Keyanna Kelley could only describe the atmosphere inside FC Barcelona’s famous Camp Nou stadium as “breathtaking.”
It was Sunday, March 18, and first-place Barcelona was hosting Athletic Bilbao in a critical Spanish league match. Among the 82,312 spectators who watched Lionel Messi and company cruise to a 2-0 victory was a group of high school girls’ soccer players from Washington, along with their trip leader, two coaches and a few parents.
Kelley, a senior on Eastern High’s soccer team, was one of 20 players selected from D.C. public school teams to participate in a six-day trip to Barcelona, which included training with FC Barcelona’s academy coaches, a tour of the stadium and team museum, and the chance to watch arguably the best team in the world play live in its home stadium.
While she enjoys watching European soccer on television, Kelley said that being there was a whole different experience. The passion of the fans, in particular, was something to behold.
“One part that was really amazing was the wave,” Kelley said, describing the undulating pattern of spectators rising out of their seats. “It lasted about four rounds.”
The idea for the trip was born last summer, when a partnership was announced between FC Barcelona and the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), during the four-time Champions League winners’ North American tour.
It’s not the first time in recent years that FC Barcelona has put down roots in the greater Washington area. Just last year, the Catalan powerhouse established a branch of its global youth academy, FCBEscola, in Loudoun County.
But unlike the pay-to-play model in Northern Virginia, this partnership would be jointly funded by FC Barcelona and the District of Columbia Interscholastic Athletic Association (DCIAA). A collaboration with the FC Barcelona Foundation, it included plans for both an annual middle-school training program for DCPS students with FC Barcelona academy coaches (to begin this summer), and for a high school girls’ team to train in Barcelona in the spring of 2018.
Kate Murphy, the girls’ varsity head coach at Wilson High, was selected to lead the team, alongside Cardozo boys’ head coach Amir Lowery. Tryouts for players took place in November, with more than 80 girls from public schools across the District competing for 20 roster spots. Murphy said that during tryouts, coaches paid attention not only to skill, but factors like attitude, endurance and coachability.
Kelley, who said she suffers from nerves at tryouts, got the news that she made the team the day before her birthday. “I called my mom crying,” she said.
Practices took place twice a week, from mid-January up until the team left for Barcelona on March 15. The coaches worked to help players become familiar with each other on the field, because most hadn’t played together before.
For the majority of the group, said Shanice Abrams, the assistant athletic director for the DCIAA who was in charge of organizing the trip, it was their first time out of the country.
In addition to taking in a game and touring the stadium, the team played two friendlies in Spain, against a local girls’ academy team and a university club team. Although they finished with two losses, Murphy said the games were competitive. The players also trained with FC Barcelona academy coaches, who put them through a series of drills that emphasized individual and small-group technical development. Barcelona, a club whose own youth academy, La Masia, is known for producing players of technical and tactical brilliance — including current stars like Messi, Andrés Iniesta and Gerard Pique — prides itself on its trademark passing game and possession soccer, the components of which were evident in these drills.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Mia Campbell, a senior from School Without Walls. “They were just so focused on the technical aspect of everything.”
Apart from soccer, the players explored some of the culture of the city, including celebrated architect Antoni Gaudi’s Parc Güell and La Sagrada Familia, a Flamenco show, and dinners of authentic Spanish-style tapas. (Patatas bravas, a type of fried potatoes, were a particular favorite.)
For Abrams, one of the most rewarding aspects of the trip was seeing friendships blossom among girls from different parts of D.C., most of whom had known each other only as on-field rivals before.
“There was a sense of closeness. You’re overseas, you’re just there,” Murphy agreed, adding that limited cellphone access helped bring the girls closer together.
With the middle school program — which will be part of FutbolNet, FC Barcelona’s global series of clinics that gives particular emphasis to youth in vulnerable areas — starting this summer, Abrams said the DCIAA and DCPS hope to continue to send high school teams abroad.
Kelley, whose school, Eastern, has only had a varsity soccer program for a few years, advised her younger teammates “just to have fun and work hard, because a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity can happen at any minute.”
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