For the thousands and thousands of fans inside the Camp Nou, this was a night they would never forget. They had got there early, a huge mass of them walking from the city centre, congregating in Plaça de Catalunya, flooding up Avinguda de Sarriá and turning onto Diagonal. Occupying the road, no place for cars, it was like some giant march, an endless sea of supporters singing in the evening sunshine. The noise didn't stop when they occupied their seats, which they didn't occupy for long: after just four minutes they were on their feet celebrating the opening goal, a roar rolling 'round.
They had started before that, whistling their opponents and cheering their players as the teams were read out. Nor was that the only goal: two more followed and so did a famous victory, even if there were nerves in the final minutes as it seemed a comeback might happen, the referee implored to blow for full-time. When he did, their place in the Europa League semifinals secured, they didn't leave: instead, they stood, applauded and sang. The footballers went on a lap of honour, pausing on all sides and in every corner, clapping back.
The players stopped in front of the stands and took a celebratory photo against the perfect backdrop: supporters packed in behind them, a great moment shared. When at long last the fans did eventually make for the exit, they headed back into the centre of one of Europe's great cities. They walked Las Ramblas, celebrating. Plaça Reial filled. Lots of them were still going strong past 3 a.m.
"I'll always remember tonight; it was very emotional for us," their manager said, "I saw a stadium full of white shirts."
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On Thursday during the second half of their Europa League quarterfinal second leg against Eintracht Frankfurt, Barcelona put out a tweet announcing the attendance at the Camp Nou. "Today there are 79,468 of us: thanks everyone," it read. The tweet was taken down very soon after; this was best unsaid. Definitely, they had decided, not something to celebrate or to be grateful for. Instead, Barcelona's president Joan Laporta said he felt "ashamed."
The word that most jarred in the tweet was "us." This was them.
It is impossible to calculate how many Eintracht fans were at the Camp Nou on Thursday. Officially, Barcelona had supplied 5,000 tickets for the away team, but police estimates placed the number of Germans who had arrived in the city for the game at somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000. If the total attendance was 79,468, then it seems likely the real number could be higher than 30,000. Looking at the stands, swaths of white everywhere, it doesn't feel an especially big leap to suggest that there were as many -- maybe even more -- supporting Eintracht as Barcelona.
They made a lot of noise, too. An away goal can't have ever been celebrated as loudly as Eintracht's three were on Thursday. In the build-up to the game, manager Xavi Hernandez had appealed to Barcelona's fans to make this a cauldron, but it was Eintracht's fans who did so. "It was like a final, where it's half the stadium each," Xavi said afterwards. "I don't know if it was a home game," said Jordi Cruyff, the technical secretary.
Xavi said he had told his team to focus on the game, not the stands, and it is hard to judge how much of an impact it had. Nor should the balance in the stands be blamed for the final result and Barcelona's elimination, at least not solely. But Xavi said: "Obviously it didn't help. We were expecting 70,000 or 80,000 cules." Instead, they didn't even get much of a majority, if they got one at all. Barcelona defender Ronald Araujo wouldn't use it as an excuse but admitted that it was strange, that he had been "surprised" to see so many German fans.
"I thought we were playing at home," Eintracht coach Oliver Glasner said.
That there were so many of them was hugely impressive. On one level it is something to celebrate, perhaps more so post-pandemic. They had gone elsewhere in huge numbers, too, as Real Betis could testify. But for Barcelona it was a problem. Although there was no major trouble, no fighting to lament, it poses security issues, and some Barcelona fans certainly did not enjoy the experience. Mostly, though, the impact was emotional, some considering it a humiliation.
Barcelona had played both ties "away" and been knocked out. What they witnessed in the stands hurt even more, was even more embarrassing than what they saw on the pitch: white everywhere, their ground someone else's home. At the start of the second half, the Barcelona fans behind the goal in the north stand -- the grada de animació, or singing section -- initially refused to come back out in protest.
The Catalan newspaper El Mundo Deportivo called it a "shameful invasion of the Camp Nou." The problem with that choice of words is, quite apart from employing the language of war, it makes it sound as if the Eintracht fans had done something dreadfully wrong, as if they had somehow stormed the place, as if they had sneaked in or torn down the turnstiles. When what they had actually done was ... well, buy tickets -- some of them at vastly inflated prices. Barcelona admitted they made almost €3 million in gate receipts on this game.
The question is of course: how? And why were so many tickets available?
"We can't allow [this]," Laporta said. "We're getting information from the security and ticketing departments. We will take measures."
Lots of elements come together here. First of all, simplistic though it sounds, the Camp Nou is huge. Europe's biggest stadium, it holds almost 20,000 more than the Santiago Bernabeu, for example. That's a lot of tickets to be sold. Only once this season have they sold out: for the women's Champions League game against Real Madrid. (That it was that particular game, where the way tickets were sold was different, is not entirely insignificant). It is also the Easter holidays: again, that sounds silly, almost too simple, but there are a lot of Barcelona fans away, one columnist complaining that they should feel ashamed as they watch from their Costa Brava beaches. In short, many of those who might have gone and supported Barcelona didn't.
But that's something that goes beyond just this week. And this is about the fans, too; an uncomfortable but unavoidable starting point to analyses of what had happened. There was gratitude towards those who had gone, who had lived this strange, dislocating experience and in many cases wished they hadn't had to, but what about those who hadn't? What about those who had (indirectly?) imposed it upon them?
Barcelona have around 85,000 season-ticket holders. This season, average attendances are in the region of 55,000, including those who are buying tickets game by game through various channels. That's a lot of season-ticket holders who don't go to every game. (There are also a lot on the waiting list who would but can't). This season, there is a systemic element, too: after the pandemic, aware of the economic and in some cases emotional impact, Barcelona allowed season-ticket holders to take a year off without renouncing their right to their seats. The club said more than 30,000 people took them up on that offer.
Those seats go back into the hands of the club to sell. A similar thing happens with the Seient Lliure system, where season ticket holders who knew that they couldn't get to a game (or didn't want to go) could give up their seat to the club that week, benefitting from a rebate if Barcelona could sell it on. There is no punishment for not showing up, no risk of your season ticket being taken off you, no threshold of games you have to meet, and it can be lucrative for the club. A season ticket works out far, far cheaper than the same seat sold 25 times.
Not that it's about the club, exactly, although Seient Lliure was partly designed to avoid empty seats and socios' tickets ending in the hands of touts. "Everyone has the right to sell their carnet," Barcelona presidential adviser Enric Masip said, "but the reality of seeing so many opposition fans in the Camp Nou is a real, real pity." There is a question there: do they? After all, Masip defended their right to sell their season ticket, note, not their right to give it to a friend when they can't go one week, or occasionally invite someone to enjoy a game.
And then it is worth asking: sell it to whom? Because it's not just a case of ceding tickets to the club to sell on, and not just a case of isolated weeks; there is a whole parallel market: ticket touts, travel companies, formal ticket agencies. Businesses with a more or usually less direct relationship with the club and access to what appear to be huge numbers of tickets.
In short, on Thursday, lots of tickets were available on an open market to which German fans could have access. That the prices were high also tilted the balance more towards Eintracht fans, for whom this was a one-off, a special occasion, "one of the biggest games in their history," in Laporta's words. Fans who, he said, have the money to afford them, especially compared with people in Catalonia. Some Barcelona fans who might have gone this time weren't going to do so at that price.
Thousands of tickets were sold -- this was their second-biggest crowd all season -- it's just that Eintracht fans bought maybe half of them, at least in part because Barcelona fans didn't. Tickets were sold online, although the club reacted by blocking sales to IP addresses in Germany or people with German credit cards. Whether that block was done quickly enough is one question; whether it's effective is another. It is not hard to use a VPN. It's not that hard to find -- or be found by -- someone with a Spanish card prepared to make the purchase for you.
(Incidentally, whether it's legal within the EU to allow sales from only one country might be a pertinent question).
Then there are those that become available through other channels; Laporta talked about "irregularities" in the way tickets were sold. Many of the seats belonged to Barcelona fans but were not occupied by Barcelona fans. Had it not been for Eintracht fans, maybe they would have remained empty.
"The 34,440 tickets the club put on sale, which come from the season-ticket holders who took up the year off, could not be bought with German credit cards or from a German IP address," Laporta said, noting that many of those had been put on a members-only sale at 50% discount. "Those who bought them clearly passed them on to Germans. He also said that of the 37,746 season tickets used to go to the game, many were actually used by Eintracht fans.
Laporta announced that from now on, in non-domestic games, tickets would be nominative, something that had been avoided before because, put bluntly, it's a pain in the backside for everyone. It might also mean more unoccupied seats, at least in the short term until prices find a new level, as season-ticket holders who can't go might be less likely to pass on, or sell on, their seat for the week.
Every week, there are fans who do so. There are also fans who do so every week. It is hard to judge, but there might be a core of 40,000 to 50,000 season-ticket holders who are almost always there. The rest are all sorts of supporters.
Which is why there is a deeper, more systemic question here. There are reasons this happened this time, but the context that allowed it has been building steadily for a long time; in part this is an unintended, if perhaps inevitable, consequence of that. It might also be a warning, the moment when flaws in the model are revealed, when questions of identity and access, value, price and priority might be addressed; where the lessons learned might be applied to many clubs too. A model that perhaps creates high-end demand at the cost of low-end, weekly loyalty.
This system, insofar as it can be called that rather than a culture that has emerged without necessarily being planned, market capitalism getting its claws into football once again, has served to allow access to tickets -- at higher prices, and not always via the club itself -- to transient supporters. To one-off or occasional attendees. To those who wouldn't be able to go otherwise, denied access to season tickets. To -- and this is a word that has become emotive and should be treated carefully -- tourists.
They come from all over the world, and there is something welcoming and wonderful about that. They love Barcelona or they come to, the experience a special one. Again, calculations are risky, but every week there might be 10,000 or 15,000 of them. Every week, they come and they support Barcelona.
The explanation for what happened on Thursday night is simple: this time they didn't; this time they came and supported Barcelona's opponents instead. But that is not the only difference, and here is an important point to end on. If "tourist" is a loaded word, used dismissively and often unfairly, this time it doesn't really apply. Here comes the caveat, and it is a colossal one: these weren't "tourists"; these were fans, loyal and loud, following their team en masse across the continent for a night they would never forget. And when you strip it all away, that part at least was actually genuinely pretty special -- something unique worthy of celebrating the way Eintracht Frankfurt did.