The commentator for the Barcelona and Las Palmas game in matchday seven of La Liga noted that in a perverse way, playing in an empty Nou Camp was the best chance the visiting side would have to get a result. It was 46 years ago when Las Palmas last won at Barcelona, and here they were without the energy and advantage of the home crowd. The image of unfilled space brought into question why the match was scheduled, weeks in advance, on the day of the Catalan independence referendum in the first place. Barcelona vice president Carles Vilarrubi resigned to protest playing the match. Las Palmas responded to the events by embroidering a Spanish flag to their uniforms in a show of unity.
Regardless Las Palmas striker Jonathan Calleri kicked off in front of the empty stadium, with the “Mes que un club” graphic written in the seats in clear view. As if the silence weren’t obvious, the emptiness brought the space back to its very essence. Without supporters filling the seats, we’re only left with markings and symbols. A Nike logo in the upper seats was visible on goal kicks. It was a reminder of the inherent tension between the authenticity of the supporter owned club and the financial resources needed to be competitive on a global level. Club president Josep Bartomeu stated his ambition to turn the Barcelona into the first billion dollar side in the world by appealing to an international market. Even renaming the Camp Nou is up for grabs. .
Back to the match. Sending out a 4-3-3 formation, Barcelona made three changes to their usual lineup with Paulinho, Aleix Vidal and Denis Suarez replacing Andres Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic and the now injured Ousmane Dembele. The changes in midfield and attack showed off the new found depth on manager Ernesto Valverde’s roster, a positive development with much of the preseason analysis of his side focusing on how thin they appeared when compared to Real Madrid.
On the other side, it was Pako Ayestaran’s debut as Las Palmas manager after taking charge from Manolo Marquez. Ayestaran came to the public eye as the main assistant for Rafa Benitez’s Valencia and Liverpool sides, then achieved infamy by being the worst manager in Valencia history during a six month stint last year where he got just 10 points from 12 matches. He took over a Las Palmas side stuck in 15th place. It was a far cry from just a season ago when the Canary Islands side were the surprise team in Spain with an entertaining possession style to match. Though success proved a double edge sword, with manager Quique Setien leaving for Real Betis and Roque Mesa for Swansea over the summer. Bring on Ayestaran.
The match began as one would expect between a first place side and one near relegation. By the time Oussama Tannane took his side’s first shot on target in the 24th minute, Barcelona already had eight. But then, for a 20 minute stretch to end the first half, Ayestaran’s side controlled possession as they did last season and created better chances resulting in Calleri hitting a post in the 43rd minute. In his post-match interview, Valverde admitted his side struggled to focus with the lack of atmosphere.
Calleri, the Boca Juniors and West Ham striker, highlighted how Las Palmas build their sides with their combination of castoffs, loans and youth academy. Captain Jonathan Vieira is well known after last season’s output, but who knew 34 year old Alberto Aquilani was still playing, much less starting at the base of midfield of their 4-2-3-1? His midfield partner Hernan came through the side’s youth and reserve ranks by contrast. Keeper Leandro Chichizola began his career at River Plate and moved to Serie B before signing in Spain last summer. Tannane was released from a club in the Eredivisie before being loaned out to his current side from Saint Etienne. And they have Loic Remy to call on as well. The final 3-0 scoreline was harsh considering they controlled possession in the first half by 53-47. Ayestaran observed his side could take positives away from the first 45 minutes, especially on short notice.
The introduction of Iniesta for Vidal to start the second half returned control back to Barcelona. His comfort on the ball stood out in the silence. The midfielder’s gift is not only in the obvious of ball retention and creating chances. But there was also the lack of opportunities and transitions chances Las Palmas had in the second half due to Iniesta controlling tempo and slowing down the game for Barcelona. He took Calleri, the visitor’s most dangerous player in the first half, out of the game by not giving the ball away.
One wonders how a full stadium in another time would have celebrated Sergio Busquets headed goal in 49th minute, his first league goal in three seasons. It was vintage, possession Barcelona from there. Messi added a goal in the 70th and 77th minute, both assisted by Luis Suarez. To cap off the scrimmage-like atmosphere, Suarez ripped his shirt after missing a chance in injury time, then walked into the stands and watched the final two minutes as a spectator. Gerard Pique called the match his “worst experience as a professional.”
In answering why the game was played returns the discussion back to the on-field competition, namely points. Barcelona would have been docked an extra three points on top of the three points they would lost from forfeit had they chosen not to pay. For Las Palmas, gaining a result could be the difference between staying in the top division another season. For Barcelona, it could be the difference between winning the league. The table stands now seven wins in seven matches for Barcelona, and already with a five point lead over second place Sevilla.
Yet there will always be an unease in analyzing the match in the future. The emptiness at the Camp Nou stripped soccer down to its essence: players passed, dribbled, tackled and yelled. Communication cut through the silence, whether through pleading for penalties or demanding teammates create passing lanes. As was so carefully considered when Atletico Madrid built their new stadium, an atmosphere elevates a simple series of movements into meaning and higher stakes. Storylines are created for those 90 minutes until the final whistle blows, then it’s back to reality. And all that remains from that October match are two teams, three points won and lost and the final tally at the end of the season.