An invite to the Camp Nou is not something you can turn down.
Barcelona's high-tempo, tiki-taka football has always seemed a world away from the English game I’ve been brought up with.
An opportunity to experience the La Liga champions' definitive style of play in the flesh is not something that crops up every day, especially when you consider the match in question would see Neymar and Gerardo Martino debut in front of their new fans.
Heading to Spain for the Joan Gamper Trophy fixture against Santos, my trip was far from a whistle-stop experience of the world famous stadium. I joined fellow B/R writer Jason Pettigrove and the welcoming folks at Penya Blaugrana London for a three-day dive straight into the heart of Catalan culture, values and way of life.
As an introduction to Barcelona, it couldn't have been a more intense experience.
My first interaction with FCB was enthralling. Attending the 2013 Supporters Clubs World Congress, discussions of how Barca can improve its female marketing and online presence played second fiddle to some special guest appearances.
Club president Sandro Rosell announced the team's two latest signings were about to appear on stage. As Tata headed into the spotlight, it took a few moments for the lean figure of Neymar to emerge from an understandably excited crowd. The Brazilian headed towards the podium to a chorus of cheers, his hat twisted backwards, the epitome of cool.
A quick speech from the 21-year-old underlined the fact he needed to leave imminently. Tonight was Neymar's first home appearance since securing a €55 million move, his initial opportunity to make an impression on those who would be purchasing his shirts for years to come.
Buoyed by a memorable showing, we quickly moved on to the annual Gala dinner, a gathering that would see Barcelona fans the world over come together for a top quality three-course meal.
Portraying the ignorant Englishman stereotype, my lack of Spanish or Catalan tongue barely mattered. I laughed with the local contingency, caught up with quickly made associates and joked about rowdy happenings from the night before. A piano player eased us into eating, underlining the entire event's classy and well-pitched tone.
With formalities finished and the meal devoured, another exciting chance presented itself. A number of important individuals, from Barcelona board members to former players, mingled around the dinner hall.
I managed to grab a handshake and photo with Jordi Cardoner, head of the Penyes department and grandson of former FCB president Nicolau Casaus. Legendary striker Quini also offered a quick snap, as did Guillermo Amor, dream-team player of the Johan Cruyff era.
Such extraordinary introductions threatened to overshadow the trip's main drawing point: the match against Santos. I spent the rest of the day soaking up the institution-styled grounds that house the Camp Nou, chatting with associates and lapping up something known as the sun.
With my pasty English skin struggling against the Spanish sol, the brisk breeze of game time was welcomed with a fresh-faced sigh.
Taking place a little earlier than usual, a decent-sized crowd turned up to capture a glimpse of Tata's team. Despite extortionate ticket prices, fans flocked to worship their heroes, old and new alike.
Individual player introductions saw fireworks burst into the air; but who would be announced first, Lionel Messi or Neymar?
Both entered the field to a rapturous reception, but it was the Argentinian who stepped onto the pitch before his new teammate. As a mark of his status, he also produced the loudest cheer of them all, as cries of Messi's name rang around the gigantic arena.
Predictably, it was Messi who opened the scoring with four minutes on the clock.
A slick passing move and neat skip around the keeper underlined a match that was only ever ending in one result. Neymar may have started on the bench, but an own goal from Leo and first-half strikes from the exciting team of Alexis Sanchez and Pedro saw Barca, 4-0, up at the break.
Neymar entered proceedings from the restart. He played intelligently, thoughtfully and with the knowledge of an individual who knows he has plenty of work to do in Spain. Cesc Fabregas had already scored before Neymar laid on an excellent assist, setting the Spaniard up for his second of the match.
Although Neymar smashed a shot off the bar, further goals from Adriano and Jean Marie Dongou saw Barca run riot with an 8-0 win.
As a first experience of the Camp Nou, the Gamper match turned out to be a prolific summary of the Barcelona I have enjoyed on television for so many years.
Stylish, free-flowing football destroyed the opposition as a team full of stars turned on the flair. Sure, there wasn't three points up for grabs, but witnessing the beginnings of the Messi/Neymar partnership was a huge pleasure all the same.
I strolled into the night, extremely content with the 90 minutes that had unfolded. Indeed, my entire trip was underlined by a sense of Catalan generosity—be it via the endless array of welcoming smiles, tapas or Barcelona goals.
As with Neymar's successful appearance in front of the delighted home crowd, I hope my Camp Nou debut is followed by many more.
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