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It's February! At last. Are we all ok? Congratulations. You made it.

I survived the dregs of January by taking myself on a beltin’ bop around Spain, a week-long fill-your-boots-with-sunshine-before-you’re-dragged-kicking-and-screaming-back-to-the-hole excursion which culminated a Champions League match between Barcelona Femení and Eintracht Frankfurt.

It was fucking ace, thanks for asking, and yes, I am chuffed as anything to be back in the hole. Thanks for asking.

Oh well, mercifully I’ve occasion to use my imagination to jump straight back in there while I tell you what I thought of the experience of watching Europe’s best club team in real life.


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The Bestest?

This week, I've been thinking about the fun or otherwise of a thrashing after Leeds United Women beat bottom-tier team Brighouse Town Juniors 20-1 in the West Riding County Cup. Barcelona often find themselves on the fun side of a large scoreline. After four games, this is how the Blaugrana’s Champions League record looked:

Barcelona 5-0 Benfica
Eintracht Frankfurt 1-3 Barcelona
Rosengard 0-6 Barcelona
Barcelona 7-0 Rosengard

And this is supposed to be the elite competition, where the best of the best fight each other to be the bestest best. Well, Barcelona are starting to make a mockery of the tournament, as all the other bests look average next to them.
I really wanted to see the Barça girlies in action, naturally with a special interest in Keira Walsh and Lucy Bronze's overseas adventures. Walking around the city in the days before the match, I thought, yeah, alright. This life’s for me. January temperatures in the teens, terraces, patatas bravas on every street corner? That’s before I get to tank-top training under the sun day-in-day-out with the best football club in Europe.

In an interview she gave the BBC back when she joined the Catalonia club in the summer of 2022, Bronze described her new life as “not too shabby”. Devastatingly, she goes on to praise the “unbelievable” Spanish national side who would break her heart the following summer, noting that all that good football starts at Barcelona, where many of the top Spanish players ply their trade. “I wanna play with these [world class] players, I wanna get better, and I want to win trophies,” Bronze explained.

Nothing to do with the potatoes, then? Each to their own.

While checking out Casa de Lucy was a strong motive, I wasn’t thrilled by the idea of watching Barça show up and turn over some hapless European club comprising two uncapped internationals for each of the hosts’ Spanish World Cup winners.
'Men against boys’ is no more fun to watch than play. Two years ago, I saw England put 20 past Latvia at Doncaster’s Keepmoat Stadium. The match was most memorable for the unusual image of four players — Lauren Hemp, Alessia Russo, Beth Mead, and Ellen White — holding ‘the’ match ball you are awarded for getting a hat-trick, and for White celebrating her historic 47th goal which made her the highest scoring England player.

But I couldn’t tell you now what that record-breaking goal looked like, or any of the other 19. Goals aren’t remarkable without challenge. I think that’s what made England’s 4-0 semi-final win over Sweden so special. It hit the sweet spot, the Lionesses looking dominant against some genuinely fierce opponents. Alessia Russo wouldn’t have needed the initiative and creativity that made her iconic goal if the other side would accept a simple tap-in.

This is what I wanted from my trip to Estadi Johan Cruyff. Enough pushback to make a good game, enough Barça goals to generate a little fiesta. As the only side to have bagged against Barcelona in the competition so far, Eintracht Frankfurt looked the most formidable contenders.
This is especially important when seated in a corner of the stadium since, being some distance from the far goal, an imbalanced match condemns you to a full half of squinting and guessing. On arriving at the ground, I was relieved to find I wasn’t the only fan who had brought binoculars, which might have become an essential Culer accessory since Barcelona developed their taste for thrashings.

Barcelona were easy to watch through binoculars as they tend to progress play through limited, magnifiable pockets of the pitch, Keira Walsh’s long sprays passed up for the ol’ tiki-taka made famous by Pep Guardiola’s Barça side. Anyone who has ever played piggy in the middle with their older cousins know how cruel this feels, but it’s great to watch and demands infrequent zooming in and zooming out.

I was surprised it took the hosts so long to get off the mark but, when Patri Guijarro put Barça in the lead after nineteen minutes, I imagined the onslaught would begin. Since Barcelona didn’t make loads of chances, I was just as happy training my binoculars on the fans in the stands as the action on the pitch.

Behind one of the goals was an enclave of loud and colourful fans single-handedly holding up the atmosphere of the 6,000-seater stadium. It was just as fun to hear chants familiar from Wembley, Elland Road, even Histon’s Glassworld Stadium, repurposed in a different language, as it was to experience a host of different match-going habits. I particularly enjoyed the participatory pre-match roll-call. In the UK, the stadium announcer calls out the starting eleven and benches to the response of cheers. Here in Spain, the PA offered only the first names, relying on the crowd to fill in the rest.
This penchant for a call and response persisted into the second half. Suddenly the stadium fell silent as some of the band of drum-beating, flag-waving, cha-cha-ing supporters behind the goal travelled to the other side of the stadium to set up a more complex performance of choreographed support. As the diehards shouted at each other across the length of the pitch, more fans were brought into the fold as it was easier for voices from all four corners to join in.

I was surprised that the wee Estadi Johan Cruyff wasn’t packed to the rafters. In 2022, the people of Barcelona broke the world record for attendance at a women’s football match twice in two months, and the 91,648 supporters who showed up to Camp Nou when the Blaugrana beat Wolfsburg 5-1 still hold it.

Now, Spain have just won the World Cup, and Barcelona residents have one of the best domestic sides there has ever been right on their doorstep. They ought to be knocking the door down, but the crowd for the Frankfurt match was some way short of full capacity. What's that about?

None of the 4,842 fans who turned up were given much to get out of their seats for. Caroline Graham Hansen doubled Barcelona’s lead in the second half, and Lucy Bronze missed three good chances to score a goal, but that didn’t stop fans chanting her name as she plonked herself down on the ground, not injured, just resting, while Frankfurt forward Tanja Pawollek could have done with a little cheering up as her knee was assessed for what turned out to be, yep, an ACL tear.
In 18 months in Catalonia, Bronze has become a local superstar. This week, in a great interview on YouTube with sports producer Ellie Collins Bronze explained that when her sister and mum had taken her West Highland terrier Narla out for a walk on the streets of Barcelona, the Instagram-famous pup had been recognised even without her global superstar dog-mum at the other end of the lead.

This is a dream which Bronze has talked talked about for some time. Apparently, she always used to tell her mum and agent that she’d go and play for Barcelona one day, retire there, then open a bar in the city and just chill out. Back then, there was only Leo Messi — the women’s side wasn’t much to write home about.

What a bonus for her, then, getting all the fun of sunshine, beaches and siestas, while also lining up next to some of the best football players in the world.
Barcelona had been revelling in the lengthy streak of back-to-back wins befitting of European champions… until Wednesday, when a dead rubber Champions League match against Benfica played out in a way that no one expected.

Both teams were already through, but that didn’t stop them putting on the kind of end-to-end spectacle I had hoped for with my visit to the Estadi Johan Cruyff. Seemingly putting the finishing touches on a near-flawless start to their Champions League campaign, Barça were 2-0 up inside twenty minutes. In the twenty that followed, though, Benfica had forced Barcelona to concede more goals than they have in their last five Champions League games put together and, by half time, the sides were tied.

When Caroline Graham Hansen gave Barça the lead again shortly after the break, the hosts responded and then some, and it was Lucy Bronze who was forced by a nasty whipped-in corner to concede a catastrophic own goal, putting Benfica 4-3 up with just ten minutes left to play.

Bronze can’t stand losing. In her interview with Ellie Collins, Bronze bigged up her time spent playing in America with North Carolina Tar Heels because people were finally recognising and encouraging the competitive spirit that she previously had to suppress when she was playing in the UK.
For the player who claimed to once boast a three-year undefeated streak in small-sided training games, imagine Bronze’s horror when her own goal threatened to put Barcelona’s insane run of matches without defeat at risk. Frustration grew in injury time when her composed first-time volley from the edge of the box looked worthy of rescuing the situation, before Benfica ‘keeper Lena Pauels kept it out.

But where there’s a Bronze, there’s a way, and increasingly these days the solution is coming from her bonce. She celebrated vigorously as, with the last action of the game, her header from a corner sailed into the back of the net to settle a draw for Barça.

I miss her. Any chance of her bringing that fabulous head back to the UK any time soon?

“I don’t know if I can take those cold nights. I’ve become a bit of a princess for the sunshine,” she confessed. I don’t blame you babes.

Things I dig this week

Quote of the Day

"Obviously she's Swiss, aye, so you can't two-times her or you won't understand" Rachel Daly lifts the lid on the life that 16 million men or more dream of — having Aston Villa teammate Alisha Lehmann in her DMs.

Asked by the BBC who has the worst group chat etiquette, Daly revealed that her biggest ick was the length of Lehmann's voice notes. Hard to believe that someone who released a 2024 calendar featuring 12 photos of herself likes the sound of her own voice.

Hero of the Hour

Rachel Daly spoke more fondly of one person who was "my rock" as she grieved her dad back in 2021. Only weeks ago, Sam Kerr was publicly waxing lyrical about the same person after her ACL injury left her dependent on support of her pal and Chelsea teammate: "Don't know what I would have done without my Millie B last few days. Been absolute nurse queen."

Millie Bright: will head a brick back and see you through the toughest times.

Coming Up

  • Thursday — the final round of Champions League group games
    • teams in Group A and Group B will play out four dead rubbers, with qualification and places in each groups already sewn up.
  • Saturday & Sunday — 12 x Women's Super League contests
  • Wednesday — the FA Women's Continental Tyres League Cup Quarter-Finals
    • the fixture to look out for here is Arsenal v London City Lionesses
      • ....yep, that's Caitlin Foord and Katie McCabe's Gunners against Ruesha Littlejohn's Lionesses. Round two 🔔
      • London City Lionesses are one of just two Championship sides still in the competition. If they pull off the scalp, we'll never hear the end of it from Rue.
Got summat to say? I would love to hear about football games you've been to abroad, the Millie Bright rock in your life, experiences of thrashing or being thrashed, and anything else that has got your mind ticking in this week's newsletter. Send me a message at [email protected] or just hit reply at the top there 🤘🏼

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