‘A fiesta for women’s football’ as Barca, Real Madrid put on a show
5: 00 AM ET
Sid LoweSpain writer
BARCELONA, Spain — This time, the Queen bowed before them. An image of Barcelona‘s Alexia Putellas stands 50 feet tall on the outside of Camp Nou; now the actual thing stood even taller right there, before them, on the inside of Camp Nou. Ballon d’Or winner, the world’s best player and the captain of the world’s best club, one she supported when she was a little girl, had just scored against Real Madrid in a Champions League quarterfinal. This grand old place was squealing with excitement after the match.
An hour earlier, Mapi Leon had scored. It was also cheered. Aitana Bonmati, who came through the system here when it wasn’t exactly a system (at least not like it is now), scored, too. And Claudia Pina, just 20, her experience of this journey different to the veterans, scored. She raised her hand in a heart when she did. There was also a goal for Caroline Graham Hansen. She said, “I will always remember it,” later. Or at least that’s how it sounded. It was difficult to hear the noise.
They got cheers too, each one louder than the previous. It was a crescendo at Camp Nou. The biggest came at the end. The clock had just ticked up to 88. 01, and the scoreboard said Barcelona 5-2 Real Madrid when it said something else, at last revealing the answer they had been waiting for as the Mexican waves went round, the drums beat and everyone bounced. Not least because, according to the song, if you don’t bounce you’re a Madridista.
Up flashed a figure: 91,553.
Ninety-one thousand, five hundred and fifty-three people. They all roared, clapped, cheered, and shared in this moment. All of them broke records.
This was the biggest crowd Camp Nou had seen all season, bigger than the men’s Clasico, and by more than 5,000. Although it wasn’t the first time Barcelona’s women played at Camp Nou (or even the first time they had ever done so in front fans), it was the first time this generation had seen them do so. It was the biggest crowd a women’s game had ever drawn to a stadium in Spain, beating the previous record — when Barcelona visited Atletico in 2019 — by over 30,000.
Spain? A larger crowd has never been seen in a women’s game. The previous record, set at the World Cup final in Los Angeles in 1999, was 1,368 people fewer. They had done it together. They had come close, but they had made it. Alexia stated, “We’ll keep this in our hearts for the rest of our lives.”
When tickets were made available for this game, a Clasico — even if it is not quite, not yet, it is on course to become one — they sold out fast. Markel Zubizarreta (the Barcelona Femeni’s sporting director) stated that “we’re not just talking to selling out the stadium.” “We are talking about selling the stadium in three days and two months before the match. “
“This is a big statement for women’s football,” said Fridolina Rolfo.
It was so big that even they couldn’t imagine it. They had a vision of something very good. “The fact that we are able to sell out the stadium is amazing, something we could only dream of, but it is a testament to Barcelona’s greatness. And that’s super-cool, something to show the world,” Ingrid Engen had said the day before. “Maybe the greatest game in club history.” They showed the world something special, but what they ended up feeling was even more.
Everyone knew that a record was possible once the sales were confirmed. Zubizarreta stated that many people attend our games not just to see women’s football but also to watch good football.
Barcelona are a brilliant football team, one with designs upon being the best Europe has ever seen, the quality of their play — technically, tactically, physically — astonishing. They are also relentless and intensely competitive. Their record is barely believable: European champions last season, league winners for a third year in a row, the title won six weeks early, their record reads: scored 138 goals, conceded 7.
Wednesday’s game was the third time they have scored five goals in seven Champions League games; they have scored four twice. In total, they’ve played 36 games and won 36. Zubizarreta admits that there may be something in their being the best team in Europe during a time when men’s teams are struggling. But this was deeper than that, reflecting the mosaic of Camp Nou before the game. It said, “More than empowerment.”
This club is a pioneering one, one that is very conscious of its community and its identity; one which has developed women’s soccer and built it up, rather than taking it over. This event was, well…an event. They wanted to make it special together and to make it big. Filling the ground was a task, a challenge, and a kind of collective effort.
With just over an hour before kick-off, the team bus entered the concourse in front Camp Nou and began its descent down the hill through thousands. There were flags, fireworks and flares all around. As the vehicle made its way through the crowd, you could see palms thudding against the windows as it moved. “We were flipando, freaking out,” Aitana said. Alexia said that when the bus arrived, we could see so many faces. There were lots of people and lots of girls. “
When the teams arrived, the club’s anthem blared around. Aitana said that she was nearly in tears.
It happened on a Wednesday night that was wet and there were strikes. Many people were still working. As the game kicked off, there were maybe 50,000 people there. A huge crowd by anyone’s measure — 10 of the men’s games have had lower crowds and only one women’s game in Spain has ever had more — but a long way off. But here’s the truth. Two things. It was still satisfying, and it was growing steadily. It was a combination of the performance and something that was steadily better.
And after a while it didn’t feel like it really mattered that much anyway. It was still loud and heavy. It was very, very loud. It was brilliant, despite the fact that there were players and participants as well. So loud, so much life. A proper party. The connection between stands was strong and close. The singing was never stopped. It was a new rivalry, but it felt real. The drums beat, the fans clapped so hard that their palms hurt and their throats were raw. It all felt like it meant something.
One measure of this is that even Real Madrid’s manager called the event “a great spectacle and a fiesta to women’s soccer.” “
It’s hard to remember a Camp Nou game with such a high volume — the identification and the communion. Jonathan Giraldez said, “I told my team it wasn’t enough to just qualify; we must put on a show.” Two-thirds of possession, 25 shots, five goals. Madrid played their part in this contest. The Claudia Zornoza goal that put Madrid into the lead was astonishing.
If they put on a show the fans also did. When Madrid got a penalty, they chanted “whoever doesn’t bounce is Madridista;” on her goal line, Sandra Panos bounced. They sang the Barcelona anthem. They chanted, “Being a Barcelona fan…is the best thing ever.”
There it was. This was so much fun. This is how football should be. There was a Mexican wave. There was a stadium full of lights, thousands of phones raised and torches on. It was re-upped three or four more times and looked even better than before. The final minutes were filled with joy as another song was played: “Florentino where are you?” Real Madrid’s president was not there, but many people were and they were having a great time. Giraldez stated that the atmosphere was “brutal”. It’s difficult to describe the emotions we feel. “
This was a night that was special, even though there weren’t enough. They wanted to know. The wait for the attendance number was longer than usual, which made it feel more significant. It was a grand reveal. They erupted when they discovered that there were enough of them and that they had broken the record, with every one of them.
A few Barcelona players fell to their knees at the end of the whistle and the cheering crowd got up to their feet. They were accompanied by a standing ovation. It would have, but they weren’t going anywhere. The supporters weren’t. Graham Hansen looked around and said, “I have to hold my tears because it is just too crazy.” “The fans aren’t leaving!” They are staying to celebrate with us. It’s not just 91,000 fans, it’s 91,000 Barcelona fans and they have been singing all game. Alexia was handed the drum sticks by the players. She said, “We’ll keep this in our hearts all our lives,” after they had completed a long, long lap, round and back again. It is better to stay put and enjoy the moment, this once impossible thing that was now possible to replicate, perhaps even a new era. Aitana stated, “This is just the beginning.” She was aware of how far they had traveled, recalling late-night training sessions with poor facilities. This was a game that was far less professional than it was in the past. This was a new beginning and an arrival. This was a sign that it could work.
“Absolutely you can make money out of it,” Graham Hansen insisted, “it’s not just 91,000; it’s 91,000 people having a party. If you have fun, you will want to do it again. This is a game-changer. “
“Super-magical,” the Queen called it. Everyone, take a bow.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.