How my beautiful game morphed into a Teutonic hell
Published 02/05/2013 | 04:20
If you want the tickets, you'll have to be quick, I was told; others are waiting if you don't snap them up. And so it came to pass that I have bought the most expensive tickets I have ever paid for to watch a football match.
You know, 22 blokes trying to kick a ball into a net like they do in the park on a Sunday. Except for what I paid, I could probably have bought my favourite local team, the sadly demoted Lisburn Distillery, and still had change for a fish supper.
It went like this. About 12 years ago, three friends and I decided that, as we were flung to the four corners of these isles and rarely met, it would be a good idea to have a reunion once a year for a long weekend in a European capital of our choice. We'd see the sights, probably stay out too late for men of our age and take in a game of football.
Year one, we decided on Barcelona for fairly obvious reasons. To sum up, if you took a blank piece of paper and wrote down all the things you'd expect to find in a great, vibrant city, Barcelona would have almost all of them.
Needless to say, we had a great time and the locals seemed genuinely welcoming. Mind you, most of the welcoming was done by the bar-owners, which, given the choice of customer between four thirsty, middle-aged northern Europeans and young Spanish couples who seem to be able to make one cafe noir stretch for hours, was perhaps not surprising.
It was remarkable how quickly good-looking, olive-skinned lovers were turfed out from their pavement tables to make way for the pasty-faced 'cuatro cerevas mas' brigade.
It was our first trip to the Camp Nou, the home of the mighty FC Barcelona. But before you consider us simply fair-weather footie fans, these were the days when the blaugrana, as they're known, were pretty poor and the sight of 100,000 people whistling and waving white hankerchiefs in disgust at a misplaced pass was something to behold.
The bustling, informal restaurants, the clubs, the gothic, cobbled streets, the architecture, the sparkling Med, the sense of identity and, let's be honest, the beauty of the women, were a heady mix for those who came from the kingdom of rains and who looked positively consumptive in comparison with the locals.
So, when it came to deciding where to go the following years, Barcelona came up again and again. With little appetite, or imagination, to go anywhere else, we have now been for 13 years in a row and consider ourselves virtually native.
Barca, then, is ours, but for someone whose number one team by birth is Gillingham, I'm sure you will cut me a little slack for also backing a side that, over the last five years, have played the most beautiful football ever seen on the planet.
So cut back to that sudden call about tickets. Two were up for grabs for the Champions League Final at Wembley next month, but at eye-watering prices.
Our team was in the semi-final and only had to overcome the mechanical Germans of Munich to set up a dream final with Real Madrid, or the Spanish fascists as we Catalans call them.
Oh, the typical tiki-taka arrogance of the Barca fan, you might think, as I bought them for a friend and myself without a thought about possible defeat.
Yet last week, we were mown down 4-0 by Bayern like beautiful poppies in front of the combine harvester. Only a miracle in the second leg could have changed things.
But instead it was more of the same - a record aggregate semi-final defeat of 7-0. What's worse, the hated Real were also duffed up by the ruthlessly efficient Germans of Dortmund.
Now, I have two mortgage-bleeding tickets for the largest open-air bierkeller festival in the world. Those tickets are now on viagogo for more than £3,000 each (Germans can still afford this sort of thing, unlike the Spanish), but I'm no tout and we're going to have to go.
If you look closely at your TV screens on May 25, we'll be the morose ones in a sea of mullet hair-cuts, moustaches, puffa jackets and maybe even lederhosen being urged to sing along with that well-known Teutonic sporting anthem, Football's Coming Home.