Sunday saw the return of the one of the most highly-anticipated matches in the club football calendar as Barcelona hosted their bitter rivals Real Madrid at the Nou Camp.
On this occasion there were not too many fireworks on the pitch, with Madrid recording a relatively straightforward and drama-free 2-1 victory over their old enemy.
But there is so much more to this fixture than just the football, and with this being the first full capacity game between the two Spanish giants since before the pandemic hit, it made for a particularly captivating spectacle.
Mirror Football had the privilege to attend the game in Catalonia, and we made sure to document our every move to give you a glimpse behind the scenes as two of the best-known sports teams in the world did battle once more.
The Nou Camp – Europe’s largest stadium – lies in the leafy neighbourhood of Les Corts, a residential district just outside the main hustle and bustle of Barcelona’s city centre.
If you have only ever seen the magnificent ground on TV before, you could be forgiven for feeling a little disappointed on your first visit as it comes into view over the horizon.
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On the outside it looks rather unremarkable, and appears nothing more interesting than a giant warehouse.
But as you get gradually closer on a matchday things start livening up, with colourful merchandise stores, street food vendors and bustling bars all popping up along the famous Travessera de les Corts.
The pre-game ritual of Spanish football fans differs somewhat to that of English ones. Spaniards will happily bask in the sun chatting amiably with a couple of beers and tapas, and it is a far cry from the six pints and a packet of crisps favoured by many Brits.
It is also not uncommon to see rival supporters mingling, and there were plenty of friendship groups who were split between Barca and Madrid shirts as they strolled around.
The underlying tribal tension that simmers under the surface on derby day in England is just not a thing here, and although a fierce and competitive rivalry exists, you never get the sense anything is about to kick off.
One of the few things Barcelona have done well recently is the development of their complex in the area surrounding the stadium.
You could spend hours in the enormous club megastore (as millions of tourists do every year), and there are also plenty of restaurants and kiosks selling food and drink at extortionate prices.
A particularly innovative idea is the ‘Robokeeper’, which attracted a crowd of hundreds in the hours leading up to kick-off.
The premise is simple: you pay €5 for the opportunity to take three penalties against a remote control goalkeeper (a mocked-up version of Marc-Andre ter Stegen).
In the 15 minutes or so that we watched, only one person managed to find the back of the net against the impressive reflexes of the robot (and we are pretty sure that was due to a technical fault).
If only Barca could call on its services to shore up their leaky defence.
With the atmosphere livening up, it was time to head inside and have a little explore within the bowels of the stadium.
Barcelona recently announced their intentions to follow the lead of Madrid and redevelop the Nou Camp, and they plan to extend the capacity by about 10,000 seats and modernise many of the areas.
Judging by what we saw, this is much-needed.
The concourse areas look tired and in need of love, and the facilities are incredibly basic compared to more modern stadiums such as Tottenham’s or Wembley.
Considering how much money and effort Barca have put into the areas just outside the Nou Camp, it comes as something of a surprise that the jewel in their crown has been so neglected, bringing to mind images of abandoned theme parks that were once the envy of all but have now been left to rust.
This is something that has to change if Barca are to continue to keep up with the superclubs.
Although the interior may be crumbling, the first glimpse of the electric green pitch surrounded by 99,000 seats and the famous painted ‘Mes Que Un Club’ motto is still enough to take your breath away.
The seats slowly began to fill up from around an hour or so before kick-off, and those fans who were already inside made an ear-shattering racket when the Madrid players came out to warm up, with their shrill whistling far more effective than the monotonous boo favoured by English supporters.
Just before kick-off one side of the ground unfurled a huge banner which read in Catalan ‘Barca, now and forever’, while the rest of those present held up blue and red strips to create a stunning mosaic.
It was then time for the famous club anthem, but unfortunately, in typical Barca fashion, the music from the loudspeaker decided to cut out and start again at crucial moments, leading to a rather disjointed version.
A superb noise was maintained throughout the opening proceedings of the game, with the ultras behind the goal doing their best to inspire the team with a mix of pro-Barca and anti-Madrid chants.
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When Madrid opened the scoring it was intriguing to see little pockets of Los Blancos fans celebrating around the stadium without fear of getting their heads kicked in, and this is again something that differs vastly from English football.
The atmosphere was rarely dampened despite Barca’s flat display, and at full-time the team were warmly applauded off, with the home faithful seemingly aware that they need all the encouragement they can get at the moment.
Sadly, a few mindless idiots attempted to spoil what had been a superb occasion after the game by mobbing Barca manager Ronald Koeman’s car as he attempted to drive away.
One thing that is striking is the lack of a police presence around the area, and there were also reports of thousands of spectators being held up as they tried to enter the ground due to a lack of organisation with security.
The incident with Koeman could have been much worse, but it still left an unpleasant taste, and surely could have been avoided had the club implemented a few extra safety measures.
Reflecting on the day, there is little doubt that no matter how well either team are doing, El Clasico will always remain one of the most popular and talked-about fixtures in the world.
The matchday experience is a treat for the senses, and is well worth its place on any football follower’s bucket list.
However, given Barca’s perilous financial situation, the only hope is that they do not fall any further, especially given that the stadium is without a doubt in need of a revamp.
The club will always be a behemoth of European football, but if they are not careful it easy to see how they could soon find themselves in for more than a few tough years of mediocrity.