The first thing you notice, as you approach the Camp Nou, is its rather slumped posture and the threatening wire fences that mark its enormous perimeter, as if visitors are both annoying and inevitable, until they've paid at the ticket offices on the outside, of course. The Bernabeu, on the other hand, has walls that you can touch anytime (should you be so inclined), and sports a pompous façade that pumps out its concrete chest onto the Castellana and announces its preening self-confidence from the outside. The Camp Nou in contrast, is rather more impressive once you're on the inside.
Getting in was rather problematic this weekend, but blame that on my daughter. Renouncing my press pass (okay - bring on the violins) because that would have left my 13 year-old daughter Lily alone in the cavernous wastes of the stadium on Saturday night, I approached the taquilla (ticket office in English) at about 18.15 on Saturday evening, just as the dark was descending, but still almost four hours in advance of the kick-off. It's been a while since I've braved this risk-laden process but, of course, as soon as I entered their territory, the hawks descended, smelling easy prey.
"What do you want?" shouted one tout (in Spanish), who, to be fair, was probably just trying to feed his family, I know. But my wallet's in my man-bag, it's dark, and I'm nervous. "What do you think I want, genius?" I respond, pointing to the ticket-office. My tactic, when surrounded by sharks, is to show them the harpoon. "No need to get aggressive!" he shouts, with no hint of irony. "So where are you from?" The fellow sharks await my response. They have no-one else to bug, at this early hour. My daughter is back in the hotel, waiting for dad to come back alive with the shiny tickets. "I'm from the Moon," I retort, and try to push through the touting throng. A new one laughs at my response, before immediately turning serious, dropping his voice into business mode: "Look - centre of the pitch, down here, Row C, good price - €60." This is indeed a good price, but I'd still rather pay the heftier whack, with my credit card, and not be worried that the tickets I've just bought have been printed in someone's garage, a few hours beforehand. I wave him away, but he doesn't like this. "What's the matter?" he shouts, horribly loud. "Desconfías de mi?" (Don't you trust me?). "That's right," I nod. "I don't trust you. Isn't that the sensible thing to do?" Finally I get through to pay a king's ransom to watch Barcelona versus Real Sociedad on the coldest night in the Camp Nou for over 50 years. I sure can choose 'em.
Being a father and a football obsessive is not necessarily a problem, if you sire at least five boys - the minimum requirement for an indoor football team. But daughters can complicate the picture. I don't mean this in a sexist way at all, but rather that my son shares my passion rather more than my daughter does, which is fine. But my son's in Ohio, and so I felt that I should at least invite Lily to the match. Fly Saturday afternoon from San Sebastián, hit the hotel in Barcelona, go to the late-night game, do Las Ramblas on Sunday morning and then fly back Sunday afternoon (in time for Chelsea versus Manchester United on the telly). My daughter thought about it, weighed up the Facebook possibilities of being snapped inside the Camp Nou, and decided it was cool enough for her delicate teenage image to say yes.
This tells you a lot about Barcelona football club. Whereas Madrid is a city with a famous stadium in it called the Bernabeu, the term 'Barcelona' is a whole concept, of which the Camp Nou is an integral factor. It's a postmodern way of seeing the world, but that's the way it is for the young generation. It's cool to go to Barcelona for the weekend, to tell your mates and to post up the shots of the Camp Nou on the social networks. Gaudí? Miró? The Picasso Museum? Oh well ... next time. But I did insist on the Ramblas, and we didn't get robbed. Could be a first.
I haven't been to the Camp Nou for a while, but I do remember that the last time I went I'd sat in the gods, and squinted down at the action far below as if I were watching someone else's subbuteo match from my sofa. The stadium is so enormous that you really cannot see anything from the top, and to complete the experience, you die of exposure. So I bought two seats behind the Gol Norte, further down on the second tier, but not so far that the nets get in the way of the sightline. The President, Sandro Rosell, had warned people on Friday in the local press about the weather conditions, and mindful of the extraordinarily open nature of the ground and the meteorological forecasts, he'd recommended hats, gloves, thermal undies (I brought mine) and blankets. He was right. It was brutal. And of course, with La Sexta channel offering the game live, it was the smallest crowd of the season so far, 52,646 valientes, as the Catalan tabloid Sport announced on Sunday morning. The stadium seats almost 100,000, so you can see their point. Everything is relative when you talk about Barcelona.
One of the great things about watching top-tier football live, especially at night, is the splendour of the moment in which you nip and tuck through the correct numbered entrance and emerge into the sharp colour and white light of the murmuring arena. It's such an aesthetic shock that you can never quite take it in - particularly the immensity of the Camp Nou. My daughter confined herself to an appreciative Joder! (sh**), which kind of made the expense worthwhile.
Once settled in, other teams' fans always interest me - which is another reason why I don't like the neutrality of the press box. All teams' fans are slightly different. Their experiences are unique to them, and so they always have a slightly distinct take on things. On the freezing northern terrace, we sat between two thuggish looking Barca-clad youngsters, scarves across their faces, and two older guys around my age (21). The game began with Sociedad kicking towards our goal, and in the opening minute, amazingly, the Uruguayan Diego Ifran was one-on-one with Victor Valdes. The keeper won out, but we'd already shown our colours to our neighbours by jumping out of our seats in anticipation of a surprise goal. But reality soon kicked in.
Barca had an unusual line-up, with the young Cristian Tello starting out on the left wing, Thiago in for Xavi, Isaac Cuenca on the other flank, and Adriano at left-back. The young buck Tello was slaughtering the visitors' right-back, Carlos Martinez, and it was no surprise when Barca scored on eight minutes. It's horrible as an away fan, the sensation of being exposed, of sitting glumly as all around you celebrate on their feet, pumping up the volume just to annoy you more.
After these little shows of territoriality, it's then that I like to make friends. "He's good, that Tello," I offered to the older chap to my left. "'Es la hostia! " (he's the cat's pyjamas) he replied enthusiastically, and began to tell me about his history, how he almost ended up at Real Madrid, and worse, Espanyol. This is always a good tactic, because you learn so much from other fans, face-to-face, and you also get an insight into attitudes to certain players that you can never pick up from the press. You also get their views on your team, in a sort of 'I've-shown-interest-in-you-so-you-do-the-same' sort of gesture. The older chaps were quite taken with Sociedad's Antoine Griezmann, who terrorised Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano all night. This will not have done his already rocketing value any harm at all. Indeed, down to the right of the west stand there was a large poster that read, Griezmann - dame la camiseta o hazme ti mujer (give me your shirt or make me your wife), which was fairly original.
Barcelona won 2-1, but rather unconvincingly. It was difficult to judge whether this was due to their line-up (no Iniesta, no Xavi, and Fabregas anonymous), or to Sociedad's decent showing. On Sunday morning, Sport preferred the former analysis, but this paper will never win the international prize for objectivity. It plays a similar game to Marca, and if Real Madrid win the title this year, Sport's headline has already been prepared, namely 'Pep walks his dog'.
The ground seemed strangely quiet, either because Real Madrid had already beaten Getafe 1-0 away, two hours earlier, or because of the freezing cold, which became almost unbearable as midnight approached. Leo Messi struggled, despite setting up Tello for the first goal and scoring the winner, but was unconditionally encouraged by the culés, the faithful constantly singing his name in a sort of dirge-like affirmation of their worship, like some awed sect in the presence of their master. Puyol got the same worship, with his hair flying and belly wobbling like a heavy-metal roadie rushing on stage to his band's assistance. But the sound was never more than a murmur. It rose to more of a crescendo to complain at Dani Alves' poor pass, setting up Carlos Vela's goal for Sociedad after 73 minutes and moving my daughter to something approaching excitement. "We've scored!" she squeaked, as if she had previously considered this an impossibility. The chap to my left confined himself to a glum Hay partido (game on). The Barca fans always seem touchingly insecure to me, despite supporting the best team in the world. It's a lesson to us all.
As we rose to leave, our two new friends both parped in stereo, Suerte en el Bernabeu! (good luck in the Bernabeu), with an almost resigned air to their joke. The seven-point gap remains, but at least Barca have a new star, Cristian Tello. He lit up the night like a firework, and has come seemingly from nowhere. Is there no limit to the amount of wonders that emerge from La Masia? Meanwhile, if I've caught pneumonia, you'll know why there's no column next week.