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Barca’s midnight kickoff: Ronaldinho, gazpacho and a party

West Bromwich Albion’s derby game against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA Cup this weekend (stream all games live on ESPN+) kicks off at the unusually early time of 11:45 a.m. on Sunday. “Early?” Barçelona might reply to that. “Hold my gazpacho.”

That’s because the earliest a professional football match has ever kicked off — or should this be the latest? — was at Camp Nou in September 2003 when Barça took on Sevilla in LaLiga at 12.05 a.m. on a Wednesday.

A party atmosphere was created. Three tenors performed before the game, there were free KitKats and cups of gazpacho (a cold soup made from blended vegetables) for the 80,237 supporters in attendance and Ronaldinho scored his first-ever goal for Barça. The Brazilian, making his home debut after signing from Paris Saint-Germain, took the ball from his own half and crashed it in off the underside of the bar to make it 1-1 at around 01:30 a.m. local time.

But why on Earth did that all happen in the early hours, with most people due to be waking up for work or school a few hours later?

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Well, the Spanish league had scheduled for the second round of fixtures that season to be played in midweek before the September international break, leading most teams to play Saturday through Tuesday before their players headed off to join up with their respective countries.

However, Barça and Sevilla could not agree on a slot for their game. Sevilla couldn’t move their weekend game, saying tickets had already been printed and dispatched for the Sunday, and also ruled out playing Monday or Tuesday as it would fall within 48 hours of their previous match.

Sensing an opportunity to face a weakened Barça without their internationals, they also refused to rearrange the fixture for later in the campaign.

“LaLiga put the game on a Wednesday, but that meant Ronaldinho would have left to join up with Brazil,” Sandro Rosell, Barça’s vice president at the time, told the documentary “The Happiest Man in the World.”

“We thought, ‘Ufff, we are going to lose without him’ so we pushed for Tuesday with LaLiga. They said no. And then the idea came to us to play on the Wednesday five minutes after midnight. It was crazy, but we are thinking we have to do it because we need Ronaldinho.”

The club checked the sporting statutes and legislation to see if it was possible and, once they had the green light, “The Night of Gazpacho,” as it is referred to locally, was born.

“I remember we had a really long siesta before because the game started so late,” former Barca player Sergio Santamaría told ESPN. “And also the excitement to do something at that time. It was the same as when you were little and didn’t have school because you had something special on.

“It felt a bit like that, unusual, that’s what we felt because of the fact we were playing after midnight. It was different because it was not a normal kick-off time. It was a struggle to sleep afterwards!”

But not everyone was on board. “I still think it makes no sense,” Joaquín Caparrós, Sevilla’s manager from 2000 to 2005, told reporters before the game. “It is bad for football.”

Worried that fans would not turn up, Barça came up with different ways to persuade them to come to the game. They kept the club museum open until midnight, laid on music from three tenors and gave out 100,000 KitKats, 40,000 cups of gazpacho, 30,000 Actimel yogurts, 25,000 bags of Doritos, bread and jamón (cured ham). The response was a crowd of over 80,000.

Things did not get off to a great start, though. Ronaldinho was available, but Barça were deprived of their Netherlands internationals — Phillip Cocu, Patrick Kluivert, Michael Reiziger, Marc Overmars, Giovanni van Bronckhorst — and soon fell behind as José Antonio Reyes gave Sevilla a 10th-minute lead from the penalty spot.

“‘Madre mía [my mother],’ I’m thinking,” Rosell added. “After everything we have done and now we are going to lose.”

But as Ronaldinho joked in the documentary: “Things couldn’t possibly go wrong. Midnight is when I come into my own.”

The retired star, now 43, was referencing the headlines he made during his time at Barça for his love of the city’s nightlife, but it was an entirely different bar he was hitting in the early hours on this occasion. Picking up the ball just inside his half, he breezed beyond defenders José Luis Martí and Francisco Casquero before thumping an unstoppable effort that bounced down off the bar and over the line way past midnight.

“He dribbled, dribbled, dribbled and then boom,” remembers Toni Juanmartí, a journalist for Diario Sport who was at the game. “It was an amazing night and an amazing moment. I still remember perfectly the explosion after the goal. When he shot, it was one of those where you’re thinking, ‘What are you doing …’ And then pandemonium.”

There will be no free pies or chocolate at the Hawthorns on Sunday morning. However, there is a chance for someone to write their name in the Black Country derby history books as the two old rivals meet for the first time since 2021.

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