There be giants

Asensio scores. Photo: PA
SUNDAY morning in Madrid. The thermometer is heading north of 22 degrees, the streets are relatively quiet and strewn with remnants of the night before, shops are still coming to terms with the new day and a few tourist coaches are already unloading outside the Santiago Bernabéu stadium. The area is bathed in cool sunlight and people are reading the sports sections of the newspapers or scanning Marca for forensic analysis of Real Madrid’s 1-0 victory against Espanyol, an unconvincing three points but enough to send Los Blancosto the top of La Liga, albeit temporarily.
In a typical local bar in the Avenida de Concha Espina,three elderly Madrileños were in deep discussion, gesturing as they sipped from small glasses of something alcoholic and talking loudly. The name “Pérez” was repeated along with “Bernabéu”. They were talking about the previous night’s game, but there is also something troubling them. We were all sitting in the shadow of the giant stadium, which was now being swamped by tourists queuing for tours and making for the official club store. I asked a waiter, who had already connected with me after spying my AS guide to La Liga, what was troubling the trio. “They think Pérez needs to spend some money on the Real Madrid team, not just the stadium.” That very day, Real announced, at their AGM, that a € 500 million refurbishment of the stadium was being planned, one that would increase revenues earned at the Bernabéu by around €150 million per year. The plan includes a retractable roof and a space-age design that will effectively envelop the current stadium. The architect’s drawings look spectacular, but the Bernabéu is already an incredible sight, dominating the neighbourhood and providing a food-chain that benefits many small businesses. It made me wonder how commerce around the old Atlético Madrid stadium, the Vicente Calderón, now fares with the club relocated across the city to the Wanda Metropolitano. Real Madrid, though, is like a magnet for people, not just from Spain but all over the world. This is, without doubt, a glamorous global club with few, if any, equals. Twenty-four hours after a game, thousands of people visited the stadium, the shops and museum. KPMG Football Benchmark, in November 2017, reported that Real drew around 1.2 million visitors in 2016 – it is a tourist attraction that rivals Madrid’s principal sights. Just doing a circuit around the stadium’s exterior evidences the attraction of the club – people from all corners of the world taking photos, buying shirts and objet d’art and enjoying being close to one of football’s most visible and compelling brands. It helps, of course, that Real Madrid are incredibly successful and have won four UEFA Champions League titles in five years, creating an era to rival the club’s legendary five-in-a-row European success of the late 1950s. Real’s record in Europe isn’t quite matched by their domestic situation, with just two La Liga titles in 10 years, versus Barcelona’s seven. It’s worth noting that in the 10-year period from 1955-56, Real won the championship seven times. The modest league title of recent matters little for a club that has dominated Europe for the past five years. How the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus will affect Real’s position remains to be seen, but given his track record in the Champions League, it is not inconceivable that Real will lack some potency without their talismanic striker. Real have many heroes, though, and players like Sergio Ramos ( “the Svengali of white-shirted bastardism” according to one UK reporter in his summing-up of the UEFA Champions League final 2018), are idolised. Even the arrival of the team at the Bernabéu is a major event, fans lining the streets waiting for the coach, under strict control of the mounted police. Security is intense at the ground, from the line of menacing police dogs to the legions of stewards at every corner. It felt like an achievement just to get inside the stadium. At most football venues, the first sight of the pitch is often a relief after climbing flights of stairs and the only difference with the Bernabéu is that escalators accompany you most of the way. But reaching the top, the first glimpse felt like a world in High Definition, the colour and the scale of the ground confirmed this was a special place. I was almost in the very last oxygen-requiring row at the top of the stadium, along with many other nationalities. This was clearly the tourist zone, for there were Chinese, Africans, Brits, Germans and Dutch fans in my section. It was selfie-territory, with dozens of people clasping their mobile phones and taking well-choreographed photos to record their visit to Real Madrid. Children of their time. The pre-match ritual of the Hala Madridsong failed to move the tourists, but Real welcomed everyone with their multi-lingual greeting. You couldn’t help but be a little moved by the might of Real Madrid, though, the sheer size of the club and the emotional attachment of the people. Oh yes, there was another team on the pitch in the form of Espanyol – it was Madrid v Barcelona, but not the classic encounter. Real did not field Gareth Bale, Marcelo and Tony Kroos, which was disappointing, but it is a squad game these days. Still, that Svengali figure was in the team, Thibaud Courtois was in goal and Croatian World Cup hero Luka Modrić lined-up in midfield. Isco had an early fluffed chance, but opportunities were scarce and the game didn’t really catch fire. Courtois had to be at his best to stop Hernán from scoring. Just before the interval, Real scored, Karim Benzema passing to Modrić and then a deflection took the ball wide to Asensio who netted with a left-foot drive. There was a delay, however, as the referee looked for VAR help, finally giving the goal. Isco, who was Real’s best player before he left the field with 12 minutes remaining,  went close with a shot from outside the penalty area. Ramos handed Espanyol the chance to level when he slipped-up and Borja Iglesias chipped the ball against the crossbar – a let-off for the Real skipper. A 1-0 win for Real, not impressive, but Espanyol had played well and prevented the European champions from finding their flow. The tepid entertainment did not detract from the experience, though – being present in the Bernabéu was something to savour. I was still buzzing an hour later as I arrived back at my hotel, which was just a hundred metres or so from the Vicente Calderón. Real Madrid have come to the end of the Ronaldo-Zidane era and there will come a time when a replacement has to be bought or nurtured. Just a couple of days after beating Espanyol, they were beaten 3-0 at Sevilla. Some sections of the media reported it had taken six games for the impact of Ronaldo’s transfer to show through. Furthermore, some Real watchers believe new manager Julen Loptegui still had much to prove, even though this was Real’s first defeat of the La Liga season. A glance at the early results showed that Real had not really been tested by the bigger names in the league. Maybe those guys in the bar across the street had a point? The passion of the fans, the importance of the club to the city of Madrid and the physical presence of the brand around town tells you everything you need to know about Real Madrid. They are not only serial European champions, they are arguably the biggest football club on the planet. I shall see Madrid again.

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