That’s Catalan for a comeback, an act of overcoming a substantial disadvantage. We use the Catalan word here because this particular story is set in Catalonia. The comeback we speak of here is the most epic comeback across any sport. But looking beyond the sport and its protagonists, this is a story of the strength of the human spirit.
Just over a year back, on the 9th of March 2017, Europe’s largest stadium was filled to the brim with almost a 100,000 screaming football fans, all there to witness FC Barcelona host Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) in the knockout rounds of the Champions League.
The task ahead was supposedly impossible. It had never been done before.
‘Yes, we can!’ rang all around the majestic Camp Nou stadium, echoing the words made famous by erstwhile US president, Barack Obama. There was a sense of hope, a tingling excitement teasing the air, but nothing could have suggested the extraordinary events that were to unfold.
For the uninitiated, Champions League is the Holy Grail, the highest level of football, featuring the finest elite footballers on the planet. The World Cup comes by once every four years, but the Champions League runs through the year, every year. Group stages lead up to knockout ties, that eventually reach the grand final.
Knockout ties play out over two legs, a home game and an away game; one at their own stadium, one at the opponents’ stadium. So a goal scored away from home holds utmost importance, as we shall soon find out.
In this case, Barcelona first travelled to Paris, suffered an embarrassing away-defeat, shipping in four goals without reply. 0-4! It was a Valentine’s Day massacre in the city of love. They were abject and rudderless, and conceded four goals for the first time in several years.
That meant that in the return leg, they would have to score at least four goals without conceding any (4-4 on aggregate), to take the contest to extra time. However, if PSG managed to score even once (4-5 on aggregate), that vital away goal for them would mean Barcelona would then need to score two more goals to win the tie (6-5), as a (5-5) aggregate would see the Parisians through.
‘As long as there is a 1% chance, we have 99% faith’, said Brazilian star-forward Neymar, in the aftermath of the Paris debacle. Words of encouragement to rouse his teammates up.
Critics and pundits joined the media in slamming Barcelona for their disastrous performance, with a comeback deemed impossible. Some did, however, cede that if there was a team capable of this kind of a comeback, it was this Barcelona team, featuring one of the greatest attacking tridents in footballing history, MSN.
Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar Jr., together formed one of the most lethal attacking forces witnessed in football, a footballing force so strong that it brought back an ancient messaging tool from the ‘90s back into parlance.
However, shockwaves from that fateful evening in Paris were felt for weeks after, culminating in an announcement by the manager, Luis Enrique, that he would be stepping down from his Head Coach position at the end of the season. A week after announcing his departure, he briefed the media in another presser on the eve of the big game. ‘If they can score four, we can score six!’ he said. Few believed him.
Barcelona pressed from the go, backed by a raucous Camp Nou; the home crowd-support effectively playing as a 12th man. Three minutes in and Suarez harried in the Parisians’ penalty box, and managed to nudge the ball inside the goal. (1-0 and 1-4 on aggregate)
Halfway through the first half, midfield magician Andres Iniesta flicked a back-heel into the area, that got turned in by PSG’s Kurzawa into his own net. (2-0 and 2-4 on aggregate)
The second half began pretty much like the first one, with Barcelona pressing intently, and duly won a penalty in the 50th minute, when Neymar was tripped in the area. Messi stepped up and smashed the ball in from 12 yards. (3-0 and 3-4 on aggregate)
This was looking ominous for Barcelona and suddenly the crowd was getting ready for an epic night of celebration when horror struck. You could hear a pin drop in Camp Nou as Edinson Cavani smashed a volley into the Barcelona net to score a precious away goal for PSG, and silence the whole stadium. (3-1 on the night and 3-5 on aggregate)
The Parisians celebrated like they had won the championship. This, they knew, was the killer blow. Barcelona had been deflated. They now needed to score three goals without reply, and time was running out. A couple more half-chances for PSG had the whole stadium skipping beats, as PSG grew surer and surer about their chances.
Eighty eight minutes. Two minutes of regular time remained, plus whatever few minutes the referee deemed fit. Neymar was tripped 25 yards from goal, and Barcelona was awarded a free-kick.
Messi, the default free-kick taker, realized that it was probably a better angle for Neymar, a natural right-footed player.
Boom! Neymar sent the ball in the top left corner, or as the Spanish phrase has it, where spiders spin webs between post and the bar. (4-1 on the night and 4-5 on aggregate)
It was a peach of a free-kick, probably the finest bit of footballing skill that evening, but there remained a sense of consolation about it. That feeling only lasted a minute or so before Suarez was tripped in the area, and the referee pointed at the spot once more.
Again, Messi, the default penalty-kick taker saw momentum with Neymar, and swiftly prodded him towards the spot. Neymar took his now characteristic stuttering run-up before slotting the ball to the right of the keeper. (5-1 on the night, and 5-5 on aggregate)
Camp Nou was now erupting with noise and the crowd got behind the team firmly, egging their players with each kick. The referee had awarded five minutes of injury time to be added and every second would only grow louder.
Into the last minute of the allotted five minutes, and the brave goalkeeper Marc Andre ter Stegen also left his goal and joined in on the attack, in a last-bid desperate move. Clearing the ball, he was tripped, and Neymar promptly took a free kick that hit the wall and came back at him. With seconds to go, Neymar chipped a delightful lob into the area, where Spanish right-back Sergi Roberto lunged to get his foot to the ball mid-air.
For a moment, everything froze as one could hear the sound of the ball hitting the back of the net.
Camp Nou erupted in a frenzy. Wild celebrations broke out everywhere, with men, women and children of all ages jumping and screaming, unable to comprehend what their eyes had just witnessed. Commentators lost their voices, fans lost their minds, and you had to feel for poor PSG.
Their players just sank to the turf, defeated and humiliated.
Ask any football lover where they were that night, and they will recall what bar or what city they were in when the Remuntada was carried out. When the crowd shook the earth.
Less than a mile from the Camp Nou is Jaume Almera Institute of Earth Sciences (ICTJA-CSIC)
The match winning goal from Sergi Roberto led to a recording of 1.0 on the Richter scale, officially making it a micro-earthquake.
When the sixth went in, Lionel Messi leapt into the fans, that moment captured in this iconic image, holding his heart and screaming with the fans. It did eventually travel around the world in the coming days, but for once, he wasn’t the hero. It was Neymar who engineered this turnaround and brought Barcelona back from the dead, twice.
Things are very different over a year from then. Neymar was snapped up by PSG the following summer, when they paid his release clause of $222 million, shaking up European football in the process. That remains the highest ever transfer fee paid for any player.
Neymar was the hero that night, undoubtedly. But Messi’s iconic image took all the headlines. Did this plant the seeds of doubt in Neymar’s mind, that prompted him to leave for Paris in the summer? We can only surmise.
What we do know is that for a brief moment, nothing mattered and nothing seemed impossible.
Watching replays of the game later, it seemed as if the entire PSG team just froze in the last minutes and could only watch helplessly as the Blaugrana sent wave after wave in attack.
In the last seven minutes and 17 seconds of the game, Barcelona scored three times. While on the flip side, a terrified PSG completed only four passes after the 85th minute, and three of them were kickoffs after conceding goals.
I remember where I was that night. At home, in my apartment, with my roommate. He could only watch in wonder as I screamed with joy and danced over every square-inch of floor space. Fortunate to experience such intense moments, that night I cried.
Central defender, Gerard Pique summed up the mood after the game. Blowing kisses to his girlfriend Shakira, he winked at the cameras and said, ‘There will be a lot of love made tonight’.
Written by filmmaker, photographer, sports enthusiast, shantanu. When not shooting documentaries, Shantanu spends most of his time in nature, away from the hustle-bustle of the cities. He lives in the forest, yet within Bombay.