Barcelona is 4,685 miles away from Miami, but you wouldn’t have guessed that by the scene Wednesday night at Hard Rock Stadium, which felt like Camp Nou.
Despite the absence of injured FC Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi, a crowd of 57,062 was on hand for an exhibition match against Italian club Napoli. Roughly 90 percent of the fans wore Barca’s iconic maroon and blue stripes and were delighted that the Spanish team won 2-1.
When Sergio Busquets, wearing the captain’s armband, drove in a low shot from distance in the 38th minute to give Barcelona a 1-0 lead, the crowd erupted and began chanting “Barca! Barca!” Newcomer Junior Firpo, a Dominican Republic native making his debut, got the goal started by stealing the ball near midfield and sending it to Riqui Puig, who found Busquets at the top of the box.
Four minutes later, the Napoli faithful had their chance to cheer when Spaniard Jose Callejon got around Firpo, who was filling in for Jordi Alba, and knocked in a left-footed shot that grazed the leg of Barcelona defender Samuel Umtiti. The teams headed into halftime tied 1-1.
Ivan Rakitic scored the game-winner in the 79th minute.
Although Barcelona possessed the ball more, Napoli was dangerous on the counterattack and had a few nice give-and-gos in the box early on that nearly resulted in goals. Lorenzo Insigne took a spot-on shot from about 10 yards out, but Barcelona’s Brazilian goalkeeper Neto made a spectacular save. One minute late, Neto came to the rescue again, stopping a great strike by Dries Mertens.
It was the first of a two-leg exhibition series between the European teams. They play again on Saturday in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the winner by aggregate score earns the inaugural La Liga-Serie A Championship trophy.
Although the players had fun during their stay in Miami, the start of the season is just a few weeks away, so both teams treated the match as serious preseason training. Both coaches used many of their starters, while also getting familiar with new players.
Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde had hoped to integrate newly signed Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong into the attack with Messi, but that will have to wait until they get back to Spain. Luis Suarez and Griezmann started the game and were replaced in the second half by Rafinha and Abel Ruiz. French star Ousmane Dembele came off the bench after intermission and launched a rocket of a shot that ricocheted off the post.
Gerard Piqué, who sat out the match, said he welcomed Griezmann to the team, despite the fact that the Frenchman publicly snubbed a Barcelona offer last summer in a TV special called “The Decision,” in which he announced he was staying with Atletico. He spent five years with Atletico, scoring 133 goals in 257 games. His arrival in Barcelona this summer was met by some sneers from fans.
“He is a great, great player and it’s great news that we have him with us,” Pique said. “What happened in the past no longer matters, if you perform well and you score goals, normally the supporters are always on your side. We hope that he adapts well from the first moment.”
The other big questions surrounding Barcelona as the summer ends is whether the club will unload Philippe Coutinho, and whether Brazilian star Neymar will make a return from Paris Saint-Germain. Pique admitted he would like to have Neymar back.
Several Barcelona fans at Hard Rock Stadium on Wednesday night carried signs urging Neymar to come back.
“I believe that the operation is very complicated, the player belongs to PSG,” Pique said. “I would be delighted to have him here, although it has to be Neymar who has to speak out. Of course we speak with him, but it’s not right to disclose private conversations. It is him that needs to come out and talk. He is a genius inside and outside the pitch, and we wait for updates.”
Although Neymar’s desire to leave Paris and return to Barcelona has been rumored for quite some time, he has not made any public comments on a potential move.
South Florida fans will likely get a chance to see Neymar play on Sept. 6 at Hard Rock Stadium when five-time World Cup champion Brazil faces Colombia in an exhibition match. The last time the teams played in Miami, in 2014, the match drew 73,429 fans, setting an attendance record for a soccer game in Florida.