A Real Victory

Spain 1

There are only two eternal things in this world: love and the Barcelona-Real Madrid soccer rivalry

For the past few years, Barça (as it is commonly known) has been the dominant team not just in the Spanish league, but in all of Europe. Barça fans like to paint themselves as the victimized, virtuous team — their slogan is “mes que un club” or “more than a club” which their naïve bandwagon fans have interpreted as having to do with Barca’s charity initiatives but it actually refers to Barça’s history as a symbol of Catalan separatism — nobly taking the crown from long-time kings of European soccer and rivals Real Madrid. But this year, Real Madrid, the team of my corazon, took the crown back from Barça by winning its thirty-second league title. And on May 13, I got to witness Madrid’s last game of this epic, historic season.

I was born in Madrid (in a hospital just down the street from the Santiago Bernabeu, Real Madrid’s stadium) but raised in San Francisco. Here in the Bay Area I do my best to emulate the dedication of European fans. I watch league games online in my bed on weekend mornings, swearing loudly in Spanish, probably waking up my poor housemates. I follow Madrid’s Champions League games either at the common room in International House or on my phone in lecture. I have even taken two semesters of the European Soccer DeCal where we watch highlights from all the major European leagues. But seeing a Real Madrid game in person, at the Bernabeu, has always been one of my life’s goals (yep, pun intended), so when I saw that my final exams would end before Madrid’s last game of the season I knew I absolutely had to go.

On May 10 I flew to Madrid where I stayed with my mother’s friend, Angeles, another die hard Real Madrid fan who hadn’t been to a game since she was a child. In the true Mediterranean fashion of hospitality and generosity she not only let me sleep and eat in her house but she also paid for our tickets to the game.

The morning of the game, Angeles took me to El Rastro, an outdoor flea market (much more enjoyable than Barcelona’s touristy equivalent: Las Ramblas) to buy cheap Real Madrid jerseys and scarves. I also ended up buying an enormous Real Madrid flag that will certainly be decorating my Co-op room in the fall. After, despite the heat, we had some delicious “chocolate con churros”, which are typical of Madrid.

We took the bus to the game along with many other fans, all squished together like anchoas, sweating from the heat. Along the bus route, I noticed few people in white jerseys walking in the direction of the stadium, then I saw more and more until the bus finally arrived at the Bernabeu and we were surrounded by a sea of white.

We went inside and found our seats just as the players were coming onto the field. I had a huge, stupid grin on my face and before I knew it, I was sobbing.  The little boy in the seat next to mine was staring at me as if I was a lunatic but I didn’t care and just smiled madly at him as I tried to take it all in.

To be honest, I don’t remember much of the game itself. It’s strange to see something in real life after only ever having seen it on television because attending the game in person provides a completely different stimulation of the senses. It was all so overwhelming that I never really knew where to look.

Additionally, a stadium spectator is involved in the game in a way a television viewer never could be. You whistle when there is an unfair call, applaud the players you appreciate, and sing chants to encourage the team. I felt frustrated that I did not know the words to these songs like the boy beside me, who belted out each and every song with passion and pride.

Although the Bernabeu is massive, something about it made me feel as if I were in the stands of a small community field. Perhaps it was the fact that the 90,000 simple, plastic seats are all jammed next to and on top of each other. It also may have been the lack of the excessive elements seen in American sports stadiums, such as a jumbo screen projecting the game, forcing all the spectators to keep their eyes on the live game if they don’t want to miss any of the action. There are just no words to describe the beauty of witnessing, in person, the little details of the game that one could never catch on a screen, such as the elegant spin on the ball during one of Xabi Alonso’s (my favorite player) trademark long passes.  But what probably most created that intimate atmosphere were the spectators. I was sitting amongst the season ticket holders, mostly older men and women, many of them with their grandchildren. Between chants, people were casually charlando “chatting” with both friends and strangers, sharing chips and bocadillos or listening to the radio to stay updated on the other league games that were being played simultaneously.

And, after the game, when the celebrations of the league title began, that feeling of intimacy persisted.  There were some flashy elements, such as Placido Domingo singing Madrid’s centennial hymn, but when the players came back out onto the field to speak, it felt like they were speaking to each of us individually. Each player was met with deafening applause but none so much as the coach, Jose Mourinho, whom all of us fans thanked for finally dethroning Barça and bringing glory back to Real Madrid, where it belongs.