“We can’t live in the past; we have to live today and tomorrow,” Ronald Koeman said and so they did. It may have been a single night, there might have been just 20,384 supporters here, and most important of all there was no sign of Lionel Messi – not on the pitch, at least – but it was the first time any of them had been in the Camp Nou for 526 days and, for all the depression, they came determined to enjoy the return, departing happy as a new era opened with a 4-2 victory over Real Sociedad.
On a hot, sticky and noisy evening the melancholy was momentarily gone, a cautious optimism taking its place. It has been seventeen years, and it is not easy to let go, but for most of the ninety minutes here Barcelona’s fans did, driven by a kind of collective desire for closure and the performance of their “other” players, two goals from Martin Braithwaite and one each from Sergi Roberto and Gerard Piqué taking them to victory. Ultimately, they had enjoyed this.
It hadn’t always seemed likely. There were only 15,280 requests for the 29,803 tickets Barcelona made available to their members, most of the shirts in the stands still had Messi 10 on the back, and banners hung around the ground blaming the president Joan Laporta for his departure. And yet if Messi was still present, his name chanted on ten minutes, there were others too and the fans would enjoy their company.
Pedri was still around, lauded as a new icon for a new age. Piqué is still here, the hero here. Braithwaite too, with two goals and a superb assist. Frenkie de Jong impressed. And then there were the new men.
After a long wait and the uncertainty that didn’t just last until the eve of the game but beyond, there was a place in the starting XI for Memphis Depay and Eric García. Barcelona’s new signings were finally registered on the morning of the match thanks to Piqué putting his money where his mouth is, the defender taking what the club statement announcing the formal incorporation of his new teammates described as a “significant” pay cut to enable to the club to stay within their salary limit. Without that, there would have been no Depay or García here.
Which, like so much Piqué does in life, worked out nicely. When Barcelona took the lead on eighteen minutes, it had to be him rising to head the ball into the net. Just as it had to be Depay, the man he had allowed to play, who delivered the perfect curling free-kick from which he scored. Barcelona had the lead. More than a lead, there was life. The importance of the strike, the release and some of what they had been through, could be seen in Piqué’s reaction.
This was his fiftieth goal for the club, more than any other defender apart from his current coach, but it wasn’t that. Running towards the north end of the Camp Nou, he kissed the badge on his shirt, held his arms wide open, as if embracing everyone here, and then lowered his head. For a while, he rested it on the advertising board, as if lost in thought and in the moment. Gratitude came from around the ground. Before the game, he had been cheered loudest. In the third minute, they had chanted his name. Now they did so again, lauding the man who one day really might be president.
This had been some start. Braithwaite had fired off the first shot on just 23 seconds, Antoine Griezmann had bent the second past the far post on 79, and Depay had drawn an collective in-take of breath with a superb flick on 175. There was intensity, the ball moved at speed, a point to be made. When the fans chanted Messi’s name on ten minutes, they had only just finished letting out a “huy” as Griezmann’s overhead kick flew wide. Just as they finished that he headed against the bar.
Seemingly liberated, tactically and emotionally, the Frenchman was hyperactive. There was as many slide-tackles from him as there were pieces of skill. Around him, there was noise, appreciation, and Barcelona kept coming – although in the heat, the pace would slow.
Frenkie De Jong, Braithwaite, and Depay combined to carve out a chance that Alex Remiro had to block just before the half hour but the second didn’t arrive until the very end of the half. De Jong this time mad it with a deep cross to the far post, where Braithwaite thudded a superb header into the roof of the net.
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That lead might have been extended early in the second half, Griezmann ruled offside when he had the ball in the net and Jordi Alba sent clean through, only to waste the opportunity by bending his shot off the post. When the fans chanted Messi’s name again in the tenth minute of the second half, there were some whistles – not so much in repudiation of their departed deity as in response to the melancholy, born of a desire to look ahead. Instead, they reacted with chants of “Barca! Barca!” and that was followed momentarily by “fuck PSG!”. Then came the goal.
Memphis made it, and superbly. Alba continued it, zooming up the left. And when the cross was pushed away by Remiro, there was Braithwaite to finish it, slamming the ball into the net. At the other end, Neto dived to push away Real Sociedad’s first shot on target and the pessimism suddenly returned when Real Sociedad scored twice in three minutes, from Lobete and Oyarzabal. But with time running out. Braithwaite found Sergi Roberto to finish it. It had been fun, after all.