My daughters were bitten by the Barca bug as Catalans beat old rivals 5-2 in Champions League quarter-final thriller
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The Catalan sky hung heavy, rain threatened to dampen the huge occasion, crushing traffic too. Ten minutes to kick-off between Barcelona and Real Madrid in the Uefa Women’s Champions League quarter-final second leg and the previous talk of a 90,000-plus crowd seemed fanciful.
There were empty seats everywhere, football’s biggest football ground was nowhere near full as Barca’s anthem blared out.
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By the time Barcelona, easily the pre-eminent force in female football, took the lead after eight minutes, thousands more seats had been occupied and a world-record crowd for a women’s game was becoming a reality.
The crowd was very different from that which normally watches Barca’s men, except the usual vocal fans were there behind the north goal with their flags and songs. It felt like an important game rather than a tourist festival.
“And it’s very different to the 6,000 who normally watch Barça’s women team at the Johan Cruyff stadium,” opined Juanpi, who was in the next seat behind the south goal. Younger, more female and lots of families taking advantage of tickets which cost €3.50 plus a €2.50 booking fee. It sold out in four days, mostly to local people, but there’s always a risk that with tickets so cheap, those people will not show.
Huge one-off crowds have been to other women’s games when the team have played in their club’s main stadium, with critics dismissing them as a free-for-all. Having to pay for a ticket shows some value.
I was part of that new demographic, since I took my daughters, aged 7 and 11. They’re getting into football because their friends are into it.
They collect football stickers, follow men’s football and were so excited to visit a stadium, to sing the songs they learn at school, to be part of a giant mosaic and Mexican wave. It was beautiful to watch the game through their wide, uncynical eyes and answer their innocent questions.
“Where is she going? Is she going home to eat?”
“No, she’s a substitute. You’re allowed to change players.”
They had been to Camp Nou before, but before was pre-Covid, an age ago in a child’s life.
“Is Messi a girl?” the youngest one had asked on her previous visit. Now she opines that “Messi left for PSG for money.” It’s about Gavi and Pedri and Xavi currently.
There were street artists, face-painting stalls and music bands – all cheering up the mood and trying to indoctrinate kids into a lifelong support of FC Barcelona. My pushback against that idea and that children should support the team of their father wasn’t effective.
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They were given bracelets when we bought popcorn. “To mark this historic occasion,” explained the girl as she handed over the change.
It was great to see children at a real match, away from the dopamine hits of their screens and apps, away from lockdowns and behind-closed-doors games. Affordable, too. The cheapest tickets in the worst seats for non-members to see Barca in a league game cost €49. Youngsters struggle to afford that so they end up watching in bars and the culture of going to the stadiums is alien to them. Barca thus end up with an ageing match-going demographic, supplemented by wealthy tourists who can afford their extortionate ticket prices.
But €6 a ticket is not expensive and a 18.45 kick-off time was far more agreeable than most Barca start times – on Sunday it’s a 21.00 start against Sevilla. Kids would be lucky to get home before midnight and with school the next day, that’s not happening.
On Wednesday, it helped that the opponents were Real Madrid, Barca’s eternal enemy.
But while Real Madrid’s men will win La Liga, Barca women dominate all. They pay smaller wages than PSG (who had 27,000 on Wednesday, 9,000 more than their previous highest attendance for a women’s game, Lyon and Chelsea, but they have the advantage that the players have all come through a youth system playing a set style since they were children.
Eight of Barca’s women squad are Catalan, which helps in a stadium where fans have long sung for Catalunya, but they bring in premium international talent too. Like the men’s team, then.
It helped too that the game was superb. Madrid equalised and then went ahead. The effect of 91,533 people being silenced was something to hear. The goals were incredible, proper screamers from afar. I don’t know enough to judge the general standard as I don’t watch much women’s football.
“This Barca could play fourth division men’s football in Spain,” averred Juanpi, who has played fourth division football and who follows the women’s game very closely. But since they’ll never play in a men’s league it doesn’t matter.
What matters is that the women’s game is growing, but it still has much to do. Average league crowds might be 6,000 for a Barca team who win every week, but crowds of three figures for league games are not uncommon in Spain, while in England the leading teams of Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal attract regular crowds of 2-3,000.
“Dad, can we go again?” the kids asked as we walked along Traversera de los Corts following a stunning Barca fightback and 5-2 win. With Barcelona in the semi-final and games against Arsenal or Wolfsburg, why not?
Updated: March 31, 2022, 12:52 PM