Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Spain Part 2

I used to think the best sporting event I ever attended was the Canada-US game at the 1987 Canada Cup. Lemieux, Messier, Gretzky, Hawerchuk, Gilmour, Coffey, Borque all on the same team. Lemieux had a hat trick in a 3-2 win.

Then I went to Spain.

* * *

I only purchased two tickets to see AC Milan play Atletico Madrid. When we were planning the trip, my daughter did not want to go to a game and my wife did not think it wise to look into babysitting services so far from home.

My son wasn’t sure about going. We’d watched Atleti and Barca play to 0-0 draw earlier in the year and the boy said Atleti coach Diego Simeone looked like a very bad man.  An evil man. At one point in the game, he actually hid behind me on the couch. (Simeone does look like the bad guy from a 1980s Kurt Russel film).

If I had known what we were in for, I would have purchased four tickets and I would have worn a GoPro camera on my head.

If the Barcelona game was like Christmas, the Atleti game was like Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, New Year’s Eve and my 19th birthday compressed into about three hours.

* * *

At Alonso Martinez Metro the crowds were already thick. We squeezed into a subway car full of red and white striped fans of all ages. At each stop more people somehow managed to crush in. People sang and chanted on the subway. Old men chatted to the boy in Spanish and rustled his hair.

Crowds can feel crushing and crowds can feel ominous but there was almost a giddiness to this experience - a bubbling over of good will and happy expectations.

We emerged from Piramides metro into an ever larger crush of people. I had no idea how to get to Vicente Calderón Stadium but our lack of directions didn’t matter, if we had stood still we would have been carried there by the crowds.

The size and mood of the crowd reminded me of when the Jays won the World Series in 1993, but this was pre-game. It was as if someone was running the film in reverse – the elated crowds going back into the stadium.

Flares were going off. There were giant homemade banners. The gutters were overflowing with beer bottles and plastic cups. Everywhere people congregated they were signing and happy. It was amazing. And it was soon to get better.

One of my most vivid childhood memories is my annual trip to Maple Leaf Gardens with my dad. He’d get us one game in the greens each year.  We’d enter off Carlton Street and head for these narrow escalators with their round, crenelated handles. When you stepped off the escalators, if you looked through the narrow entries into the seats, you’d get your first glimpse of the ice. The TV lights made it so bright and vivid, the massive Dominion score clock hanging from the iconic roof, a shocking whiteness to that light and to the ice that I've rarely, if ever, seen replicated.

Vicente Calderón Stadium looks like it might be of the same vintage as Maple Leaf Gardens. It has the cinder block and chain link aesthetic I associate with Buffalo – either the old Aud or Ralph Wilson stadium. It might be the most bare bones sporting venue I’ve ever seen.

After passing through the turnstile, we entered into a wide tunnel where one security agent kindly held my son’s hand and had a friendly chat with him while I was frisked by another (note to self – give the contraband to the boy to carry).

The entrance to our seats was just to the left, as we passed through it I was taken aback by the stadium lights, the green of the pitch and the proximity of the field. I had not prepared myself for the shock of entering right at field level at the half-way line. 

Suddenly, I was the eight year old boy back at Maple Leaf Gardens, surprised by the whiteness of the lights and the startling proximity of the field of play. We could almost touch the grass.

The entire stadium was a pixilated mass of red and white. Flags, banners, signs, even the railings at field level were carrying Atleti’s colours. And the noise. Oh my, the noise. We were at least 20 minutes to kick-off and the crowd was in full voice. The supporters section full of drums, all of them jumping and bouncing.

I finally pulled the boy away from the field-level rail and we walked up to our seats. They were filthy. Plastic bucket chairs that wouldn’t have been out of place at Exhibition stadium in 1979. They likely hadn’t been cleaned since 1979. There had to be an inch of sunflower seed shells trapped in the rim of my chair. The boy’s had a solid patina of bird droppings. The group in front of us brought newspapers and spread them out on their seats before sitting down. They were clearly old pros.

We were given red and white flags to wave and we joined the throng. The stadium reverberating with songs, drums, chants, jumping fans. It felt like more energy was being expended per minute than at 41 Leafs games at the ACC combined.

When the teams emerged (Milan in uniforms that called to mind Elvis’ gold lame phase) the roar was something you felt more than heard. 

I was into it, so was the boy.

Our seats were sensational, 16 rows up from mid-field. Even over the roar of the crowd we were close enough to hear the players calling out, arguing calls, scuffing the ball.

The fans surrounding us were great. When an AC Milan player got a yellow that I did not understand, the man to left my did his best to explain in simple English: “When he fall on floor he hand the ball.” (Confession: my Spanish is so pitiful that it was only after about 10 minutes of fans randomly screaming “Asiento!” that I realized they weren't cheering on a player or calling for a play, they were telling other fans to take to their seats so we could see the game.)

When Diego Costa opened the scoring just a few minutes in the stadium boiled over.  The fans, already at a fever pitch, somehow found another more frenetic level. The boy stood on his seat and waved his flag joyously, screaming alongside the 50,000 supporters.

My little Barca fan, terrified of Diego Simeone, had been swept up in the fever and joined the masses. 

When Raul Garcia just missed on an incredible bicycle kick before the half, it was as if 100,000 arms went into the air in exclaiming "if only!" 

At half time, we took to the bowels of the stadium in search of snacks. The boy tried his first ever Coca-Cola, which he did not like claiming it tasted like donuts. I, wisely, stuck to beer.

The second half was all Atleti and we did our best to sing and chant along "Ole, ole, ole, Cholo Simeone!"

It was an incredible experience to be a part of -- the fans were so welcoming, so passionate and so enthralled by the game -- I’ve never experienced anything like it.

And then Atleti scored their fourth and final goal. It was bedlam. The gentlemen to my left pulled off his Atleti scarf and gave it to the boy who accepted it with wide-eyed enthusiasm. We joined the chorus shouting “Atleti! Atleti! Atleti!”

The night was complete. It couldn’t get any better.

And then the film was played the right way through – tens of thousands of elated fans spilling out of the stadium and into the narrow streets of southwest Madrid. Deliriously happy. The crowds continue to sing, chant, celebrate and congregate around the few bars that were open. 

The boy, smiling broadly, carried both our flags and wore his new Atleti scarf.

As we approached Piramides Metro, he did have one moment of startling clarity: he begged me to turn on my phone to check the Barcelona – Man City score.

* * *

Three small post-scripts:

My son has carefully hung his Barcelona FC and Atletico Madrid scarves on his bedroom door with a team Spain “a por ellos” scarf acting as a demilitarized zone of sorts. I occasionally have a guilty pang (wracked with guilt is a better term) that the Atleti scarf was only for the boy to wave or to hold, that it wasn't for him to take and keep from that kind fan. It’s a lovely 10 year anniversary scarf 1993-2003 and I only hope the gentleman who passed it over realizes how happy it’s made my son.

The boy is no longer terrified of Diego Simeone.

Even though I occasionally hear the boy somewhere in the house chanting “Atleti, Atleti, Atleti” or even singing “Oh Simeone!” (to the Macarena), his heart remains with Barcelona. When the teams drew against each other in the UEFA Champions league quarter finals he was quite sad as he knew one team had to lose and be eliminated.  With that elimination game just hours away, he wants Barcelona to win – but only just. He doesn’t want Atleti to lose in a blow out.  Ever the realist, he also said that if any team is going to eliminate Barca, it’s best that it be Atleti...

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