Their rival is Madrid. Forget Purdue vs. Indiana, Carolina vs. Duke, even Yankees vs. Red Sox. Real Madrid vs. F.C. Barcelona is the rivalry to end all rivalries. Their meetings ("El Clásico") during the regular and post seasons have occurred nearly 250 times, and they are two of the richest, most successful clubs in the world. Even deeper than that, Barça has long been a symbol of Catalan pride and nationalism. During Franco's regime (who supported Madrid), regional identities and cultures suffered from oppression, and Barça matches were one of the few places Catalans could represent, so to speak. One of Barça's club presidents was even assassinated by Franco's troops. So, yeah, you can begin to see where history lends weight to their slogan "More than a club" ("més que un club")...
Heading into the hallowed ground of Camp Nou, I felt a little trepidation, not being a bred-in-the-bone devotee. Camp Nou is the largest stadium in Europe (and the 11th in the world), but I was more struck by its functionality. Entrances and staircases didn't feel crowded as people streamed in, and for anyone who's ever been to any American college or pro stadium, there seemed to be an utter void of advertising.
Barça was playing Real Betis, a club out of Sevilla. We were lucky to catch a glimpse of some serious bling, as star player Lio Messi (always looking the happy-go-lucky innocent) and team captain Carles Puyol (always of the long, flowing curls) both accepted glittering trophies from recently announced awards.
High up in the nosebleed seats, we still managed to have a decent view of the pitch. The atmosphere was quite business-like with the majority of fans concentrating seriously on the action below. Apart from one group of continually chanting Barça supporters, it was also surprisingly quiet. There were no announcers or color commentators over the speakers, even the referee calls had to be divined on the basis of hand signals alone, and not a single burst of loud pop music - say, Queen or the Black-Eyed Peas - that would normally interrupt every pause in an American game to "pump up the crowd." Of course, there were no cheerleaders either, but Barça's manager Pep Guardiola, who could easily have a future as a male model, makes for a nice bit of eye candy for the ladies in his dashing suit and tie.
We expected Barça to win, but after 2 goals in less than 20 minutes, we weren't quite sure if we wanted to see a complete slaughter. However, Betis picked up their game and rallied to tie before the half. Barça's faltering actually seemed to invigorate the somewhat stoic stands. Besides the colorful phrases flying over our heads that made us wish we knew more Catalan, it was absolutely hilarious seeing the previously sedate middle-aged lady in front of us spitting out venomous curses and making obscene gestures at the ref! Luckily, Barça came back from the half, displaying once again their breathtakingly beautiful brand of ball-handling, to score 2 more goals. Right was restored in the world, and when the match finished, we were able to sing along as they blasted the anthem - with subtitles - , "Barça! Barça! Barça!"