When Barcelona took the stage to face the A-League All Stars on Wednesday night they were met with a spectacle worthy of a grand final. Flames and fireworks ignited as Barça chants echoed around Accor Stadium. For a moment, as the players lined up, the Catalans in their signature blue and maroon and the home side in their Madrid-esque white and gold, it was easy to forget that this was a friendly.
The reality was a little less romantic. Still fresh from a 2-0 end-of-season defeat to Villarreal, the travelling side had been on Australian soil for barely 36 hours before kick-off. Their opposition had been frantically assembled from the pool of players not involved in this weekend’s A-League Men grand final. The group, coached by Dwight Yorke, managed to train as a team just twice.
Nevertheless, the match was marketed as an exhibition of footballing excellence and the fans came in their droves – a touch over 70,000 were in the stands in what was the biggest turnout at a sporting event in Sydney since the Covid-19 pandemic began.
Coach Xavi had promised the best of Barça and his line-up did not disappoint; Ousmane Dembélé, Sergio Busquets and Dani Alves all started as promised, with the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Jordi Alba and Frenkie de Jong featuring off the bench.
The game itself, which on paper should have been a cakewalk for Barcelona – despite the rigours of the trip at the end of a long, hard season of top-flight European football – proved a decent contest and the makeshift All-Stars team, featuring a healthy dose of young blood, made a good impression on the visitors in the 3-2 defeat.
“I have to congratulate them because they played so good, so good,” Xavi said afterwards. “I think it was the main goal that everybody enjoyed [it], especially the supporters. Tactically, very good. They played really well, defend really well, they create chances in transition and the counter-attack, we suffered a lot, especially in the second half. Technically, so good. It’s a good level today.”
Before the smoke from the opening festivities had settled, a lobbed ball from Busquets to Alves provided fans with glimpses of what Barça were capable of, and when Dembele opened the scoring in the 33rd minute the match shaped as a one-sided affair.
But the All Stars did not roll over and, despite striker Jason Cummings admitting at half-time that his team were “chasing shadows”, a goal from Reno Piscopo soon after the re-start put the home side back into the game. Yorke had predicted his team would be able to capitalise on the lethargy and fatigue of the jet-lagged side; it proved prophetic as Adama Traoré pounced to finish off a wonderful team move to put the hosts in front.
The lead would not last long as a wounded Barcelona hit back, first through the other Adama Traoré – who coincidentally shares the name of the All-Stars goalscorer – and then 19-year old starlet Ansu Fati, who sealed victory for the Catalans.
Fati, like the equally impressive Gavi, appears to have the world at his feet, but they were not be the only teenagers to impress on the night. Seventeen-year-old Central Coast Mariners striker Garang Kuol, with less than three hours of professional football under his belt, troubled the Barça defence all night, and nearly put the All-Stars 3-1 up following a blistering solo run before cracking an upright in the closing stages of the game.
“I can be there one day, that’s the main thing,” Kuol said after the match, saying it had been a childhood dream of his to play against Barcelona.
For others at Accor Stadium, the prospect of watching on from the stands was enough to make Wednesday evening a must-see event.
“I just got back from a work trip in Darwin, I had to leave my bags in Sydney airport storage to make it here in time,” one fan at the ground, Muthanna Qasim, said. “I’m not even a Barca fan, but I couldn’t miss this.”
The 70,174-strong crowd figure was substantially higher the 10,000 or so spectators that attended the A-League semi-finals last weekend, as the competition continues its perennial struggle to convert the clear pulling power of the game into eyeballs on the domestic league.
“For 70,000 people to turn up, as the head coach in my first debut, it was simply amazing,” Yorke, the new Macarthur FC coach, said. “I didn’t think it was going to be this good.
“You can see the talent is on show. A lot of people didn’t see these players [before], they had a great platform, and hence that’s why the fans need to come out and support the A-League a little bit more.
“After that kind of performance tonight, surely that should be encouraged for every Australian fan around the place to make sure they come out and support their local team?
“[This] shows how popular football is in this country. It just takes Barca to bring it out.”