The coolest/strangest thing Mike and Xevi (pronounced "Tchevi," except by Americans, who should simply avoid saying his name at all because they'll inevitably call him Chevy) showed me during an impromptu tour of the Camp Nou, the 110,000-seat stadium that FC Barcelona calls home, was the ice rink. That's right, this giant Spanish club, where current World Footballer of the Year Ronaldinho plays, has an ice rink. It's just across the parking lot from the stadium, behind the cavernous, bi-level club store, next to the seven or eight youth fields, and in front of the 20,000-seat reserve stadium. (Read that last bit again. Amazing.)
"Why is there an ice rink?" I asked.
"This is very good, yes?" Xevi replied. "The fathers are leaving their daughters here while they are inside the stadium."
I didn't ask, but I'm pretty sure this line is not part of the official Camp Nou tour. However, I've never gone in for officialdom, so I was glad I'd found these two. It started on a sunny Saturday morning when I went out rode three subways out to the stadium to buy tickets for the following evening's Barca-Real Sociedad match, and then had wandered around the fields watching all these youth games. I wasn't alone. Every field was ringed with parents, men mostly ... Futbol Dads.
I decided to see how far I could get. I approached the first person I saw in a dark blue FC Barcelona jacket and simply asked him what was going on. Mike, it turned out, runs the FCB Escola, the club's youth academy, and this was the weekly matchday. Mike is a shortish, friendly guy with dark hair and a slow way about him. He explained the entire operation: 300 students, paying 30-40 euros a pop per month, (considering the weak dollar, that's about $12,000) for two training sessions per week plus games on Saturdays. Ages run from 6 to 12, at which point, if the kid is good enough, he begins an apprenticeship with the pro club.
This got me thinking about the youth movement at MLS. Freddy, Santino Quaranta, Eddie Gaven and now Saint Nik (every first overall needs a nickname; send me your suggestions). A lot has been made of this youth, in the press, in the coaching circles, and presumably at the dinner tables of some of the players' families. But, wow, we're still a good decade behind the European clubs when it comes to targeting young talent. The kids I saw out on the Camp Nou fields were astoundingly good -- the 7-year-olds understood give-and-goes, the 8-year-olds held an admirable defense shape, the 9-year-olds grasped the idea of creating space for yourself and your teammates. I watched this one 3-foot-nothing kid check back to the touchline to support the outside back. Incredible.
When I introduced myself to Mike and Xevi, I told them I was a journalist. They immediately demanded I join them on a stadium tour. The magic word: Journalist. Everyone, everywhere, is so publicity-hungry in this overcommercialized, overmediafied world that the word "journalist" is sometimes like the ultimate hall pass. Crazy. But, hey, I'm not going to complain. I was about to get a an insider's view of one of soccer's grandest cathedrals, the futbol equivalent of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia.
As we walked through the stadium's internal maze, down back tunnels, past the visiting locker rooms, the home locker rooms, the president's office, through the magnificent museum -- where Cruyff's old jersey is revered above all and the 1992 European Championship trophy sits like a sarcophagus on an altar -- Mike, Xevi and I discussed MLS. They were fascinated by it and knew a great deal know all about it. They knew about Freddy Adu and they asked if Kasey Keller -- who spent a few years playing in Spain -- was going to go back to MLS. They remembered Alexi from his stint in Italy and they knew he was now the president of a club in the States.
Then, of course, came that question, the one that every European soccer fan always asks me: "Why is futbol/football/fussball/calcio/podosphairo not more popular?"
I never have a good answer. I always blame a combination of media ignorance, gridiron football's monopoly, Americentrism that seems to oppose anything not U.S.-made (see: NHL), an underfunded educational system, fluoride in the water, $7 Bud Lights in widemouth plastic bottles, and Jessica Simpson. "But we're getting there," I concluded.
I don't know if they heard that part, because by then we were at the field. Speechless. I've been on fields across the USA, from the Rose Bowl to the fields of Grinnell College (Where the Hell is Grinnell?) to Foley Stadium, where my beloved Worcester Wildfire (R.I.P.) used to play. But none of them compares with the Camp Nou. The stands here curl up and over you as if you're standing inside a flower. The massive FC Barcelona spelled out in the seats of the top tier shiver your spine. Even when it's empty, you can hear the noise of all those men -- the ones whose daughters are doing figure-eights across the way -- chanting their heroes' names over the years: Romario, Maradona, Stoichkov, Schuster, Koeman, Kluivert, Ronaldinho.
And just at that moment, Ronaldinho showed up with the rest of the team for training. He's not as big as I thought he would be, though his legs could stand in for columns on the Parthenon. And he's always smiling, like a little kid, like one of those little kids on the fields outside the stadium. That was nice to see, the joy he still carries with him.
My brother has often told me he expects someday that an U.S. player will star for one of the world giants, like Barca or Real Madrid. He is adamant about this, and I agree. Someday. Standing in the stadium, I could almost see it. Then, before the ghostly cheering could die down, Mike and Xevi suddenly whisked me away, explaining that they would be in a lot of trouble if we got caught here during the pros' training session. It seems Americans aren't quite supposed to be on the field yet.
Greg Lalas played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New England Revolution in 1996 and 1997. Send e-mail to Greg at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.