The Soccer Pilgrim
Traveling the world for soccer: Madrid.
16 March 2019.
(Kick-off: 12:30h GMT+1)
Real Madrid Vs. Celta Vigo
It's 10 am, I had landed an hour ago and awaiting to check-in my Airbnb. My mind feels dazed and the effects of jetlag is starting to seep throughout my body. Fortunately, the warm and gentle morning sun is giving me the energy I need. Something that any Montrealer needs in March. The Canadian winter is a distant reality. Game time is soon, I can’t wait to check-in, shower, and make my way to a soccer holy site, the Santiago Bernabeu.
Home of Real Madrid, the Hollywood of world soccer. This club is home to World Cup champions, Ballon D’or award winners, and thirteen Champions League titles. The greats of the game graced its pitches: Raul, Ronaldo, Figo, Roberto Carlos, David Beckham, Iker Casillas, and Cristiano Ronaldo. As a soccer nerd and a fan of this club, I am fighting to stay awake.
Ring! Ring! Ring! It’s the Airbnb host informing me the lodging is ready. I make my way through the narrow streets of the Salamanca neighbourhood looking for the Spanish flat. I finally check-in to the studio apartment. After a quick tour of the place with the host, Maria, she asked me what were my plans for the day? With my little Spanish, I informed her I was attending the Real Madrid game within the next two hours. With excitement, she informs me that she’s a “Madridista,” a fan of the club. With a curious face, she asked me how I was able to get tickets to the game?
Real Madrid tickets can be difficult to come by without club membership. In European soccer, tickets are sold first to club members (who pay membership fee on top of the tickets) and the leftover tickets are sold in general admission a few days later. Luckily, a Spanish friend of mine is a club member of Real Madrid and allowed me to use her membership to buy a ticket. I bought the available seats closest to the bench, putting me back 125 Euros. I went all in. The new task, how do I explain this to Maria with my non-existent Spanish?
I do not recall what I said to Maria, but I believe she understood me.
After noticing the time, Maria instructs me to leave the apartment right away not to miss the game. It’s 11:30 am, kick-off is in an hour, without hesitation, Maria leaves promptly, and I follow suite. It's going to be 23 degrees Celsius and clear skies, no time to shower, and I’m going to sweat anyway. Clean up to get sweaty again doesn’t seem logical in this time crunch.
I head towards Tribunal metro station, there’s no time to enjoy my walk. It’s 11:45 am, game time is at 12:30 pm, I am going to miss the warmup. As an anxious traveler, I am checking my phone every second to see if I am headed the right way. I reach the Tribunal station; I rush my way down the series of stairs and escalators. Before reaching the platform, I hear a metro takeoff from the station. I hope it is not my ride. Of course, I miss the metro by 10 seconds. My excitement and anxiety are steadily rising. I do not want to miss a second of this opportunity.
I catch the next metro, none of the visible passengers are dressed in Real Madrid attire. Am I going the right way? As I ride the metro closer to my destination, the train is slowly filled with the iconic white jerseys of Real Madrid. I am going the right way.
I exit the metro station and I am shoulder-to-shoulder among "Madridistas" from around the world. As if I stumbled across the United Nations of Real Madrid fans. As the masses slowly make their way to the stadium. The air is tangible. Music, laughter, excitement, food, and dreams filled the air. This is not just a sporting event, this is truly a cultural festival.
The excitement around the stadium is particularly special this day. Arguably, the greatest Real Madrid player of the past has returned, Zinedine “Zizou” Zidane. The Frenchman has won it all with France and Real Madrid as a player. His iconic contribution to Real Madrid folklore came in the greatest goal ever scored in a Champions League Final. The famous left-footed volley against Bayer Leverkusen. If you don’t know, please YouTube it. As of recent years, Zidane has won three consecutive Champions League with Real Madrid as its head coach. Arguably, the fans were attending to watch the return of the king (sorry Cristiano Ronaldo).
As I brush through the crowded streets towards the entrance. I feel my chest slowly picking up pace, I still haven’t processed that I will be watching Real Madrid at home, live. No TV screens, no ruckus sports pubs, and no annoying hockey fans. This is the real deal. As I enter the stadium, I am greeted by a staffer who spoke perfect English and guided me to my seat. While walking to my seat, I notice the shape of the stands. The multi-tiered stands are steep, it almost feels as if the Madrid fans are on-top of the pitch. It must give a somewhat claustrophobic feeling for the away team. For the home team, there is no where to hide your mistakes.
The Madrid fans have a reputation of holding a high standard. Infamously booing past legends if they performed poorly. Now being among them in a live game, I am realising that the Madridistas are highly attentive fans. Every run, pass, shot, and dribble are acutely observed. Madrid fans are not easily impressed. Madrid is an elite club not only due to its history, but the expectation of its fans, demand a Special Forces level of football athleticism.
I finally find my seat and I realise, I am sitting ridiculously close. To my right, across the steps is the VIP section. Situated in the middle of the pitch directly behind the dugouts of both teams. The field is immaculate. I have never seen such shade of green, perfectly manicured and looking almost carpet-like. I am also among locals. I hear nothing but Spanish. In the words of an old movie, "I have feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."
Shortly after finding my seat, I promptly rise to the starting eleven walking out the tunnel. After the team exits, emerges Zinedine Zidane. This is the same man that led France to the 1998 World Cup victory and the 2006 World Cup final. This is a regular season game, yet the media hype of Zidane’s return has rendered this game special. Photographers swarm Zizou before game time. Suddenly, the club’s anthem, “Hala Madrid” swells the stadium. The entire stadium singing in unison “y nada mas, Hala Madrid!” (and nothing more, c’mon Madrid). You don't need to understand Spanish to know that song evokes glory and history. Translations are unnecessary when the song is emotionally palpable. The announcers name the starting eleven, every name repeated by the fans. The opposition, Celta Vigo, are motivated but the occasion is against them.
The coin has been flipped; Madrid starts with the ball. Players take formation. The whistle is blown, and the ball has been passed.
It’s 12:45 pm, game time. I'm in heaven.
As a soccer player and fan, I can go on endlessly discussing the player’s performances and techniques (Bale and Marcelo are truly impressive in person). However, the truth of pilgrimage is not the sight itself, but the experience of the journey. Among the 80,000 in attendance, including myself, many travelled all over the world for the opportunity to experience this. Childhood dreams realised. I am at the heart of a global pilgrimage. If there is a soccer god, I thank thee.
The game ends in a 2-1 win for Real Madrid. As I exit the stadium, and head towards my lonely AirBnb. I've come to the realisation this only my first day in Madrid. What a way to start a trip eh?
For football/soccer nerds, here was the starting eleven of Real Madrid (433):
Courtois. Odriozola, Ramos, Varane, Marcelo. Casemiro, Kroos, Modric. Bale, Benzema, Isco.