Most visitors to Barcelona, Spain are charmed by its distinctive Art Nouveau architecture, Sagrada Familia cathedral, Catalan cuisine, and access to the Mediterranean. But for football fans, there’s only one destination – the Barcelona football stadium known as Camp Nou or New Stadium, a 65-year-old venue that hosts 100,000 fans. To the surprise of Americans, it is Barcelona’s number one tourist destination. Known by its slogan, “Mes que un equipo” (more than a team), the club is renowned for its players’ freedom of movement on the pitch, a history of political engagement and a worldwide fan base.
Unlike most stadiums in the United States, Europeans build theirs in the heart of a community with little space to park. The fans arrive by metro or bus just like us. There was no game on when we visited, but I wanted to take the tour anyway, hoping to feel the energy that comes with an important football game. In 1994 the United States hosted the World Cup and we bought tickets for two of the games. I have never felt such intensity among the fans than during these matches.
For visitors, entrance to the Nou Stadium is through a museum filled with memorabilia from the team’s unique history. Created by a German immigrant in 1899, the team took a few years to gain momentum. The Nou stadium is the third of three built, each containing more fans. The team established themselves as a regional hero in the 1930s, when they attempted to play under the Catalan flag. This region of Catalonia, Spain has long wanted to be self-governing and loved having ‘their’ team defend them.
FC Barcelona is also rare in that it is not owned by one company but by its 144,000 members. To become a member, all you need to do is make an appointment in person in Barcelona, bring an ID card and a bank account number. The annual membership fee is $220. In the past, FC Barcelona was among the few without sponsors. They have teamed up with children’s charity UNICEF and pledged to make an annual donation. But today, the team is besieged by corporate suitors.
The museum is filled with the dominant history of the team and the numbers are impressive although I didn’t know what all the initials stood for, 26 La Liga titles, 5 UEFA championships, 15 European Cup trophies FIFA World and 31 Copa del Rey titles. Most would agree that Lionel Messi’s presence from 2004 to 2021 as one of the best football players in the world contributed greatly to the team’s success in its glory years.
True to their ‘more than a team’ description, I was surprised how extensive their youth program was and that they also sponsor women’s soccer, basketball, handball and roller hockey teams. .
It was remarkable how free a visitor was to explore much of the stadium on the self-guided tour. We walked through the visitor’s locker room, almost primitive by today’s American standards, stopped at the press stands to admire their view, and descended the stairs to the pitch. Yes, in the field. We couldn’t run and play but we were level with the pitch and could look up at the stands, imagining them full of frantic fans. Little distance separated the teams and the seats.
What shocked me was the deterioration in the condition of the whole stadium. The paint on the seats was faded, plants were growing through the cracks in the concrete, the press room lacked the high tech one would expect for a world-class team. I read structural problems. So it was no surprise when I learned recently that the stadium was getting a makeover.
Espai Barca is the name of the renovation effort, which in Catalan means Football Club of Barcelona Space. For $1.7 billion, plans include state-of-the-art technology and a retractable roof covered with 30,000 square meters of solar panels. And the energy generated by these solar panels will power a 360 degree screen that will be located inside the stadium.
Exercising their reputation as “more than a team”, the plans include new offices, green spaces, event spaces, an ice rink, a hotel and the “Palau Blaugrana” – a pavilion which will be used by the team of basketball.
For a team that already has a billion dollars in the hole, this expansion comes with risks. But it’s also inevitable, and the team is moving now. Games will be played elsewhere until 2025, when they hope to complete the stadium.
The visit ended, of course, in the huge gift shop. Despite their price, I couldn’t resist the Barcelona football kits for our grandsons. With parents who also love football, they may one day be able to watch a game in the renovated stadium. I hope so. It is part of the Catalan heritage that you have to experience.
Mary Walker Clark is a retired lawyer turned travel writer. Her stories can be found on her blog, Mary Clark, Traveler and her podcasts on KETR, 88.9. She lives in Paris and can be contacted at email@example.com.