BARCELONA - The Estadio Nou Camp is one of the biggest sporting stadiums on the planet, a concrete shrine to soccer glory that can hold 130,000 screaming football fanatics, and I can't find it.
Five hours before kickoff on a blistering Saturday afternoon, I've taken the subway to the suburban end of the city to snare tickets for the opening-day game between the mighty FC Barcelona and Malaga CF. It's day one of my vacation, carefully timed to kick off with the launch of the 2000 Spanish football season. Now, if only I could find the stadium.
Despite the fact that it occupies a place on the map the size of High Park, Nou Camp is nowhere to be seen. Ask the guy at the lottery stand for directions and he looks at you like you're not wearing any pants.
He doesn't bother to answer or even get distracted from his copy of Marca - a sports tabloid almost exclusively dedicated to Bara - but simply points his finger down the street. Oh, right, the giant building just over there.
Even hours before the game, there's a carnival atmosphere in the streets around the stadium. Supporters at bars are singing the team songs, and stalls have been set up to sell food, drinks, jerseys and giant plastic horns.
This is a country that breathes football, and there's no bigger club than Bara. The team is at the heart of Barcelona's Catalan culture - during the Franco years, the stadium was often the only place Catalans could go to celebrate their commonality.
Even so, getting tickets on the day of the game isn't a problem as long as you don't mind sitting in the general-admission seats at the top of the stadium. The hike up takes 10 minutes, and when you emerge blinking from the stairwell, it feels like you're hanging directly over the pitch.
The view is brilliant, with a full moon hanging over the Mediterranean, but vertigo is unavoidable.
Fanatical supporters Three-quarters of the crowd here are wearing the famous red and blue Bara stripe, myself included. Every move by a Bara player is cheered, while Malaga touches are greeted by a deafening chorus of whistles. The sight of 130,000 people in one place is as remarkable as it sounds, but the vibe up in the cheap seats is something else.
There are no tire-iron-wielding hooligans. Families crowd in with fanatical supporters, fed by fans wandering the terrace selling homemade ham sandwiches from coolers and entertained by a guy beside me who offers frantic play-by-play commentary to his son and disgusted asides to whoever else will listen.
The tempo of the match is controlled by Brazilian midfield genius and world footballer of the year Rivaldo, who seems to be everywhere at once and is rewarded by scoring both of Barcelona's goals.
He slots one in from close range, stuffs in another from an absurd, impossible angle and just misses his third. The entire crowd begins to bow. Twenty minutes later, Malaga pull one back. The last 15 minutes of the match are excruciatingly tense, with Malaga constantly on the verge of equalizing.
When the final whistle goes, it's a cheer of relief rather than satisfaction that goes up. Then the real battle begins.
You thought finding the stadium was hard? Try scoring space on the subway with 100,000 or so of your new closest friends.
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