The Gazpacho Game — The night Ronaldinho gave Barcelona back its smile


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Given his reputation, it was perhaps appropriate that Ronaldinho announced his arrival in Barcelona with a sway of the hips in the early hours of the morning. Receiving the ball midway inside his own half from a Victor Valdés throwout, two twists took him dancing away from the Sevilla midfield before an arrow of a shot arched over the goalkeeper and shook the crossbar. The ball crashed downwards, its rebound exquisitely bulging the roof of the net, sending Camp Nou into rapture.

It was a goal that would prove to be a seismic moment in more ways than one — a goal that came at 1.26am.

It was September 2003 and it was Barça’s first home game of the season. The fresh breeze of Joan Laporta’s presidency had brought an air of optimism to Camp Nou. Laporta and his cadre of sure-footed young professionals cut a striking contrast to the shambling disaster of his predecessor, Joan Gaspart.

Gaspart’s final season had started with the unpopular managerial reappointment of Louis van Gaal and a Copa del Rey elimination to third-tier Novelda. He resigned the presidency in February, with Barça positioned alarmingly on both the league table and on the balance sheet — two points from relegation and many millions in debt. 

The Laporta era started with the breaking of a key electoral promise although not one that anyone had ever truly believed, nor one that ever drew recrimination. Precisely the opposite. Midway through the election campaign, Laporta and his right-hand man Sandro Rosell announced they had agreed a deal to sign David Beckham. What’s more, they had a letter from Manchester United and a PowerPoint presentation to prove it.

It was a transfer that had no chance of ever happening. It was one thing to have an agreement with a club but quite another to have reached one with a player. Beckham’s transfer to Real Madrid was, by that point, so set in stone that the blaze of publicity to the contrary didn’t ruffle a feather in Madrid. Nevertheless, the Laporta campaign had grabbed significant airtime and an aura of credibility — they could go to the biggest clubs and negotiate for the biggest names.

On the 15th June, that gravitas combined with the crucial endorsement of Johan Cruyff delivered a landslide election win that installed Laporta as the new Barcelona president. Three days later, Manchester United announced to the London Stock Exchange that Beckham would be transferring to Real Madrid. That was soon forgotten by fans and media alike a few weeks later with the signing of Ronaldinho from Paris Saint-Germain, a player that would transform the club.

A fresh coach, Frank Rijkaard, arrived too. Although not the board’s first choice, the Dutchman personified the club’s new direction, combining Cruffyian DNA with a cool, modern style. 

As club shops morphed into megastores and fusty offices were transformed into airy, open-plan, co-working spaces, the new board were soon also taking a novel approach to one of the more enduring traditions of La Liga — that of bickering over kick-off times.

After the opening weekend, the league had scheduled a midweek round of games that butted awkwardly against the forthcoming international break. Barça’s fixture on Wednesday night fell, problematically, within the window in which club sides had to surrender their players to their respective national teams. 

Fearing being shorn of many of their squad on a gala night at Camp Nou, Barcelona made the request to their opponents, Sevilla, for the game to be switched to Tuesday night. Sevilla refused, pointing out that such a change would give their players less than the mandatory minimum of 48 hours recovery time after their Sunday night fixture at home to Atlético Madrid.

Barça’s suggestion that Sevilla bring that game forward to Saturday night, thus creating a 72-hour respite, was rejected by the Sevilla president, José María Del Nido. He stated that Sevilla were contractually obliged by the television company, Sogecable, to play in the Sunday night slot. Rosell called Sogecable, only to be told that wasn’t the case.

Ever the lawyer, Laporta found the solution that gave Barça the outcome they sought, while abiding by the very letter of the law. They would play on Wednesday — five minutes into Wednesday, at 12.05am. Sevilla were furious — “Barcelona’s attitude is disgraceful.” thundered Del Nido, “They’ve thrown a tantrum like a bunch of little boys. They think the whole world revolves around them.” But he was powerless to stop it.

With the bizarre kick-off time confirmed, there was plenty of work to do. Scheduling a game to finish around 2am could embarrassingly deplete the attendance. That fear was heightened when the city of Barcelona announced it was unable to extend the metro service beyond midnight at such short notice. Audiovisual Sport, the TV rights holders, didn’t much care for continuing their own service into the witching hours either and pulled their live coverage of the game. Without some inventive thinking, there was a real risk the board’s bold move could backfire.

The answer was to turn the game and the circumstances into an event and to convince fans that they were actually golden ticket holders to a unique footballing occasion rather than being obligated to attend a game at an ungodly hour. It worked.

Gates were opened at 9.15pm and a local production company, El Terrat, was commissioned to direct the pre-match festivities. Their irreverent show, ‘Insomniac Football’, incorporated live video link-ups with club legends such as Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov as well as various Cátalan celebrities. 

A further masterstroke was the idea to supply the entire crowd with a ‘picnic’ as they entered the stadium. It was supposedly themed on their Andalusian opponents, but in truth, the menu was more a result of which companies would supply at low cost and at short notice. Nevertheless, it was a hit and provided the crowd with a perfect boost of blood sugar at the time of night bodies were usually flagging. The first item on the menu even lent the occasion its eventual nickname — El Partido del Gazpacho, ‘The Gazpacho Game’.

The playing staff too were adapting their dietary habits for the night. On the morning of the game, in Mundo Deportivo, club doctor Lluís Thil had detailed the meal plans for the day including dietary supplements “such as caffeine. And always within the legal limits.”

A few pages on in that day’s edition, one of Laporta’s smart, young marketing executives, Esteve Calzada, detailed the measures the club had taken to entice supporters to the game. With everything that had been put in place, he estimated an attendance of somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000. As Tuesday ticked over to Wednesday, Calzada was proven wrong, there were 80,237 in Camp Nou.

Looking back, the teamsheets of that night make for interesting reading. Both sides were at the very genesis of what would become golden eras. Although not everyone on the field would share in the success that followed, there are comedies, histories and tragedies everywhere you look. 

He had packed out the stadium, but Laporta’s manoeuvring hadn’t been enough to save Barça’s five-strong Dutch contingent. Despite last-minute negotiations, the Dutch Federation had been steadfast that the players reported for camp on Tuesday night. Likewise, Javier Saviola, returned to Buenos Aires to prepare for Argentina’s game against Chile, leaving Barça very much stretched and reliant on youth players to fill out the squad.

Although the Turkish superstar, Rüstü Reçber, had recently arrived, a 21-year-old Victor Valdés continued in goal having taken over the position the previous season.

Carles Puyol was a rugged and established presence at right-back. The centre-back pairing of Rafa Marquez and Patrik Andersson was unique, never starting a game together before or again. Marquez, making his debut, was very much on his way in while Andersson was very much on the way out after an underwhelming couple of seasons.

Xavi was already a fixture in midfield where he was partnered by Gerard López, whose early promise at Valencia was starting to wane with the accumulation of injuries. 

Also making a Camp Nou debut was the very epitome of the flashy winger, Ricardo Quaresma — a one-man mission to change the world’s beliefs in how a football should be kicked. His performance on the night “combined high-level technique with moments of surprising clumsiness”, according to Mundo Deportivo. Quaresma would go on to score just one goal in Barça colours before falling out with Rijkaard and returning to Portugal.

Fellow newcomer, Ronaldinho, was faring a whole lot better and Luis Enrique, entering his final season, brought an element of experience and fight.

With the absences at centre forward, there was an opportunity for the ‘pearl of the B team’, Sergio García. “A brilliant start for a youngster who promises so much. Quick and with an eye for goal last night he just lacked a bit of luck in front of goal.” gushed Mundo Deportivo. Sadly, García would never score for Barça, but he moved on to play for an excellent Zaragoza side and became part of the furniture at Espanyol. He would be part of Spain’s Euro 2008 winning squad too.

From the bench, there was another B teamer transitioning to the senior squad. A 19-year-old Andrés Iniesta earned some token minutes as the hour hand approached two.

Sevilla, for their part, were bedding in a young loanee at right-back. Having barely started a game in the previous season, Dani Alves was given a rebaptism of fire with consecutive games against Atlético, Barcelona and Deportivo setting him on the road to becoming an all-time great at the position.

In the heart of the defence, the side was led by the notorious Pablo Alfaro and his heir apparent, the equally uncompromising Javi Navarro, who would go on to lift two UEFA Cups and a Copa del Rey as captain.

Further forward, a formidably sized defensive midfielder was being inventively repurposed as an attacker. Julio Baptista had scored just ten goals in four seasons with his native São Paulo, yet Sevilla coach Joaquin Caparrós had seen something that led him to experiment with him in a more attacking role. Baptista ended his first season in Spain as La Liga’s second top scorer with 20 goals. Another chunky Brazilian would be the only player to outscore him in that campaign.

Completing the Sevilla forward line were two free spirits of the game who would come to have something genuinely tragic in common. Europe’s top clubs were keenly eyeing José Antonio Reyes, already with over 60 first-team appearances. This game arrived between his 20th birthday and his first full cap for Spain. The peroxide blonde Uruguayan, Darío Silva, lined up alongside him. Shockingly, despite their talent and verve, both would ultimately be remembered for the car crashes that cost Silva his leg and Reyes his life.

Those two combined for the opening goal. Silva brought down by Valdés with Reyes converting from the penalty spot after only ten minutes. That set up a full-blooded game in which Reyes was superb and Sevilla made Barcelona suffer for a share of the points. Tempers flared on several occasions not least with the spectacular sight of an enraged Luis Enrique taking on both Alfaro and Navarro after a tangle in the Sevilla penalty area.

Barcelona’s Luis Enrique goes at it with Sevilla’s Javi Navarro and Pablo Alfaro (LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)

Indeed the game was indicative of the season that lay ahead with Barça having to survive some testing times before finishing — if not with outright success — then a renewed sense of optimism. A loss at home to league leaders Real Madrid in December saw them slump to 13th. Humiliating defeats in Malaga and Santander left Rijkaard on a knife-edge. Still, the rookie board held their nerve and were rewarded with a 17 game unbeaten run including a cathartic win at the Santiago Bernabéu. Barça finished second to Rafa Benítez’s Valencia while Madrid endured a miserable second half of the season as the Galactico project began to fray.

The foundation had been laid for the titles that followed. The disastrous recruitment of the previous regime was gradually reversed with the arrival of the likes of Samuel Eto’o and Deco. La Masia was bearing fruit too with the emergence of Iniesta while a diminutive Argentine was making eye-catching progress with 31 goals in 21 games for the Juvenil A team.

But it was one night and one moment that would go down as marking a new chapter in the annals at FC Barcelona’s sleek and highly profitable museum. Ronaldinho’s intoxicating dance through the night air that shook an arena that has struggled to recreate an atmosphere quite like that ever since.

It shook a city too. Literally.

Some 4.5km north of Les Corts stands the Observatori Fabra. On the night shift, at precisely 1.26am and 28 seconds, the seismometer recorded just over a minute of tremor in the city. The epicentre had been Camp Nou. 

Thanks to the arrival of Ronaldinho, Barcelona would become the epicentre of world football for some years to come.

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Graham Hunter’s excellent book Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World was helpful in telling the story of the election of Joan Laporta

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