Last year, my husband and I spent a week in Spain. We drank Spanish wine, saw incredible architecture, ate some of the best meals we’ve ever had, and tried to absorb as much culture from all sides of the country as we could.
We were in Barcelona during the beginnings of the recent Catalan independence movement, which added an extra layer of interest to an already fascinating city. We talked about how cool it would be to live there. We wondered about the city’s future. And we agreed that if we ever had the opportunity, we’d jump at the chance to see a Barcelona soccer game.
All of this is to say that when I noticed that Barcelona (one of the most popular sports franchises in the world, though not as valuable as the Cowboys) had a game scheduled at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, we had to go.
The match last night, between FC Barcelona and AS Roma, is part of the International Champions Cup, a “friendly” tournament played by European clubs in an effort to expand their North American fanbase. Somewhere around 120 percent of the people at AT&T Stadium were wearing Barca colors. Many of them were sporting Lionel Messi jerseys despite the fact that he wouldn’t be playing. As we made our way through the surprisingly diverse crowds, we heard pops of Italian, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Men in their late twenties and thirties congregated in big groups near the bar, sipping beer. Little kids in jerseys ran past us. We found our seats and realized we were stationed near what felt like the only Roma supporters in a stadium of more than 54,000 fans.
Below us, the grass field looked even and immaculate. The roar of the fans when Barca came out before kickoff, clad in their neon-yellow kits, was thunderous. Roma wore red—“like the blood of our enemies,” in the words of a nearby Roma fan. Not long after kickoff, a young man behind me shouted “Let’s go, Roma!” In the seats below, scores of Barca fans turned around to squint up at us, wondering who had dared to utter such blasphemy.
Barca scored early, and the crowd went bananas. There were balloons and streamers and people frantically waving their red-and-blue scarves. Nearby, the crowd swatted a blue balloon up and down the rows as though it were a beach ball at a Jimmy Buffett concert. Singing ensued.
In front of us, a bearded Italian man and his grandson (we knew they were Italian because they were speaking Italian; they were also cheering for Roma with the most Italian gestures you could possibly imagine) were seated next to a family of four decked out in Barcelona apparel.
A few minutes later, the wave began. I don’t know if they have the wave in Europe. I assume they’re familiar with it. We contemplated how strange this particular arena tradition might seem to players who have never seen it. At one point, the wave circled the stadium four times. I was never ready for it.
Behind us, a couple of kids shouted instructions down to the Roma team. “Pass it!” one yelled. “He’s wide open!” Then: “If he doesn’t pass it, I will explode!”
No one exploded, but 35 minutes in, Roma scored. The Italian boy went wild. Next to him, a kid in a Messi jersey watched his jubilant celebration in dismay. Around the stadium, a smattering of fans stood and cheered. There was no more than a handful in any section, though. When I thought about how outnumbered the Roma supporters were and what an underdog the team seemed to be, I felt compelled to root for Roma, too.
Now let’s talk about the screen. It’s really hard not to look at. In a game like soccer, the action moves back and forth across the field quickly, and your eyes sort of naturally stick to the glowing, massive monolith above it. I had to force myself to watch the real-life action. Besides, the Barca players’ highlighter-yellow jerseys were actually more vibrant in real life than on the screen.
At halftime, the teams made a lot of substitutions. Both clubs were trying out younger, less-experienced players. Seconds into the second half, Roma scored a goal that was called back when the offsides flag went up. Then Barca scored, taking a 2-1 lead and giving their several thousand fans a few final moments of elation. The Italian man and his grandson were quiet, but not for long. My mid-game declaration of allegiance to Roma was about to pay off.
When all was said and done, Roma only had possession of the ball for about 30 percent of the game. But it didn’t matter, because they took care of business quick: In the final quarter of the, they scored two goals in less than ten minutes. Elated, a few Roma fans in our section tried to start the wave. They failed.
The game ended 4-2 in favor of Roma, but before the refs called the match, Barca fans had already started their sad marches to the parking lot.
In the end, there weren’t quite the number of international superstars some in the crowd may have hoped for, but it was a pretty great game. My husband and I went home and opened a bottle of Spanish wine and talked (again) about how awesome our trip to Spain was. Now we want to go to Italy, too.