NAU Soccer Spain Tour: Blog #2
Blog Written by Elinor Priest
We started off today with another delicious hotel breakfast before jumping in the tour bus to go to Montserrat. The mountain rises out of the Catalan lowlands to 4,000 feet that, while not as high as Flagstaff, still disappears into the clouds on misty and rainy days. On the drive there, the switchbacks gave us increasingly amazing views out over the green countryside that is speckled with old red roofed homes. Finally we reached our destination, but the mountain still rose higher into the mist so we couldn't even see the top—giving an almost spectral feel to the holy pilgrimage destination. The Montserrat Sacristy of the Cathedral is most known for being the location of the Black Madonna and rumored to have been carved by St. Luke in 50 A.D. Modernly there is a large, ornate cathedral which hosts the statue of Mary as well as incredible artwork in the small chapels and confessionals flanking the pews of the church, a museum, market, and monastery that hosts 80 monks as well as a exceptional boys choir.
After walking about and exploring on our own, we met up in the square in front of the cathedral in order to see the Madonna. The carving is in a plastic tube to protect her but she holds a ball in her left hand that protrudes and is supposed to be good luck to touch. We were all extremely excited to touch her—and get good luck for next season—but unfortunately the line was too long and because of time constraints we couldn't wait. Our days in Spain have been scheduled so as to pack as much as possible into the short time we have here. This means that we get to go see amazing sites, but we can't necessarily do everything at each one. We're on the go from morning until night and everyone I've talked to say that every night so far they've fallen asleep as soon as or even before their head hit the pillow.
So, although we would've loved to stay and touch the Holy Lady for good luck, we had to drive back down the narrow switchbacks into the rain in order for our next holy pilgrimage: Camp Nou Stadium, home of FC Barcelona (FCB). I should mention, since it becomes relevant later, that by this point in the day, it had started to pour. As we were leaving Montserrat we saw a few flashes of lightening and the drive down would've been nerve-wracking but the bus drivers here are impressive in their ability to maneuver around tiny corners and through winding roads with a giant bus.
When we got to Camp Nou we were running late, so we were a bit rushed. Nonetheless it was absolutely amazing. We started our private tour with a walk through the club museum, where we saw the club's trophy collection and the history of the players and club. We learned that the Barcelona club is not only for soccer. Surprisingly they also have amateur or professional hockey, handball, futsal teams and others. We were able to go through the press area where the players are interviewed after games and the visiting team's locker room. We had hoped to see the men's home locker room, but our guide reminded us how superstitious soccer players are, as well as the fact that they have personal effects in their locker room. We then got the privilege of walking down the tunnel and up into the stadium proper. Walking up the stairs into the empty stadium was mind boggling; 98,000 seats spring up on all sides around you and before your feet lies turf leading onto an utterly perfect grass field. I had planned on grabbing a rock from the stadium as a present for my mom, who likes to build small rock cairns, but literally the stadium is so pristine there was not a rock to be found in the stadium.
After seeing the history and the stadium of the football club we were all getting more excited and apprehensive than ever to play the women's team. During our tour, Shawnee Morgan was talking to an employee and mentioned that tonight we were playing the FCB women's team. She said she'll never forget the way his eyes got wide in shock and he said an emphatic, "Good luck!" We drove back to the hotel, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and had a few minutes to lie down and get our minds straight for our upcoming game. As we began the drive to the field the rain started up, harder than ever. Our game was scheduled to take place at the Barcelona training fields. The club has a training facility that is extremely exclusive. They have security that assures that no one can come near the fields and watch practices. They have both turf and grass fields of the best quality, as well as locker rooms, training rooms, and dormitories for the players who live there. We saw a young boys team going through their second practice of the day; they practice, go to school, then have a second training session in the afternoons.
I must say I love this country's enthusiasm for soccer. Within two minutes of stepping off the plane we saw two six-year-old kids juggling a soccer ball in the airport. Then today on the drive up a 4,000-foot mountain we saw a dirt soccer field. Even at the mountain's summit and at a famous monastery, we saw that a building's roof had been transformed into a small court with two goals at the edge of either side. No matter where you go, the people here find a way to play soccer and at the FCB training facility they learn to play at the very highest level.
The rain pounded away outside as we got ready in one of the locker rooms, going through our usual pregame taping and small individual rituals. The adrenaline and honor of this opportunity was hitting us as we walked to the field through a downpour. We went to a small café next to the field to wait because the field still had another boy's team practicing on it. As we waited, what had been simply rain almost turned into a disaster. Now, I'm a native Portlander so I've played in all sorts of rain, but the torrential downpour made the field worse than anything I've played on before. We were going to play on turf, and once a layer of standing water starts to sit on the field, it can become dangerous and even unplayable. The women's FCB team is in the Spanish Primera quarterfinals on Sunday. Although they wanted another game before their next game, they definitely did not want to risk an injury in a friendly. We waited anxiously, thinking that our game was surely going to be cancelled. We've been excited about this game for months as it's one of the biggest highlights of this trip. However, until those moments when we thought it was going to be cancelled, I personally didn't realize just how big of an opportunity this was. We would be only the second college team in history to play them; furthermore we would be playing on the exclusive FCB training grounds where the likes of (Lionel) Messi grew up playing. This really was a once in a lifetime opportunity, one that we could reminisce about the rest of our lives, and to be so close and then not playing would be absolutely heartbreaking. As we waited we were savoring more than ever the awesome opportunity that lay before us and we were expecting that experience to be snatched from us by awful weather.
Our coach, Andre Luciano, came in to tell us that it was up to the referees. The women's director of operations was willing to play but it all came down to whether the refs thought the field was playable or not. As we sat there, we saw the women's team run by the café wearing their cleats and jerseys and carrying balls. It looked like they were helping the refs make their decision by deciding to start warming up regardless. This is where luck came our way. Our three refs were willing to give us 10, 20 or 90 minutes of play until they thought it became unplayable.
We warmed up through the rain before starting the game. The field had water everywhere, but some places the standing water stopped the ball almost completely. The whistle started and we started to play the Barcelona women's team A. They are an exceptionally good team. The way they move the ball, move constantly, and skill with the ball makes them difficult to defend and a joy to watch. We stuck with them, trying to slip balls through their back line and to ping the ball around as well. Lauren Weaver and our back line came up with multiple breathtaking saves and big time tackles in the opening 30 minutes to keep us 0-0 at halftime.
The second half marked a couple new players joining the field on the other team. Although we were playing their A Team, it seems that they were resting their very best for their Sunday quarterfinal. However our first half play earned their teams respect to the point that the team's stars joined the game. And stars they most definitely were. While the players we played were exceptional in the first half, it was clear that the rain and water disrupted their flow and ability to finish. The rain had no such effect on these girls. Before the final whistle they were able to break through and capitalize five times. Personally, for the rest of my life I will cherish that adrenaline filled game in the pouring rain against the very best players that Spain has to offer. It was an honor to play them, and more of an honor that they respected us enough after playing the first half that they stepped up their own game in order to score. Our entire team can now say for the rest of our lives that we have personally stepped on the field and competed against the very best.
Tomorrow's another day and another game here in Spain.