So with it being the Champions’ League Final yesterday, I came up with the following great idea…
— Andrew Gillan (@andrewgillan) May 28, 2016
So spoiler alert – Real Madrid won. Thus today’s trip down my football travelling memory lane takes us to the north of the Spanish capital, in the Chamartin district and the stadium named after the man who more than any other, was responsible for creating the footballing behemoth that is modern-day Real Madrid.
Santiago Bernabéu built the club out of the ashes of the Spanish Civil War, built the stadium which today bears his name, and oversaw the signing of legends such as Di Stefano and Puskas, who helped them win the first five European Cups. The unmistakable glamour of Madrid continued into the modern day with the galacticos of Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo, Beckham et al and the current team of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. They are Spain’s most-loved club, but also by some measure the most despised. Their fans say it’s jealousy, others say it’s their arrogance.
So with that in mind, let’s turn attention to my visits to the ground, the first of which was in March 2014, only for the stadium tour and then 11 months later, I got to take in a match.
The first thing to say is that it’s very easy to get to. Metro line 10 has a stop right outside the ground (handily called Santiago Bernabéu) and once I’d bought a ticket, I was free to start exploring the museum and ground at my leisure. Given that the first part of the museum is called the “Best Club Ever” room, maybe those accusations of arrogance are valid? Although they do have an actual trophy to prove it – giving pride of place to the “Best club of the 20th Century” award given to them by FIFA.
When I was there the museum also included a special exhibit dedicated to Di Stefano and one celebrating Cristiano Ronaldo winning the 2013 Balon D’Or. Probably the museum’s key feature, given its importance to the mythos of Real Madrid as a club, is the European Cup room, where their (at the time) nine trophies are displayed. They’ll have had to make a bit more space in the display case since then.
The tour continues through the stadium and into the VIP areas, press room and dressing room. Unlike a lot of big clubs, they do allow access to the home dressing room, which has a slightly odd layout, meaning players with higher squad numbers are left to sit in an area which seems slightly closed off. Conveniently, this meant that during the 2013/14 season Iker Casillas (#1) didn’t have to look straight at his great rival Diego Lopez (#25). Make of that what you will.
Stadium tours are all well and good, but to get a real measure of a ground, you have to experience a game and the following year, I was able to do so. The carnival half-term weekend coincided with Depor’s visit to the Bernabeu, so I went behind enemy lines so to speak, purchasing a ticket high up in the lateral oeste. At €55, it wasn’t cheap but that’s to be expected at one of the big European grounds. And the seat was definitely worth the price, an unimpeded view of the pitch, plus overhead heaters and free wi-fi. This is truly how the other half live.
Although the Bernabeu holds over 80,000 spectators, it feels smaller and more intimate due to having a roof the whole way around the ground, something a lot of the bigger Spanish grounds don’t have. In theory this should be perfect for creating atmosphere and making the ground an intimidating cauldron for the visiting team, although things didn’t exactly work out that way on this particular occasion.
I must explain the context. A week before this game, Real Madrid were humiliated 4-0 by their city rivals Atletico in the derbí the Vicente Calderon. The press then reported that following the game, a number of the squad went out to celebrate Ronaldo’s 30th birthday. Clearly the idea of this didn’t go down well with the home fans as from the moment the teams came out to warm up, they whistled and jeered their own team. Carlo Ancelotti and the players who only a few months before had made history by winning the long-awaited decima were all of a sudden facing the ire of their own fans.
Adding to the irony of the occasion, Madrid’s sponsors Adidas had chosen this weekend to launch their new campaign, which featured the slogan “There will be haters” on the advertising boards all around the pitch – they probably hadn’t imagined this would be such a prophetic slogan.
Could Depor exploit the unrest and cause a massive upset? Erm… no. Ravaged by defensive injuries and forced to field ageing full back Manuel Pablo as an emergency centre half, their prospects of containing the BBC (Benzema, Bale, Cristiano) trident didn’t look promising. Real Madrid themselves had a few injuries, the most disappointing was the absence of Sergio Ramos, denying me the chance to see the human red card magnet get sent off in person, while the absence of Modric handed Isco an opportunity to impress.
And impress he did, arguably being the only player who didn’t come in for 90 minutes of abuse from his own fans, after scoring the opening goal around the 20 minute mark. Madrid were pedestrian, giving the ball away a lot in midfield and taking lazy shots from distance, a better team than this patched-up, impotent Depor would have given them a real fright, but as it was Benzema made the game safe in the second half. The real entertainment came from the fans reactions. Casillas made a save, he was whistled and jeered, Ronaldo lined up a trademark free kick and shanked it into the stand; whistles, Bale found some space and had a shot himself instead of looking up and passing to Ronaldo; whistles. It was pantomime, all that was missing were the famous white hankies being waved, although considering they won the game comfortably, that might have been a step too far, even for Real Madrid.
So that is the story of my surreal matchday at the Bernabeu. It’s not always like that I’d imagine, the very peculiar circumstances played a large part in shaping the atmosphere that day. As I said when talking about the odd atmosphere at the Camp Nou in a previous blog, I’d love to pay the Bernabeu another visit some day and get a different view of proceedings. It’s definitely one of the best stadiums in the world, one of the iconic ones that any football traveller should have on their bucket list.