It is now over. As I write this, we all know what happened during the World Cup—we know about the wins and the losses and that head butt. Ah, that head butt, the butt that France will never forget.
Before it all, though, I had the rather unique and unexpected opportunity to visit that shrine to Spanish soccer, the stadium of Real Madrid.
I can already hear the Catalans wincing—did I say shrine to Spanish soccer? But what about their beloved Barcelona? Fear not. In order to balance things out, I visited the Real stadium in the company of a man born and raised in Barcelona, a loyal Barca fan from the depths of his dark eyes to the tips of his Catalan toes. It was he who translated the running commentary provided by the attractive young lady who was our tour guide, all the while adding a number of comments of his own.
He began by giving me an overview of the Real team: “Beckham sells shirts. They all sell shirts. In fact, the whole team consists of famous men who are too old to play football but who are very good at selling shirts.”
“Ronaldo isn’t that old, is he?”
“No, he’s just fat.”
This introduction was delivered as we walked down to the pitch to visit the players’ bench. This consisted of a nifty little roof-thingy under which were rows of seats, in which we were allowed to sit. I, for one, thought the seats were very nice, kind of like the seats in a Jaguar. They were heated, too, although they didn’t turn on the heat for us.
The stadium was empty except for us and a couple of other groups of tourists. The field looks a lot bigger in person than it does on television. A man drove a riding mower back and forth and back and forth over the enormous pitch, and I couldn’t help wonder how long it takes one person to cut all that grass. The smell of mowed grass filled the air.
As we wiggled our butts (did I say butt? alas) on the Jaguar seats, I listened to the truly awful song that leaked from speakers over our heads.
“What the hell is that music?” I asked my Catalan friend.
“Terrible, isn’t it. It’s the Real song.”
“They have a song?”
“Yes, they do. It’s horrible.”
I tried to make out a few words, but my Spanish is nonexistent. My friend leaned over again: “The Barca song is much better,” he said.
We were led by the tour guide down the tunnel through which the players enter. It’s very nice, all blue and white—Real’s colors. We then proceeded into the visiting players’ locker room.
The one thing that immediately struck me in the locker room was the smell. The locker room smelled exactly of nothing. There was no smell. I, for one, associate locker rooms with a smell that is far from nothing, that instead reeks of people who have just engaged in a lot of unrestrained sweating, but this locker room didn’t smell at all. And it was clean. Not just clean as in “hygienic” but clean as in your mother’s kitchen. Amazing. I’m still not entirely convinced that this particular locker room has ever really been used by actual sweaty men. Maybe it’s a mock-up, a reproduction of the real locker room that’s preserved someplace else, not open to the public, so that the flashes of cameras don’t degrade the artwork or something. I’m not even sure any of the conveniences really function, since the shower rooms, Jacuzzis, and toilets were all cordoned off by blue-and-white security ropes.
After the locker room, we made our way through a series of staircases and passages to the trophy room.
If I ran Real, I would make sure that before every game, the opposing players were forced to go through the trophy room to get to their locker room (wherever the real one might be). The trophy room is more of a trophy-room complex, where different rooms succeed each other, each filled with wall-to-ceiling trophies. In front of the entrance is a little plaque declaring that Real Madrid is the most winning sporting club in history.
I’m not quite sure how you could calculate that, when it really comes down to it. For one thing, as is the case with many sports clubs in Europe, Real is not only a soccer team but a basketball/handball/God-knows-what-else team. I have no doubt that the sum total of all their various wins from all their various teams comes to something quite impressive—I’ve seen the trophies, after all—but how do you really compare? That being said, even my Catalan friend admitted that they are, indeed, a team that has won a lot of trophies.
“But then, they were founded in 1902,” he pointed out. “It’s true, they used to be very good. That was before Barca became so dominant.”
Just behind him was a small plaque commemorating Real’s victory over Barca in the 1943 semifinals of the Spanish league. Eleven to 1.
“Come on, that’s really bad.”
My friend looked at the plaque. “Yeah, that’s really bad.”
The trophies are more interesting than you would think. For one thing, they are very varied. For instance, there are … a lot (OK, so I didn’t have time to count them) of Spanish-league trophies, but, for some strange reason, those from 1960, 1978,1982, and 1988 are all bigger. Through my friend, I asked the attractive tour guide why, but she just looked at me strangely.
“Are you sure you’re translating properly?” I asked my friend.
“He’s translating properly,” she replied in English. “I just don’t know what you mean.”
“The ones from those years are larger. Why? There doesn’t seem to be a pattern to it—were the crops particularly good that year or something?”
She looked at her watch and said, “Oops, got to be moving on.”
The most impressive trophies, though, are not the league trophies or the championship league trophies, nor any of the trophies you’d ever have heard of—no, the most interesting trophies are the really weird ones, trophies from little summer excursions to out-of-the-way places like Taiwan. (“They take summer trips so they can sell more shirts,” explained my Catalan friend.) One of them looked like a medieval oven and another one looked like … well, I can’t really describe it. Let’s just say a big weird metal thing.
“How did they get these trophies?” I asked my friend.
“They probably beat the local high-school team with their third-tier players, then sold them lots of shirts.”
Which explains a lot.
At the end of the trophy exhibition was a large panel with the pictures of last season’s Real players. I was surprised to see the great Portuguese player Luís Figo.
“I didn’t know Figo played for Madrid,” I said.
My friend clenched his teeth. “You’re kidding? They bought him from us in 2000. We call him Figo Iscariot.”
The trophy room was the last stop on the tour. After that, we were led into the inevitable gift shop, where we could have bought all kinds of horribly kitsch things, and where, of course, we found rack after rack after rack of shirts.
During the World Cup, most of the “old men” of Real ended up proving that they can still play football as well as sell shirts … and, of course, one of them showed that he can still throw a head butt. Alas.