“One of the greatest sports stadiums in the world” and “An impressive cauldron that anyone would be lucky to attend” are the types of statements made by tv & radio commentators and help market F.C. Barcelona as one of the greatest football clubs in the world.
Well maybe if you are part of the media, any official, dignitary, or even a home fan attending. In that case, nearly a hundred thousand all cheering on their idols all together, it would feel very special.
The stadium lies in a suburb of the city, not too far away from the centre but most fans use the metro system to arrive. There are bars and restaurants along the busy road which passes the southern end from where you can see the concrete ramps and stairwells clinging to the outside of the huge of the huge stands.
Obviously the dignitaries and top end corporate attendees are chauffeured into the complex and are able to park outside their entrance doors before being lead to their fine dining restaurant and their comfort padded seat. Even the standard home fans have 20 gates to enter the complex, each with over a dozen entrances. On Wednesday evening we did not see a single queue at any of them and in fact plenty were free and available.
Meanwhile, over five thousand travelling Chelsea fans had to find their own way to the top end of a fenced pathway so they could head back down to the one and only gate available for away fans. Yes, just 1 entry point for all the visitors.
This pathway is about 12 feet wide so would be capable of dealing with that size of a crowd. However, as we got closer to the entrance, there were 2 “filters” to force all the fans into almost single file. These comprised of metal barriers across most of the route, forcing us all to the left. To add to this, security forces were arms locked across the access, stopping our progress.
With the kick off fairly imminent and no information why we were being held back, some pushing started and voices became raised as the numbers of fans trying to get through grew. What then happened was appalling to witness but served as only a prelude to how these security forces would treat fellow human beings.
As they allowed us to move forward to the next filter, batons were wielded at the legs of some of the first fans allowed through this single file filter. As we passed one fan was sitting down screaming in pain with blood trickling down his leg. Most of the other fans put both arms up as though they were inmates on death row.
Fortunately, we got through the second filter event free but this then led us to the actual entrance to the stadium complex. Again, a line of security held everyone back and heated discussions increased in number and volume. After a lot of pushing from both sides we were finally allowed to move forward.
This was so a steward could rip the corner of our ticket before we were searched. Then came the comical part. We needed to be transported over the home fans and this was done via a rickety metal bridge. Half way across it wobbled so much they could make a fortune selling the design to every theme park in the world. The kids would love it at Thorpe Park. I can not imagine Aleksander Čeferin not any other UEFA dignitary putting up with entering and leaving via this route. But it is deemed suitable for all away fans no matter how able or unable they are.
The stadium itself is falling apart. Rust covering all the metal rails there to support you as you climb the stairs or sitting on the steep banking. The concrete is cracked everywhere with plenty of chunks missing on the stairs. The away fans have to watch from the highest level through a plastic barrier topped with wiring. Remember, every Chelsea supporter paid £75 (€84) for their ticket with no concessions.
However the worst piece of violence was still to come. Usually the away fans are kept in the stadium after european matches, but we were allowed to leave straight away. The group I was with were in no hurry to leave so we took our time descending the steps and then the concrete ramps.
As we descended we were goaded by home fans on their way down, while also seeing more fans on the outside of the stadium shouting abuse at Chelsea fans below us. A Chelsea scarf was set alight as they chanted “bitches” to them. But the 2 sets of fans were a distance apart and so nothing else came if it.
So we continued down and reached the last ramp. Progress slowed as this aforementioned wobbly bridge was far narrower than the ramp and the number of fans around us swelled. Some Chelsea fans ahead of us returned the Barcelona fans goading with “You’ll always be Spain”. But there was no raised testosterone nor feeling of an imminent fight.
Suddenly I heard something behind us and turned to see raised batons come reigning down. I grabbed my wife and friend and pulled them over to the left. We were very fortunate that the security force’s charge went past us. They had run 20 yards down the packed ramp with no escape route hitting anyone in their way. Plenty had been pushed over and trampled. A mother and daughter in front of us were screaming and crying. I’m not sure if either were hit or pushed over.
As soon as the security forces stopped their charge forward, they sheathed their batons and stood there as though nothing had happened. As a few riot police slowly made there way from the outside to the front, all they were interested in was getting the flow restarted over the wobbly bridge.
As we finally moved forward and reached the bottom of the ramp, there was one person lying flat out without a single medical person in sight. From there we did exit and there was no more trouble even though plenty of home fans had made their way down the fenced pathway.
To clarify a couple of points, there was no trouble directly between both sets of fans. Yes there was unpleasant chanting and a scarf set alight but that makes no difference to any football fan. After all, I’m used to being called a rent boy everywhere we go in England and have never wanted to grab a large stick to batter whoever I wanted to blame for it.
As the old saying goes …. “Headbutts and punches may break my bones, but words will never hurt”.
The other is who actually did the hitting. Like all grounds there were stewards who’s behaviour is the responsibility of the home club. There were riot police but they were the most laid back and friendliest of all.
However, it was a third group that did the baton wielding. They had “security” on the back of their high visibility vests. We were told they were all from the army. Who is responsible for their behaviour and who is responsible for bringing them to answer for their actions?
I can only hope that all those Chelsea fans involved got back home safely and that no one is ever treated at a sporting event like that ever again. It was shocking and so disappointing. Fans were segregated at the correct points so no major trouble was about to happen and there was no need for what we saw.
Barcelona is such a wonderful city and away european matches should be an enjoyable trip for the food, drink, culture and the chance to visit a stadium you will rarely get the opportunity to visit. Just a shame about the “security”.