When Barça Sings the Warmest Lines

She held us, soothed and serenaded us, made us long to know her lore. Even in a double-time week of toothpick meals and frolics through the ghost-caulked ramparts of Barri Gòtic; even as foreign hordes choked the boulevards and bars; even with the weight of loss chained in locks to our hearts. Barcelona loved us, letting us go only in a wary, a-raveure air, and Barça—with its matchless poetry of the pitch—wrote some of the warmest lines.

It’s been nearly a year since we made that one-off pilgrimage to Camp Nou, tickets scored via some StubHub proxy by Mike and Erika, old friends who’d come to Spain for a brief overlap ahead of their honeymoon grand tour. We’d discussed possible revelries nursing caipirinhas in a noonlit cabana, ultimately settling on Barça-Getafe, six or so hours from then. Time enough for another round, possibly two or five, naps and cappuccinos, a pregame brew and bite somewhere near the stadium.

In the wane of afternoon soft gold cast through the Barcelona streets. Schoolkids careen the pocket park just beyond the balcony, through and around fall-attired Abuelos slowly caning their daily walks. Zips of scooters soloing over beats of feet headed home or for vermouths on wobbling patio tables. Ten or so Metro stops, disembarked with scores of Barça fans in beelines for the bars. We holed up for beers and tapas before wading into the confluence of fans tumbling evermore rapidly down to their stadium sea.

From our block of seats along the topmost row, mere feet from the coliseum’s cement backstop, impending dusk blanketed the pitch. In-league implications all but moot, the mood was about what you’d expect from a Tuesday fixture: quiet, confident, small pockets of empty seats where season-ticket families would typically throe. The girls ventured off on a futile beer run (no booze allowed), leaving Mike and me to snap cell-phone panoramas of the opposite stands. “Els Segadors,” Catalonia’s roguish anthem, culls an outsized sigh-song from the crowd. The quiet pangs, however generationally second-hand, hinting at a past scores apart from the modern majesty of their city, and the team that’s come to epitomize that pride.

To the citizens of its home, Barça football is the simple joy history made mosaic—the beautiful game at near its most beautiful. If but a verse or two more for those who’ve seen the beautiful torched.

***

Deana and I said goodbye to our baby boy a year ago February, on the bone-worn heels of a cancer fight months in the waging—malignant Rhabdoid tumor, spread liver to lungs and likely elsewhere never seen. Christmas surgery removed the mass, then a month or so of earnest hope soon squashed by yet another scan. One last St. Jude’s gambit, two days in a campus apartment, too sick, they told us, even for a phase-one trial. He passed away on 2-22, leaving us to forever puzzle the math.

Faced with such depthless grief, we did what we could to tease the silver threads. Rett’s Roost, then as now, allowed us to keep his spirit overhead, past where any poison or needle could pierce. That we might pay forward the incredible love levied by so many—kin and stranger both—during that hellish winter, and help heal others as they had us. But we also needed to feel human again. To experience whatever verve and loveliness life still sought. Far enough to feel a world apart, sufficiently familiar that our grasp of the language wouldn’t prove a burden.

Barcelona and Lisbon, a week in each, with a handful of side trips to temper the clamor. Cities on opposite ends of a well-worn peninsula, cleaved repeatedly by wars of culture and faith, now slipped into graceful golden years. Strange how old ruins, worn gray by rain and smoke of war, can seem the divinest of things.

***

Foremost and without a shred of shame, I was there to witness Messi. I’m what you might graciously call football-curious: fascinated by its history and cardinal logic from an intimidated distance, like a one-box jazz catalog half-filled by Davis and Coltrane. Messi, to me, was that virtuosic primer, capable of both precluding understanding of his genius while inspiring hope you one day might. After all, one can only glean so much by transposing the logic of one strategy set—basketball, say—onto another. Sooner or later, the music transcends the movements, and a keener eye, patiently honed, becomes essential. Even so, there’s a surface-level grace to the sport that belies its famous moniker: beauty any lover of games can enjoy, as long as the lens is free of prejudice or jade.

If my knowledge of Barça was awing at an ocean’s sheen, Getafe—with its gloomy 10-7-21 La Liga split—was a pocket of still-intact tanker oil surfaced but for a second before a modest heave flushed it back asunder. The Banana Boys, we called them, inspired as much by the all-yellow kits as their on-field fluidity: basically, oblong tree fruits on stilts. This was certain to be a lashing. The only unknowns were to what degree, and whether the subsequent show could quell our thirst for gambols on the town.

So I watched from our distant perch, marveling how, even from here, one can clearly glean the game’s angular methods. Mostly, though, I witnessed Messi. Marveled at the off-action gait and stealth bursts of speed. When the ball found his foot—and more than any player I remember watching, the ball finds this man’s feet—the eyes would strain to catch the nano-most nuance, ball orbiting the boot like an inflated neutron. His move decided, it was cheat-code gamer against syrup-logged Atari joystick; whitewater versus rocks; a soccer sermon yawped into a bullhorn. Above all, he was beautiful, and we needed that—beauty—above all.

The first was a deftly curved penalty kick nine minutes in. Routine as they come, perhaps, though no less a bucket-list thrill, this supernova on a trillion-bladed sky. Minutes later, a 30-yard lob wedged perfectly between defenders for a Suarez strike. Three more goals—from Neymar, Xavi, and Suarez again—brought the half to a close. All four stars, it somehow felt, flaring out for us and us alone. Then, just shy of two minutes into the second half, the final stroke: a falling-down flip from Suarez to Messi, who wrangled it down at box’s edge by the wisps of his hair and just as gentle, before coaxing the ball cross-corner with some impossible grace. Six-nil Barça, and our beams just as wide.

We hung around til full time, as tourists will do, taking breaks from the match to gaze out over the wall and into the twilit scape. Filing down the ramps with these disarmingly sober Culés, glad for the absence of jeers and slurs, the expat part of us wishing Americans could be a bit more like this, in this respect, in too many respects. Metros jammed, we wandered the streets in search of dinner, eventually drawn to a small, family half-fancy for casked vermouth and savory toasts topped with livers and jams. Retiring, as on every night, to neat Brandies and laughs on the balcony.

And so it was that Barcelona held us, soothed and serenaded us, made us long to know her lore. She loved us, letting us go only in a wary, a-raveure air. After the worst months of our lives, after words alone so often failed and loss felt like a default frame, we wanted only that the world might sing again.

And Barça sang some of the warmest lines.

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Jim Cavan is a Columnist and Senior Editor for The Cauldron, an affiliate of Sports Illustrated. His work has appeared at the New York Times, Grantland, ESPN.com, Bleacher Report, Sports Illustrated, SB Nation, Roads & Kingdoms, Narratively, and TASTE of the Seacoast Magazine, for which he serves as Beer Editor (this is a real title).

Jim lives in New Hampshire with his wife and two daughters, one of whom walks on four legs and angrily lunges at passing trucks. Let him know if you want to buy a screenplay.