El Clásico en Madrid

By | March 21, 2015

Round 2 of El Clásico is tomorrow, which I’m sure will soon command a lot of attention on this blog.  Yes, there’s a lot to be said right now about Real not playing its best football, and Barcelona looking like the well-oiled machine everyone expected its Messi-Neymar-Suarez line to be, and I’m sure some of my fellow classmates will talk about that.  But I want to go beyond the numbers and statistics and, if only to indulge myself, recap the single best day of my abroad experience in Madrid: El Clásico Round 1 on October 25th, 2014.  Let me preface this by offering a disclaimer: there is no way to describe what it’s like to be in Spain’s capital for El Clásico, but I will try.

I had tried to get tickets for the game, probably naively.  Two of my friends were coming to visit that weekend, and we centered all of our plans around the game, optimistically hoping we could witness one of the most legendary rivalries in sports in person.  I was at my computer, prepared to click my mouse at exactly 9:59:59 am on October 20th, the first day El Clásico tickets were available to the general public (at only 70 euros each—a steal considering back when my roommate [Caroline Yarborough, who’s also in this class] and I tried our luck on the Spanish version of StubHub for another Real game, we came away with 100-euro tickets for extremely far-away seats).  As expected, nada.

I was disappointed because I still had yet to get over my previous experience at Santiago Bernabéu, the aforementioned 100-euro game.  After meeting the seller of our tickets in one of the sketchiest alleyways imaginable to pick up our tickets (the first true test of our Spanish skills was finding this man), Caroline and I ascended Bernabéu’s stairs, me clad in my new Gareth Bale jersey while she wore what she wore to class that day because she’s an enormous Messi fan and didn’t want to break her loyalty.  In my life, I had attended basketball (capacity: 9,314), baseball (capacity: 43,647), and football (capacity: 68,532) games—but the experience of being around 81,044 screaming, jumping, passionate, knowledgable, fiery, chanting, Madridistas was sensory insanity.  It was the Cameron Crazies multiplied by the Phillies’ 257-game sellout streak added to the lunacy of the Eagles fans that haunt the upper levels of the Linc, plus about 10,000 extra people.  My roommate and I wanted to belong so badly we used what very little data we had in our Spanish cellular plans to pull up the roster of Real to keep up in the game.  After the team’s 5-1 victory against Basel (the first in the team’s 22-game win streak), from that day forward,  I became captivated by Real Madrid.

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When we characterize rivalries, one of the most important features is geographic proximity: how many times have you heard “just eight miles down Tobacco Road” in a conversation about Duke and UNC?  Similarly, Real Madrid-Barcelona takes place “just 2.5 hours on the AVE Train”—meaning, it is extremely easy to get from one to the other.  There were floods of Barcelona fan prowling Madrid on the day of the game, a nod to how accessible the metropolises are to each other.  In addition to the political history tying Spain’s two largest cities together, location makes Real Madrid-Barcelona is one of the most charged sporting events on the planet.

This was evident from the start.  My two visiting friends and I began October 25th by taking a walk around the city, starting in my neighborhood for the semester, La Latina.  Adjacent to Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol, La Latina is the oldest neighborhood in Madrid, a contrast to the modern Gran Via located on the other side of the city’s two major plazas.  Dressed in our Real Madrid gear (my two friends had nabbed 15 euro bootleg Ronaldo jerseys at a metro stop), we were at first disappointed by the lack of spirit in La Latina; however, the second we entered the tourist-infested Plaza Mayor, everything changed.  A sea of Barcelona fans had set up camp on the right side of Plaza Mayor (as is customary for teams visiting Madrid), drinking, chanting, screaming, and signing.  Their red and blue jerseys were in stark contrast to los blancos around the square, clogging the streets throughout the neighborhood, making my friends’ and my 30-minute walk to Parque Retiro take more than an hour.  Regrettably, the only picture I got was of this baby matching his father in a Messi jersey for my roommate:

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Finally, after a jamon y queso picnic in the park, my friends and I met up with other Duke students at an Irish bar off of Sol.  For the 17:00 game time, we got to the bar at 16:00.  Lucky for us, we were able to grab a table—within a half hour, it was packed to the brim with mainly Americans, Germans, and Brits, but also a good amount of Spaniards.

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One of the most interesting parts of taking in the game with such a mixed crowd was noting the style of watching between my group of American friends and the Spaniards.  Luis Suarez, making his La Liga debut in El Clásico, scored for Barcelona in the third minute—everyone’s separate language blended together in a disappointed “AWWWW”, but then we collectively moved on, because there was still 87+ minutes left to be played.  When Ronaldo tied the game up with a penalty kick in the 34th minute, my side of the bar went BERSERK.  We hugged, chugged, laughed, celebrated, and yelled “HALA MADRID” until our voices went hoarse, joined in by some friendly (drunk) Brit neighbors and the Romanian bartender named Florian:

However, the Spaniards scattered throughout the bar clapped and cheered with us for a moment, but then stopped much quicker than we did.  Same after Pepe and Benzema’s scores.  I think this had to do with the bigness of American culture, how we’re trained to watch our biggest sports and sensationalize so many moments throughout the games—in particular, scoring plays.  Take American football: every touchdown stops the clock, where sometimes celebrations get so out of control on the field that an Unsportsmanlike Conduct penalty must be given.  Opposing coaches often take timeouts after big plays in basketball to curb momentum, giving fans a few minutes to revel in the action.  In direct contrast, soccer’s clock doesn’t stop just because a goal or save or exceptional play happens, and the Spaniards’ celebrations reflect this.  There are definitely a few seconds set aside for a deserved jubilee after a goal, but time doesn’t pause to grant these players the indulgences that American sports does.  Watching El Clásico, we were unused to curbing our celebrations.  Although it was certainly fun to jump around with my friends, there was definitely some residual embarrassment looking around the bar and seeing Spaniards’ eyes locked back on the TVs before we even sat down.

However, this was completely reversed when the game ended.  All bar patrons stuck around to bask in Real’s romp of Barcelona, and the festivities continued long into the night (as is customary in Madrid, nights don’t end until 6 am).  Throughout the rest of the night, my friends and I met French, Irish, and Italian people, all in Madrid to witness the magic of El Clásico.  We talk about sports bringing people together constantly—wherever you go, bring up “yesterday’s game” and a conversation will be started.  Throughout this semester in Soccer Politics, this concept has been taken even further by soccer, truly “the global game”—however, it has been hard to understand from an American standpoint, where although everyone knows how good looking Ronaldo is, hardly anyone knows much about his accomplishments on the field.  But El Clásico confirmed how truly global soccer is—for example, my two visiting friends (from Paris and Bologna) had not been following soccer in their host cities, but they were immediately swept up the energy of Real Madrid-Barcelona, along with our new British, Romanian, French, and Spanish friends.  It is one of the most difficult things in the world to not become obsessed with soccer while living in Madrid for a semester; it is physically impossible to not become obsessed while watching El Clásico.  You may not know what offsides means, or may not understand why a few extra minutes are still on the clock when 45 minutes is up—but trust me, the second Lionel Messi’s face appears on screen, every person in the vicinity of Madrid, regardless of hometown or language, will frown in disgust, the ultimate act of togetherness.

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About Danielle Lazarus

Danielle is a junior at Duke University, majoring in Public Policy and History. Although she loves Real Madrid, Philadelphia sports are her true passion, from the Phillies to the Eagles—and even the Union, too.

4 thoughts on “El Clásico en Madrid

  1. Bianca D'Souza

    It think it says a lot about not only two teams that are rivals, but says a lot about the relevance of a sport, in this case, soccer, in a country where trying to get tickets the second they go online is impossible. I think it also speaks the camaraderie fostered by the two teams and cites as well as the inherent rivalry that is there. It is so interesting to me to see two teams within a country play each other and how it works out, and I hope one day I can see these two teams play each other.

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  2. Helena Wang

    Great read, Danielle! It must have been an unreal experience to be in Madrid during an El Clasico – it is definitely on my bucket list. I think something else that really drives the rivalry between Madrid and Barcelona is the underlying politics and history that have always defined each city and its culture. The Catalans have such a complicated relationship with the rest of the country, and football is one way for the thoughts of both sides to be displayed. While Duke has an intense rivalry with UNC, there isn’t the same kind of passion since there has never been the same kind of political turmoil that these two Spanish cities have experienced. Like Brian mentioned, it is great nonetheless to see how this particular game can capture the attention of not only an entire city, but the entire world. Not only is football a global game, but El Clasico also shows that football is a political game that can shed a lot of light on history.

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  3. Carlos Reyes Stoneham

    I really enjoyed reading through this post, as a Madrid fan I’m looking to eventually get Clasico tickets, and attend the event that every Madrid or Barca fan dreams to go to. Another point you made that I found interesting is the difference between the UNC/Duke rivalry and the Real/Barca rivalry. They both seem fairly similar in scope to us, but in the grand scheme of things the UNC/Duke rivalry is dwarfed.

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  4. Brian Wolfson

    Great post! I enjoyed reading your story about what it’s like to experience the game in Madrid. I think what makes this such a captivating game, despite the obvious rivalry, is the fact that millions of Madrid fans in the city are together, watching this one game. While I believe similar levels of excitement can be had by watching Duke Basketball vs UNC, you are still tied down to the size Duke community after the game, which is many times smaller than the city of Madrid. In addition, in Madrid, you find fans from all over Europe to witness the game. The same cannot be said about Durham, even when you include the having fans from other states in the US that are not students. Of course, there is much more media attention, advertisements and money put into El Clasico than the Duke vs UNC game that help create this environment, but it’s interesting nonetheless to see the grandiosity that this game has over Madrid, and over the entire world. As you said, football is the global game, and this game is a great representation of that.

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