Monday 23 October 2017

Two nations divided by much but united in their mediocrity

On Thursday morning, I visited the Nou Camp. On Thursday evening, I watched Paul McShane train on a mountainside in Andorra. Football is a broad church.

If it were a church, it would be so broad that it would accommodate Richard Dawkins and the Phelps family. Abu Hamza would also be welcomed with a bear hug, a handshake and a kindly exhortation to help himself to the tea and biscuits.

There is room for everyone. On Wednesday, as Ireland trained at Espanyol's training ground, the youth teams of Espanyol were practising on a nearby pitch. Boys of nine and 10 glided across the field, their heads upright as they moved.

Robbie Keane joked in the pre-match press conference that the Andorran pitch would prevent Ireland "popping the ball around like Barcelona". Ireland have rarely shown any eagerness to pop the ball around like Espanyol so Robbie was on safe ground when he played down Ireland's chances of turning to tiki-taka.

In football's broad church, Ireland is sticking to the Tridentine mass.

But we were at one of football's most important shrines. Barcelona is undoubtedly the most powerful sect in football today. Most people believe their football team is in the right even when they are in the wrong but Barcelona has encouraged a view that it can do no wrong.

There are sound reasons for this. Watching Barcelona offers conclusive proof that football is an art form and art has always wanted to offer something before the gods. If you are to believe that any team is infallible, and not just in communion but in cohorts with a higher power, then it would have to be Barcelona. This righteousness also extends to their 'More Than a Club' ethos when the More Than a Club ethos has now become a useful branding exercise.

Barcelona's commitment to social democracy doesn't extend to the other teams in La Liga who are struggling as Real Madrid and Barcelona hoover up 35 per cent of Spain's TV money. The shirt sponsorship by the Qatar Foundation was worth €150m over five years to the club and they were proud of their deal, as any business would be.

There is no mention of this when you go on the 'Camp Nou Experience' as they stress the remarkable history of the club and their central role in Catalan life. I've never taken any other stadium tour so I can't imagine that Barcelona's suffers from more self-regard than, say, Newcastle United's.

Maybe Newcastle's tour has an ironic video montage tribute to the comedy central defensive pairing of Boumsong & Bramble. Perhaps you can take part in an interactive game which allows you to capitalise on a collision between the two and fire a goal in at the Gallowgate End.

Barcelona's tour isn't particularly self-referential. You walk out the tunnel to a piped soundtrack of the crowd cheering and the Barcelona anthem playing to replicate how the players feel. You can also listen to crowd sounds on matchday in case you have never heard a crowd making noise at a football match.

The tour also takes you through the press box and mixed zone. Unfortunately, in the mixed zone there are no re-enactments of footballers walking by pretending to talk on the phone or, as one top, top, top, top English player did recently, of a footballer turning to the journalists and wondering, "I don't know why you still ask me."

The press box would have benefited from a soundtrack as well. Tourists could have sat in the journalists' seats, put on some headphones and experienced it all.

"Is the wifi down for everyone?"

"Does anyone have a spare pen?"

"Who had the shot for that corner?"

"Do any of the f**king plugs work in this place?"

But they airbrushed that experience too, ensuring that the next generation think journalists are living the dream which, when they get to watch Barcelona, they undoubtedly are.

Barcelona are at the height of their cultish powers. The now-abandoned La Masia beside the Nou Camp isn't part of the tour but it's a place to visit. The cottage that was a dormitory for Messi demands some reverence too.

Ireland spent a night in Barcelona and drove into the Pyrenees for Friday's game. It was a three-hour journey but a drive that took us from the centre of the football universe, the heartbeat of the country ranked number one in FIFA's rankings, to the edge of the world and the team ranked last. On the financial markets, it's probably the other way around.

Andorra la Vella is the most depressing beautiful place you will see. It's a tax haven for people who disapprove of Monte Carlo or find Zurich too edgy. It was like being in an episode of Bergerac but without the raciness or John Nettles' aura.

It was an advertisement for working until you drop, never retiring and never saving or at least that was the message I took home with me (unfortunately it was also the message I arrived with). Andorra seemed to say that with great wealth comes great boredom or at least that prudent saving encourages more and more prudence until you die of prudence or gout.

Irish fans who thought they were going to Barcelona, wandered around looking for tickets, baffled that fans who could overcome problems in the finest grounds across the world could be locked out of a stadium with a capacity of 800. Or to be precise, 807, according to the man who counted all the seats on Thursday evening. There were four rows of seats in the main tribune, an imposing edifice that rivalled the North stand at the Aviva.

The Estadi Comunal didn't look like it could hold 807 -- 103 showed up for the Armenia game and that seemed about right. They would never come to worship football in Andorra. Pilgrims probably wouldn't head to Ireland either.

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