Magical Barça to cast spell before Hearts' record crowd

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THEY have the most entertaining player on the planet in Ronaldinho, and two of the globe's most lethal finishers in Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry. Deco, their principal playmaker, can unlock the tightest defences, and their own back four, which includes World Cup winners Lilian Thuram and Gianluca Zambrotta, is not bad either.

In short, Barcelona are one of the greatest club sides in world football, and it is therefore appropriate that their match against Hearts at Murrayfield this afternoon is expected to attract the largest Edinburgh crowd in the Scottish team's history.

Although, on police advice, there are no ticket sales today, Hearts' previous high attendance of 53,369 - for a Scottish Cup tie against Rangers in 1932 - appears certain to be bettered. The game may be only a friendly, and every home supporter would surely prefer a victory in the Edinburgh derby on Monday week to one today, but it is still a massive match.

Yes, there will be many neutrals in the crowd, as well as a fair number of Barcelona fans and perhaps a smattering of Hibernian supporters. But Hearts rightly view this fixture as an indication of how, freed from the cramped confines of Tynecastle as it stands, they can attract an audience well in excess of their normal hard-core support.

The game will be played in a party atmosphere, with the result less important than the occasion itself. How well Hearts perform may depend largely on how well they adapt to these unusual circumstances, for, of course, despite the fact that they are only a few hundred yards from their usual ground, they are the team unaccustomed to a build-up and a match of such magnitude.

For Barcelona, a club with 90,000 members, the fuss attending this afternoon's match is no more than business as usual.

Indeed, while holding court at his new club's St Andrews base yesterday, Henry explained that treating everything as business as usual was an important part of being successful.

Asked how it felt to be just one of a number of stars instead of being the star as he supposedly was at Arsenal, Henry bridled at the very thought. He is fluent in English as well as his native French, and quickly learning Spanish and Catalan, but it is clear that, whatever the language, there is one word in it which provokes his displeasure. "I never took myself to be a star," he replied. "I've already played with a lot of great players at Arsenal and in the French national team too there were plenty of players of great quality, so that is no problem.

"This question of being a star does not affect me, because we are here to be a group, to bring something to the team as a group. This word star actually disturbs me.

"I don't like it. I never considered myself that."

But at least on paper, it seems a fair question, even if better directed at Frank Rijkaard, Barcelona's head coach, than at any one of his players. The club have just had an unsuccessful season by their standards, and continue to accumulate star players - a policy which their great rivals Real Madrid first regretted and then abandoned.

Might Bara be committing the same error as Real? Could the so-called Fantastic Four - Henry, Ronaldinho, Eto'o and the absent Lionel Messi - all really fit into the one line-up?

"I can't talk about other dressing rooms, so I don't know what happened with Madrid," Henry replied. "But I can assure you of one thing. We are all going to do our best for Barca. After that, the boss is the one to decide who plays. Only Frank Rijkaard can say that."

Asked the same question in a slightly different way, Henry offered a less self-effacing reply. "Is there room for us all?" he asked rhetorically. "The pitch is big, so there is room for everybody."

Having made that assertion, however, he reverted to humility when asked where he would prefer to play with his new club. "Everybody knows that I played in the centre for Arsenal, but in the national team I sometimes played on the left or right.

"Once again, that's a decision for the boss. But I think we can all change, because everybody can play everywhere.

"Hopefully I can score a lot of goals. But I don't want it to be the Thierry Henry show or the whoever show. It has to be the Barcelona show and the team has to win.

"One of the most important things I've found since I arrived has been the togetherness of the players. I know some of them already - Silvinho, Ronnie, Thuram and a couple of others.

"But today I can see they are a whole team. It's important that, since I arrived, they let me know that this is a club and you have to win as a team. That's one of the most important things I've noticed since I came here."

After eight years with Arsenal, Henry has apparently adapted effortlessly to his new surroundings. Part of the reason for that. he explained, was the similarity in playing style between the two teams - although he also admitted he found it a wrench to leave the London club behind, and regards himself as an Arsenal supporter. "Having played the football I played at Arsenal, the one-touch football with the ball always on the ground, that helped in coming to Barcelona.

"From my first training session, then in the game yesterday" - the 1-0 win over Dundee United in which he scored in the last minute - "I felt like I had been here for a little while. I don't want to sound too forward, but that's how it felt.

"It was important for me not to get injured and get through my first 45 minutes, after five months out. I needed to find the sensation again.

"It's a fact that I had been out for a long time. My last game was for Arsenal against PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League, and before that I had been out for a month, too, because of injury.

"So it was pretty nice to make my debut for Barcelona, even though it was a friendly. The fact that I had been out for a long time made it a doubly great feeling. It was definitely emotional leaving Arsenal.

"I played eight years for them and I had a special relationship with the fans, with everybody at the club, with the boss - everyone knows that.

"Playing at Highbury was always so special. Wearing the jersey, the red one, it is difficult to describe how that feels.

"When I first arrived, the fans and the club understood what it was to play for your team. In France we don't always understand what it is to play for the shirt and give everything for that.

"At Arsenal, I understood that they give more than that. I became a different player there. I will always have them in my heart. I will go back to games whenever I can.

"I've kept my box. Now I can say that I will be an Arsenal fan, and I hope to see them win the league."

Although it is understood that internal politics led to his asking for a move away from the Emirates Stadium, Henry refused to address the issue anew, preferring to recall the happy memories from his time there. "I've answered that question so many times," he added. "The boss knows why I left.

"I'm not going to be one of those players who leaves a club and then says a lot of things about them. I wish them well: I will miss everyone.

"I will even miss the boos at Tottenham, although I never lost there in an Arsenal shirt - that is something special for me. I will miss the games against Manchester United, the Chelsea games too. Playing in England is always amazing because of the fans.

"Was it the right time to move? The time felt right. Hopefully it can be a great time.

"I have a contract for four years and I'm sure, even after that, I could never play for another English team. I can never wear another shirt in England but Arsenal - it's impossible for me."

• HEARTS will play in front of the biggest home attendance in their 133-year history today, writes Stephen Halliday. As of midnight on Thursday, ticket sales for the friendly against Barcelona at Murrayfield had reached a remarkable figure of 53,200.

With box office business brisk yesterday, Hearts' previous record home crowd of 53,396, at the Scottish Cup third round tie against Rangers at Tynecastle in February 1932, is certain to be superseded.

Police have denied Hearts permission to sell tickets today, but an attendance in excess of 55,000 is expected at Murrayfield. The biggest crowd ever recorded for a football match in Edinburgh was at Easter Road on 2 January 1950 when Hibs lost 2-1 to Hearts in front of 65,860 spectators.

"It's fantastic that there is going to be such a big crowd for this game," said Hearts assistant coach Stephen Frail. "The attraction of Barcelona is obviously responsible for putting so many on the gate, but it does show the potential that is there for Hearts. There will be a lot of supporters who haven't been to see us before and hopefully we can keep hold of some of them, although there isn't much room left at Tynecastle."

Today's attendance will easily beat Hearts' previous biggest crowd for a match against European opposition. In 1958 37,500 were at Tynecastle to see Hearts beat Standard Liege 2-1 in a first round, second leg European Cup match. It was Hearts' first venture into Europe but the Gorgie side were eliminated, having lost the first leg 5-1.

The record attendance for a competitive European match in Edinburgh is held by Hibs. An estimated 45,000 were at Easter Road to see the home side defeat Barcelona 3-2 in the Fairs Cup quarter-final second leg in 1961, for a 7-6 aggregate triumph.


All-time record attendance

53,396: v Rangers, Scottish Cup third-round tie, Tynecastle, 13 February 1932

Record European attendance

37,500: v Standard Liege, European Cup first round second leg, Tynecastle, 9 September 1958


All-time record attendance

65,860: v Hearts, Scottish league, Easter Road, 2 January 1950

Record European attendance

45,000: v Barcelona, Fairs Cup quarter-final second leg, Easter Road, 22 February 1961


Biggest rugby crowd

104,000: Scotland v Wales, Five Nations Championship, 1 March 1975

Biggest football crowd

32,459: Hearts v AEK Athens, Champions League third qualifying round first leg, 9 August 2006