Catalan magic in the Sydney suburbs

Whatever the Eurosnob bashers say, the arrival of Barcelona in Australia was an amazing coup, even if the timing just before the biggest domestic game of the season was in question. After the city was swamped with ‘blue and garnet’ shirts, and the newly named Accor Stadium was lit up in blaugrana, Australian football fans were treated to a full stadium, a terrfic game, an electric atmosphere and an altogether thrilling spectacle that will ignite the football passion in many a young mind as our sport looks to trailblaze into the future. If you weren’t here, you missed out.

This Wednesday night fixture clashed with everything. Football training, work meeting in the city til late, and I had picked up tickets in the pre-sale at a reasonable price, not really sure if I wanted to go to a seemingly meaningless exhibition match at the end of a thoroughly disappointing Sydney FC season. The online rubbishing of the fixture by people who should know better was discouraging, but in the lead up to the game, after the open training session on the Tuesday night that attracted 10,000 fans, and seeing so many Barcelona shirts around town, the excitement was there. Scoring a members’ ticket and trading up was also a big factor, so I was excited when I arrived quite late at the Brewery to pick up Michelle and head in to the busy stadium in time for kick off.

The lines outside were enormous, Australians doing what they do best and leaving everything to the last minute, but our gate was manageable, and we were in our seats ten minutes before kick off. There were hordes of photographers, lots of anticipation, before the fireworks and smokies were set off and the players arrived on the field to rapturous applause. This was not just about football, it was about passionate adulation of everything Barcelona, and the atmosphere was amazing.

The highlights of the game are available online, but what was obvious from early on was that this was no friendly game. Both teams were keen to put on a show, and when the All Stars managed to wrestle the ball from their possession-hungry opponents, they were swift in attack. Ousmane Dembele was terrific for Barcelona, and Adama Traoure was full of powerful running. Jason Cummings looked sharp up front for the All Stars, but it was Jay O’Shea who had a great chance, dancing through the middle to tee up a glorous one-on-one, but his left-foot shot hit the side netting instead of the back of the net.

By now the stadium was looking pretty full, only a few seats at the corners up high not filled, but it looked and felt like a major sporting event. For all the good play from both teams, it was a simple giveaway and punish that gave the Spaniards the lead, and we were right behind Dembele’s shot as it squeezed in at the far post for 1-0. Jason ‘finger-bun’ Davison had looked good, but when he stretched to keep in a long ball on the far side, he obviously tweaked his hamstring and had to go off, Dwight Yorke unable to find a quick replacement as his subs were all busy warming up at the far end. Anthony Caceres looked at home against the quality opposition, while Rhyan Grant had his work cut out containing the raids down the Barca left. Half time came and it was a shame to break the flow, the contest a fantastic spectacle that had the fans absorbed.

The Mexican waves had already started by now, but to be fair it was totally in context. This was after all a celebration of football in Australia. The half-time break saw two tiny games of five a side in the corners and a strange running contest, and the appearance of the players for the second half again had the fans roaring.

A sparkling piece of play from Daniel Penha then set up Anthony Caceres to shoot, the Barca keeper asleep on his line but saving well, and Reno Piscopo bundled the rebound over the line for the equaliser. We didn’t have to wait long for a second either, Cummings teeing up Piscopo who squared for the A-League Adama Traoure to thump home gleefully and wheel away in celebration. The support for the home team was definitely there. Garang Kuol then embarked on a ridiculous run from deep, beating everyone in his path and getting a lucky rebound to lift the ball over the keeper, but the ball bounced the wrong side of the post, a thrilling move.

Yorke was livid when Kuol was pushed over in the lead up to the equalising goal, and the Barcelona Traore raced into the box and smashed in a shot that second-half sub keeper Andrew Redmayne couldn’t hold, the ball bouncing agonisingly over the line. A third Barcelona goal came when Antonia Aranda picked up a ball in midfield and shimmied into the box, Ansu Fati stealing the shot off his foot to nestle the ball into the corner of the net for 3-2.

There was still time for the All Stars and again Kuol raced through the middle and shot, this time the ball cannoning off the bar; the rebound fell his way again, and was well saved as Barcelona survived. It was with dismay that the final whistle sounded, as we wanted more, but the post-match would be quite entertaining too. Despite the warnings of a $5,500 fine for encroaching the field, a few people gave it a go, one young lad making it quite close befor being led away, but the Barca Traore and coach Xavi came to his rescue and he got a shirt. That promoted a few more attempts, but all in all it was quite well behaved, only one miscreant getting ejected near us by the police and acting the fool when arguing about it.

The fans stayed in for ages while the players did a lap of honour and players threw shinpads and boots into the crowd. Danny Townsend was sweet-talking Daniel Penha into signing for Sydney FC, there was some good networking going on down at the tunnel, and everyone’s favourite seccy was marshalling the troops well.

We were eventually asked to leave, as it was getting quite late and there was no sign of any more players. Time for a late night bite to eat, just like in Spain, and a beer at the Locker Room before we called it quits, back home in Ryde before midnight, quite a late one for a school night.

This was football tourism at its finest. On our own doorstep. The post-match entertainment outside on the concourse was a good way to spread out the crowds, and it felt like a pre-cursor for next year’s FIFA Womens World Cup; this is how it can be done and the general mood was one of happiness and fun. Had the predicted rains have happened, this might not have been the same, the organisers had some incredible luck with the conditions, but the whole event was well done and there will be some people who will want to come back and watch more football.

Can’t wait for Saturday’s Grand Final, wish my team was in it.

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