Oct 20, 2009

Ranking the world's soccer meccas: No. 7, Camp Nou, Barcelona

For ranking methodology and other information about the series, see the original post. To read the about the No. 8-rated stadium, the Monumental in Buenos Aires click here. To see all "soccer mecca" entries click here.

7. Camp Nou, Barcelona
Open since: 1957
Capacity: 98,000
Tenant(s): FC Barcelona
World Cup hosts: 1982

In its relatively brief (by soccer mecca standards) history, Barcelona's Camp Nou has hosted some memorable matches: a World Cup, a memorable Champions League final (very memorable for Manchester United fans) and an Olympic gold medal game, to name but a few. Then there are the countless Clasico matches between its primary tenant, FC Barcelona, and a certain Real Madrid, each of which is memorable in its own right.

The stadium was built in the mid-1950s to accommodate surging interest in the club, especially after the arrival of Hungarian superstar Ladislau Kubala, according to the club's Web site. Hard as this may be to believe today, Hungary were once a world footballing power even though Kubala, who joined the club in 1950, played only three times for the country (he also played for Czechoslovakia and Spain. This being in the days before FIFA mandated rules on international eligibility). Kubala is an interesting case about whom a whole can be written, but for our purposes it is only worth noting that he was one of the major catalyst's for the construction of Camp Nou.

The stadium is massive. Nearly 50 meters high, it once fit 120,000 spectators and a massive pitch (120 meters, or about 115 yards long and 83 meters, or 78 yards wide) that was eventually downsized to UEFA regulations. "The stadium is like a sporting canyon, with the pitch actually some 25 feet (8m) below street level and the tiers of seats seemingly rising to the heavens," writes urinal.net. Even at its current capacity of 98,000 it remains the largest soccer grounds in Europe. It plans to become the largest in the world, after an extensive remodeling that was announced around the stadium's 50th anniversary two years ago. Fortunately for those of us who have not yet been there, the renovation will "maintain the characteristic asymmetry of the Camp Nou (between the lateral area and the grandstand)" while altering just its outside appearance.

The grounds has hosted numerous famous matches that we'll get to shortly, but what might be more interesting is the number of superstar players who have called Camp Nou home over the decades. Names like Cruyff, Maradona, Schuster, Lineker, Hagi, Stoichkov, Laudrup, Romario and Ronaldo have all figured in the team's lineup at some point. So have Figo, Kluivert, Larsson, Davids, Riquelme and Overmars, to name but a few. Add in the players who have been on the visitor's end of Camp Nou and the grounds has literally seen who's who of the biggest names in the game the past half century.

Those include David Beckham and Lothar Matthaeus, who faced off in one of the more memorable Champions League finals in history (certainly since it's been known by that name) at Camp Nou on May 26, 1999. As any fan over the age of say, 15, can recall, United were down 1-0 late but got a pair of stoppage time goals to capture their second European trophy. Bayern narrowly missed putting the game to bed several times in the second half, with the post or crossbar or Peter Schmeichel's heroics keeping the ball out of the Man U. net. The outcome was particularly cruel to Matthaeus, who was playing his last game for Bayern and had suffered a similar fate in the 1987 final.

Camp Nou hosted five games in the 1982 World Cup, though not the famous semifinal between West Germany and France (that was held in Seville). It did host the other semifinal, where a Paolo Rossi brace saw Italy advance at the expense of Poland. Italy would hoist the trophy three days later in Madrid.

The 1982 tournament's opening match, between Argentina and Belgium, was also held at Camp Nou. Belgium upset the defending champs 1-0 thanks in no small part to some superb saves by Jean Marie Pfaff. Scroll to 1:55 of this YouTube video if you don't believe me. Or 6:15 of this one. Though the entire Belgian defense was superb that day.

Camp Nou also was where a trio of second-round group stage matches were played in the '82 tournament, though the stadium was definitely on the short end of the stick, hosting Poland, Belgium and the Soviet Union while across town at the Estadio Sarria Italy, Barcelona and Argentina were in a "group of death." The Camp Nou still saw Zbigniew Boniek score a hat trick in Poland's 3-nil upset of Belgium. Belgium also lost their second match of that stage, 1-0 to the Soviet Union, which made the finale between the USSR and Poland effectively a quarterfinal match with the winner advancing to the semis. The match ended scoreless, allowing Poland to advance on goal difference.

Just weeks before the World Cup curtain-raiser, Barca hosted Standard Liege in the final of the 1982 Cup Winners' Cup. Down 1-0 in first half stoppage time, Denmark's Allan Simonson equalized to put Barca on their way. Quini got the winner around the hour mark to give Barca's legendary German coach Udo Lattek his third European trophy--a feat that was later matched by Giovanni Trapattoni.

Many famous Clasico matches took place at Camp Nou. The biggest in recent memory was probably the first leg of the 2002 Champions League semifinal, also known as the "pig's head match" because Figo was pelted with that object when he went to take a corner. Real won 2-nil on their way to capturing the trophy and Barca was fined for their fans' behavior. How they managed to sneak an entire pig's head into the game is another question entirely.

That event is almost child's play compared to some from the more distant past.

In the 1970 Copa del Rey quarterfinal return leg, Barca were up 1-nil (they had lost the first leg 2-0) and threatening to score when referee Emilio Guruceta called an extremely dubious penalty in Real's favor. The penalty was converted, several Barca players left the match in protest and fans invaded the pitch, literally chasing Guruceta and his assistants and forcing the suspension of the match two minutes from time. Real went on to capture the Copa in one of the few seasons where neither club managed a top three league finish. "Thus began the famous Guruceta affair, a long-running controversy as to whether the young but cocky referee had succumbed to temptation and been bought off by someone in the pay of Real Madrid," writes Phil Ball in Morbo: The story of Spanish football. The matter remains in dispute, but what is accepted fact is that Guruceta later took a bribe from Belgian side Anderlecht ahead of its 1984 UEFA Cup semifinal against Nottingham Forest. Ball later tracked down one of Guruceta's linesman from the 1970 match and in a scene right out of All the President's Men, got the information he was looking for. (You'll have to buy the book and read it yourself. I'm not going to spoil it for you).

Of course Real's storied teams from the 1950s played (and often, though not always) won at Camp Nou. The two sides faced each other in the 1960 European cup semifinal, with Madrid winning both legs by 3-1 scores en route to their fifth straight European crown. The following year, Barca put an end to Real's streak when the clubs met in the first elimination round. The return leg at Camp Nou was again controversial with Real this time on the receiving end of some dubious refereeing (they were disallowed four goals). Barca went on to the final and lost to Benfica. Still, the blaugrana became the first club to eliminate Real Madrid from European competition and pulled this feat off at their storied home grounds--a lone bright spot in one of the club's worst decades.

In 1990 the two sides faced each other in the Spanish Supercup final return leg at Camp Nou, in a match made (in)famous for Stoichkov stepping on the referee's foot. Real won 1-nil and its Mexican striker Hugo Sanchez added an exclamation point by making obscene gestures to the Barca faithful. He was suspended four games. Stoichkov got eight.

There was also Lineker's hat trick in January 1987, Romario's hat trick en route to a 5-nil Barca beat down in 1994, Roberto Carlos being hit in the head with a cigarette lighter launched from the stands in 1997 and Raul's "shushing" the Camp Nou faithful in 1999.

Of course, Barca also played some memorable games against Camp Nou that were not against their archrival. In 1984 they defeated Manchester United in the first leg of an epic Cup Winners' Cup quarterfinal before advancing 3-2 on aggregate after Bryan Robson led a spirited Red Devils comeback.

In 1983, Atletic Bilbao's Andoni Goikoetxea nearly ended Maradona's career with a brutal foul. Then there was an epic UEFA Cup semifinal encounter with IFK Gotheborg in 1986. After losing the first leg in Sweden by 3-0, Barca returned the favor and won the match on penalties (they would lose the final to Steaua Bucharest). In the same tournament the following season, Juan Carlos Rojo (who famously won the 1979 FIFA World Youth Championship MVP ahead of Maradona) made a triumphant return from injury, scoring twice as a substitute against Germany's Bayer Uerdingen. Rojo's career would sadly be cut short by injury the following year, leaving Barca fans wondering what might have been.

The early 1990s nevertheless saw a new golden age of Barca football with the so-called Dream Team era (named after the NBA stars who won gold for the U.S. at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics). That comparison is of course patently unfair; The Dream Team quite literally didn't break a sweat in steamrolling all its opponents while Barca had to put forth sustained efforts to win matches during its "dream team" era--and even then, they didn't win them all. Still, there were some impressive feats by the blaugrana, now under the tutelage of Johan Cruyff: four liga titles between 1991 and 1994, the 1992 European Cup (right before it became the Champions League), the European Super Cup in 1992 and three Supercopas.

We've noted some memorable moments from those years that took place at Camp Nou. Others include a 5-4 victory over Atletico Madrid in the second leg of the 1997 Copa del Rey semifinal (okay I suppose this was technically after the "dream team" era). After tying the first leg at Calderon 2-2, Barca were down 3-nil but somehow rallied to advance to the final, where they beat Real Betis.

On the final matchday of the 2000-2001 season, Barca were fifth, three points behind Valencia and the last Champions League spot. The two sides faced off at the Camp Nou. Rivaldo supplied a hat trick for the home side, who won 3-2 and edged Valencia from fourth place. Nearly a decade later, Barca fans are still raving about Rivaldo's third goal, two minutes from time.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I failed to mention the 1992 Olympic gold medal game between Spain and Poland. In retrospect it is somewhat amazing that a Spanish side featuring the likes of Alberto Ferrer, Luis Enrique, Pep Guardiola, Abelardo and Kiko "only" won by a 3-2 score. Poland actually had the lead at halftime and the match seemed destined for extra time when Kiko scored the winner in the waning minutes. It's safe to assume the victory was Spain's greatest triumph at Camp Nou--and arguably its greatest victory period until Vienna last summer.

Photo supplied by Wikimedia Commons.

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