OCTOBER 3 — Thank goodness for Lionel Messi.
Sunday was an extremely strange day at Camp Nou, the 98,000 capacity home of FC Barcelona.
Throughout the morning, everyone in Spain had their eyes glued to television sets and mobile phone screens for the latest news on violent clashes between armed police forces and local people, who were trying to vote in a referendum to decide whether their region, Catalunya, should become independent from Spain.
The central Spanish government in Madrid had declared the referendum as illegal, hence the violent clashes between people who wanted to vote and the police who were charged with stopping them from doing so.
During the morning, reports emerged that Barcelona — the famous and enormously symbolic football team of Catalunya — were preparing to postpone their league game scheduled for the afternoon against Las Palmas at Camp Nou.
Understandably, the team’s directors and many of their fans did not feel it was appropriate to play while hundreds of Catalan citizens were being attacked by police officers for the “crime” of attempting to take part in a democratic vote.
As I was attending the game, I kept my eye on those rumours in case the game really was cancelled. But with no confirmed news emerging, a couple of hours before kick-off I decided to head to the stadium, just in case it went ahead.
By the time I arrived, 90 minutes before kick-off, several reports were going around with the claim that the game had indeed been called off, and the streets around the stadium were eerily empty as I went to collect my press pass from the office outside the main entrance.
Then it became clear that the few fans who had turned up were not being allowed inside the stadium, with the gates still locked and access only being granted to those with official accreditation like myself.
So I strolled into the deserted stadium, now just over an hour before the kick-off, and still there was no official word on whether the game was going ahead.
Inside, a group of Las Palmas players were walking around the pitch, chatting in small groups and studying the playing surface in the way that visiting teams always do before they get changed into their match kit.
Then the two goalkeeping coaches came out with their bags of balls and training cones, and started setting up their pre-game warm-up routines. The goalkeepers — who are always the first players onto the pitch — duly followed, and went through their usual stretching, catching and kicking routines.
The stadium PA started playing the usual fare of pre-game pop tunes, the rest of the players came out for their warm-ups — to the accompaniment of a sparse scattering of applause from ball-boys and unexpectedly unemployed security and hospitality staff — and still nobody knew if the game was going to be played.
From our seats inside the stadium, we could hear the fans who were still locked out of the ground starting to voice their frustrations, whistling, shouting and chanting in the forlorn hope that making a bit of noise would change the authority’s minds.
Then, just 25 minutes before the scheduled kick-off, we were at last given confirmation from the home club: the game would go ahead, but behind closed doors, with no supporters allowed inside. Those who were already inside could stay, but nobody else would be joining us.
So that’s how it came to pass that I was one of the few hundred people to personally witness the smallest attendance in the history of Europe’s largest stadium. A crowd of staff and media, watching a private viewing in one of the world’s best leagues and some of the world’s best players.
The strange feeling continued when the players came out for the game itself, with the PA system defiantly persisting in playing the Barca club anthem even though nobody was there to hear it.
The game kicked off and very quickly it became apparent just how much shouting is done by players while the action is underway.
Shouting for passes, shouting at the referee, shouting in frustration, shouting to advise teammates of opposition movements all sorts of shouting, all the time, and for once it was clearly audible rather than, as usual, hidden by the noise of the crowd.
The absence of atmosphere took some time to get used to: the lack of oohs and aahs from the crowd at a near goal; the lack of chanting support for the home team and abuse at the away team. And instead, every slap of the hands when players high-fived; every thud of the foot or head against the ball, and the incessant shouting from the pitch.
It was totally surreal, and didn’t feel anything like a football match. Everything was just different.
But then but then, at last, in the second half we were treated to a degree of normality. Amid all the strangeness, something was the same as ever. A small piece of stability to remind us that, yes, this was actually real.
That something was Lionel Messi, who first delivered a perfectly placed corner kick for Sergio Busquets to nod home the opening goal, and then — in the space of seven minutes — added two more goals himself to secure the victory for his team.
Messi, the man who plays like a genius whether he is being watched by 90,000 people or 90, had done it again. Nobody else came close to matching his level of performance, he once again made all the difference in settling the outcome and, on this most unsettling of days, his brilliance was pleasantly comforting.
If there’s one thing in life you can rely on, it’s Lionel Messi being better than everyone else.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.