The jet lag is gone now and so, for the most part, is the Tube cough that I picked up from the not so great air in the London Underground. It was a fast-paced, hectic, often tense ‘holiday.’ Nine days in England and Spain with my 16 year old son to see games. It’s becoming what we do but this one was pretty ambitious. I timed it so we could potentially see all four Champions League semi-finals with the potential to fill in many days with league games. We were never realistically going to see all four semi-final games but we didn’t know which, if any, we would see as we got onto the plane. That was the twist. Every other soccer trip I’ve done, I’ve left with tickets in hand for all the games we planned on seeing.
Chronologically, here’s how it went…
April 29 – Vancouver
This day actually began the night before when I tried to check in for our flight and got a strange message saying I couldn’t and would have to do so at the airport. I started wondering why that would be the case. I knew my passport was fine and I knew my son’s expired in June but had checked and the UK allowed entry as long as you had 30 days left on it after your planned return home. I looked further. Spain did not have the same rule. You needed three months. Shhhiiiittt.
Up early and off to the passport office. “It would really be up to the airline and immigration agent to let you onto the flight or into the country when you land. Can’t guarantee it but we have the ability to do a passport today for you. Just fill out these forms and get back here asap.” Had to boot out to UBC to get my wife to sign off on the passport application and then back downtown. Super helpful woman there then went through them all and got them set up for a quickie passport. Then she asked for Tavish’s current passport and saw that he was 16. “These are the wrong forms. These are for people under 16 years of age.” We looked at each other, her already thinking of a solution, me crestfallen, Tavish fully distraught. “We can do this though. Here’s the adult form, you can be the guarantor. Give me two references we can call and we’ll do our best.”
1.5 hours later we had a passport and were making our way to the airport, arriving in plenty of time. Government offices take a fair bit of flack but I was so impressed by the professionalism and willingness to go the extra mile of the staff there. When I left the pick up window with passport in hand I went back to the people who had made it happen and thanked them individually.
Practical tip: Check your passport before you leave and don’t make assumptions about how long it needs to be valid for.
April 30 – London
Trips like this take an unusual amount of planning. Spurs v Ajax at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was on the day we arrived. We then had a flight to Spain that left the next day. We had arrived at Gatwick and were leaving for Barcelona through there as well. Our trains to and from Gatwick went through Victoria Station so we stayed walking distance from there in Pimlico.
We pushed through the jet lag, dropped our bags in our room and used our Tube day pass to full effect. Tavish knew where he wanted to go. This would be stores like Palace and Supreme in SoHo which because they are so cool are closed far more days than they are open. That was the case for Palace who apparently needed a few days to put their summer stock on shelves. Supreme though was open and had a line and a security guard outside. I let him do his thing and wandered around waiting for a text to let me know he was ready. The mythology around Supreme is mind-blowing if you’re not familiar with it. Tavish now has a pair of purple nylon Supreme pants that cost more than I have ever spent on a pair of pants. His money though so good for him getting something he says he can wear for a few months and then sell for more than he paid (this is a big thing for teens these days).
Game time loomed. We went back to the hotel. We’d got a text from the person who said he might be able to help us get tickets letting us know it wouldn’t be happening. We knew that one was a stretch. We looked online at viagogo.com. Prices starting at GBP 400. We tried Craigslist. One ad for a pair of tickets. GBP 300. Texted offering 300 for the pair. He agreed. Asked us to come to his hotel in Leicester Square. Queue Benny Hill music as get over there by tube, taxi and foot as quickly as we can only to discover it was some kid having a laugh at our expense. No tickets and time wasted. Headed to the stadium to see if we would have better luck.
Spoiler: we didn’t.
Prices held at GBP 400 per ticket even once the game was 15 minutes in and Ajax had already scored. More buyers than sellers and the guys selling were pros and not worried about time ticking by. Ended up being on the same tube back as one once we gave up and talked to the guy. Showed me all the events he was going to the next few months. Must have been more than twenty and they were all over the world. Young guy with several guys in his ‘crew’ working with him. Some scouts for police, some likely security given the money he must have had on him.
So a long 30 hours with nothing but stress and disappointment ended up with us going to bed but not before I went online and made the most extravagant purchase of my life: two tickets for the Barcelona v Liverpool game at the Camp Nou the next day. No way we were going there and not seeing that game. And given our flight got in about 2.5 hours before game time there really wasn’t time to source tickets once we got there.
- The tube in London is awesome. It’s also packed most of the time but trains come every few minutes. Get a day pass. Way more economical than individual tickets and saves you having to buy tickets all the time. Gatwick is a surprisingly good airport. Security is staffed way more than Vancouver (we waited over 30 minutes in line when we left YVR; we were through the whole process in under ten minutes both times we flew out of Gatwick on this trip).
- Buying tickets on Viagogo.com is not pleasant. I found it a deceptive site that didn’t list their fees clearly and did not make it as obvious as it should what currency you were dealing with. At the end as you pay all of a sudden you are paying in Polish Zloty as they are based in Poland. You’re looking for a professional, credible site that gives you confidence in the process when you’re dropping a lot of money in tickets. In the end, I got PDF’s of the tickets right away and there were no issues with them.
- If you’re going to be moving around a lot on a trip like this put a priority on location for your hotel. Your early morning commute to airports and train stations doesn’t need to be complicated by adding 30-60 minutes to the trip because your hotel is nowhere near your departure point. The hotels we stayed in were picked for convenience of location more than anything else. They are not the places I would have booked if I was travelling with my wife. Amenities were irrelevant. We barely spent any time when we were awake in any of them. Comfy bed, decent ratings online and modest prices (the money was all going into tickets) were the criteria.
May 1 to 4: Barcelona
Flight mercifully was not delayed. Having just dropped a serious wad on tickets I was a prime candidate for ending up on the evening news if a flight delay was going to cause us to miss FCB v LFC at the Camp Nou. All good though. Picked up four day Metro passes at the airport, checked in to our hotel 400m from Camp Nou and joined the party. Tens of thousands of people all outside, on the streets, in adjacent parks. Loads of people selling cold Estrella beers on the streets for 2 Euros. Super festive. Got in soon after the gates opened an hour or so before kickoff. Front row of the top tier behind the goal (three tiers behind the goal, five on the main stand on the sideline). Fantastic view of the rest of the stadium and a great tactical view of the game.
View from our seats at Camp Nou for Barcelona vs Liverpool
By the time Messi scored his second on a stunning free kick to make it 3-0, we felt we had experienced what would be the high point of the trip. A crowd of over 98 000, two Messi goals right in front of us on a beautiful night in an iconic stadium. It was what I had talked about wanting the trip to be before we left: Exciting, meaningful games featuring the best players in the world playing in iconic stadiums in great cities. This would be hard to top.
The game was on a Wednesday night so we had two game-free days to see Barcelona before seeing Atletico Madrid playing Espanyol at the Estadi Cornellà-El Prat. That meant a return visit to Futbol Mania, an epic soccer store we’d been to five years earlier, for a needed pair of boots for Tavish and seeing some of the sights. He ended up with some newly released white Copas. If I’d had to convince him to get those instead of an eyeball searing pair of Nikes made of tinfoil and plutonium I’d have considered it a stalemate but he went with the leather Copas. So even though they’re not black that’s just good parenting plain and simple.
Futbol Mania in Barcelona (left) and Tavish with his new laceless, white adi Copas
It’s now much easier to buy tickets for La Liga games online than I remember it being in the past. They generally aren’t available until a week or two before the day the game is being played but you can buy them relatively simply. Getting the Espanyol tickets was no problem and the Metro got us to within a 15 minute walk of the stadium (Barcelona’s Metro is fantastic by the way. We never waited more than three minutes for one and they were always clean and much quieter than London’s).
Action from Espanyol v Atletico Madrid. Griezeman (left) not as popular here as he is in Madrid and France.
This game was a pleasant surprise. Well-designed stadium built ten years ago. Open concourses, great sight lines and tight to the pitch. The fans are unapologetic in their support for the city’s “other” team. We had joked that you never see people wearing Espanyol jerseys in Barcelona and it’s easier to find a Barca jersey there than a bottle of water but Espanyol fans look like they know how to have fun at games. Didn’t hurt that they ended up beating a listless Atleti side 3-0 but it was a really enjoyable game day experience for us and for everyone but the 50 or so Atleti fans who travelled to watch.
More from Espanyol v Atletico Madrid at the Estadi Cornellà-El Prat or RCDE Stadium in Barcelona
Had to race back to the hotel to pick up our bags and head to Barcelona Sants train station to get on the train to Madrid. The high speed trains in Spain are fantastic. It took three hours to get there on a very smooth train that hit 300km/h. Like the rest of Europe for the most part you leave and arrive from a central point in the city. Grabbed a cab, there must have been over fifty waiting to pick up people from our train and others outside the station, and got to our hotel around midnight.
- Go see games where the home team is not a global brand. The supporter culture is very real and there were very few turistas like ourselves there. Same for Getafe v Girona below.
- Even in May, Barcelona was packed with tourists.
May 5 – Madrid
We had tickets for the Getafe v Girona game in the south of Madrid and planned to go straight to the Bernabeu to see about tickets for that knowing that we had a flight that night back to London.
Getting to Getafe was frustrating. I allowed two hours and we still missed close to 30 minutes of the first half mainly due to our journey being interrupted by a closed section on the Metro that forced us above ground and onto a bus to a station that we weren’t planning on going through.
Getafe FC are a great story this year. Formed in 1983 (from the ashes of previous iterations of clubs that had operated there) they had risen from the bottom division and spent all but one of the last ten or so seasons in La Liga Santander (the top division in Spain). Now for the first time they were battling for fourth place and the last berth in Champions League for next season. Their opponents were also battling. They were fourth from the bottom though and trying to stave off relegation. So not exactly a UCL semi-final but still a highly relevant game.
On a beautiful, sunny Sunday morning in the 17000 seat Coliseum Alfonso Pérez, Getafe controlled play after an early goal (that we missed) and then notched a second soon after a Girona red card. The game tailed off after that and Getafe got three points nearer to playing Champions League soccer next season.
Getafe v Girona. One trying to get into Champions League for the first time; the other trying not to get relegated. And yeah, so much for thinking seats in the second row would be a good idea…
Getting to the Bernabeu from Getafe was much simpler than getting to the Getafe stadium. We joined the surprisingly long line for the ticket windows and had a scalper swing by within seconds. Chopped his 300 euro gambit for a pair of good tickets down to 150 very quickly and he escorted me to a nearby bank machine. Tough day for scalpers. Demand for Real tickets seems to have plummeted in light of their poor season and Villareal were not a big draw. The stadium was less than half full. Factor in that Ramos, Bale and Benzema didn’t even dress and the game didn’t have much lustre. That said, it ended up being full of attacking play with those who were playing, especially Marcelo, seeming very loose and wanting to put on a show. Final score was 3-2 Real.
Once again it was a race to get out of the stadium and into a cab to go pick up our bags and get to the airport. We spent 22 hours in Madrid but managed to see two games.
- Barajas Airport in Madrid is excellent in terms of layout, staffing and getting through security quickly
- Getting tickets for both games (one in advance; one at the stadium from a scalper) was easy
- We flew EasyJet back to Gatwick because it was one of the few flights we could do at that time of day back to London. First time flying it. They dinged me $110 for having a back pack in addition to my one carry-on suitcase. It was buried in the terms of the ticket. The cost of the actual ticket was right around $110. Buyer beware.
May 6 – London
Arrived at our hotel near Shoreditch, which has been in the news recently as an example of resistance to gentrification in London. Did another day walking around London sites before getting a fish n chips takeaway and getting to bed fairly early as we had an early bus to Liverpool waiting for us in the morning.
May 7 – Liverpool
As I alluded to, trains are the way to go for inter-city travel in Europe but the only trains we could take that would comfortably get us into Liverpool from London in time for the game were 6-8 times more expensive than the bus so we went with that. It was not enjoyable. Six hours getting to Liverpool with no stops (and no wifi).
This was the game we knew we had the best chance of getting some friend of a friend free tickets for. And after shelling out for tickets in Barcelona, I really wasn’t in a position to splash out again for the return leg. Problem is we wouldn’t know until sometime the day of the game. Finally got the text fours away from game time soon after we’d checked into our Air BnB (hotel prices in Liverpool the night of the game were outrageous). Our tickets were waiting for us. Met up with friend and friend of a friend for a couple of drinks and then jumped in 12 seater van for a two quid ride to Anfield. We were on a total high. The game could have been a nil-nil drabfest and we would have been okay with it. Just seeing those two teams again and being at Anfield for the first time, down low with the Kop looming to our left was enough.
Us and the Kop
But it would be much more than that.
No Salah, no Firmino. Down 3-0 from the first leg. There really wasn’t much reason for Liverpool to be optimistic, be it players or fans.
The combination of atmosphere and comeback in a game this big will likely be something I never experience again. To beat Barcelona 4-0 in a Champions League semi-final when you have to beat them 4-0 is extraordinary.
The Kop was not buying that narrative. Capacity is just over half of what was at Camp Nou. The noise, mainly from the Kop, was relentless. I’ve been to two World Cups, two Euros, EPL games and many other games in Europe, North America and Africa. This was the best in terms of atmosphere. And with each goal Liverpool scored it just intensified three fold. Not only were we spitting distance from the Kop, 14 rows up from the field, but we ended up being at the end where Liverpool scored their second, third and fourth goals. The combination of atmosphere and comeback in a game this big will likely be something I never experience again. To beat Barcelona 4-0 in a Champions League semi-final when you have to beat them 4-0 is extraordinary.
Perhaps the saddest part of the trip was after the game while we were still in the stadium just looking around as the players celebrated on the field. I turned to Tavish and said, “You know you’ll never see a game like this again?”. He quietly replied, “Yeah, I know.” It’s easier to take when you’re in your fifties to know that you won’t see a game like that again. Not so much when you’re sixteen.
We soaked in some of the post-game celebrations on the way back to where we were staying but we were drained and had another bus ride back to London waiting for us in the morning. Our 18 hours in Liverpool had been well spent though.
- Go see a game at Anfield. The bigger the game the better I’m sure but I asked guys behind us if it’s always like that and they said it’s always pretty close to what we saw and heard.
- I don’t use AirBnB much but this one was almost a life saver. Great host and great location
May 8 and 9 – London
As mentioned at the outset, I booked our dates to allow for the possibility of seeing any and all of the semi-finals but with no line on tickets for the Spurs v Ajax game in Amsterdam and the only combo of flights from Manchester to Schiphol and back to Gatwick that would allow us to catch our return flight back to Vancouver clocking in at close to $900 for the two of us by the time a final decision had to be made, it was a no go.
Unable to access my DAZN account in the UK, I had to use a VPN and pay for the game on B/R Live (Bleacher Report). It was the best $3 I’ve spent in a long time. Just as people were recovering from the drama of the Liverpool comeback, Spurs decided to take it a step further. If you know of two games in the same competition, in any sport, that pulled off the same degree of drama that these two games did, let me know. I’d like to see that because Spurs scoring three in the second half away from home with no Harry Kane and the last one coming on the stroke of the five minutes of injury time being up was one-upmanship of the highest order; pure “Hold my beer Liverpool.” It left Tavish and I half shouting, half laughing at the laptop when Spurs scored the goal that makes the Champions League Final an all EPL affair.
- VPN’s come in handy, just not for DAZN
- Hotwire is generally great for booking rooms when you’re not fussy about too much but since you don’t know what you’re getting until after you book (to get the best deals) it can cause a problem if you need to be highly sensitive to location. I tried to get something close to London Bridge Station but ended up a 25 minute tube ride further away than what I thought we’d be. When you’re on your fourth or fifth day of being in a different city each day and getting ready to head home. I should just have splurged a bit and got a hotel much closer to where we had to be in the morning.
- Train service to Gatwick is excellent and really no longer than taking the tube to and from Heathrow. There’s no advantage to buying these tickets online ahead of time though
We flew home the next morning. I’ve done a few of these dedicated soccer trips now starting with the World Cup in 2014 but for all previous ones I had tickets for all the games we planned to see in my hands before we left. For this one, of the six games we hoped to see, I only had tickets for two (Espanyol v Atleti and Getafe v Girona). We ended up seeing five as we couldn’t get in to Spurs v Ajax in London and that was enough numbers-wise and more than enough quality-wise. Tavish is not prone to hyperbole at all but his Instagram posts after the Camp Nou and Anfield games were “best two hours of my life” and “life changing” respectively. I’d have to agree with him. The two legs of the Liverpool-Barca tie will go down as being among the most memorable in Champions League history – and we saw both of them.