The recent troubles of Football Club Barcelona – Lionel Messi’s departure, financial strife and yet another sacked manager – got me thinking about their recent history.
There’s rarely been a dull moment.
The Barca team of 2009 to 2015 is widely regarded as one of the greatest to play the game. It wasn’t just the trophies – five La Liga titles, three European Cups, three Copa Del Rey titles and more – it was the way they did it.
On the rare occasions opponents could get the ball off them, they were quickly swarmed upon by an aggressive and effective press. They reduced good teams to misery.
There’s been political intrigue, both internally and through the club’s vocal support of Catalan independence.
There’ve been bizarre and controversial incidents, like the infamous pig’s head game of 2002 and the five past midnight kick-off against Sevilla in 2003.
The events of 3 and 4 December 2010 were perhaps the strangest of all.
There was little indication of impending strangeness. Barca were preparing to play Osasuna at Pamplona on Saturday night.
Spaniards everywhere were limbering up for a long weekend, many of them planning an out-of-town getaway. What could possibly go wrong?
On Friday morning, air traffic controllers across Spain suddenly walked off the job. More than half a million people had their flights cancelled and multiple La Liga teams had logistical dilemmas on their hands.
Most of them figured it out through a combination of trains and buses. Racing Santander rolled the length of Spain for their game at Malaga.
For some reason, Barca seemed to think the problem would just go away. They dithered all day Friday and, despite the strike extending into a second day, even started travelling to the airport on Saturday morning before conceding to reality.
The Spanish Government, the then-socialist administration of José Luis Zapatero, already had plenty of problems – the global financial crisis and an unemployment rate nudging 20 per cent chief among them. It didn’t need another crisis.
Given the circumstances, there was limited public sympathy for the strike and the government foreshadowed a drastic measure.
If air traffic controllers did not return to work on Saturday, a state of alarm would be declared. This would, among other things, enable the military to take over airports and force the strikers back to work. The only other time these powers have ever been used was when COVID-19 struck in 2020.
Despite this, the strike continued. Still, Barca waited.
At midday on Saturday, nothing had changed and the government pulled the trigger. Military vehicles rolled into airports and the strike was over. But it’s not like you can flick a switch and turn on an entire industry.
There was now no way Barca could get to Pamplona for an 8pm kick-off, or so they claimed.
The Spanish Football Federation postponed the game to Sunday. Trouble was, nobody consulted Osasuna. When they found out they refused the postponement.
The clubs who’d already made long distance road trips quite rightly called double standards. Other officials and journalists with axes to grind began pressuring the federation behind the scenes.
Just after 3pm, the federation caved. Barca now had fewer than five hours to travel the nearly 500 kilometres to Pamplona. If they didn’t make it, they’d be deemed to have lost 0-3 and have a further three points docked.
And so it began. At 4pm a frantic Pedro Rodriguez sprinted aboard a train heading to Zaragoza.
Sid Lowe’s entertaining account of the affair describes what happened next: “at 17.49 [the train] stopped in Zaragoza… At 6pm Barcelona’s coach collected the players and set off on the 180km to Pamplona, tracked every step of the way, breathlessly reported on, like OJ on Interstate 405.”
The strike was over by this point, but media wanted more. Barcelona became the story.
Supporters could watch the team’s coach speeding down the motorway in real time. Along with the breathless updates, commentators were wheeled out to attack the club’s dithering, the arrogance of their attempt to get the game postponed and, of course, dredge up their many prior indiscretions.
When Barca arrived at Pamplona right on kick-off time, succeeded in having the game postponed by 45 minutes and proceeded to win 3-0 anyway, their critics were apoplectic.
Madrid-based tabloid Marca called Pep Guardiola the “Ayatollah, the man who runs the federation”, a “spoiled child” and accused him of “laughing in the face of Spanish football”.
The Barcelona of 2010-11 was probably the best of a great era for the club. They won La Liga and the European Cup, losing just six or their 62 matches.
I wonder whether their madcap road trip and winning despite the difficult situation might have played a part in their success.