This is a genuinely inspiring competition

It is a sunny Saturday afternoon at La Masia, Barcelona’s famous youth academy, and one of the Spanish giant’s youth teams are busy demolishing another side from the city 8-1.

The opposition has plenty of support from the stands, and when they do get their goal, with the last kick of the game, an enormous roar goes up.

Merely scoring against Barcelona is something to write home about, when you are taking on an academy that has nurtured the talents of players like Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Xavi, Pep Guardiola and, of course, Lionel Messi.

I was privileged enough to get a taste of Barcelona football club this weekend, as I travelled to Catalonia, courtesy of La Liga.

We visited the Camp Nou, Barcelona’s cathedral of a 100 000-or-so seater stadium, which also contains a quite dazzling museum, literally, with all the shiny trophies Barcelona have won inside it.

On display are (most likely replicas of) all five of Barcelona’s Uefa Champions League trophies, as well as a corner dedicated entirely to Messi and his five Ballon d’Ors.

At La Masia, we got to witness Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona press conference, the day before they went out and hammered Real Betis 5-0 in Sevilla, to maintain an 11-point lead at the top of La Liga.

We also caught a glimpse of the first team’s training session, where I picked up an interesting titbit of information. Barcelona, apparently, do their physical work on a different side of the training pitch than their tactical training, so as not to upset the perfect alignment of the grass for practicing their perfect passing football. By such extra measures, I guess, is elite sporting success achieved.

During the trip, we also took in a top flight match, a game between Barcelona’s other LaLiga side, Espanyol, and Sevilla (pictured above) at the RCDE Stadium, Espanyol’s new ground, which was opened in 2009.

Espanyol, founded in 1900, just a year after Barcelona, have their own rich history in Spanish fotball, that includes winning four Copa Del Reys and reaching two Uefa Cup finals, in 1998 and 2007.

At the moment, Espanyol are on a marketing drive to get their brand better known in the emerging territories – they have a  Chinese president, Chen Yansheng, who took over the club in 2016.

Espanyol were also close to playing a pre-season tournament in South Africa in 2017, and though that competition fell through for contractual reasons, speaking to their marketing department, they still appear keen to make a trip to South Africa happen.

LaLiga are planning a tournament in South Africa this year as part of the Nelson Mandela centenary celebrations, and who knows, maybe Espanyol could be one of the teams involved.

On the day of the match we attended, Sevilla were simply too good for Espanyol, winning 3-0, with Pablo Sarabia and Luis Muriel netting brilliant individual goals.

The most heart-warming part of my trip to Catalonia, however was undoubtedly bearing witness to La Liga Genuine, a league created entirely for people with intellectual disabilities.

On a bright Sunday morning in Salou (the sun seems to shine permanently in Catalonia), about an hour-and-a-half’s drive outside Barcelona, parents and supporters cheered with gusto the teams who are participating in the competition, which completed its second phase this weekend.

18 sides from La Liga’s structures have signed up, including the likes of Atletico Madrid and Valencia, in La Liga Genuine’s first year, with the hope that far more will join for the next edition.

The teams, which are both single-sex and mixed, are all kitted out in the colours of their respective clubs. Part of the prerequisite of participation in the competition is that these teams are treated by their clubs like any other team.

To see the enthusiasm of these players and the way they embraced the spirit of the game in its truest sense (the competition also carries an award for fair play, as much as for the winning team) was truly inspiring.

It is good to see a league as high-profile as La Liga, along with its clubs, putting money and time into social projects like this.

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