Published in Sunday Times Lifestyle. 24 June 2018

The skyline of Catalonia capital, Barcelona, looking out toward the Mediterranean sea

ON the evening of July 25 1992, hundreds of millions around the world gathered for the start of a two-week slumber. To Freddie Mercury and Dame Montserrat Caballé’s serenade of infatuation, our lids, woozy from worldly care, closed. And with the after-image of a glowing gem on the coast of the Mediterranean in our mind, we dozed off to the “perfect dream”. Barcelona, the small capital of the Catalonia region in northeastern Spain, hosted then what was later hailed by many as one of the best Olympic Games in history.

Accompanying the Olympic news being beamed across the globe, were vistas of Barcelona from the hillside Montjuïc park - the setting of the Olympic stadium. Familiar, too, were the photos of divers launching against a backdrop the of Sagrada Familia cathedral spires.


The spotlight on the competition had cast a wide light, and entranced many to the beauty of this ancient Roman town.

Joaquim Utset, managing editor at People En Espanol Magazine, now based in New York but a native of Barcelona, remembers the makeover of the city at that time.

Residents were encouraged by the local government to clean and paint the  buildings, he says, so that the city turned from brown and grey, following years of neglect, to brightly colored façades with motifs and decorations. In short, the city was transformed.

Over a quarter of a century later, the games have remained as a deep reservoir to fuel Barcelona’s glow, keeping it at the top of travelers’ dream lists. But, they are only fond hazy memories. However, when it comes to a different game, the dream turns brightly vivid.

Spanish football’s current global status is supreme. And Barcelona city is a massive contributor. It is home to FC Barcelona, one of the most successful teams on the planet. Their nickname, “Blaugrana”, is a  reference to the team colors — blue and garnet — in the Catalan language. 

Whether Spanish football manages to achieve such heights due to technical ability, management or youth training could probably be expertly dissected and analyzed. But to experience some of its eminence is to peek into the eco-system in which this success thrives. To this end, an invitation was sent by Spanish football body La Liga to visit and experience the pride of Catalonia.

To grasp the scope of FC Barcelona’s place in Spanish football, consider that the team are consistent domestic and international cup winners; their revenue last season — according to Forbes  — was over R10-billion, second globally only to  Manchester United.

Camp Nou, the 99300 capacity home stadium of FC Barcelona, a mere 5km from the center of town, is Barcelona’s largest tourist attraction, beating such cultural highlights as the Sagrada Familia and the Picasso Museum.

But stadia are little without the displayed prowess of limb and foot. The soul and cult of football aren’t imbued in steel and cement. Surrounded by a ring of rich art and culture — including the architecture the historic Gothic Quarter’s; La Rambla, the famous, tree-lined pedestrian mall; and the modernist work of artists including Joan Miró and Antoni Gaudi —  what is it that can turn our gaze to a patch of grass and seats? And how does one untangle the intimate weave of the city and people with fútbol?

To answer, La Liga submerged us into one of sport’s biggest displays:  the derby between FC Barcelona and their equally illustrious rival, Real Madrid CF, a match known as the El Clásico.

According to sports pundits, every El Clásico carries as much weight for Spaniards as a gut-wrenching telenovela  finale. Globally too, this contest stirs a buzz. Many have hoarded and sacrificed for the airfare, accommodation and the $400 required for the cheapest seat in the stadium. Around the world, they would be joined by a 100-million-strong television audience. Everything about El Clásico is extreme:  big stars, big brands and big money.

I expected great fanfare in the build-up to the game, but Barcelona  displayed a more simmering anticipation. In the days before, perhaps over a bite of Catalan croquettes or a gulp of tinto de verano — red wine with lemonade and ice — a local would express their support for Messi or Piqué, or curse Cristiano Ronaldo’s name — but there was hardly any ruckus.

José Luis Pérez Triviño, an associate law professor at Barcelona University, pointed out that all the iconography, organic structure and following fervour of football are the hallmarks of organised religion. In other words, fans, whether hardcore zealots or couch warmers, are essentially believers. And like religion, little is un-permeated by it.

For the 90 minutes of El Clásico, Camp Nou and Barcelona funnel the attentions of a wide audience. For a moment, once again, like on that summer’s evening in  ’92, the pride of Catalonia, the pride of Spain, the spectacle of competition is under a spotlight and the lore of football is written again.

This is Barcelona, where   “Blaugrana” that night lays on   a feast in blue and garnet that radiates from Camp Nou all across the city.

It is truly the fulfillment of Mercury’s song. Barcelona, the city, is like “a jewel in the sun”, and they want all the world to see. / KT

Dame Montserrat Caballe and Freddie Mercury.


Camp Nou at sunset. The home stadium of FC Barcelona. Picture: Getty Images.

Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan of the 1992 US Olympic basketball 'Dream Team'.

Olympic diving during the 1992 games. In the background are the spires of Sagrada Familia