As a true sports nut, I have spent the last few years of my life trying to become a fan of futbol, the world’s most popular sport. I spent the summer watching random American national team games as they prepare for the World Cup, but I had never really invested myself in the world of European club futbol.
Since coming to Madrid, however, that’s been a topic that has been impossible to avoid. Since I was born in a city without professional sports, I’ve always found that it’s fun to root for the local teams that people care about, and have jumped on the bandwagon for all of the Dallas franchises accordingly since arriving at SMU.
Here, of course, the team that is most often discussed on the news is Real Madrid, the club that, until the recent domination of rival FC Barcelona, had been the answer to the rest of Europe’s questions regarding whether Spanish clubs can keep up with the perceived superiority of the English teams.
This off-season they made giant acquisitions that couldn’t help but be the top stories on American news and sports outlets, by spending over $200 million solely for the rights to pay millions of dollars of annual salary to two of the world’s top players: Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Brazil’s Kaka.
It can truthfully be stated that since I arrived in Spain the nightly news is dominated by two figures: Prime Minister Zapatero and Ronaldo. I came here expecting to root heartily for the renewed-dominance of Real Madrid and excitedly anticipated the opportunity to watch their matches amongst a fan base stronger than any I had before experienced.
Then, I remembered why futbol has been so difficult for me to watch in the past: the players falling, grabbing their shins, howling at the referees while ignoring the game going on around them. There were multiple times a game when a referee would call for a stretcher to be brought out onto the field because of what could only be perceived as possible paralysis and at the very least a severe concussion, only to have the player hop right up, hobble for two steps, and then start running again at full speed. Say what you will about the off-field antics of American professional athletes, but there’s no doubt that they’re tough, and when they struggle to get off the ground, no one in the room yells at them for being a baby or trying to stall the game.
I was therefore a tad hesitant when I heard that most of the people in our program were going to the Real Madrid match last Saturday against Tenrife, a smaller club from the Canary Islands in its first year on the top level of La Liga. This hesitation not only stemmed from the 45 euro (~$65) price for my second-to-last-row seat in the giant stadium, but also because I wasn’t sure I could root for Madrid after watching certain players whine and out-talent their way to beating teams with less than 10 percent of their budget. I’ve always hated the Yankees, and now I was paying to see them play.
However, all of those thoughts were quickly erased as soon as I stepped off the metro at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu and for the first time saw the commotion and pageantry that was a premier European futbol match. It was truly breathtaking and surreal. The mom and pop tiendas were selling everything from knock-off jerseys to “real” jerseys to peanuts and popcorn and what appeared to be some homemade fudge. The bars surrounding the stadium were packed with fans of both clubs armed with megaphones and a lack of shame.
In stark contrast to many of the problems surrounding the tailgating at American locales, the fans here were packed into the stadium a half hour before the game, and we heard rumors that they wouldn’t allow us in after play began. Whether or not that was true, we weren’t brave enough to find out.
I’ve always told people who don’t believe me that hockey is a fun sport to watch – that they simply need to go to a live game and they won’t be able to leave their seats. Well I suppose I should take that captivation and multiply it by at least five to describe the feelings of anxiety and thrill that controlled my body for 90 minutes.
At both halftime and at the end of the game I stood up and felt a little woozy from the fact that I had been intently staring at the same place for 45 consecutive minutes. At no point except for halftime did anyone in my section get up to use the restroom or visit the concessions, and there were no campy promotions on the field or scoreboard during the game. Trust me, the two action-packed hours were far more enjoyable than the languid three to four hours of a typical baseball or football game.
There’s also the fact that futbol is so much more mesmerizing to watch from the live audience’s perspective, and for the first time I was forced to appreciate just how much better these players were than any that I’ve ever seen live before. The close-ups and reverse angles to which I’ve become accustomed on television really don’t do justice to the acumen and fluidity of every participant in the game, even those 50 yards from the ball. Their pinpoint passes and smart running patterns allowed every fan with the slightest sense of geometry to anticipate the big play a few seconds before it happened, which in turn built the tension of the stadium as everyone slowly rose and picked up their voices.
The culminating explosion of either cheers or groans, depending on the play’s outcome, were some of the loudest unified noises I’ve ever heard people make. No wave or “Let’s go” chants were necessary, the players knew the crowd was there, and the heightened sense of reality that was felt amongst the fans, through every trial on the field, made friends of strangers and left no one feeling apathetic or distracted at the game’s pivotal moments.
Real Madrid won the game 3-0 and I came away with a scarf and a Kaka jersey that will in some way adorn the walls of my room back in Dallas. I also came away with a new appreciation for a sport that I had been struggling to understand.
It isn’t the hard-hitting, gritty, simulated warfare that has permeated the American sports scene. Rather, it’s a game of finesse, thought, and execution, while at the same time testing a person’s endurance and strength in a way that guarantees only the fittest athletes will succeed. It’s a game and a culture that embraces the eccentricities and flashiness of its stars as opposed to expecting them to be boring political figures as we do.
In the end, though, it’s honestly just something that you need to experience for yourself. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.