| For die-hard football fans, the players and coaches are who decide the best places to watch football. They are the football gods — here in Egypt, it’s Coach Hassan Shehata. Across the pond Pelé and Maradona wow those in South America, and in Europe, well, the roster is endless.In early March I was fortunate to be in the stadium to witness the current holder of football’s Golden Boot, FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi make history. In Barcelona’s 7-1 drubbing of Bayer Leverkusen, 24 year-old Messi became the first player in history to score five goals in a Champions League match.
I was on the Spanish coast for the Mobile World Congress as part of Business Today’s editorial team, so decided to make the most of my spare time and lifelong love of football. This was a trip where business and pleasure converged.
And did it ever. Watching the spectacle in the Camp Nou with close to 75,000 other awestruck fans was a treat, but getting to the match had a few hurdles along the way.
Now one just doesn’t waltz into seats at the touch line at the Camp Nou. Fitting a football game into your itinerary takes advance planning and no small amount of perseverance. In hindsight, I’ve realized that trying to set this all up from the comfort of Egypt only one week before leaving for the Iberian peninsula was cutting it a bit close. My recommendation is start as early as possible.
My first step, figure out what matches were happening during my trip. I was flexible: One week in Barcelona for work, but then I was open to go to central and western Spain, and perhaps even Portugal, France and Italy. My first stop was uefa.com — the official site for European football — because searching for each club’s official site would have been a tedious task. Navigating through the Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian domestic leagues’ schedules, I found 18 matches that could potentially fit into my football itinerary. Dates and times were important as I was operating on a work schedule as well as juggling three time zones.
Ultimately, I decided to try for three matches: the historic Barcelona match, a Champions League match in Lisbon, Portugal, and the Barcelona match against Bayer Leverkusen. I didn’t get to the Lisbon game, but I did make it to the Sporting de Gijón match for my first taste of Barça football.
At most sporting events around the world I’ve attended — including the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia and a 2011 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying football match between Rwanda and Côte d’Ivoire in Kigali, Rwanda — I’ve been able to buy tickets at the door or the ‘Will Call’ office. No luck here, so it was back to the internet.
In an indication of how popular football really is, Google’s first hit on a search for ‘Barcelona’ is the official site of FC Barcelona (fcbarcelona.com). The site was easily navigable, viewable in five languages including English. But for some reason, after I hurriedly entered my payment and security particulars, the transaction did not go through.
I was then directed to Spain’s Ticketmaster or Tick Tack Ticket (ticketmaster.es), a website where you can purchase tickets for sports, music and other events. Not only was I able to choose my seat, one of only three left in a section of well over hundreds of seats, but the site provided a still image taken from my chosen seat so I could see my view of the pitch.
I once again fought the five-minute time limit to answer all the security questions, including my two middle names, my mom’s maiden name and the names of my two dogs and six cats. (Okay, I didn’t really list all the family pets.) This time, success.
Convenience comes at a price, in this case in the form of conversion fees. With my credit card, the price was converted from euros to US dollars to Canadian dollars, resulting in a loss of CAD2.17 in the process. It was a little pain for a lot of gain, and I couldn’t complain, I was in Spain. In the end, I paid €59 for the first row of a 500-level seat — much cheaper than showing up at the gate and paying more than €200 from a ticket scalper.
The reason for all the security questions was driven home in Barcelona when I returned to my hotel to find two frantic emails from my aforementioned mom, saying my credit card was on hold because of three potentially fraudulent transactions. My mom used up her quota of exclamation marks in telling me to call Visa right away. When a Canadian living in Egypt makes an online purchase in Spain, a departure from the noted itinerary in my credit card file, red flags go up. The company felt the addition of the match’s mandatory cancellation insurance — something I have never, and probably will never subscribe to — was suspicious, thus the threatening phone call to my poor mother. Thankfully, after a further call to Tick Tack Ticket, I was reimbursed for the match insurance.
Via Skype, I calmly called my friendly Visa representative to verify that the purchases were in fact made by me and that I had erred in omitting my intended travel itinerary to Spain. Just to be safe, I then proceeded to tell my representative my travel plans until FY2015.
The next obstacle in getting to one of football’s meccas started at Barcelona’s Plaça d’Espanya — it has about as many interchanges as Tahrir Square, just with the addition of stop lights and throngs of people speaking in Spanish, Catalan, English and perhaps Basque. After pulling out my city map, asking a friendly tourist information attendant and going to three separate official FC Barcelona stores, I finally found the place where my tickets could be printed.
With the tickets in hand, the rest was easy. Camp Nou lies just outside of Les Corts metro stop, in the shadows of one of the most picturesque and peaceful cemeteries I have visited. The buildup to the match was surreal — fans clamored outside the gate, ticking away the seconds until they would be allowed entry. Goose bumps periodically found their way on my arm and my spine tingled in nervous anticipation before I quickly found my seat in time for the pre-match warm up. When the announcer introduced the starting 11, the biggest cheer was reserved for number 10, the boy wonder Messi, standing at no more than 1.70 meters (with cleats).
The home side had possession 70 percent of the game, leaving Messi to work his magic as he has done on so many occasions. His historic romp started with Xavi Hernández in the middle constantly controlling the tempo of the game; Xavi sprung number 10 clear by beating the offside trap, putting him all alone versus the keeper. The finish was a bit cheeky, Messi finding the back of the net with a curling chip: FC Barcelona 1, Bayer Leverkusen 0. His second of the night came three minutes before the break — his brace intact against the German club.
Number 10’s hat trick was in the books inside the 50th minute barely before people were able to find their seats in the second half — commentators later said he was playing as if there were no defenders. At this point Barça supporters started bowing and chanting, “Messi … Messi,” humbled to be in his presence.
The next two goals were scored by Super-sub Tello, a Champions League debutante, but the night, described by some football commentators as one of greatest performances of all time, truly belonged to “Lio.” As the Spanish wave raced 360 degrees around the Camp Nou, making the storied venue’s stands tremble, Messi continued the onslaught. Not satisfied with four on the night, the forward potted his fifth by curling in a left-footed shot inside the near post that elevated him to demigod-like status in the annals of football history.
Exiting the stadium, a surreal, numb feeling engulfed me, as I imagined the infinite possibilities that lay at Messi’s feet in the future.
The concerted effort to get tickets to a match was well worth it — it’s a story I’ll be retelling for years.