Most visitors to Barcelona, Spain are charmed by its distinctive Art Nouveau architecture, the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, Catalonian food and access to the Mediterranean. But for soccer lovers, there’s only one destination – the Barcelona Football (soccer) stadium known as Camp Nou or new stadium, a 65 year old venue that holds 100,000 fans. Surprisingly to Americans, it is Barcelona’s number one tourist destination. Known by its slogan, “ Mes que un equipo “ (more than a team), the club is renowned for freedom of movement for its players on the field, a history of political involvement, and a fan base from around the world.
Unlike most stadiums in the United States, Europeans build theirs in the heart of a community with little space for parking. Fans arrive by subway or bus as did we. There was no game during our visit, but I still wanted to take the tour, hoping to feel the energy that accompanies an important soccer game. In 1994, the U.S. hosted the World Cup and we grabbed tickets to two of the games. I have never felt such intensity amongst fans as I did in those games.
For visitors, the entry to the Nou stadium is through a museum filled with mementos from the team’s unique history. Begun by a German immigrant in 1899, the team took some years to gain momentum. The Nou stadium is the third of three built, each holding more fans. The team established itself as a regional hero in 1930s when it tried to play under the Catalan flag. This area of Catalonia, Spain has long wanted to be self-governed and loved that “their” team stood up for them.
Barcelona FC is also rare in that it is not owned by a corporation but by its 144,000 members. To become a member, simply make an in-person appointment in Barcelona, bring an ID card and a bank account number. The annual fee is $220. In the past, Barcelona FC was amongst the few without corporate sponsors. They allied themselves with UNICEF children’s charity and pledged a yearly donation. But today, the team is besieged with corporate suitors.
The museum is filled with the team’s dominant history and the numbers are impressive even if I didn’t know what all the initials stood for, 26 La Liga titles, 5 UEFA Championships, 15 FIFA Cup World Cup trophies, and 31 Copa del Rey titles. Most will agree that Lionel Messi’s presence from 2004-2021 as one of the world’s best soccer player contributed greatly to the team’s success in their glory years.
Consistent with their “more than a team” description, I was surprised at how extensive their youth program was and that they also sponsored women’s soccer, basketball, handball, and roller hockey teams.
It was remarkable how free a visitor was to explore much of the stadium on the self-guided tour. We passed through the visitors’ locker room, almost primitive by today’s American standards, stopped at the press boxes to admire their view, and descended the stairs to the field. Yes, to the field. One couldn’t run out and play but we were at field level and could look up at the stands, imagining them full of frantic fans. Little distance separated the teams and the seats.
What shocked me was the deteriorating condition of the whole stadium. The paint on the seats was faded, plants grew in the cracks of the concrete, the press box lacked the high technology one would expect for a world class team. I read of structural concerns. So, it wasn’t a surprise when I learned recently that the stadium is getting a major facelift.
Espai Barca is the name of the renovation effort, meaning in Catalan, Football Club of Barcelona Space. For $1.7 billion, the plans include state of the art technology and a retractable roof covered with 30,000 square meters of solar panels. And the energy generated from those solar panels will power a 360-degree screen which will be located around the inside of the stadium.
In carrying out their reputation as “more than a team”, the plans include new offices, green spaces, event spaces, an ice rink, a hotel and the ‘Palau Blaugrana’ – a pavilion area which will be used by the basketball team.
For a team that is already one billion dollars in the hole, this expansion has risks. But it is also inevitable, and the team is making the move now. Games will be played elsewhere until 2025 when they hope to have the stadium finished.
The tour ended, of course, in the enormous gift shop. Despite their price, I couldn’t resist the Barcelona soccer outfits for our grandsons. With parents who also love soccer, they may be able to watch a game at the renovated stadium someday. I hope so. It is a part of the Catalonian heritage that should be experienced.