Sunderland, in England’s second tier, boasted a bigger crowd for their league game against Rotherham United this weekend than Barcelona attracted for their opening home match.
There were 10,000 empty seats for the Spanish champions’ game against Cadiz, Barcelona’s first league match to be played at their temporary home, the Olympic Stadium, which seats almost 50,000. Only 39,603 attended the game.
Xavi Hernandez’s side will play there for at least 18 months as Camp Nou is rebuilt and expanded to a 105,000 capacity, making it the biggest football-specific stadium on the planet. Work is well under way and when The National visited on Friday, the entire top tier had been dismantled.
Barca had little choice but to leave. Real Madrid benefitted from the Covid-19 lockdown and being able to redevelop the Bernabeu into what will probably be the best football stadium in the world. The work still isn’t complete four years on, even though they were able to move back in after two years and play in front of a reduced capacity.
Barcelona plan to do similar, but the heavy lifting at the start of the project meant they had to depart. Expanding Barca’s 6,000-seater reserve team stadium with temporary stands was considered, but the best option was the Olympic Stadium since sharing the 41,000-seater home of neighbours Espanyol would not have gone down well with either fan base.
Espanyol played at the Olympic Stadium themselves between 1997 and 2009 when their old stadium was sold to pay off debts and was demolished. It was in one game at the Olympic Stadium that Lionel Messi made his league debut for Barcelona in a Catalan derby, but the venue was never popular with Espanyol fans, though their spell at the ground coincided with half of their entire trophy haul – two Spanish Cups in 2000 and 2006 to go with victories in 1929 and 1940.
A running track – natural since it staged the 1992 Olympic Games – increased the distance between the stands and the pitch, a problem that persists. Barca’s most vocal fans were five metres behind the goal at Camp Nou. On Sunday against Cadiz they were at least 50 metres from the goal.
A section of 2,000 vocal fans tried their best in the August heat that saw fans sheltering in the shade of the monuments built for the ’92 Olympics or even the 1929 International Exposition for which the stadium was originally built, but it’s not an easy venue to create a noise in. For large parts of the game against Cadiz, it was easy to hear the instructions of both coaches being shouted to their players.
August is always an anomalous month for Spanish games. Many residents take the month off and leave the city they call home, affecting attendances.
Barcelona have long courted the tourist crowd in a city that is one of Europe’s most popular destinations and the high prices they charge for those one-off tickets (€150 in the main stand on Sunday, €75 behind the goals) are a key part of their revenue, but season ticket holders rebelled when they, too, were hit with a huge price increase for the move to the Olympic Stadium. Just 8,000 were sold before Barca halved their prices.
Now, the most expensive regular season ticket is €870 while fans in the most vocal section behind the goal pay only €175. Yet, even so, Barcelona have currently sold only 17,500. Second division Espanyol have 22,000 season ticket holders, third tier Deportivo La Coruna 25,556.
The Olympic Stadium, known locally as "Montjuic" after the name of the hill where it is gloriously located above the city, is more open to the elements, isn’t as easy to reach as Camp Nou and requires a trek up the hill with the help of escalators, though it is a splendid walk affording fine views, past the Magic water fountains (which aren’t open since there is a drought in Spain), museums and a Mies van der Rohe masterpiece building.
Since most season ticket holders decided to wait until Camp Nou is ready, Barca will have to work hard to fill their new home. Against Cadiz, the first 15 rows of seats behind each goal were empty, creating a poor image on television, though not as poor as any fans who would have to sit in those low seats far from the pitch.
Barcelona have tried to make their new home feel like that, but had to wait until the summer concert season finished and A-listers including Coldplay, Harry Styles, The Weeknd and Bruce Springsteen had staged concerts in the Olympic Stadium. The floodlights have been upgraded, a new pitch laid, press facilities and new VIP areas provided. The work has cost Barca €20 million and the club will lose around €50 million for each season they’re away from Camp Nou.
“We want the members with us and for the stadium to be full for every game,” said Barcelona director Elena Fort. They missed that target for the first game by 10,000.
The stars are now on the football field, established ones including Robert Lewandowski, Gavi, Pedri and Frenkie de Jong. All those names – plus those of Messi – could be seen on the backs of shirts as fans walked to the stadium on Sunday, plus the word "Lamine", 16-year-old forward Lamine Yamal from close to Barcelona and the son of a Moroccan father and mother from Equatorial Guinea.
The forward came through Barca’s Masia youth system and in April became the youngest ever player, at 15 years and 9 months, to play first team football for the Catalans when he came on for fellow youngster Gavi. Comparisons with Lionel Messi followed given his size and skills. Barcelona have still not scored a goal from a free-kick since Messi left two years ago.
On Sunday, Yamal became Barca’s youngest ever league starter – 16 years and 38 days – in a game that failed to ignite the crowd until Pedri scored eight minutes from time.
“I think he’s so mature and can already make the difference for us,” Xavi Hernandez said after the match. “We have to take care of him, but I think he’s ready and I’m not afraid to trust youth.”
Ferran Torres got the second goal for his side’s first win of the season and the fans who’d booed the referee off at half time left satisfied on a day when nine female Barca players started in the World Cup final, seven of them for victors Spain.
It was a happy day for Barca, but these remain uncertain times for the club as they attempt to rebuild their famous stadium and overcome a financial crisis at the same time.