We had the soccer trip of a lifetime in the past week. The following is our travelogue:
1. Fly out of the country on Christmas night in time to arrive in London for a Boxing Day match between Chelsea and Watford, kind of a London derby (which the locals pronounce "darby.").
2. 26 December, Chelsea-Watford
. We landed at half past seven, made our way to the hotel, showered and changed (a must after an all-night flight), shook off the cobwebs (it is hard to sleep for any length of time sitting up in coach), grabbed some lunch and then took the District/Circle line to Fulham Broadway, about a five-minute walk from Chelsea's famous stadium, Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea has plenty of hospitality folks circling the stadium to direct you to where to go and even to take your photographs in front of murals of players -- former and present or the stadium itself. They also had a bunch of young folks trying to get you to sign a card to petition some body (it was not exactly clear) that you support the expansion of the stadium. They were so nice about it, that I did, and they didn't particularly care that I am not a resident of the United Kingdom.
The weather was in the mid-fifties and grey, slightly windy, and the crowd seemed anxious, as if waiting for the vaunted Blues to awaken after a godawful start that had them much closer to the relegation zone than qualifying for the Champions League. We got there early enough to circle the stadium and visit the Chelsea store, which ultimately would rank as #3 in stadium stores on our trip. It's a nice store, a bit small, and doesn't offer the variety that either Arsenal's or Barcelona's do. Admittedly, Stamford Bridge is about two-thirds the size of Emirates Stadium and less than half the size of Camp Nou, Barcelona's famed home pitch.
What struck us about Stamford Bridge were a few things. Like Emirates Stadium, it pretty much rests in a residential neighborhood, with some apartments pretty close to the stadium. There are two seemingly luxury hotels close by -- one attached to the stadium and the other about a fifty yards' walk. The stadium is old. The concrete stairwells are narrow and harken back to what they must of looked like at Knights Field in "The Natural." They were steep, too, as after a sleeplessness night we had to climb to the top of the first level of the stadium, a long walk indeed. And the sections are separated, so that you cannot walk on your level to another section on the same level. Chelsea's men's rooms offer a more modern trough urinal, somewhat reminiscent of what existed at, among other places, Princeton's ancient Palmer Stadium back in the day. And the concessions are bare bones, ranking #2 on the trip (The English don't offer American variety or depth, but they do a better job than their counterparts in Spain.)
As for the fans, they were a bit pensive, waiting for the Blues to flip the switch and make a run toward the top four in the Premiership and an automatic berth in the Champions League. The visiting section was leather-lunged, singing and chanting all through the game. (Watford is in Northwest London). Going into the match, Watford was in seventh place, Chelsea in sixteenth. My son and I predicted a Watford victory.
For a while it looked that way. Chelsea did strike first on a great follow by striker Diego Costa on a corner kick, but Watford captain Troy Deeney scored on a penalty after a late challenge by a Chelsea defender. At the half, it was 1-1. At the fifty-six minute mark, hot striker Odion Ighalo showed some nice moves to make it 2-1 Watford, and then Chelsea battled back. Costa scored at the 65th minute and then with about ten minutes to go Watford's fate looked sealed; Chelsea had a penalty kick. But midfielder Oscar slipped on his approach and air-mailed the shot at least five if not more feet over the goal, and the match ended in a 2-2 tie. The Watford fans seemed pleased, ending their long day of changing with a "We are Watford FC" to punctuate the match; the Chelsea fans seemed like they were suffering the virus that they just couldn't shake. The Blues need three points each time out to make up ground on Arsenal and Man City, but Watford were just too good. As for Chelsea, Costa when hot is sterling, their midfielders are out of sync (Cesc Fabregas was benched at halftime and Eden Hazard was all but invisible) and their back line looks out of date.
We then made our way out of the stadium and back to the Fulham Broadway tube stop, amazed at how the local authorities got all of the people out of the stadium and onto trains promptly. We were glad to have made the trip to Stamford Bridge, happy for a good game, happier (as Arsenal fans) for a tie, and looking forward to a quick dinner at a pub near our hotel and then a good sleep after our travels.
3. 28 December, Arsenal-Bournemouth
. The awful news on Boxing Day was that our beloved Gunners had traveled to Southampton and were thrashed 4-0, despite Arsene Wenger's contention that their hosts' last three goals came on what should have been obvious off-side calls. Arsenal's bench is thin; more than half their midfielders are on the injured list, and two under-21s are among their list of eligible subs. We didn't know what to expect in traveling to Emirates Stadium -- whether Arsenal were starting to fall off the table (American idiom) or down the table (literally), or whether they would rebound and find form against a team that they had never played against in the Premiership because this was Bournemouth's first year up.
We took the tube to the Arsenal stop, surrounded by fans wearing all sorts of Arsenal gear, and then did a lap around the stadium to get to Arsenal's fan store, something the size of a large supermarket or four Rite-Aide, CVS, Duane Read, Walgreen or name your chain drugstores. Want an Arsenal jersey with your favorite player's name and numbers pressed on it? Done. Want a version of the famous puffy coat that Wenger wears on the sidelines? You can get one in blue (current year's color) or black (the one that they sold last year)? Commemorative socks with the names of the greats on them? Yes. Very small figurines of certain players? Perhaps, especially if you want Jack Wilshere. Hats? Scarves? Balls? Boots? All there. In many varieties and colors. To be blunt, the only American stores I find as consistently packed during non-holiday times as Arsenal's store are Apple stores and Wegman's supermarkets. These lads have a license to print pounds sterling.
Of course, we had to make our purchases, and if it were ten degrees cooler I would have opted for a puffy coat and did my best Wenger imitation (particularly the double fist pump after a goal). Among our purchases were a vintage jersey, a scarf, a t-shirt, a hat and a Santi Cazorla figurine. Ninety pounds later, and we were off to the stands.
The place was packed, 67,000 or so strong, in a residential neighborhood in North London to which no one drives. It's all public transportation, and I do have some pity for the locals who try to drive in their neighborhood on match day. Arsenal dominated, as the Cherries have difficulty scoring and have a bunch of offensive-minded players hurt, including striker Callum Wilson and midfielder Max Gradel. For this match we sat in about the 20th row closer to one goal than the other, and about one-third of the way through we witnessed Ozil curl a corner into the goal box, over the head of a running Olivier Giroud and right onto the head of defender Gabriel, who ran in behind Giroud unmarked and put the ball into the upper right hand corner of the goal. Cherries' keeper Artur Boruc did not have a chance. One-nil, Gunners.
It stayed that way for a while into the second half. While it didn't seem that Bournemouth could mount a serious threat, despite the great hustle of midfielder Harry Arter and the good tries by out-of-position striker Josh King, Arsenal kept threatening. Ultimately, on a counterattack, Ozil took the ball downfield, fed Giroud near the box, Giroud made a nice backheel back to Ozil who slid the ball past Boruc. 2-0, the Gunners, and the game was just about over. Arsenal prevailed, ascended to the top of the table, and all was well in that part of North London.
It was fun to see our favorite team at home, playing well, and revealing character by recovering from a disaster to regain form. They are relying on a small core of players with some due to return. Also, the January transfer window beckoned, and there was hope that a few players might be on the way to bolster the roster. Among the particular need, a holding midfielder to replace Francis Coquelin, who is out for a while. On this particular night defender Callum Chambers was placed in that role and acquitted himself nicely, but he is not a long-term solution. Aaron Ramsey also impressed with his hustle all over the field, but the Man of the Match, as he has been on many occasions, was the elite Mesut Ozil.
30 December, Barcelona-Real Betis
. It was about a 15-minute underground ride to Chelsea from Central London and longer to Arsenal. We got to Barcelona on December 29 and figured out that it is about a 30-minute Metro ride to the station nearest Camp Nou, one of the largest football venues in the world, seating about 99,000 people. On this night Barca would be hosting the "other" team from Seville, Real Betis, whose only household name is the midfielder Dani Ceballos.
After the ride we had about a ten-minute walk down hill into the stadium and then made our way to the three-story Barca store, which is right across from the venue in which FC Barcelona play both basketball and team handball. This store is larger than Chelsea's but smaller than Arsenal's, although my son disputed my recollection. We already had a scarf, courtesy of a friend, so we picked up some hats, a refrigerator magnet, and a sweater for my son with the Barca logo and in Barca colors. After that, we made our way into Camp Nou, which is perhaps larger than the stadium in which Ireland and Bulgaria met for the Quidditch World Cup. Seriously, there are layers upon layers, and we sat below ground in about the 25th row. While Arsenal's concession stands mostly resembled those found in the United States, the ones at Camp Nou reminded me of a lower quality than I recall finding as a kid in Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia in the 1960's. You could get a hot dog, you could get popcorn, a beer, a soda and water, but that's about it. Want a burger? No. Ice cream? Not a chance. Lots of concrete, big, added onto, and a huge place. It wasn't sold out, but 83,000 people did attend to watch the Greatest Show on (Soccer) Turf.
It's hard to put into words what it is like to watch Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar work together as attackers. They swirl, they weave, they can handle the ball as if it were attached to their feet. If you guard one too closely then another will get open. Messi is the strategic and tactical genius, Suarez the threat to pound the ball into the back of the net when up close, and Neymar the equivalent of a dribbling wizard in the NBA. By the end of the night it was 4-0 Barca, but with all of the misses and near-misses, it could well have been 10-0. Betis looked a few steps slow and uncoordinated; Barca welcomed Messi back and both he and Suarez scored (Suarez twice). Suarez is a royal pain and you'd hate him if he were not on your team, but when he's on yours he never stops battling and trying to gain an advantage. Messi gets mugged a bit too much, but he also dives on occasion, perhaps because he can or perhaps because he's compensating for the times he gets pushed, tripped or bumped and there is no call. It was fun to watch this trio in action and to see the likes of Sergio Roberto, Sergio Busquets and Dani Alves. We did wonder what it must be like to be Barca keeper Claudio Bravo -- he was a bit lonely on this night.
Another interesting fact was that at 17:14 into each half the Barca fans chant "Inde-pencia," as there is a secession movement afoot and 1714 marked that last time that this very nice city was independent.
The fun thing was that we had seen three of the world's most significant teams in their home venues within five days, that we got to the famous Camp Nou, that we saw the great players and the great players played great. We could have stopped there and it would have been a wonderful trip. But there was just one more stop.
2 January -- RCD Espanyol-Barcelona
. Just as Real Betis is the other team in Seville, Espanyol is the other team in Barcelona, about 7 miles from the city center and a long commute. We changed Metro stops once and made our way on the L5 line to Cornella Center, about a half-hour ride. The web told us that we would have a 15-minute walk to Power8 Stadium. My son and I figured that this would be easy, that is, until we exited the Metro. We got there about an hour and fifteen minutes or so before match time, and very few people were at this Metro. There were no street signs, and no signs pointing the way to the stadium. And we don't speak Catalan. And the GPS told me that the stadium was a two-hour walk from where we were. I didn't know how this could be and spotted a teenager working his GPS, with two teenaged sisters and a dad who looked remarkably like Food Network host Geoffrey Zakarian. We approached them, and in broken Spanish I asked if they were going to the match, they said yes, and we followed them for about 15 minutes until we got to the venue. This is about a 5-10 year-old 40,000-seat stadium, concrete, and resembles many US stadiums.
We noticed a heavy police presence (they were at all matches, but very prominent outside the stadium here, not looking for terrorists but perhaps visiting fans). We made our way to the store, which was about the size of a 7-11, at least the type that's embedded in a mid-city apartment building. Here our mission was for a scarf to add to our collection, a hat and a refrigerator magnet. Like at Barca, they don't sell programs. We made our purchases and made our way into the stadium.
We appreciated the newness. The concessions were event more paltry than at Camp Nou; picture a vendor on the beach with a small refrigerated cart from which he pulls cold beverages and perhaps a hot dog cooker and that's what you get. But it really didn't matter, as this wasn't a stadium food tour. We made our way to the seats -- and your Euros buy you a lot more when you go to a regional team that doesn't sell out, even for a derby match against the cross-town rivals -- and sit a few yards from mid-field in the eighth row. So close that we could even get a good picture of Messi from our I-Phones.
The passion was great, as the Catalan fans are louder and more passionate than those in England, as visiting fans in the UK tend to be more vocal and persistent than home fans on many occasions. The Espanyol fans were proud, loud and profane. They waved their scarves, they had a section led by three men standing on a scaffold that sang, chanted and waved flags the entire match. They (aargh) smoke in the stands.
Sitting in front of us were a father and son in Espanyol scarves; the other son sat next to me without one. I asked the father why the other son didn't have an Espanyol scarf -- he smiled and said that he and the son next to him were fans of the home team, but that the other son rooted for Barca and was, as a result, a *@#$%
. I promised my son that I would not refer to him that way, even in jest.
The game was played hard. Barca threatened. Messi hit the bar with a free from beyond the box and Suarez did the same in close, but at the end the home eleven held Barca scoreless for the first time in a while and Barca failed to pull away from Athetico Madrid and Real Madrid in the La Liga standings (they would thrash Espanyol at Camp Nou about a week later in the Copa de Espana 4-1 in a match that saw their rivals draw 8 yellow cards and two ejections). The way to defeat Barcelona is to pull back your defense, clog the lower third of your field near the goal, hope to counterattack but essentially to bottle them up. If you get into a running match with Barcelona, you will lose, and probably big.
After the match we made our way back to the Metro and back to our hotel, marveling that thanks to some reliable on-line services, we made our way to four international matches in eight days and saw the famous Barcelona team twice within four days.
Great fans, great passion, great energy, great athletes.
A very fun trip.