sports-inclined grandmas. People sported their team colors, cheered ferociously and generally had a grand time.
I was struck by the relentless support of the fans for their team. Although FC Barcelona played extremely well, winning the game 4-0, there were still a few close calls. The Barcelona fans never booed their team; instead, they cheered when Barcelona missed a goal, as if to applaud the effort. It was a refreshing change from the often-negative and sometimes pessimistic attitude of American sports fans.
The only thing that struck me was a lack of estrogen in the audience. I realize that it’s still not completely standard (or accepted) for women in Spain–or even Europe– to play soccer or even be a soccer fan. However, while I think that father-daughter sporting events are a fairly normal part of American sports culture, I didn’t spot any little girls in the Barcelona crowd. It’s strange to think that sports still aren’t an everyday part of life for girls here, when it’s such a key part of American childhoods.
Although Camp Nou offers a number of stadium tours on off-game days, I don’t think there’s a better way to experience FC Barcelona soccer culture than attending a game. It’s easy to find tickets online and have them sent to your hotel in Barcelona upon your arrival. Just seeing the 98.787-seat stadium at almost-full capacity is worth the trip–and witnessing the fans’ passion is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.