BARCELONA -- Rosa Martinez wanted to have a word.
She saw me, in the middle of the tour of Camp Nou, the home of Barcelona's soccer team, reach down to sweep my hand across a swath of the fabled field where some of the world's best play.
As the stout security guard delivered the ``don't touch the grass" mini-lecture, I tried to look chastened, but thought: That was worth it. This was the home of Barça, magical and finally dominant Barça (pronounced BAR-ssa). The rowdy Manchester United fans behind me really understood -- they told me later that I should have grabbed some sod while I was at it.
To Martinez, I apologized and made a play for empathy : ``I bet you have to say that to hundreds of people a day."
She considered, and smiled. ``Thousands of people," she said.
From there, Martinez and I got along. We agreed on the sublime play of the club that would go on to win the Spanish League for the second year in a row and on May 17 beat England's Arsenal, 2-1, in the final of the Champions League, perhaps the most meaningful tournament outside of the World Cup.
We also agreed that Barça's aura was more than football. The team defines a whole region, an individualistic way of thinking, an enormous struggle against Spain's Castilian center. It was an overcast December afternoon, so it may have been the drizzle, but I thought Martinez's eyes were misting when she explained her respect for this place, her love of the team she had followed since she was a girl.
``I'm a Catalan," she told me. ``I'm from here. This is my team, my colors." She spoke in front of the blue leatherette seats in the 98,000-seat stadium where Barça giants like Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto'o sit for a few moments before every home match.
I told her about the Red Sox, from a town in the northeast of my country, always up against a richer, bigger-city rival. An evil empire like Real Madrid, I suggested , the perennial Spanish champions known as the White Devils. The team with superstars David ``Bend It Like" Beckham and Ronaldo. The team that may have its troubles right now, but will always be back to challenge.
Martinez nodded. She totally got it.
Barça's motto is, in Catalan, ``més que un club" -- more than a club. Its players' chapel features a replica of the Black Virgin of Montserrat, a Catalonian pilgrimage destination on a mountain outside Barcelona. For our family tour of Spain (with two soccer-loving teenagers and a going-along-with-it wife), the stadiums of Barça and Real Madrid were at the top of our lists: before the Ramblas, before the Prado, even before Gaudí's sculpted, curvy buildings and his unfinished Temple de la Sagrada Família.
What we discovered was a rivalry that tells a lot about a nation -- and may (gasp!) even surpass our Boston-New York thing.
Even Fenway fans have to give props to Barça's underdog story. Imagine fighting not only George Steinbrenner, but a government that was supporting him. Barça fans say they have had to battle against the real Real Madrid sympathies -- and actions -- by dictators such as Miguel Primo de Rivera and General Francisco Franco , whose troops killed the team's president, Josep Sunyol , during the Spanish Civil War. Franco tried to change the club's name, remove the Catalan flag from its crest, even help pay for a new Madrid stadium and direct, some histories say, the better players to Madrid.
Yet Barça managed a strong run during Franco's early years, and the fevered pitch of soccer may have siphoned off regional resistance to him for decades, with allegiance to Barça standing in for actual political rebellion. ``During Franco, every aspect of Catalan culture was squashed -- except this," said Jack Donahue of Lexington, my host and tour guide, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, who with his family was on a sabbatical at the University of Barcelona.
Together, we walked through Barça's museum, which carries cultural surprises along with banners, trophies, medallions, and big-screen video highlights. Among them: photos of 1920s team members on a rowing excursion with a fan, the distinctively mustachioed Salvador Dalí . Also hanging on the wall is a Barça painting by Joan Miró, featuring the team's colors with the Catalan artist's trademark asterisks and free-floating raindrop eyes. (A poster of this Miró, now framed and hanging in our basement, is among the wallet-draining haul we carried from the extensive stadium store.)
Barça, a club founded in 1899 by foreigners to play an English game, became so integral a part of Catalan culture that its flag also includes the crest of St. Jordi (George), Catalonia's patron saint (and the most common name here for boys). Today, its lineup is dominated by foreigners such as Ronaldinho, a fleet-footed Brazilian with Manny Ramírez locks who is soccer's two-time world player of the year, and Eto'o, the high-scoring striker from Cameroon who brought Barça back from a 1-0 deficit earlier this month against Arsenal, the spirited London team that writer Nick Hornby lionized in his memoir, ``Fever Pitch."
The openness to outsiders makes sense if you understand Barcelona's mercantile history. Barça built the ships that Columbus sailed , and its traders dominated Iberia and parts of Europe and Africa until the rise of the Castilians and their conquistadors, who began carting the riches home from the New World. Even today, cosmopolitan Catalonians are struggling for more autonomy from Madrid. ``To become Catalan," writes Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic, in his book ``How Soccer Explains the World," ``one must simply learn the Catalan language, disparage Castilian Spain, and love Barça."
Late one night in Barceloneta, in a restaurant a block from the Mediterranean, I saw that love. As an accordionist played the team's fight song in a crowded room, a blond 10-year-old from Connecticut, the son of a labor organizer and an English professor working here, was overcome with emotion. He rose to his feet during the song's climax, shouting ``Barça! Barça! BAAAARRRR-ÇA!"
We all totally got it.
Contact David Beard at email@example.com.