I have been shamefully neglecting my blog. Yes, I have been busy with various activities, but it was also precisely my aim when I started this blog to record said activities, to pin down my mini adventures and discoveries to somewhere more concrete than my short-term memory. So after a few weeks to take stock, I am getting back to business. Starting with football.
Yes, football. You may well be surprised at the choice of topic. But, when you consider the place the beautiful game has in the hearts of most Spaniards, discussing it seems not merely logical, but essential. Love it or loathe it, understanding football is an important part of understanding Spanish culture.
I was first exposed to the madrileño attitude to football on my very first evening in Madrid, which coincided with a Real Madrid match against Manchester City (if you have been reading this blog from the beginning, you may recall that my flight over was soundtracked by the rowdy chanting of drunk Man City fans). My Spanish family’s apartment overlooks the Paseo de Castellana, the main road that runs through the centre of Madrid and right past the Santiago Bernabeu (that’s the Real Madrid stadium for those not in the know). During home matches, you can open the windows in the apartment and listen to the reactions of the crowd. This becomes particularly amusing if you’re watching the match on TV at the same time, as there is, of course a slight delay between live action and what is broadcast, so you get a little warning before anything significant happens, in the form of a indistinct roar from across the road.
A couple of months later, I experienced Spanish football for the second time, in the form of El Clásico, the hotly anticipated, fiercely competitive match between Real Madrid and Barcelona. Of course, I wasn’t able to see the match live – tickets are like gold dust and are sold out before they are even released – but a group of friends and I gathered in a bar (the excellent chain La Sureña) to watch it surrounded by locals and get as close to the stadium atmosphere as possible on our student-teacher budgets. By kick off, the bar was pretty much packed – and in an area where every street has at least 6 bars to choose from, all showing El Clásico. Surrounded by Real Madrid fans – and the odd, very brave Barcelona groupie – we cheered and booed the teams to a draw.
My most recent footballing experience was by far the most thrilling. A friend and I managed to get last minute tickets to the Bernabeu, to watch Real Madrid play Manchester United. Of course, I wasted no time in imparting this information to everyone I know (hey, this is very likely the only time I’ll ever be able to gloat about a sporting event). My male friends wasted no time in telling me that they hated me for daring to flaunt my attendance at such a match. My female friends expressed almost equal hatred at my proximity to Ronaldo. But did I care? Did I hell.
On match nights, the atmosphere around the stadium is electric. Thousands of people moving down the enormous Paseo de Castellana, men swarming in and out of bars, clutching cañas in their sweaty paws, drunkenly chanting and swaying, Spanish mocking the English, English mocking the Spanish… We wound our way through the crowd, towards our assigned entrance, stopping momentarily to gaze at the stalls of merchandise dotted along the road. When we entered the stadium, we were completely gobsmacked. Not only by the stadium itself, which was enormous and glittering and packed with people decked out in purple and red, but by our seats. Due to the aforementioned last-minuteness of our booking, we had purchased the last pair of tickets available in the stadium. These turned out to be ten rows from the pitch where the teams were currently warming up, just to the right of one of the goals. We tried to look nonchalant and smother our schoolgirl giggles of disbelief, especially as the crowd filled up even more and the seats around us were filled by hard-core Real Madrid fans, bearing enormous flags and steely glares. We decided it was safer to converse in Spanish from thereon in.
The music soon began to pump loudly through the speakers and the teams ran onto the pitch, to ear-splitting cheers from the crowd, as a screen directly across the stadium from us was illuminated with pictures of the players, their names and their positions. At around this point, I noticed that everyone around me was standing up and looking behind them. From the gallery above, an enormous white and purple Real Madrid flag was slowly extending, being rolled out across the crowd, passed from person to person. Meanwhile, the people to my left and right unfolded the purple pieces of paper that had been placed on their seats and were holding them up in the air. Slightly baffled, my companion (a more seasoned football goer) explained that we were making the flag to be seen on TV and by the Man City fans on the other side of the stadium. I eagerly joined in, grinning from ear to ear. It felt pretty spectacular.
The match soon began in earnest, and things got serious. I quickly forgot the novelty of the situation in my intense concentration. After watching that match, I can finally appreciate how the beautiful game got its nickname. Being so close, the level of skill exhibited was slightly awe-inspiring to someone like me, who learnt to play football by acting goalie whilst my brother practiced penalties (aka shooting as hard as he could at my head), and has had little practice since. I became completely absorbed, and unwittingly Spanish, shouting ‘AAAAAYYYYYY’ whenever there was a close call or a missed pass, and joining in with the raucous shouts of ‘MAAAADDDRREEEEEEEEEEEEETH’ (or ‘Madrid’, as I finally worked out). At one particularly tense tackle, a ‘Dios mío!’ may even have erupted from my lips. By half time, adrenaline was pumping through my system, and by the final whistle I was exhausted.
There was a brief point during the match where I lost my English awkwardness and began to think and act like a Spaniard. Something about football – whether that it sanctions full-blown displays of passion in grown men or that it can be enjoyed equally by three generations of family sat around the TV as by a group of drunken louts in a bar – is unmistakeably Spanish. Perhaps that is why I’ve finally understood its attraction.