Over 88,000 fans were on hand Saturday at the Camp Nou, to say goodbye to a home that has stood tall and proud since its opening in 1957.
It was the middle of the Franco era, and Alfredo di Stefano was reigning supreme for Real Madrid, turning them into a force to be reckoned with across Spain.
Barcelona needed to make a statement to signal it intended to keep pace with the ambitions of Santiago Bernabeu, who built his own stadium 10 years earlier in 1947, and was in the process of turning Real Madrid into the global power, and surpassing the likes of Barcelona and Atletico Madrid along the way.
The Camp Nou became the biggest stadium in Spain, and Barcelona would use the sacred ground to grow, in the six decades that followed, into one of the most influential football clubs in the world.
The building of the two giant stadiums, and the 10 years of footballing history in between, were perhaps the most monumental events in the creation of the Clasico rivalry.
It’s fitting that both clubs are now undergoing much-needed renovations to bring their stadiums up to modern standards.
Visiting the colosseums is awe inspiring because of the sheer size. It can be overwhelming to imagine the history that was made by the likes of Johan Cruyff, Ronaldinho, and Lionel Messi.
Hearing the Cant del Barca, as the players walk out, is a beautiful, unifying experience for Culers, with Catalan identity expressed loudly and proudly throughout the grounds.
These traditions will surely continue when the Camp Nou reopens in November of 2024, as part of the Espai Barca project.
And with it will come an enhanced fan experience.
One that is safer, cleaner, more comfortable, and even more spectacular.
My first experience at the Camp Nou was in 1998. I was nine years old, and I sat behind the goal up in the third balcony. Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique, and the great Rivaldo graced the field, and the sights and sounds of the fans captivated me immediately.
The passion for the great game and the great team was contagious.
This is what the Camp Nou does to people. For those who are seeing their first game, the grandeur of the club is on display, and you can’t help but become a Culer for life.
25 years later, I saw my most recent game at the Camp Nou this past March, when Barca beat Real Madrid with a last minute Franck Kessie goal to all but clinch the league title.
The stadium was at full capacity, and the fans were overflowing with love and happiness as the Barca players celebrated, and the Real Madrid players walked to the dressing room with their heads hung low.
It was an experience I won’t forget for the rest of my life.
But behind the scenes, there were images that the TV cameras don’t capture.
The Camp Nou really was showing its age, even in the “tribuna” section, which is known as one of the nicest.
When I walked into the bathroom, I saw a dead mouse.
When I went for some food, the items on display were quite unappetizing, and against my better judgment I ordered a butifarra sandwich, served at luke warm temperature, that gave me food poisoning.
To be clear, I love me a good butifarra, but this just wasn’t the one. The experience made me understand quite viscerally the tradition of bringing your own tin foil wrapped bocadillo sandwich, that fans eat in unison as soon as half-time strikes.
Comically, there were literally signs hanging up around the grounds that apologized to fans for the condition of the stadium, and assured everyone that improvements were on the way.
Part of me feels bad writing these words, especially as an American who has become quite spoiled by the recent proliferation of modern stadiums throughout the country, including in my hometown of Minneapolis where Allianz Field has become a very impressive new home to the Minnesota United soccer team.
But ultimately, just as it was in 1957 when the Camp Nou opened, Barca needs to make the necessary investments if it wants to continue setting the standard as the best club in the world.
I can’t wait to visit the renovated grounds when it opens.
It won’t be the same watching the team compete at the Estadio Olimpico during the 2023/2024 campaign, but it will be exciting to know that something special is on the way.
And when it does open, there will be new faces leading the way and making their own history.
We say goodbye to Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, and Gerard Pique, but we are cheering for Pedri, Gavi, Frenkie de Jong, and other legends in the making, to usher in a new chapter, in a new home, as they fight hard to win titles, and entertain the crowd with the best brand of football out there.
May the future in Barcelona be as bright as the past.
Can’t wait to visit again soon.