One Enchanted Evening at the Bernabeu, Home of Real Madrid

My wife Sandra and I are in the last week of a three month European vacation, the long service leave journey that we have dreamt of for several years. While the trip has been predominantly about cultural exploration and recreation, of course it had to have a sporting element, for me at least !

 

Indeed, when the trip was in its embryonic stages of planning, the timing was designed to land a couple of sporting bucket list items – the 2017 World Athletics Championships in London and watching Tottenham play an EPL game for the first time.  I greatly enjoyed attending these events, notwithstanding a Spurs loss in the first ever EPL game at Wembley, their only loss of the season in any competition so far.  I loved watching Sally Pearson win her heat and semi-final on the way to gold and Dani Stevens (formerly Samuels) win a silver medal.

 

We were spending a month in Spain, and in the back of my mind I was aware that there was a chance that I’d see a Champions League game as we were going to be in Barcelona and Sevilla on group stage games dates.  I dreamt that it could be a Spurs game, but this was a long shot and I’d be more than happy to see any Champions League game.  When the draw came out in late August, the first thing I checked was Tottenham’s draw – after a miserable Champions League campaign last year we had drawn the “Group of Death” (it seems that there can’t be a draw without one!) which included the reigning champions Real Madrid (RM) and the top team in the German League Borussia Dortmund. Ugh !  And then I checked Barcelona and Sevilla’s fixtures – both were drawn to play away when I was in the respective cities.  Double ugh, but a first world problem to say the least.

 

A plan hatched – I would be in Sevilla when Spurs played RM in Madrid, it is only about 500 km away, and the very fast trains are true to their word.  When I mentioned it to Sandra, she was very encouraging.  I was very excited, but had to get a ticket.  I am a member of Spurs and OzSpurs (the excellent Australian supporters’ group) so got to work there.  OzSpurs only get a (very small) allocation for home games, so that was out.  I entered the ticket allocation process with Spurs, but they were only getting 3900 tickets of the 81000 capacity.  Furthermore, the loyalty points system they use is fair enough for UK members but gives an Australian member no chance as there is no weighting for living overseas.  Yes, you might have guessed that I missed a ticket through Spurs.

 

I had a look at the RM website and saw that tickets would be available to the general public after members had had their opportunity.  When the day came, I got in early in on the website.  There were tickets available – good tickets, and I was very excited.  There were two significant problems, the first that one of the conditions displayed prominently on the website is that FIFA rules require that opposition supporters have a designated and segregated area and that FIFA reserves the right to cancel/evict opposition supporters who buy tickets elsewhere.  OK, this was a barrier, but not insurmountable.  I can be mute when required, and, I did have a flimsy argument if required. While I don’t have any real affiliation to a Spanish club, RM are the one I lean towards, by account of one Gareth Bale, who is my favourite all-time Spurs player, and has played at RM since 2013, alongside another former Spurs favourite, Luka Modric.

 

The second problem was much more challenging.  Their website would not accept an Australian payment card – I tried all of my credit and debit cards multiple times, and Sandra’s, with no success.  I emailed them and explained the situation and I got a very nice email telling me that there was nothing that could be done.  I was arriving in Madrid a couple of days later and thought that I would go to the ticket office at Santiago Bernabeu to buy one in person, if there were any left, the online supply remaining being scarce.  I duly visited the stadium ticket office where the gentleman told me that, this is impossible, you can only buy tickets to the Champions League games online.  I showed him the email I had received and asked how, if they were only available online, and wouldn’t accept Australian cards, how I would buy one.  He arched his eye brows for a moment, then said “You need a Spanish friend.”

 

We have found the Spanish people warm and easygoing, but I haven’t met anyone whom I could call “mi amigo.”  Thank goodness for Airbnb.  I asked our host in Madrid, who readily agreed to help, albeit that it was way beyond her brief.  It was complicated, and took her several hours, as the few tickets left kept coming on and off the screen as RM season ticket members gave up their tickets they couldn’t use.  Luckily for me she persevered and I received the SMS I had been hoping for, a ticket in the lateral grandstand ! I had a week to organise transport and overnight accommodation, so that was the easy bit.

 

Thus, late last Tuesday afternoon I found myself sitting on a very fast train to Madrid and a few hours later sitting in the Santiago Bernabeu stadium.  On the train station at Atocha I asked a man in his 60s whether this was the correct platform for the football.  He spoke about as much English as I do Spanish (a few key words) but very kindly took me under his wing, walking me to the ground from the station, showing me which gate to enter and warmly wishing me the best of luck.  It was a lovely experience and his warmth and generosity were typical of the Spanish people we have encountered.

 

Once inside, I really had to pinch myself – one I was on the other side of the world, two, I was watching the great Real Madrid, reigning Champions League and La Liga Champions,  named the world club of the 20th century by FIFA and featuring the current Ballon D’Or holder Cristiano Ronaldo. Thirdly and most importantly, I was watching Tottenham, who were playing RM for only the fifth time in their history (and we hadn’t scored in any of the previous four !)

 

The atmosphere outside and in the stadium was passionate and loud.  It had a festive feel but also that of a high-stakes game.  Both teams had won their two games to date, so a win would go a long way to not only ensuring qualification for the final 16, but also topping the group.  The Tottenham contingent were making plenty of noise, seeking to compensate for the numbers imbalance as they were perched high up in the stands behind the goal at one end.

 

At the other end at ground level were the RM official cheer squad, who were magnificent to experience, a sea of white with well- rehearsed high volume chants, songs, drumming and moves involving flags and posters.  When RM had a corner or free kick at their end they were passionately rousing.  When we had one, or when our wonderful goalkeeper Hugo Lloris took his time kicking the ball, they whistled shrilly.  It was great theatre.

 

I looked around me, hopeful of seeing other Tottenham fans infiltrating the RM area.  No-one would be so brave or stupid to wear opposition team colours, so there were no hints. The pre-match noise continued, the only break being the minute’s silence to honour the victims of the fires in Portugal and Spain earlier in the week, which was solemnly observed.

 

The match commenced with the noise at fever pitch.  RM had by far the better of the first 15 minutes and Ronaldo was at the centre of nearly everything that happened in the first half, hitting the post in the fourth minute.  We settled down and finally had some time on the ball, building on that with a header from our talisman Harry Kane forcing a good save from their keeper Keylor Navas.

 

I was just able to keep myself from barracking, rising to my feet when Kane had his chance.  In the 28th minute we scored, or they scored for us, an own goal the result of a defensive mistake forced by the pressure of Kane’s presence.  We were in front at the Bernabeu, and the blood was pumping strongly through every vein in my body! I managed to stay mute and cast my eyes around me, where I found one bloke brave or silly enough to stand up and pump his fist and a young couple not far behind me broadly smiling.  The fist-pumper was met with no angst at all, but a good-natured gesture from two blokes in front of him pointing to their watches, indicating that there was plenty of time remaining.  Either that, or that the brave/silly guy didn’t have long to live, but it was nearly certainly the former !

 

We fluffed a really promising attack a minute or two later, then the attention-magnet Ronaldo earned a yellow card for a bad-tempered jolt to our master antagonist Jan Vertonghen.  Ronaldo quickly silenced the jeers from our fans by converting a penalty earned when our defender Serge Aurier laid a clumsy tackle in the box.  The RM crowd roared with renewed energy and the half-time break was a well-earned rest for all after a pulsating first half.  There was a buzz of anticipation from both clubs’ supporters during the interval.

 

The second half opened with RM pouring on the pressure, with Modric outstanding and reminding us of what we have missed since he sought greener pastures.  Lloris made two incredible saves, one from point-blank range that was the perfect combination of instinct and luck, his feet somehow fending the ball away.  My heart was thumping, as we held them out time after time and it seemed inevitable that they would score eventually.

 

The glorious uncertainty of sport was on display yet again when what had seemed inevitable not only did not occur, but there was a complete change of momentum from around half way through the second half.  We had two fantastic chances, which both brought superb saves from Navas, the first a gilt-edged opportunity for Kane, the second to Christian Ericson.

 

The last five minutes were heart in the mouth stuff and I gave up not barracking, as did a few others around me.  When the final whistle went, we hadn’t won, but had scored a vital point away from home and showed the football world that we can compete with the very best.  Everyone supporting Spurs in the stadium recognised how significant this result was, rising to their feet and giving our lads a rousing ovation. The home fans are ushered out first at soccer games in Europe, for security reasons, so all that were left were 4000 or so chanting and singing Spurs fans.  Goosebumps covered my body.  Before being ushered out myself, as I was in the RM area, I took the opportunity to talk to a few that remained around me – the young couple had come from Dublin, a group of South Africans who had been holidaying in Malaga.  They were surprised to learn that Spurs has great support in Australia.

 

This evening was right near the top of my list in my all-time sporting experiences.  The stadium is brilliant, the fans passionate and good-natured (perhaps it might be different if they were playing another Spanish team, particularly Barcelona !) and the game of the highest class. Friends who don’t follow soccer/football often trot out the age-old argument about it not being exciting because it often doesn’t have a lot of goals.  I encourage anyone holding those views to watch a replay of this game, it was a cracker.

 

The experience also reinforced my optimism that we can win a trophy in the next couple of years, if not this season.  It has been a while, we have not won the Championship since 1960/61, before my lifetime, although we have won various Cups. We have top-end talent, most of it young, now have genuine depth (five of our best fifteen were unavailable for this match through injury or suspension) and a manager who is a genius.  Of course the question will be whether we can keep the talent from the clutches of the richer, bigger clubs throughout Europe, including the manager.  This will be a significant challenge as we are renowned for paying less than others.

 

I went to my accommodation exhilarated, struggling to get off to a brief sleep before catching the morning train back to Sevilla. It had been one enchanted evening.

Comments

  1. Len Rodwell says:

    Excellent read. I am also hopeful that Spurs will win something major very soon, but we will have to be very good to catch Manchester City this year.

  2. Wonderful experience and a brilliantly told tale. Thanks Steve. Saw highlights of this game on Foxtel and Spurs certainly held their own, particularly late in the game. RM have had a slow start to the season in La Liga. Spurs demolition of Liverpool 4-1 on the weekend was clinical. But are Man City catchable. Your multi-millionaires against their billionaires?
    Just back from 6 weeks in Spain and Portugal ourselves. People are warmer and more generous than France and Italy. But anywhere on the Med is heaven for us. Could have paid A$250 each to the ticket scalpers to see Sporting Lisbon play Barcelona in the UCL, but I cheaped out. Saw Espanyol play Levante live when we were in Barcelona. Sort of like taking Spanish friends to see the Dockers and Melbourne. Myeah! Still – ticked one off the bucket list.
    Champions and Europa League are brilliant. The romance of teams from all over Europe playing each other gets me every time. Real Sociedad (the San Sebastian team) played Rosenborg (the Norwegian champs) in the Europa League the day after we left. Tempted – but too hard changing accommodation bookings. I now know where all the Spanish teams come from (if you weren’t Australian would you know that Collingwood and Richmond were from Melbourne?)
    Loved reading the Spanish daily sporting newspapers over morning coffee and trying to work out what they were saying. Gareth Bale seems to cop a lot of stick from the Madrid fans and papers. One feature article had a lot of tables seeming to indicate that RM win 70% of games with him, but 80% without. More generous commentators seemed to say his role was feeding Christiano, not scoring himself. The dogs seem to be barking that he will be at Old Trafford soon. Would be hard to compete when getting whistled by your own fans.

  3. Great stuff Steve. I think nothing beats being an away fan, especially on the continent. I just have this nagging feeling the Leicester season was the big chance Spurs had to win the league. Keeping Kane, Ali, Pochettino et al is going to very hard. Hopefully the extra money from Wembley can bring in better players to keep them at the club.

  4. Outstanding, S Fahey.
    Very well played – particularly the quick 1-2 with your Spanish friend to get the tickets.

    Years ago I tried to buy an Irish hurling top online. The colours of County Clare.
    But the Gaelic Athletics Association wouldn’t post to an address outside of Ireland.
    So I found an Irish friend who on-forwarded it to me.
    She was an Aussie living in Dublin. And it all went very smoothly, indeed.
    Love the global village.

  5. steve fahey says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments. And thanks to the editor for mentioning Tottenham in the article lead-in – friends have chided me for writing an article about my experience following Spurs and not mentioning Spurs in the heading but doing so for our opponent. They have linked this with my struggle in Marketing 101 many years ago !

    I may have put the mockers on us with my comment about our only loss for the season after last night’s loss and very Old Spurs performance ! I’m not unhappy to be out of the League Cup, it is by far the least prestigious competition of the four.

    Len – yes, City are flying and bat deep , but it is relatively early days.

    Peter – Great to read of your experiences in Spain and Portugal and I laughed at the Melbourne vs. Dockers analaogy ! Bale has been beset by injuries since joining RM, and hasn’t consistently been the player he was at Spurs. While United seems his likely destination, there is a glimmer of hope t(if you believe The Sun) hat he could make a fairytale return to Spurs, albeit of course that he started at Southampton. see https://www.thesun.co.uk/sport/football/4718592/real-madrid-tottenham-gareth-bale-shock-return/

    Dennis – I agree both re the experience of being an away fan and the massive opportunity that we missed in the Leicester season. Fingers crossed re Kane, Alli, the Poch etc. ! And I’ll add Winks to that list – he could be anything.

    Dave/ER – yes, we go to great lengths for our passions and I’m glad you also got your ticket and hope that your experience was as memorable as mine.

    #COYS

  6. Luke Reynolds says:

    Great story Steve, glad you finally got a ticket!
    With the EPL no longer on Foxtel, I’ve found myself watching Real Madrid, Barcelona and, after seeing them play Melbourne Victory in Geelong, Atletico Madrid quite a bit. Spanish football is hugely entertaining.
    Would love to see my team, Newcastle United, play a similar game in Europe.

  7. Steve Fahey says:

    Thanks Luke

    I don’t need to ask why you, Dave Nadel and others of the black and white persuasion follow Newcastle !

    They are acquitting themselves very well back in the EPL. and look a chance to qualify for the Europa League so perhaps you might be able to see them play in Europe in the not too distant future. And it is a big shame it’s not still on Foxtel. I’m an Optus customer so can stilll access it cheaply.. Enjoy La Liga, it’s a very attractive alternative.

  8. Peter Flynn says:

    Superb Steve.

    I was recently locked out of Camp Nou.

    Small matter of Catalonia independence referendum coinciding with Barca v Las Palmas played behind closed doors.

    The new Spurs stadium on High Road N17 is taking great shape.

    I see it on the 149 to London Bridge.

    PF

  9. Steve Fahey says:

    Thanks Flynny

    We left Barcelona two days before the independence referendum, which was fortuitous timing. Feelings were running high during the incredible La Merce festival in the week preceding the vote. I saw some of the La Palma game, that was incredibly odd to have a game with no crowd, but a good call by the authorities I reckon.

    Thanks for the update on Spurs’ new stadium – I did go and have a look at it while I watched the Newcastle season-opener in a pub just over the road. A very fair and impartial crowd as you would guess !

    Enjoy your travels !

    Steve

  10. 3-1 over the Galacticos at Wembley! Through the knockout stage of the UCL. Heaven on a stick, Steve?
    I saw the last 30 minutes at sparrow’s fart over here in Perth. It should have been 4-1. How did Delle miss the open header?
    But Man City were ominous winning 4-2 at Napoli. I’m inclined to think the difference between you and them is squad depth. If all your stars keep fit you can trouble them, but you fall away quicker with injuries like missing Kane against Man U.
    How good is the football at this level? PSG. Bayern. Even Besiktas and Porto look good. I love the geography lesson I get whenever I watch UCL and UEL. Donetsk? Maribor? Who knew?

  11. Steve Fahey says:

    Yes, it was a great occasion for all Spurs supporters Peter. You did very well to catch any of it in the Perth time zone, and were rewarded with another cracking attacking game, as were a couple of the other CL games this morning.

    We returned to Melbourne very early this morning and I slept for only about two hours as I was too excited about this game. RM 2017/18 are clearly not the RM of 2016/17, at least so far, but it is a historic win for us and while the game was pretty even, we were far more polished and dangerous going forward.

    Man City have been superb thus far but hopefully we can just keep chipping away in the EPL and CL. Re your point about depth, I will clarify my earlier comment about our genuine depth now. We have genuine depth in every position except Kane’s, he is irreplaceable in his form of the past couple of years, and Alli and Eriksen both appear a lot more dangerous when Kane is playing – they work fantastically as a trio, as they did in this match, especially for the magnificent third goal.

    #COYS !!!

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