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EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY — It wasn't a red carpet, but for FC Barcelona it was even better. Minutes before kickoff of Barça's first match of the preseason, a Grade-A matchup with Juventus in the International Champions Cup, the Club's First and Third Vice Presidents, Jordi Cardoner and Jordi Mestre, the founder and CEO of Rakuten, Hiroshi Mikitani, and the former FC Barcelona player Thierry Henry, stood near midfield to literally pull back the curtain on the new Blaugrana jersey, which was baring the Rakuten logo in a game for the first time.
The ambience was ideal for such a premiere. Here in East Rutherford, not far across the Hudson River from the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan, the stadium normally reserved for the NFL's New York Giants and New York Jets was, on this hot, humid northeast evening, a soccer stadium.
But no event would be complete in this quintessentially American atmosphere without first witnessing a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.
After the 50,000 or so fans retook their seats—thousands were apparently late due to the perpetual traffic jams leaving Manhattan—the players for both sides took the field. The fans cheered each and every name called out by the PA announcer, with the most noise made for Juventus's ageless goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon, and the Barça maestro, Lionel Messi.
But the shirt and the new sponsor were not the only firsts, as the team’s new manager, Ernesto Valverde, was making his debut on the Blaugrana bench. The electric atmosphere went up a notch with the opening whistle. Lionel Messi and Neymar Jr almost single-handedly controlled the game’s opening minutes, teaming up on three early rushes culminating in one stray pass from Neymar to Messi, a shot kicked away by Buffon, and a Messi free-kick from outside the penalty area the fell innocuously by the wayside.
By the time the stadium appeared to be around 90% full, over 20 minutes had ticked by and Barça were in the lead, 1–0, thanks to a goal from Neymar Jr in the 15th minute. After scoring the team’s first goal of the season, Neymar outdid himself 11 minutes later, brushing aside five defenders en route to scoring Barça’s second goal of the season as well.
For Barça and its new sponsor, a better scenario to unveil the 2017/18 Blaugrana jersey could only have occurred had it been scripted.
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