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A journey to watch Lionel Messi in Barcelona, soccer's version of a religious pilgrimage

Future generations will ask, "Did you ever see Messi play?" Our writer will respond with this story.

David Ramos/Getty Images

There are two ways to approach the Camp Nou. The first, which is probably the right way, is where the supporters' buses come in. You pass through the "FC Barcelona: Benvinguts, Bienvenidos, Welcome" arch, past a man dressed (for some reason) as a blaugrana Roman legionary, and into what looks like nothing so much as a small suburban high street. Welcome to the quaint heart of Barcaville, pop. 90,000.

Here's the entrance to the Barcelona museum, where the tours begin, just opposite Ben & Jerry's. There's the Jamaica Coffee Experience, next to the salad bar, though the Estrella Damm Lager Experience might be a more accurate name. There's the futsal arena, happy shouting leaking out into the sunshine. And here's the centerpiece: the club shop, in which can be found everything that proves FC Barcelona truly is more than a club. It's a cuddly toy. It's a personalized T-shirt. It's a rubber duck.

This being December, they've even got Christmas decorations hanging over the street, though at daytime they look less like twinkling festive baubles and more like two giant hairy balls hanging limply in the sunshine. Pass beneath them and through the security checkpoints, and you'll find yourself in the main plaza in front of the stadium, finally able to take a proper look at the big bowl itself. You stand beside the statue of club legend László Kubala, all carved power and quivering modernist thighs, and admire the colossal faces of Lionel Messi, Gerard Piqué, Neymar and an unnamed, politely smiling air stewardess. Hers is the only uniform that doesn't have Qatar Airways emblazoned across the front.

From all the other angles, particularly if you walk to the stadium from the center of the city, the Camp Nou looks like a car park. Two car parks, in fact: a multi-story concrete one sitting in the middle of a fenced-off concrete plateau. Admittedly, it's quite an exciting multi-story car park, with lots of smooth curves and chunky angles. But it feels a little strange, as though the stadium is sat with its shoulders hunched, staring away from the city. Maybe Qatar Airways doesn't want your business if you're walking to the game.

* * *

Leo Messi is the best footballer that has ever existed. The Internet isn't big enough for us to sort out the actual truth of that sentence, but let's at least agree that it is possibly true. And so, the following sentence also has to be at least possibly true: Leo Messi is the best footballer that will ever exist.

Again, the Internet's not big enough. But when that possibility is in play, then going to Barcelona to see Messi play in his element — in the club that nurtured him, in a stadium that worships him — isn't just a nice way to spend a few hours of a holiday. It stands as a sort of pilgrimage, a getting-it-done. The future may well contain the question "Did you ever see Messi play?" It would be a shame if the future also contained the answer "No."

Anyway, it's Saturday afternoon in Barcelona, and Messi starts. This is good news for everybody except Real Sociedad's defenders, but particularly good news for SB Nation Soccer writers who bought tickets to see him a couple of months ago, only for him to do what he almost never does: pick up an injury. He missed eight matches after tearing the medial collateral ligament of his left knee, though Barcelona just about managed to struggle on without him, winning seven and scoring 21 goals in the process. He returned after an hour of last week's clásico, entering the game at 3-0 up, and while this was probably just sensible management of an injured player from his manager, Luis Enrique, it's nice to imagine that substitution as a giant middle finger directed squarely across the Bernabéu turf. We're hammering you at home, and we didn't even need the best player in the world to do it.

So Messi starts, but he starts slowly. Indeed, he doesn't even seem to move for the first minute or so of the game: he stands high on the right wing while the ball's bouncing around on the left, and when Barcelona's first chance comes he's entirely irrelevant to proceedings. Neymar picks up the ball on the left wing, glides into the opposition half, and then — just when Luis Suárez's over here! screaming and pass to me! pointing reaches a frustrated crescendo — slips the ball between fullback and central defender to leave the Uruguayan one-on-one with the goalkeeper. Perhaps exhausted from all the shouting, he can only direct a weak shot into the keeper's legs.

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Photo credit: David Ramos/Getty Images

* * *

On paper, that front three is ridiculous. On the pitch, it's very interesting: Neymar, Suárez and Messi pick themselves, but the coach still has to work out how to get the best from them. Presumably it's tempting just to say, "Go out and have fun, gents," but Luis Enrique doesn't seem like that kind of manager, and it soon becomes clear that Messi isn't just standing around because he's feeling uninterested or unfit. This is the plan.

Real Sociedad are working hard and closing down assiduously, and as such are having a fair bit of the ball. When they do, at least two and often all three of Barcelona's forwards make only the most token gestures towards similar pressing, preferring instead to retain their position, tucked up against the defending line. Even hyperactive Suárez sticks to his position, restricting his buzzing around to the spaces around the central defenders, bouncing over and then back across the offside line. Pep Guardiola's pressing machine has been dismantled, and the days when Messi would lead the team in fouls are apparently gone.

Which is not to say that Barcelona are any less dangerous. Guardiola's teams used to avoid the problem of not having the ball by making sure they had it as often as possible; here, Luis Enrique's team are pursuing a deliberate policy that makes both teams more vulnerable. At such moments, Barcelona are essentially saying to their opponents, particularly the fullbacks: Go on. You can have the overlap, and good luck to you. Because if we can nick the ball — and just so you know, we back ourselves to nick the ball — then it's three on three, and you won't be stopping our three with your three. Have you seen our three? Our three are brilliant. You probably wouldn't be stopping them with six.

* * *

To those of us that don't see him every week, Messi as a player exists more in replay than he does in the moment. Watch him do something ludicrous on screen and it's only a few seconds until the television shows it to you again, first a bit slower, then again from behind the goal, then one more time from overhead. Wait a minute or two more and there'll be a video looping over and over on your phone. And give it another 10 minutes or so, and those videos will have been tweaked and edited and slathered with banter. There's Jérôme Boateng, falling into a sinkhole. There's Jérôme Boateng, and there's his giant crying emoji face.

Up in the heavens, and without the benefit of all that other stuff, Messi looks like two things. The first is brilliant. Real Sociedad are keeping him well-pressured, and he hasn't managed to pull off any of those runs where he slides past and around and through defenders like a snake through long grass, but he's still exceptional. The first goal comes when he, facing away from goal and standing still, flicks an awkward pass up and then over a defender who was in the process of doing everything right. Into the space came Dani Alves, who crossed for Neymar, who rattled it home.

The second is sad. This is not to suggest that he is sad; this isn't some claim that he's visibly worn down by the heavy burden of shooting all those adverts, or the prospect of moving to Manchester City, or having to pretend to like Luis Suárez. But he looks sad: head bowed, arms loose, shoulders slumping as he trudges back from another attacking move that didn't quite come together. He has a kind of footballing version of Resting Bitch Face; "Resting Eeyore Neck," perhaps.

You see this at times on television, often after he's contrived to miss another penalty. But while the cameras would doubtless like to linger, they have to pull away and follow the ball; when you're there, and you're indulging in a bit of personal player-cam, you're free to watch him Charlie Brown his way back at his own gentle pace, gazing at his fluorescent shoes. It has the curious effect of making him, a footballer of prodigious gifts in a football team built around him, look oddly isolated, strangely vulnerable. Despite the staggering reservoirs of self-belief and confidence it must take to become a footballer this good, there is absolutely no strut to the man.

* * *

The Camp Nou, at least on a Saturday afternoon against Real Sociedad, is not hugely conducive to the generation of atmosphere. The stadium's an open bowl, and much of the sound is swallowed by the sky. It's not that important a game, and it takes place against hard-working but limited opposition. The game experience depends where you sit, too. Those of us up in the clouds are, you'd imagine, having a very different experience to those wedged behind one of the goals. And finally, it's not full; a mere 74,020 people have decided to take in the game this afternoon.

Also, there's a drum.

All that taken and weighed, however, the Camp Nou still feels singular and in some ways peculiar. Particularly once Suárez slaps home an flying volley to double Barca's lead and it becomes clear that La Real aren't going to be so rude as to take anything from the game. Nerves allayed, a contented air settles over the stadium. "It's like everybody's come to see a 'Spectacular Exhibition of the Footballs,'" according to your correspondent's companion.

This isn't necessarily a criticism; if football's for everyone, then it stands to reason that there's plenty of ways to do it. Indeed, perhaps it's nothing more than a natural consequence of supporting Barcelona at this point in football history. They're good. Really good. And they have been good for a while; even when they're not at their best, they're one of the strongest teams in the world, and there have been several points over the last 10 years or so when they've been unarguably the best.

Which is to say watching football at Barcelona is not like watching football at most other clubs, where results and fortunes follow more traditional, volatile paths, and where fans' behavior responds accordingly. They're not alone in this, of course — we live in an era of league-dominating points-hoovering superclubs — but it's always disconcerting to encounter a football crowd that doesn't appear to be running on a mix of needy belligerence and nervous tension. There's a pleasant sense of entitled inevitability about the place, so much so that the loudest noises of the day come whenever the referee fails to show an opposing player a yellow card. Though that could be just the fact that whistling travels well.

* * *

The mapping of football to religion is both overplayed and deeply imperfect; apart from anything else, very few gods are required to fight one another on a weekly basis, fun as that might be. Gods, generally, are clever enough to stay on the other side of the dark glass; footballers only get away with that when they're driving home. But there's enough in the comparison — "the soul of soulless circumstances," if you like — that it's certainly possible to think about going to see Messi at the Nou Camp as a pilgrimage, as a journey to see something that might not be explicitly divine, but is certainly special and powerful and perhaps even life-changing.

And that means that it's certainly worth bearing in mind the cautionary words associated with Montserrat, the medieval shrine in the beautiful, sharptoothed mountains an hour outside Barcelona. Attending pilgrims were urged:

not to lose their tempers if they failed to obtain a miraculous answer to their prayers ... for God, from whom all benefits proceed, knows better than we do what is right and fitting for our souls.

All of which is a roundabout way of noting that after an hour has passed Barcelona have scored three goals, but they've all been scored by the wrong people. Neymar has two, Suárez has one. Messi hasn't scored any. And at least one small visiting child in the upper reaches of the Camp Nou is getting audibly frustrated with that fact.

Of course, this could just be a lesson from the universe in managing expectations, in learning that just because you've come all this way to see Messi, doesn't mean that he has to cure any leprosy you might have about your person. Maybe it's a reminder that there's more to life, and to football, than goals. But if that's so, then it's not a lesson that Barcelona's players are heeding. They are here to make the people happy, and so with a three-goal lead and the points neatly tucked away, they embark on the final phase of the game: Operation Get Messi A Goal.

As time slips away, it looks as though this might be a failure. First Messi puts a left-footed volley just past the post, then he twangs a snapshot onto the bar. Neymar, Suárez and Andrés Iniesta are trying to get the ball to him in promising positions, but are being stymied by moments of sloppiness and stout defending. It seems the pilgrims may be going home with only the lesser miracles of passing and touch to speak of.

But then, it comes. As the 90th minute ticks past, Neymar exchanges passes with Suárez and then does something filthy to a passing defender. Pausing only to wipe the blood from his hands, he clips the ball gently across the six-yard box, and Messi, almost certainly the best player in the world, probably the best player in history, and possibly the best player that there ever will be, brings the Camp Nou to its feet in adoration by tapping into an empty net from two yards.

* * *

Leaving the Camp Nou, like leaving any big and unfamiliar football stadium, is a vaguely confusing and slightly frustrating process of trying to work out where you are, where your next destination is, and the quickest way from one to the next. But the atmosphere is edgeless and convivial: the home team won, they were intermittently brilliant, and the pilgrims got what they came for. And nobody needs to worry about anything. The game is over, but the shop is staying open.