Mar 31, 2022
BARCELONA, Spain — This time, the Queen bowed before them. An image of Barcelona’s Alexia Putellas stands 50 feet tall on the outside of Camp Nou; now the actual thing stood even taller right there, before them, on the inside of Camp Nou. Ballon d’Or winner, the world’s best player and the captain of the world’s best club, one she supported when she was a little girl, had just scored against Real Madrid in a Champions League quarterfinal. That got a cheer as loud as anything heard here all year, this grand old place sounding like it might fall down.
An hour earlier, Mapi Leon had scored. That got a cheer as well. Aitana Bonmatí, who came through the system here when it wasn’t exactly a system (at least not like it is now), scored, too. And Claudia Pina, just 20, her experience of this journey different to the veterans, scored. When she did, she raised her hands in a heart. There was also a goal for Caroline Graham Hansen. “I will remember it all my life,” she said afterwards. Or at least that’s what it sounded like: It was hard to hear over the noise.
They got cheers, too; each louder than the last, a crescendo at Camp Nou. But the biggest came right near the end. The clock had just ticked up to 88.01, and the scoreboard said Barcelona 5-2 Real Madrid when it said something else, at last revealing the answer they had been waiting for as the Mexican waves went round, the drums beat and everyone bounced. Not least because, according to the song, if you don’t bounce you’re a Madridista.
Up flashed a figure: 91,553.
Ninety-one thousand, five hundred and fifty-three people. All of them roaring, clapping, cheering and sharing in this moment. All of them record-breakers.
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This was the biggest crowd Camp Nou had seen all season, bigger than the men’s Clasico, and by more than 5,000. It was not the first time that Barcelona’s women had played at Camp Nou, but it was the first time they had done so in front of fans — this generation, anyway. It was the biggest crowd a women’s game had ever drawn to a stadium in Spain, beating the previous record — when Barcelona visited Atletico in 2019 — by over 30,000.
Spain? No women’s game anywhere had ever been played before a bigger crowd. The previous record, set at the World Cup final in Los Angeles in 1999, was 1,368 people fewer.
They had actually done it, all of them together. It had been close, but they had gotten there. “We’ll remember this our whole lives,” Alexia said.
The noise at Camp Nou all night was simply astonishing. Alex Caparros – UEFA via Getty Images
When tickets were made available for this game, a Clasico — even if it is not quite, not yet, it is on course to become one — they sold out fast. “We’re not just talking about selling out the stadium,” said Markel Zubizarreta, the Barcelona Femeni sporting director. “We’re talking about selling out the stadium in three days, and two months before the game.”
“This is a big statement for women’s football,” said Fridolina Rolfo.
Quite how big, even they couldn’t really imagine. And they imagined something pretty good. “The fact that we can sell out the stadium is unbelievable, something we couldn’t even dream of, but it shows what Barcelona is. And that’s super-cool, something to show the world,” Ingrid Engen had said the day before. “Maybe the biggest game in the club’s history.” What they showed the world was special; what they ended up feeling was even better.
Once the sales had been confirmed, everyone knew a record was possible. “A lot of people go to our games not to watch women’s football, but to watch good football,” Zubizarreta said.
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Barcelona are a brilliant football team, one with designs upon being the best Europe has ever seen, the quality of their play — technically, tactically, physically — astonishing. They are relentless, too, almost obsessive and hyper-competitive. Their record is barely believable: European champions last season, league winners for a third year in a row, the title won six weeks early, their record reads: scored 138 goals, conceded 7.
Wednesday’s game was the third time they have scored five goals in seven Champions League games; they have scored four twice. In total, they’ve played 36 games and won 36. There may be something, Zubizarreta admits, in them becoming the best team in Europe at a time when the men’s team are struggling, which helps them take centre stage, but this ran deeper, reflecting the mosaic that filled the Camp Nou stands before the game. “More than empowerment,” it said.
This is a pioneering club, one that’s very conscious of its community, its identity; one that has developed women’s football and built it up, not just appropriated it. And this event was, well, an event. One they wanted to make special, together, to build it into something big. Filling the ground was a mission, a challenge, a kind of collective endeavour.
Barcelona celebrate a magical record-breaking night at Camp Nou. Eric Alonso/Getty Images
There was a little over an hour to go before kick-off when the team bus turned into the concourse in front of Camp Nou, heading down the hill through thousands of fans. There were flares and fireworks, flags everywhere. As it made its way through the crowd, palms could be seen inside thudding against the windows. “We were flipando, freaking out,” Aitana said. Alexia added: “When the bus came in, we could see so many faces, lots of people, lots of girls.”
When the teams came out, the club’s anthem boomed around. “I was almost in tears,” Aitana admitted.
It was early on a wet Wednesday evening, one where there were strikes. Lots of people were still at work. As the game kicked off, there were maybe 50,000 people there. A huge crowd by anyone’s measure — 10 of the men’s games have had lower crowds and only one women’s game in Spain has ever had more — but a long way off.
And yet, here’s the thing. Well, two things: It was still filling, and steadily. There was something about that which went hand in hand with the performance, steadily better.
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And after a while, it didn’t even feel like it mattered much anyway. It was still loads, and it was still loud. Very, very loud. This was brilliant anyway, people as well as players there as participants. So noisy, so much life. A proper party. The connection between stands and pitch was intense, close. The singing never let up. A new rivalry this may be, but it quickly felt real. Drums beat, fans clapped so hard their palms hurt, throats were raw. And it all felt like it really meant something.
One measure of that is that even Real Madrid’s manager called it “a great spectacle, a fiesta for women’s football.”
Real Madrid celebrate a stunning goal from Claudia Zornoza. Eric Alonso/Getty Images
It is genuinely hard to recall any Camp Nou game where the volume was so high — the identification too, the communion. “I told my players it wasn’t enough simply to qualify; we have to put on a show,” said Jonathan Giraldez, and did they ever. Two-thirds of possession, 25 shots, five goals. But also enough jeopardy to give the feeling that this was a contest, Madrid certainly playing their part. The Claudia Zornoza goal that put Madrid into the lead was astonishing.
If they put on a show, the fans did, too. When Madrid got a penalty, they chanted “whoever doesn’t bounce is Madridista;” on her goal line, Sandra Panos bounced. They sang the Barcelona anthem. “Being a Barcelona fan is the best thing there is,” they chanted.
Here, it really was. This was just, well, so much fun. The way football is supposed to be. There was a Mexican wave. A stadium full of lights, thousands of phones raised, torches on. The mosaic was put up again, three or four times, and it looked even better than it had at the start. As the final minutes passed joyously, another song went round: “Florentino, where are you?” Real Madrid’s president wasn’t there, but lots and lots of people were, and they were making a night of it. “The atmosphere was brutal,” Giraldez said. “It’s hard to explain the emotions we have.”
This was some night, even if there weren’t enough of them. And yet, they did want to know. There was something about the wait for the attendance figure — much longer than at a typical game — that made it feel even more significant, a grand reveal. And when at last they found out that there were enough of them, that they had done it, every last one of them a record holder, they erupted.
It was a record-breaking night for those in attendance. Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images
At the final whistle, some Barcelona players slipped to their knees and the supporters got to their feet. A standing ovation accompanied them off. Well, it would have done, only they were not going anywhere. The supporters weren’t either. “I have to hold back my tears because this is just too crazy,” Graham Hansen said, looking around. “The fans aren’t leaving! They’re staying to celebrate with us. It’s not just 91,000 fans, it’s 91,000 Barcelona fans and they have been singing all game.”
The players approached them, the drum sticks handed to Alexia. “We’ll remember this all our lives,” she said when at last they had finished a long, long lap of honour, round and back again, not wanting to go just yet. Better to stay there and take it all in, this once unthinkable thing that was now something to replicate, maybe even a new era. “This is just the start,” Aitana said. She knew how far they had travelled, recalling late night training sessions with poor facilities, a game that was far from professional, but still not far enough in the past. This was an arrival, and also a beginning. This showed it could work, it could be done.
“Absolutely you can make money out of it,” Graham Hansen insisted, “it’s not just 91,000; it’s 91,000 people having a party. And if you’re having fun, you want to do it again. So, this is a game changer.”
“Super-magical,” the Queen called it. Take a bow, everyone.
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