The post-Lionel Messi era began for Barcelona with fans chanting his name in the stands and players overcoming his absence on the field. (More Football News)
Barcelona's first season without Messi in 17 years started with a 4-2 win over Real Sociedad in the Spanish league on Sunday, with many in the crowd of more than 20,000 at the Camp Nou Stadium paying tribute to the Argentine star and protesting against the club for letting him go.
The majority of fans loudly chanted Messi's name in the 10th minute, a reference to the No. 10 jersey he used to wear at the club. Many fans were wearing or carrying Messi's jersey, and several banners honored the playmaker.
“Forever grateful to Messi,” read one of them.
There were also some jeers against Messi, though, who was already in France with Paris Saint-Germain after Barcelona failed to give him a new contract because of its financial struggles. Some fans preferred to chant “Barça, Barça” instead of his name.
“We all know what Messi represented. He was the most important player in this club's history," Barcelona's Gerard Piqué said.
“But there's an end to everything and we have to move on. There is a lot of quality in this team. We will be very competitive and I'm convinced that we will be contending for all the titles until the end.”
Club president Joan Laporta was among those targeted by some fans who protested in and outside the Camp Nou, with banners accusing him of not doing enough to keep its greatest player. Some also complained about former president Josep Bartomeu, blaming him for the club's financial difficulties that led to Messi's departure.
On the field, Barcelona opened the scoring in the 19th with a header by Piqué, who also was loudly cheered by fans after agreeing to reduce his salary so the club could register other players in time for the opener.
Martin Braithwaite added to the lead with goals in first-half stoppage time and in the 59th. He also assisted in Sergi Roberto's final goal in second-half injury time. Memphis Depay, the club's top offseason signing, helped set up two goals.
Sociedad, coming off a fifth-place finish last season, pulled closer with a goal from Julen Lobete in the 82nd and with a superb free kick — which Messi would have been proud of — taken by Mikel Oyarzabal three minutes later.
The last time there were fans at the Camp Nou was on March 7, also in a match against Real Sociedad. Spanish health authorities allowed the league to restart with crowds of up to 40% of the venues' capacity.
Fans had mixed feelings.
“On one side I feel very bad because Messi is gone. I had a very hard time with all this,” 23-year-old student Marta Gonzalez said.
“But on the other side I am very happy to see a new Barça and to be here.”
DEFENDING CHAMPION WINS
Ángel Correa scored a goal in each half as Atlético Madrid opened its title defense with a 2-1 win at Celta Vigo, extending its unbeaten streak in Spanish league openers to 12 matches.
Correa, starting in attack in place of Luis Suárez, opened the scoring with a low shot from outside the area in the 23rd. He added his second from inside the box in the 64th after Iago Aspas had equalized for the hosts by converting a 59th-minute penalty kick following a hand ball by Marcos Llorente.
The benches were emptied in stoppage time after an altercation following a foul by Hugo Mallo on Suárez. Mallo and Atlético's Mario Hermoso got red cards.
The home loss kept Celta winless in its last six league openers, since beating Levante 2-1 in Valencia in 2015.
Atlético's last loss in its first league game of the season came in 2009 — losing 3-0 at Málaga — before the arrival of coach Diego Simeone.
“We can't look at what happened last season,” Atlético goalkeeper Jan Oblak said.
“We have to focus only on the next match. It's the only thing that matters.”
Suárez, the former Barcelona striker who was key for Atlético in its title run last season, came into the match as a second-half substitute for Correa with the Uruguay striker still trying to regain his best form.
The match played in front of about 7,000 fans at the Balaídos Stadium marked the official debut with Atlético for Argentina midfielder Rodrigo de Paul.
Rayo Vallecano goalkeeper Luca Zidane, son of former France great Zinedine Zidane, was sent off in the 16th after fouling a Sevilla player inside the area, leading to a penalty kick and an eventual 3-0 loss.
Youssef En-Nesyri converted the penalty and new signing Erik Lamela later scored twice in the home victory for Sevilla, which came fourth last season. (AP)