Real Madrid 3 Sparta Prague 0 (12/03/2002)
Several pints of beer, hardwood flooring and an extremely crusty ham roll aren’t always ideal bedfellows. Especially when you wake up in your hotel room and realise your late night snack turned the floor into an almost psychedelic arrangement of crusty flaky patterns that seemed unnoticeable when watching the late night tv. Ham is very big in Madrid, especially around the Puerta del Sol, where the “Palace of Ham” and the “Museum of Ham” vie for trade. Slightly more downmarket are the late night purveyors of nearly stale ham rolls, providing a beer-goggles tempting snack for the English, but are merely a starter for the Spanish. At least I was drunk. I’ve no idea what the Spaniard’s excuse for eating them was. But at least I was less drunk than an Irishman I’d got chatting to a few hours earlier in a pub down the road. He had the most impenetrable Irish accent I’ve ever heard, not helped by him adding “…am I roight?” to every sentence he uttered. What I did manage to get out of him was that he wasn’t even meant to be in Madrid. He was meant to be in Cheltenham for the horse-racing instead, but his mates, for a laugh, got him drunk and bought him a one-way ticket to Madrid instead. Other than that the pub was a great, if not exactly authentic introduction to Spain’s capital city, even if the thick iron doors of the toilet cubicle made you think somewhere there was a ship missing part of its hull.
My first stop the following day, visiting a less Irish part of the city, was a visit to the Bernabeu, just down the road from two remarkably leaning office building, which must be a vertigo sufferer’s nightmare to work in. From the outside the Bernabeu isn’t the most beautiful of stadiums, with its “Hey, it’s the 70s and we’ve got concrete…and lots of it” look, but it’s what’s inside that’s important. The three tiers of seats just shriek “look at me, I’m huge!”, but it’s the trophy room, or rooms to be exact, that hits you the most. Even the most bitter of cynics would find it hard to be impressed by the European cup room, where the multitude of European cups won by the club surround you, just when you think you’d otherwise been numbed into trophy apathy by the overbearing collection leading up to that point. Some of the other trophies were bizarre. One was a metre tall and designed to look like a castle tower, making it look like the world’s largest chess set was missing a rook.
Most importantly though, I was able to get a ticket for the match the following night. With Spanish clubs then (an now it still seems) refusing to get caught up the passing fad of that new-fangled interweb thingy, buying a ticket in advance wasn’t possible. I just guessed that a Champions League group match v Sparta Prague wouldn’t be sold out. Having gone to Madrid in February, I hadn’t exactly gone for the weather – just as well as the weather was like an English…errr…well “summer” this year, and a soggy few days in Madrid with no football at all wasn’t what I had planned.
For the fullest, which some might also read as “saddest” football experience I also trekked out to see the city’s two other central clubs. Rayo Vallecano was the easiest to get to, with a metro stop right outside. Getting in was less easy. Not being able to just stroll in, which is usually the case at most continental European ground, I asked a security guard if I could dash in. He spoke no English, but through the power of mime, and that what I’d always thought was an almost uniquely English habit of speaking louder in the belief that extra volume would make the other person understand, he indicated that I should go under something called the “campo”, and pointed round the side.
Following round the side I came across a group looking like a group of visitors with a guide. The guide also spoke no English, but some of his group translated my request. He was then equally insistent on where I should go in, but pointed me back in the direction of the first guard. Not wishing to be the ball in a game of Spanish ping-pong, I gave up a looked for another way in. Sadly there wasn’t one. What I did find was a wall behind one end which, if you stood on it, would offer a decent view of the ground. Or at least it would do if the club hadn’t decided to put up some advertising hoardings, no doubt for that very same reason. There come times in your life when you consider that the benefits of your actions probably aren’t worth the risk. My decision to climb that wall, and lean out over the edge, with a long drop to highly likely death on the other side if I slipped, just to get a couple of photos of the ground, probably wasn’t wise. Mind you, what I saw was a decent little ground, with two smart two-tier stands down either side, and two slim end – in fact the near end was so thin as to have to room at all for spectators. I liked the ground though, kind of quirky. If I lived in Madrid, Rayo Vallecano would be my team.
A couple of miles or so west lies the home of Atletico Madrid. Their ground is located in one of those areas which seem so typical of southern Europe, with a lot of building work clearly supposed to be happening, but nobody around actually doing any of it, as if they’ve been on a siesta since about 1975. The short cut to the ground was through a park. I say “park” as that’s clearly what is was supposed to be, but if parks are meant to be a city’s lungs, these were the blackened lungs of an 80-a-day man. I think the ambience was set early on when you realised that the numerous tramps who’d chosen the area as the class abode of choice, had also seemingly decided to take the liberating step of deciding the stairs leading down would make an excellent al fresco public convenience. To be fair, they did seem to have made some kind of effort to keep it all to the side of the steps, but it did feel like I was walking between a turd-based guard of honour as I entered the park. The park itself appeared to have a “minimalistic” feel to the more typical things you expect to find in a park. Concrete and baked-hard mud were more of a theme than grass and trees. There was a kiddies play area, where a concrete set of steps leading nowhere stood in isolation. Whether they were built, or were an undemolished part of a house was less obvious, but anyone who regards that as a child’s play thing must really hate children.
From that, that stadium could hardly fail to be an improvement. It’d even had curtain-wall glass all round the outside, which looked a lot better than exposed concrete, even if it did have a certain 80s feel to it that made you expect a yuppie with a walkie-talkie sized mobile phone to pop out and jump into Golf GTi at any second. Atletico’s stadium is impressive. It lacks the grandeur of the Bernabeu, but with two large tiers of red and white striped seats, it has a big but unpretentious look about it, and it looks like the one that’d have the much better atmosphere on matchday.
I arrived for the match at the Bernabeu far too early. It didn’t seem far too early, as there were loads of other people around the stadium. What I didn’t realise is that they weren’t going in. And they weren’t going in because the inside of the Bernabeu is more barren that an 80 year old woman’s ovaries, and probably less appealing. Now I wouldn’t claim that concourses at English grounds are typically charming places, not unless you enjoy the feeling of being in a bus station, but for the first half an hour at least of my time there, there was absolutely nothing for sale anywhere. I don’t usually go to a ground with refreshment being a main priority, but on the whole I’d rather there be the opportunity should I feel the need. Eventually the snack bars did open, but it was a big hello to my old friend Mr Crusty/Stale ham roll or crisps. It filled you up, in perhaps the same way that eating gravel would, but could hardly be termed something you’d seek out out of choice.
Instead I made my way to my excellent seat, directly behind goal in the middle tier (a bargain 7.50 euros) and waited for the crowd to arrive. As kick-off approached I realised that the crowd weren’t go to arrive, at least not in any great numbers, but there was just about enough to get that buzz of anticipation. A shame, as the Bernabeu is one of those venues that really comes to life under floodlights, with the stands bringing 78,000 people (or about 30,000 tonight) close up to the players. The fact that the main stand is completely open somehow makes the place more impressive than if it was fully symmetrical and enclosed, although it has to be said the arrangement of seats in that stand is something of a mess.
The game itself wasn’t a high-octane affair. Real were already through, and Sparta were already out. Sparta’s ambition looked to be to avoid defeat, while Real Madrid knocked the ball about in a lazy languid style that seemed designed to convince the fans that they really could score if they put their mind to it, but had better things to do.
Below me a chant leader tried his best to implore the fans around him to voice with the aid of his loud-hailer, but he was roundly ignored as the fans seemed to do their best to appear as cool and unruffled as the players, who probed for openings like a bored child prodding a dead fly with a pencil.
For an hour it looked like Sparta’s desire for a morale and bank balance improving point might have come to fruition, but like the “crack” East European teams of comic-book legend, Real Madrid suddenly adopted their “special tactic” and burst into life for 15 glorious minutes. As if they were just saving all their energy for this one little spell, they carved Sparta up like an ice-sculpture, making ball, team, and opposition all dance to their tune. Three goals followed, and it ought to have been more, with the near misses greeted by the Spanish “ooooooshhhh”, which doesn’t seem to exist in other countries.
And as suddenly as the action started, it ceased, as if to tell the crowd the show was over and there’d be no encore, so you could leave now if you wanted. After all, with the game kicking off at 8.45pm, it was getting towards 11 O’Clock – and in Spain that’s about time to start getting ready to go out. It might have been a long night for the Sparta defence, but for the rest here in the city, it’d only just begun.