None of us are die hard sports fans. Scott loves playing basketball, he played high school basketball and a year of college basketball and now he plays with the kids in the front yard. He likes watching sports on TV occasionally, he’s even been talking about eating potato chips and watching Monday Night Football when we get home. He usually knows what’s going on in the world of basketball and we all watch tennis or golf as a family sometimes, but it’s more likely that we are out hiking or playing tennis or getting something done around the house.
When we finally decided on Italy and Spain as the second chapter in our yearlong adventure, Scott said, “We should go to a soccer game while we are in Spain. It’s part of the culture (we really had no idea how much of the culture) and it would be so much fun.” So, he looked at the schedule and low and behold, Real Madrid would be playing Barcelona in El Clasico or “The Classic” while we were Spain.
I know nothing and care little about sports, but going to a soccer match in Spain sounded interesting and Scott was really excited about the idea (and he does things for me like take a year off to travel), so we purchased tickets for the November 21st game in Madrid, Spain. My only caveat was that I didn’t want seats where we might get trampled. You see, people getting trampled at soccer games are the sports facts that register in my mind, these are the things that I worry about, and of course, I never worry about the right (real?) things, but I try hard to cover all the bases (or maybe I should say goals since the topic is soccer). We purchased the non-trampling seats and Scott got to work reading everything he could find about El Clasico.
The competition between Madrid and Barcelona is all kinds of interesting and goes way beyond a healthy sports rivalry. I was starting to feel lazy after we left Italy and I was no longer trying to wrap my head around the Roman Empire, but the history between Madrid and Barcelona is just as complicated (just kidding history buffs / not really soccer fans) because the contention and competition between the two teams represents modern history and ongoing news in Spain.
Barcelona and Madrid, the two largest cities in Spain, are less than 400 miles apart but they are separated by 125 years of rivalry beyond the soccer field. When you watch a match between the two teams it is evidently about more than just soccer. You are watching Spanish nationalism (Real Madrid) versus Catalan nationalism (Barcelona) fueled by the past, present and future of millions of passionate fans and citizens and represented by the soccer players that are the pieces on the giant chess board of El Clasico.
Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, a region located in northeastern Spain. Proud of its history, language, and culture, Catalonia holds its identity separate from Spain as a whole and is one of Spain’s richest and most highly industrialized regions. As early as the 1930s, the Barcelona soccer team became a symbol of Catalonia and the organization was high on a list of groups to be purged by Francisco Franco’s government. Still today, Catalonia has its own politics, economics and language (that was almost wiped out by Franco) and would like to be its own independent nation. Madrid, the capital of Spain, is smack dab in the middle of the Iberian Peninsula wielding power over Catalonia, and representing the rest of Spain while trying to keep the country together. Ironically, in all of the reading that I have done trying to understand the current political issues in Spain, most news articles refer to the two different sides as “Barcelona” and “Madrid” just like they are the opposing soccer teams by the same name.
The soccer rivalry is regarded as one of the biggest in the sport’s world. The two clubs are among the richest and most successful football clubs in the world and in 2014 they were ranked the world’s two most valuable sports teams. El Clasico is now the name given to every match played between these two factions and in the approximately 100 years that they have been battling it out on the soccer field, it’s historically fairly even.
Sounds interesting and complicated, right? It turned out to be so much more than a lesson in politics and a soccer game in Spain. It turned out to be one of the scariest things I have ever done and a lesson in faith and a demonstration of love and living. The attacks in Paris happened one week before the soccer match in Madrid. I was nervous about getting trampled when we bought the tickets and all of a sudden we had tickets to one of the biggest sporting events in the world, one week after a terrorist attack in Europe that had included a soccer stadium.
We drove into Madrid on Friday evening, one week after the attacks. Madrid is a big city and our hotel felt like it was in the middle of Times Square. There were people everywhere and we had to park in a parking garage about ¼ mile from our hotel and carry our luggage through the throngs of people. As we checked in, the man behind the desk explained that it was a very busy weekend because of the important soccer game.
Our rooms looked over a large plaza where people milled about and watched street performers. There were police cars in every direction. I don’t know if it was increased security because of the Paris attacks or just a normal busy El Clasico weekend. We walked around a bit, found a good dinner of recognizable food and went back to the hotel to relax.
I asked Scott if he was nervous and he said yes. He said, “We have to go to the soccer game. We have to teach the kids that if you go to the game, terrorism loses and if you stay home terrorism wins.” I knew that. I know that. I was still scared. We read the news reports. There would be over 1000 police from the national force, 1400 private security guards and the municipal police. According to Spain’s Interior Minister, the game would have the “highest security operation” at a sporting event in history, as he put it, “draconian security measures.” I couldn’t sleep that night. We watched movies on Netflix until late and then slept for a few hours. We could hear people outside all night long laughing and screaming. There were sirens. A loud bang woke me up about 2 o’clock, Scott was already awake and looking out the window. It was nothing. We laid in bed awake. Scott read to me about the Valley of the Fallen and Francisco Franco. I think I dozed off. I was relieved when it was daylight.
Santiago Bernabéu Stadium
We took the metro and walked to get to the game on Saturday night. The whole evening felt surreal.
It’s hard to describe. There were so many people and police. The police were standing everywhere you looked, very still, watching the sea of people. The kids were scared. Grant said to me, “The policemen have their hands on their guns.”
We walked one way around the huge arena trying to figure out where our entrance was located.
We were on the wrong side so we turned around and made our way through the throng of people to our gate where every person was thoroughly patted down and searched before being allowed to enter. All of these steps made me feel better and like Scott commented, once we were off of the street and into the stadium he felt safer. We found our seats and looked out over the giant soccer pitch.
Like I said, I’m not a soccer fan, not a sports fan, but this place was beautiful and impressive and so bright. The sky was just darkening and you could still make out the contrasting clouds overhead. We were about twenty five minutes early and we watched fans fill the seats. There were kids everywhere and so many happy and excited faces. I loved that this giant soccer stadium that can hold over 85,000 spectators was full of excited people, loving their sport and living their lives.
The players ran out onto the field as they were introduced, the giant screens flashed names and numbers and fans cheered and booed, cameras flashed and the woman in front of us posed for her twentieth selfie (I kid you not).
Fans were asked to hold white squares of paper to turn the stadium white in support of Real Madrid while their anthem played and people sang along. There was more than excitement that charged the atmosphere. Of course people were in the stadium to cheer on their beloved teams, but they were also in the stadium to live their lives, to not be afraid; or maybe like us to go to the soccer game regardless of fear because that is the way to live.
I couldn’t find my square of paper and it didn’t matter because I was taking pictures and as I looked around, I saw so much determination and solidarity in the people around me. The national police force was stationed everywhere; you could see them on the field, every twenty feet of so staring up at the crowd and positioned on every level, a reminder of the terrible events in Paris and a reminder that hate and violence can be lurking anywhere and life is so fragile.
Then the moment of silence to honor those killed in the Paris attacks was announced and the rowdy crowd was completely silent. Silence in a stadium of 85,000 people is a powerful and beautiful thing.
Tears streamed down more than one face, France’s flag was unfurled and to me it was like a symbol of strength and resilience of all the people in the world that are loving and peaceful and simply want to live their lives, experience their paths.
The game began and it was fun and exciting. I was impressed at how incredibly athletic the soccer players are and also at how dramatic some of them act. As you might know, it wasn’t much of a soccer match, Barcelona won 4-0 and you didn’t need to be a soccer fan to see that Madrid didn’t play well.
The fans are crazy, and I mean that in good way. Just a few minutes into the game people in our section were looking and shouting and pointing and I thought, “oh no…” but it was only a man who couldn’t find his seat and he was blocking the view. We were sitting in a mix of Barcelona and Madrid fans and so there was drama, excitement and frustration most of the game.
El Clasico was one of “those experiences” and you know what I mean. It was like ordering something reasonably safe and familiar at your favorite restaurant and being suddenly transported to a different planet for a ten course meal; a lot to process. Terrorism is in the news often and it’s a horrible thing and yet it has always only been a news story to me. I remember flipping through the news channels in disbelief on 9/11 and I have visited the memorial in New York City, but I still feel a disconnect even though I am so sad for all of the suffering, the loss of lives, the families that miss their loved ones every day, our country and the whole world that sees and feels this ongoing hate. I have never had a real connection until I was taking my family to a huge sporting event a week after a terrorist attack and there were police everywhere and a palpable feeling that being safe in one’s environment is not to be taken for granted because it is only an illusion. I don’t pretend to think that I have an understanding of terrorism or that I can empathize with those that have experienced it, but the experience of being afraid to go to the soccer game gave us all a different awareness.