Another one off the bucket list: An El Clásico in the Santiago Bernabéu

I honestly still can’t believe it. It really still feels like I dreamed it all up. I was in Madrid. I went to the Santiago Bernabeu. I watched an El Clásico.

So, yes, I am writing about this here partly to convince myself that I was there. It happened. One of my wildest dreams came true.

When I found out I was going to be sent to the UK for three months for work, one of the first things I did was to check the La Liga calendar. My heart started racing at the realization that I will be in Europe for the second El Clásico of the season. And it was going to be in Madrid. I was all in a tizzy, and that was maybe four or five months before I even left for the UK, before I even made the final decision to go.

There was no question of me wanting to go, of course. But the El Clásico is arguably the biggest league match in Europe, if not the world, and tickets are hard to come by. Even if any become available, the prices are enough to make even the most ardent fans balk. It was not an easy decision to make, but as my friends pointed out, it was a golden opportunity. I was in Europe at the same time as an El Clásico! When else will that ever happen again (without even more expense on my part, that is)? And so after some considerable stress with the Real Madrid website (why is there no confirmation page when you purchase via the English site, huh, Madrid?) and some Google Translate, I was the tearful, hysterical owner of a pitch-side ticket to the match of my dreams.

And the tears came flowing again as the stadium slowly loomed large while we were driving down Av. de Concha Espina, on the way out of the city for some sightseeing. I couldn’t help myself to request my hosts that we drop by the stadium for some photos, even if I was going to be back for the match that evening and for the stadium tour the following afternoon.

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I guess it goes without saying that there were more tears.

Fortunately, I managed to get a hold of myself for the match. I did not tear up, although my stomach was in knots and my hands were clammy. I was surprised I did not lose my shit as I took my seat. Everything about the Bernabeu, the scale of it, the noise, the fans, was overwhelming. It was bigger, louder, and crazier than anything I imagined. It was perfect.

We are going to the #ChampionsLeague final!!! #halamadrid! So so proud and happy!!

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I have photos of the team’s warm-up and during the pre-match ceremonies. When the match got started, however, it was hard managing a camera and trying to keep up with what was going on across the pitch. I finally decided to give up and focus on the game, to watch it through my own eyes and not through my camera’s tiny screen.

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It was thrilling to watch the team I have watched so many times on television live, in the flesh. It’s unbelievable how much quicker everyone is in person versus on TV, Gareth Bale in particular (fine, ok, Messi was great, too).

 

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We didn’t win the three points, but the match was fantastic. Ending 3-4, it has been called by pundits as the best Clásico in recent memory. And I was grateful to have been there for it.

That wasn’t the end of my Real Madrid experience, though. The next afternoon, I went on the Real Madrid stadium tour. I was awed by the size of the Bernabeu the night before, when it was filled to the rafters with fans. But it looks even bigger when it’s empty in the daylight.

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The tour starts almost from the very top of the stadium, and you work your way down. It includes the the team museum. And while the museum is a little too self-important and self-congratulatory even as team museums go, there are little gems to be found, like the shoes on the left: Zinedine Zidane’s boots from the La Novena final, no longer our LAST Champions League title . How wonderful it is to be able to say that.

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From the museum, you make your way down the stands to pitch-side level. Then it’s up again to the President’s box, from where this shot was taken:

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I didn’t realize that the tour included the team’s locker rooms. Imagine my shock when I entered a door found myself facing a row of toilets, followed by these:

 

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Any fan could imagine what kind of thoughts were buzzing around in my head at the sight of the team showers and sauna. It was fascinating to me that these facilities were part of the tour. Apart from the icky thought that hundreds, probably thousands, of visitors walk through what is basically someone’s bathroom and closet… well, let’s just say there were other thoughts.

However, my favorite part of the tour were the lockers. It blows my mind that I was standing there, in the same room where the likes of Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti give their half-time talks/sermons, where titles were drunkenly celebrated, or losses mourned. This was only a place I read about where Sergio Ramos played his (probably questionable) music,

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and where the incomparable Xabi Alonso used to hang (sob!) his impeccable clothes,

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and where Cristiano hangs his awful Gucci belts.

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After spending as much time as one reasonably can staring at lockers, I was off down the tunnel. It was surreal walking up and down the same steps the players do before and after each match.

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The stairs bring you right to the player benches and the centerline of the pitch. I am a little ashamed to say how much time I spent just standing there, taking it all in, and also waiting for the Real Madrid TV crew who were doing an interview in the middle of the pitch to clear out so that I can take my photos with a near-empty pitch:

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I am still in awe of the entire experience, and part of me still can’t believe it, even when I have pictures to prove that one of my wildest dreams has come true. I was there, amidst the Madridistas, cheering my team on against our greatest rivals. I was there, where some of the greatest players of the world have walked through and bathed, where history has been made, where dreams have been fulfilled, where hearts have been broken. I was there. And in a way, I always will be.

Hala Madrid!

Crazy, Stupid Love

It’s like that bad relationship you can’t shake off. You know it’s bad for you, you know you will get hurt again. But beyond all logic and reason you keep coming back for more.

Being a sports fan is like that bad relationship. Only 37 times worse.

All Most of us eventually move on from that bad relationship. After we’ve been burned 3 times, 11 times, 24 times, most of us will eventually get the neon-lit message from God that we are not meant to be with that person. That the said person is scum. That they are not who we thought they were and they never will be. That they are the devil incarnate. Or something like that.

That realization will never come for most ride and die sports fans. Most of us will never change allegiances in our lifetimes. Most of us will never abandon our teams. Most of us will remain loyal to our last breath, even after the most crushing 5-set defeat in the Gentlemen’s Final at Wimbledon or the 10th straight year of Champions League heartbreak.

Without exaggeration, I can say that I feel their pain.

And a lot of times, I wish I wasn’t one of those fans. I wish I wasn’t so heartbroken when Andy Roddick announced his retirement (that’s the thing with supporting a TEAM, the team will always exist, you’re hooked for life). I wish I wasn’t alternately on my knees, praying and on the couch, lying in a fetal position during the last 15 minutes of Real Madrid’s Champions League semifinal match against Borussia Dortmund.

I wish this doesn’t mean I’m crazy.

But I guess I am, a little. Every die-hard sports fan is. People give various reasons for supporting a team: it’s their home team, it was their father’s favorite as a child, it was the first team they saw play live, it was where all the hot players were playing. But all those reasons still don’t justify the tear-inducing, gut-wrenching, all-out love and support sports fans have for their team. It is illogical.

All love is, I suppose, but this love is even more bewildering than romantic love. Love for a sports team, in particular, is just bizarre because of the object of that love is an abstract concept, technically speaking. I love THE TEAM. The players will come and go, the coaches will change, but it will not matter to me and all the other fans. We will remain true to the team even if we hate the player the team just purchased (like I once did Ronaldo) or distrust the coach that will replace the beloved one. We will eventually love them all the same because they are Real Madrid.

And I will love Real Madrid all the same, even after this piss-poor La Liga season, even after that heartbreaking Champions League semifinal loss.

I just keep coming back. Like that bad relationship I just can’t quit.

Gracias, Una Madridista

I didn’t acknowledge it on this blog when it happened, but Real Madrid won the Spanish League title this year. And yes, I completely lost it.

One of my favorite parts about winning the League title, outside of the actual title itself, are the celebrations. The epic, crazy celebrations. There was the immediate, post-match locker room celebrations at San Mames and the celebration back at Madrid on the way to and at Cibeles. And there’s nothing like watching grainy videos on YouTube and viewing pictures posted by the players on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram to make me wish that I was in Madrid, too. Or, barring that, that we at least got Real Madrid TV in the Philippines. But we don’t even get live match coverage.

So it’s at moments like these, when I appreciate Una Madridista’s blog even more. Following Real Madrid is a very detailed (some would say obsessive) blog about Real Madrid. Una Madridista (or Una, for short) covers almost everything you would want to know about the team: the matches, team training, press conferences and Spanish media coverage of the team and its players, coaches and officials.

And, no, we’re not talking match reports or a summary of links to various articles from the internet. We’re talking match recaps with GIFs of pre or post match/off-the-field moments, excerpts from interviews, all of it sprinkled with Una’s insight, wit, humor and, sometimes, snark.

It’s come to the point where a match weekend, particularly the really important ones, isn’t really complete until I’ve read Una’s ICYMI (In case you missed it) post on it. After the win at San Mames that clinched this year’s title for us, I’m actually embarrassed to admit how many times I hit the refresh button, waiting for the ICYMI post on the match and the post-match celebrations of the half-naked jubilant players. I was only a tiny bit less impatient for her posts on the Cibeles celebrations (and her GIFs starring the very drunk Xabi Alonso) and on the extravaganza at the Bernabeu after the final match of the season.

And her blog isn’t just about the matches. Una covers A LOT of the off-the-field stuff too, including translations of articles in Spanish newspapers and magazines, and interviews on TV shows. Una is currently in the process of sharing and translating Iker Casillas’ biography by chapter. She also translated in FULL almost of all of the “The REAL … (insert player name here)” interview series. Eighteen interviews, all of them in Spanish, all of them at least 30 minutes each. I can’t even begin to imagine how much work that is.

And it’s all for Real Madrid. All for Real Madrid fans.

So this post is a big thank you to Una (although I don’t know if she’ll even get to read this) for all her painstaking work. Through her blog, I, and I’m sure countless of other Real Madrid fans around the world, too, feel more a part of the crazy Real Madrid world. And that is an amazing thing.

So gracias, Una. Your blog’s awesome. So are you.

 

PS: She does the exact same thing for the Spain NT on her Con La Roja blog, too. Like I said. Awesome.

There are no words. Just tears.

OK, I lied. There are some words.

I (and every other Real Madrid fan out there, I reckon) was a complete wreck over the 95 minutes of the match. My hands were clasped over my mouth for about 90% of the match, and I felt like I was holding my entire breath for all of it. Even after Cristiano’s 73rd minute goal, I never relaxed, that 90th minute goal from Bayern (and the other recent last minute equalizers) haunting me. But when that final whistle was blown, all the pent up tension was released. Along with a torrent of tears.

And pride.

And love.

The guys thanking the traveling fans but really, all thanks are due to THEM.

In all my years of being a Madridista, I have never been more proud of this team than I am now, after their 1-2 win over Barcelona at the Camp Nou. The win was not spectacular in a footballing sense, it wasn’t flashy or showy. What it was, though, was a disciplined, controlled and committed team effort. Every single player had a role, had a job to do and they all played it to perfection and more. While Cristiano (of course), Mesut Ozil (that pass!!!!), Alvaro Arbeloa and Sergio Ramos (what a fine center back he’s evolved to be) were the standouts for me, everyone else’s efforts to pressure Barcelona and prevent them from playing the game the play so devastatingly well can not be discounted.

And this win just means SO MUCH. Its importance to the La Liga title aside (and it was decisive), I can’t even begin to put into words how important this win was to the players, to the team, to Jose Mourinho (even if he refuses to speak about it) and to the fans. They beat Barcelona. Arguably the best team in the world. In the Camp Nou. And without having to resort to the dirty tactics that marred last season’s matches. And with only 28% of possession (!!). We beat them. Fair and square. We’ve finally figured them out.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.

I could go on and on and on about the significance of this win, but not only are there people more qualified than me to do just that, I also think that I’ve already said the two words that sum up everything for me:

Pride.

And love.

Oh, and also, Hala Madrid!

Photo from the Official Real Madrid Facebook page.

My week of football hell

I’ve been following Real Madrid for almost 10 years now and have been a huge fan for about 7 or 8 of those years. For all those years, though, I only remember one instance when I was this nervous: the last match of the 2006-2007 season where we clinched the title. But that was one match, and I was still in the early days of my fandom.

This time around, it’s a string of three matches over eight days, with two potential trophies at stake. Oh, and did I mention the matches were against our bitter European rival Bayern Munich and, oh, this team called FC BARCELONA?

My football hell week, is what I call it.

I didn’t even feel this nervous last year, when we played FOUR El Clásicos over an 18 day period. There were two titles at stake then, too and the media circus was even crazier. But last year, I didn’t feel like throwing up every time I thought about the upcoming matches for too long. My stomach didn’t do somersaults every time I think of the possibility of Madrid not winning anything this season.

And when I say I feel like throwing up, that’s not just a metaphor for how nervous I am. No. I actually, physically feel like I’m going to lose my lunch all over my office desk (ewwwww, I know). I actually have to will myself to stop thinking about Real Madrid to stop the butterflies from wreaking havoc in my stomach.

My love for Madrid has always tortured me emotionally, but now, my fandom is actually manifesting itself physically. And I can’t put a finger on why this particular set of matches is torturing me so. Perhaps, it has to do with the fact that just a month ago, we were leading Barcelona by 10 points in the league and that lead has since been reduced to 4 points. Maybe, it’s because I know that the league title is ours to lose and that, God forbid, if we do lose it, it will be no one’s fault but ours. It could also be that our dismal record against Barcelona in recent years has finally caught up to me, and I can no longer muster the positivity. As for the Champions League, maybe I’m scared as hell because Ribery, Robben and co. are the first serious opposition we’ve come up against (no offense to Apoel). Maybe, what’s getting to me is that nagging fear that my team, who have run rampant in Spain (apart from the recent slip ups and Barcelona, of course) and in Europe, who have been breaking records left and right, might just not be good enough to bring home those titles (goodness me, typing that down felt blasphemous).

If I feel this way, I can't imagine how these guys must be feeling.

Or, maybe, I’m just going crazy.

The thing is, though, I am grateful for this turmoil. Well, not exactly the turmoil itself, but the opportunity to feel it. Surely, Arsenal/Milan/Liverpool/Sevilla/Manchester United fans would give anything to be in my position. My team is leading its domestic league AND one match away from the Champions League final. I would rather go through this emotional roller coaster than be calmly sitting at home, pointlessly rooting for a team with nothing to fight for.

Yeah, I think that paragraph just confirmed that I am going nutso.

Be that as it may… Always and forever, Hala Madrid!

Photo from the Real Madrid Facebook page

Some post El Classico thoughts

Another El Classico. Another loss. I won’t even begin to try and verbalize what I’m feeling because, well, it would all be whining and swearing and I don’t want that on my blog (I don’t mind having it on my Facebook page, though). But heartbreak aside, I still am able to string some coherent thoughts together, post El Classico:

  •  Yey for the live telecast of the match on AKTV! I have always complained about the pathetic state of football coverage in the country but a few days ago I received the very welcome news that a local cable channel was going to telecast the game LIVE! There was no longer a need to go all the way to a pub in Makati in the wee hours of the morning just to watch the match. And apart from the mere convenience of being able to watch a 5am match in the comforts of your own home, AKTV’s coverage also means that matches from the best leagues in the world will now be more accessible to the growing football fan base in the Philippines. Yey for that!
  •  That being said, AKTV commentators need to get their acts together! It’s frustrating watching such a high-profile, crucial match between arguably the two best clubs in the world, and the commentators can’t even get the players straight. At one point, they said Gonzalo Higuaín was Kaka, even after the replay showed it was clearly Pipita. I guess you could say that that was forgivable, given that you could mix up players in the heat of the match and because, you know, they were two white guys with dark hair. But they also mistook Gerard Piqué for Eric Abidal. But Piqué looks like this, and Abidal looks like this. How do you mix those players up? Also, they kept insisting that the last El Classico result was a 5-0 win to Barcelona. Ummm. No. THat wasn’t even the last league match between the two, much less in all competitions. There have been SIX other RMCF-FCB matches since that 5-0 result. One La Liga match, the Copa del Rey final, two Champions League semifinals and two Supercopa matches. SIX. These are facts, and a 10 year old can easily Google them in 10 seconds flat. Why the hell can’t professional commentators, whose JOB it is do actually research these facts, who could be assumed to be experts on the sport they are commentating on, do the same?
  • I know we lost, but I still have to say this… I liked the way Real Madrid played. I’m no tactical expert, and I really won’t be able to properly explain what was different in Mourinho’s strategies in this game and the previous El Classicos but… I enjoyed this style of play more than the ultra-defensive, hard tackling approach they took in last season’s maddening series of matches against Barcelona. With this match, I didn’t feel a little ashamed of my team, I didn’t feel the need to defend their tactics and, more importantly, there was none of the ugly backlash that followed some of last season’s matches. Last season, I felt like we had to resort to that cynical approach because we knew we couldn’t beat Barca playing how we usually played. But in this match, it didn’t feel like that at all. And for a while there, I felt like we were matching Barcelona, we were playing how we wanted to play (albeit the execution wasn’t perfect). And despite the result, that was still encouraging. Which brings me to my final point…

Now, more than ever.

  • I must keep telling myself, all is not lost. Real Madrid, after all, still have a game in hand and a win next weekend will get us back on top of the standings. With the exception of this match, of course, the team has been playing exceptional football, and have only been beaten once in 16 outings. The end of the season is a long way ahead, we’re effectively still in the lead, and Barca are still the ones who need to catch up to us, not the other way around. It would be ridiculous to think that the season (well, the league, at least) has been decided in this morning’s game. I must remember that, all Madridista must.

Hala Madrid!

Yeah, I’m Pissed

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know what this post is about. You’ll know that I was initially very excited about the LA Galaxy coming to Manila to play our beloved Azkals. You’ll also know that, when the rumored prices have been released (PHP 12,000 for the most expensive ticket price), I ranted. And when the final, official prices came out, I went on a rampage. And, well, I’m still not over it.

First off, the facts:

  • The ticket prices (in Philippine pesos): 15,500 – 12,500 – 10,500 -9,500 – 5,000 – 2,000
  • Yes, I know that the Rizal Stadium only seats between 13 – 15 thousand spectators
  • There’s still no news on whether or not David Beckham will be joining the trip. He still hasn’t renewed his contract with the LA Galaxy and will only make a decision on his future after the MLS Cup on November 20. Rumors have already been circulating about him moving to PSG in the French Ligue One.
  • FIFA World Cup 2010 ticket prices (in US Dollars):

Deep breath… Here we go…

Really? REALLY?!?! My Category 1, FIFTH ROW seats to the Spain-Paraguay World Cup Quarterfinal are cheaper than an exhibition between a sub-100-ranked national team (sorry, I love the Azkals, but I speak the truth) and a team from the friggin’ MLS?!?! It’s the MLS! It’s not even one of the top 5 leagues in the world and will probably barely make it, if it does, through to the top 10. It’s where European footballer careers go to die a lucrative death. And we’re not even sure Mr. Goldenballs himself, David Beckham, is coming. Even if he was, I can categorically say that the tickets will still NOT be worth that much, unless he plays topless, brings Victoria, Brooklyn, Romeo, Cruz and baby Harper with him and we all get a chance to pinch their cheeks and make them gigil (yes, David too, but not Victoria of course, there’d be nothing to gigilanyway) and, in Harper’s case, babysit.

See, even Becks is annoyed.

And before any of you use the “but-the-organizers-have-to-make-money” argument, let me preempt you by saying that I understand that. I really, do. And given that the venue is tiny (full-size football stadiums fit between 40-80 thousand fans), they really have to price the tickets up to recoup their investment. Which is why I think that the organizers jumped the gun on this with little foresight on how the high price of getting the Galaxy here (some estimate that it cost PHP 100 million!) will affect ticket prices and, consequently, ticket purchases. The fact there were rumblings about trouble in the TV rights negotiations imply that the organizers may have bitten off more they can chew.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that Landon Donovan and co. are coming. It’s good for the Azkals and Philippine football in general that international clubs are even considering us for promotional tours. But it could’ve been greater, more beneficial to a sport that already has a reputation of being elitist if everything was made more accessible (i.e. cheaper) for everyone. How many parents out there have to break the news to their excited kids that they can’t afford to take them to see the Azkals play David Beckham’s team? How many football fans have been deprived to see their team perform against a team of a higher caliber (yes, even if they do just play in the MLS)? And how many people who can reasonably afford to buy the tickets, in annoyance and disgust, are now boycotting the match on principle alone (many of the footie fans I know, myself included)?

I don’t know how these things get negotiated and planned, of course, (who knows, maybe the organizers will barely make money even at these prices) but I can’t help but think that there was a miss somewhere. How could there not be, when the whole thing now reeks of greed and profiteering when, in the first place, the point should have been the promotion and advancement of the beautiful game?

Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images