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Barcelona to Miss Camp NOU Advantage This Season as Europe’s Largest Soccer Stadium is Overhauled

Beyond courting and developing some of the world’s top talent, Barcelona has also based its success on a strong home advantage thanks to Europe’s largest soccer stadium.

That will be different this season, when the team plays at a smaller, less accessible stadium while its 99,000-seat Camp Nou undergoes a complete facelift that won’t be finished for at least three years.

Barcelona will spend its time away from Camp Nou at the Lluís Companys Olympic Stadium, which can hold 49,000 people. That will surely translate to a quieter, less intimidating atmosphere for rivals, as well as less revenue for a club still battling severe financial problems.

Some 35,000 people turned out for Barcelona’s first game at its temporary home on Tuesday, against Tottenham in a friendly that the club uses to present its team for the upcoming campaign. That’s compared to the 83,000 who showed up at Camp Nou for the equivalent game on year ago.

Coach Xavi Hernández took the microphone to address the crowd that watched his team beat Tottenham 4-2. He asked them to hang in there.

“We have the same motivation as last season. But this season will not be easy. It will be an atypical season. We won’t be at our home,” Xavi told the stadium. “We will need you more than ever, need your support, your solidarity, your sacrifice. It is important that you make us feel like we were at Camp Nou.”

While Barcelona has proven beatable at home in recent years, there was a time not too long ago when it was nearly invincible at Camp Nou. With Lionel Messi and company at their best, Barcelona went more than seven years without losing a Champions League home game between September 2013 and December 2020. During that stretch it was also rare for the team to lose a Spanish league game when it was playing in front of its fans.

Only 17,000 club members bought season tickets for this campaign, far from the 27,000 that club president Joan Laporta had hoped for. And that was after the club responded to criticism from fans and slashed the initial season ticket prices by half. The rest of the seats will be sold on a game-by-game basis.

Last season, the club sold 83,000 season tickets to its club members and had an average turnout that was roughly the same. The top turnout for a single game last season was the 95,000 who saw Barcelona beat Real Madrid 2-1 in a match that put the team on its way to winning the Spanish league title.

Barcelona opens the Spanish league season away at Getafe on Sunday. It will then play its first home game against Cádiz on Aug. 20.

The stadium that featured in 1992 Summer Olympics is not without its attractions. It sits atop the Montjuïc hill which provides spectacular views of the city, and has other lures particularly for tourists, including parks, an Olympic museum, and an art museum. Barcelona’s crosstown rival Espanyol played at the Olympic Stadium from 1997-2009 while it was building its new stadium.

But many local fans consider the Olympic Stadium harder to get to than Camp Nou, which is within easy walking distance from nearby subway stations.

Even Laporta had to admit that “going up to Montjuïc is inconvenient, but it doesn’t seem like a large one to me.”

To help fans avoid the hike up the hill there will be shuttle buses to help ticket holders reach the stadium.

The club has also upgraded the Olympic Stadium’s facilities, including putting a cover over its athletics track and giving its changing rooms a makeover.

Perhaps more importantly for Barcelona in the mid-term, the time away from Camp Nou will mean a financial blow to a club that is struggling to reduce a massive debt of some 1.3 billion euros ($1.4 billion). That figure does not include the loan commitments the club has taken on to remodel its stadium.

The club said that the rental cost of the municipal stadium will run between 15-20 million euros ($16.5-$22 million) for the season. In April, Laporta said that playing away from Camp Nou will leave a hole of around 93 million euros ($102 million) in the club’s accounts between the rent paid and the lower revenues. Laporta has said the club is trying to cash in on its recent league title and the Champions League success of its women’s team to lock up new sponsors to make up for the shortfall. Its women’s team, however, is still set to play at its much smaller stadium outside the city.

Unlike rival Real Madrid, which took advantage of the pandemic to renovate its Santiago Bernabéu when health restrictions prohibited the public from attending games anyway, Barcelona’s plans to overhaul Camp Nou have been delayed for years. They finally got underway this summer when crews started demolishing parts of it.

Barcelona hopes to be able to return to playing games at Camp Nou in November 2024. The new-look stadium will seat 105,000 people and have better retail services to further boost game-day revenues. Work, however, is expected to continue on the stadium into 2026, meaning that attendance will still be reduced until then. The entire project has required Barcelona to secure 1.45 billion euros ($1.6 billion) in backing from multiple investors.

Source : AP