Monday, April 07, 2014

Spain: Part 1

Some kids rebel by growing their hair long, others drop out of school. I sometimes think my son rebelled by rejecting hockey.

I play hockey two to three times a week year 'round. I sit on the board of a community hockey league and even ran my own one-day tourney last year.

From the age of three, the boy has wanted nothing to do with hockey. Won’t play it, discuss it or even watch it on TV. He sulked through the last Leafs game I took him to. I didn't even bother asking him if he wanted to go to a game at the ACC this year.

When the boy was in grade one, he came home from school one day with questions about Lionel Messi and a team called Barcelona. Soon thereafter, we were regularly watching youtube clips and La Liga highlights together.

It wasn't long before he was coming home from school asking questions about transfer windows and what players would generate the highest fees.

For his seventh birthday he asked his grandmother for a number 10 Barcelona jersey. When he turned eight, it was a Messi Argentina World Cup jersey.

He sometimes struggles with maths but can easily explain the away goal rule and calculate which team needs to score what to win on aggregate.

Last year, when our family went to Washington D.C. for March break, I asked the boy what he most wanted to do. His request? Watch the second leg of AC Milan vs. Barcelona at a bar or restaurant that served chicken fingers.

We went. He wore his Messi jersey, ate his chicken fingers, and boldly predicted a 4-0 Barcelona win. 

The boy was into that game. He screamed in delight with each goal, yelled at each chance and was positively elated that his team won. I think he did a lap of our section when Barca went up 3-0. He didn't even brag that he got the score right.

It might be the most fun I've ever had watching sports on TV.

* * *

This past March break, we took the kids to Spain for two weeks.

On our third day there, still jet lagged, we all went to Camp Nou to see Barcelona play Almeira.

It was magic.

It was dark when we emerged from the Collblanc metro stop. The game didn't start until 9PM. Camp Nou is only about 600 metres away from the station but it doesn’t reveal itself at first. A block and a half stroll through a few narrow streets with the growing crowds and suddenly there it is – huge lighting stands atop the stadium creating a corona in the night sky, the structure lit like an enormous spaceship on the horizon.

The boy was humming with excitement as we walked up to the stadium, pausing for dozens of photos before we got to our gate. Drinking it all in. A curious mix of excitement and acute observation. He told me getting to go to the game was better than Christmas Eve.

We bought a bag of Barca brand patatas fritas and a few Fanta Naranjas from a tiny concession stand tucked away behind the seats and access stairs and then took to our seats in the middle deck.

There was an entire row of grandmothers behind us eating bocadillos brought from home. Other families appeared to have brought entire picnics to the match. It was clear we weren't in the corporate confines of a North American stadium.

The boy watched warm-ups with his mouth agape. Alves, Neymar, Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, Puyols - his Sunday afternoon heroes just a few hundred yards away. And there they were doing some of the same drills he does each Sunday at soccer.

We sang the Barca Anthem (clap clap clap) and then the game began. He was mesmerized. Huge stretches of football passed and I don’t think he even blinked. He roared when Alexis opened the scoring and leapt out of his seat like a rocket when Messi made it 2-0 with a beautiful curling free kick over the wall, high fiving the fans sitting around us.

My pouting distracted boy from Leaf games past had been replaced by a kid who was equal parts fixation and euphoric. I could almost feel the happiness exuding from him, like it was palpable.

He chanted like a madman standing with the crowd when Puyols, in his return from injury, bundled in a goal right beneath us to make it 3-1. Xavi's strike late in the game brought him out of his seat one more time.

The boy declared seeing Barca play as "Better than Christmas."

We stayed long after the 4-1 final. Taking photos, re-living the goals, chattering about Puyol’s return (the funny video of him heading flower pots to save a flight attendant) and wondering about who might replace Valdes in net next year (I tease him it will be Begovic).

Even my daughter, who didn't want to go to the game, was a convert, taken in by the quickness of Neymar and the spectacle of the game.

* * *

Often the stories we tell, the stories that help shape us and become part of our lexicon, take a while to form and even longer to burnish. Our night at Camp Nou was one of those rare moments where you're aware of the weight and significance of an event as you experience it. It was already a story we were telling post-game in the stadium and re-telling as midnight approached and our family strolled together towards Collblanc Metro to catch a subway home, with five more wonderful days in Barcelona to look forward to...

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