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!

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The Year (and a half) that was

Yes, I know that, technically, I should only be covering the last calendar year. But the last half of last year was too amazing to leave out, and I didn’t have a blog to recap last year, so I’m including those six months here.

I think I could, without a doubt in my heart, say that the last eighteen months have been the most amazing and exciting in my life. I’ve never had so many wonderful experiences cramped into such a small timeframe (relative to the rest of my life, that is) that it needs to be commemorated somewhere. If and when I fall into a “my life sucks!” rut (which, let’s face it, happens to everyone, except maybe if you’re Gisele Bunchen or Kate Middleton), this will be a reminder that, no, not really. My wildest dreams came true last year and a half, so I pretty much have no right to complain about anything in the following year and a half (not that that would ever stop me).

So anyway, here goes. A recap of my wonderful 2010 (and July-December 2009):

1: Getting to watch the 2010 FIFA World Cup live in South Africa: All football fans dream of getting to watch the World Cup, and I am no exception. But never, ever, in a bajillion years did I think that this dream would come true. It was just one of those things that was never goning to happen, unless of course I had another dream come true and ended up marrying Prince Harry (‘cause we would get VIP tickets, of course). But it did happen without Camilla being my stepmother-in-law.

I got to watch, not one World Cup match, but FOUR. Actually, sitting here and writing this, I still can’t believe that it happened. Thank goodness I have tons of pictures, because when I’m old and gray, I could prove to myself that, yes, I was there when Messi and co. beat Korea Republic 4-1, when David Villa scored that goal from fifty yards out,

"El Guaje" warming up, Chile vs Spain group match

that I was sitting right alongside the goal when Asamoah Gyan missed that crucial penalty for Ghana and was in the fifth row, alongside the goal during that tortuous match between Spain and Paraguay.

The moment that almost gave me a heart attack, Spain vs. Paraguay QF at Ellis Park

And as if getting to watch wasn’t enough, I got to watch Spain. TWICE. Which brings me to…

2: Spain WINNING the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa: It was a two-fold dream come true. Not only did I get to watch the World Cup, but my beloved Spanish National Team deservedly won their first ever World Championship. And, really, like #1, I still can’t believe they did it, even when I watched every single second of every match, whether on the telly or in the stadium.

Viva España!

It’s amazing how something totally unrelated to me can make me this happy, but it did. And it still does.

3: My destined meeting with Andy Roddick: I guess it’s a theme, huh? As with #1, never in a million years did I think that I would actually get to meet Andy Roddick, much less get his picture and an autograph. But with what I can only and reluctantly describe as fate’s intervention, I did. And it’s a good thing I got a picture and the autograph for proof because I think I’ll be needing physical evidence of it actually happening, since it was so heartbreakingly unlikely to begin with.

4: Versailles: I guess among all my dreams that came true over this 18-month period, this was one of the more achievable ones, but that doesn’t make it any less special. I swore to myself I would visit the legendary chateau in my lifetime after watching Sofia Coppola’s screen adaptation of the Antonia Fraser biography of Marie Antoinette. I got my chance last, last August (in the summer too, when the seasonal features are open) and it was as grand and as beautiful as I imagined it to be. And while its beauty is surely reason enough to go, for the wannabe French history buff like me, Versailles’s historical significance is even a greater draw. The number of times my jaw dropped and the hairs on my arms stood on end at the sight paintings I only saw in books and of rooms I only saw in pictures were too many to count. And, yes, I must blog about the visit soon.

5: John Mayer in Manila: It had all the makings of a disastrous night, really (less than ideal location, less than engaging artist, RAIN) but it still turned out to be quite awesome. While a couple (or five) more songs would’ve made it a perfect night, hearing Edge of Desire, Heartbreak Warfare and Slow Dancing Room (aka the most heartbreaking song ever written) live made the long wait and the cold, wet rain well worth it.

So how can my 2011 top 2010 (and half of 2009)? If I get to go to Spain, watch the El Classico in the Bernabeu and Madrid beat Barcelona 7-0,  then get tickets to the Gentlemen’s Final at Wimbledon where Andy finally beats Federer then get tickets to the Backstreet Boys concert in Manila with ALL FIVE members performing, 2011 will for sure be better than 2010. But, barring that, 2010 has enough memories to keep me happy and grateful the next year… or decade.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Spanish team photo from FIFA.com

The longest 109 minutes of my life

It’s self imposed torture, supporting any sort of sporting entity, whether it be a school basketball team, a Formula One driver or a football team. When you’re crying the hardest you have in years after Roger Federer beat Andy Roddick in the 2009 Wimbledon final, really, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. No one forced you to invest so much time and emotion into every match or race. No one was holding you at gun point when you bought the tickets or the team jersey for ridiculous prices. There is no logical explanation for the enduring, tortuous love fans feel despite the frustrations and disappointments their beloved team has dealt them. And it’s not even reciprocated, even if they always say “we love our fans”, it’s unlikely that it’s in the same rabid, gut-wrenching way. So, that love, that inexplicable, sometimes pathetic love that reduces even grown men to tears (have you ever seen a football match where a team gets promoted/relegated to the lower/higher division?), could arguably be the one of the purest forms of love in the world.

So, with that love in my heart, I made my way to Ellis Park in Johannesburg, to watch the FIFA 2010 World Cup quarterfinal between Paraguay and Spain. I wasn’t as wired and stressed out as I was before the Spain v Portugal and Chile v Spain matches, because, to be completely honest, it’s Paraguay. I wouldn’t be way out of line if I said Spain were the overwhelming favorites here. But, don’t get me wrong, I was still plenty nervous.

And I was right to be.

My view from my seat

Throughout the first half, Spain wasn’t creating any real chances at a goal. Actually, there was only one, Xavi’s shot that when sailing above the crossbar. Either Paraguay was closing down the attacks, or the passes were either too heavy or Fernando Torres was just crap (but was still gorgeous, of course). I’ve described the feeling this way to friends: Imagine a hand, hovering over your heart. As the match goes on, the hand is closing in to grip your heart. When Paraguay hit the back of the net, that hand just squeezed my heart in its grip. When the offside flag was raised, it loosened its grip again. THAT’S HOW IT FEELS.

So  you can now imagine how I felt during that spell between the 58th and 62nd minutes. First, Paraguay was awarded a penalty. I felt like someone sucked the wind out of the stadium when the referee pointed to the penalty spot (or maybe it was just the anghit of the guy seated in front of me. I swear, every time he raised his arms to cheer, or wave his flag or take a picture, I got scent-ually assaulted. Gross). I could barely see what was going on, because I was seated at the other end of the stadium, and the taller people and waving flags were blocking my view. I’m not sure I wanted to see anyway. But the kick was taken. Then cheering. BUT WAIT. The people cheering were wearing yellow and red. THE PENALTY KICK WAS SAVED by Iker Casillas. The hand with the iron grip on my heart let go, and with that, a burst of joy and relief and “COME ON IKEEEEEEEEEEEEER!”. And I breathed a little easier.

But not for long.

Within 2 minutes, Spain was on the attack, and David Villa is taken down in the area, and again, the referee points to the spot again. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah! This is Spain’s chance, so soon after that Paraguay scare. The hand is gripping my heart again, but not as tightly as when the penalty was on the other end. So Xabi Alonso (why not David Villa? Because he missed his last PK?) lines up to take it,

The penalty shot Alonso makes, but is disallowed

kicks and scores! The hand’s let go of my heart again! Fans cheer and wave flags and high five each other! BUT WAIT. The goal is disallowed. He has to take the kick again. And there’s that tight grip on my heart again. Xabi lines it up again

The second penalty

THEN MISSES. The imaginary hand punches me in the gut with my heart in its unwielding grip. Someone, I couldn’t really tell, gets another shot, and it’s either off the crossbar or off a defender. Point is, it doesn’t hit the back of the net.

And so we’re back to square one, 0-0, with about 20 minutes to go, and I could barely watch. The grip on my heart is constant, except when Iker Casillas flubbed a save (damn you, Jabulani!) and the hand tightened just that tiny bit more. There’s a funny thing that happens, when you’re watching these things live, it’s like time speeds up and slows down at the same time.  The balls bounces into an attacker’s path in slow motion, but at the same time, the oncoming defender seems to be approaching in a fast-forwarded blur.

And in a dizzying slow-mo/fast-forward combo in the 83rd minute, I feel my heart being squeezed to breaking (crushing?) point. Spain is on the attack. Iniesta brings the ball forward, passes to Pedro on his right, Pedro shoots, and HITS THE CROSSBAR. The ball rebounds to David Villa, and I think, could this be it? He shoots, BUT HITS THE CROSSBAR AGAIN. Just as I was steeling myself for one of the punches-in-the-gut-by-the-hand-holding-my-heart, the ball agonizingly inches its way through the air to the opposite crossbar, hits it, and (as if someone suddenly presses the >> button) the next thing I see is the back of the net moving. SCOOOOORE! I double check the pitch, in case it’s been disallowed again, but no flags were raised, no whistles were blown. GOOOOOOAL!

Now all Spain has to do is hold it together for the next seven minutes plus the added time. Ten minutes total. Ten excruciating minutes.

And then it’s over. Spain win. The hand gripping my heart disappears entirely and I finally breathe easily after what feels like 109 minutes of holding my breath (90 minutes plus half time plus extra time).

And it's over. They celebrate. For now.

But the hand will be back. On Wednesday. Most likely in a metal-spiked glove with slits at the fingertips to let extra-long nails with Deutschland-themed nail art through.Like I said. Self-imposed torture.