It cannot be avoided. As in some other countries, there is more to a football game in Spain that a bunch of men not touching a polka-dotted ball with their hands. (Yes, I said football. Get over it.). Sure, there are many in Spain who don’t know every detail or all statistics of a given player or team, but there seems to be a constant running awareness, like a public consciousness, of the general well-being of the local team. Here, the overwhelming majority support Real Madrid Club de Fútbol, or the colloquial Real Madrid, also called Los Blancos. Born in 1902, the team has smart colors on their jerseys and boast some of the best players in the world. It is always a pleasure to watch a game. Their much-loved and disliked Portuguese coach, José Mourihno, with the seemingly prerequisite perpetual scarf and well-fitted suit, is often thought of more of a star than his players. The team is a massive collection of talent and spectacle, partly thanks to a quarter of a billion Euro expenditure on players and staff. It is the richest football club in the world, in terms of revenue.
As I’ve grown older, I have repeatedly come to the conclusion that sports are a colossal waste of my time and attention. Watching grown adults who have never stopped indulging in playground antics can be stupefying and just plain annoying. And I’ll leave alone, for now, the subject of how much money these people make. And even less excusable are the adults who obsess over it, watching hours of TV coverage and reading columns and columns of repetitive analysis. I can say this without fear of offending because I have been, and sometimes still am, one of those adults. (And the answer to the question: Yes, I do appreciate a little bit of observational contradiction). Since childhood, there have been a few teams that have enjoyed my overly passionate support, I am sure to their great appreciation. The New York Yankees, the Phoenix Suns in basketball, Springboks in international Rugby, San Diego Chargers in American football (and of course who could forget table tennis’ Zhang Jike?). When I was 12 years old I developed a strange obsession with Duke University basketball. I don’t know what I was thinking there, but I decided that the tears that I shed after they lost a championship game (to a team I can’t remember) were the result of serious, but correctable, schizophrenic behavior of misplaced empathy. I inexplicably co-opted the pain and triumphs of a basketball team in North Carolina. Utterly bizarre.
I have since mostly grown out of sports, with a few exceptions. To me, Yankees baseball has become a symbol of greed and sanitized business culture, professional basketball seems like a collection of giant millionaires playing on a court that is too small for them, and American football has proven itself as just another complex web of corporations that manipulates a bored public into spending their money and attention on a game blatantly molded around beer commercials. And the mere thought of golf makes me want to stab myself in the eyes with a spork. I am not completely sure why European football interests me at all, even now, as an adult. I come from a cultural predisposition that tells me the game is boring, lacking points and excitement. But when I see that green pitch on a TV screen, it often grabs my attention. Some people hate football because they feel it intellectually castrates the public. Nowadays, this may be a slight overstatement, but it is true that, if you look around a bar when a game is on, people are staring with mouths half-open, looking for the little white ball as it moves around in trapezoids, watching like Pavlov’s dogs at a pinball machine made of T-bone steaks. (It has been mentioned to me, on more than one occasion, that the dictator Franco had no problem perpetuating football to keep the public occupied and distracted, thus aiding in the inhibition of intellectual and critical discourse and thought. But in the spirit of social progressiveness, I have no choice but to file these comments in the box of meaningless bitching that also contains speakeasys, debates about the sensitive side of Billy the Kid, and complaints about women’s fashion in the roaring 20’s).
When presented with novice football questions, the standard Madrileño reacts in three possible ways. The first is “I don’t pay attention to football.” The next is a response may include rolling eyes, in restrained disdain, and I have a lot to say about this, but I can’t really be bothered to tell you about it at the moment. The final response, delivered with unnecessary fervor, is the defensive attitude of – how could you not know about that? In the end, all three of these hypothetical people will have ended up telling you more than you wanted to know about football, and they may even begrudgingly tell you which team they support. And, often, they will not like it if you mention FC Barcelona without including the English equivalent of shit, sucks or hate in the same sentence. But, as always, these types of generalizations are dangerous.
In Spanish football, there are confrontations and rivalries, identifications and animosities, nuances and background knowledge that would take me years to understand. Sometimes I suspect that I will never get what is really going on. And in the characteristic tolerance of the Spanish, the wide-eyed foreigner seems to be allowed a certain level of ignorance, and will invariably be allowed to support whatever team he or she thinks has the prettiest colors on the their jerseys.
But some things can be deduced from simple observation. FC Barcelona is based in the capital of Catalonia of the same name, and plays in a stadium that seats 99,354 people. The club motto is “Mes que un club,” or “More than a club.” Therein lies the beginning of the peculiarities, or, as some may label them, silly anachronistic preoccupations. With varying degrees of intensity, depending on the player and the fan in question, FC Barcelona has become a Catalonian institution, representing more than the sports teams that wear its crest. During the dictatorships of Rivera and Franco, smaller cultural identities in Spain were discouraged and oppressed. All languages beside Castillian, such as Basque and Catalán, were at best discouraged, at least in professional, educational and official contexts. For many who felt oppressed but also felt compelled to protest in some way, the Football Club of Barcelona, or Barça, was a safer institution to join and express regional pride than any full-blown anti-imperialist movement. Of course, the oppression has eased in Spain since the days of compulsory language use, but there is a particular tone that Cataláns seem to often make a point of setting (and the pendulum seems to have swayed as far in the opposite direction now, as Castillian is discouraged in universities, restaurant menus, and other official forums in Catalonia. But that is a topic that must be properly researched by a prolonged trip to Catalonia). There is a particular attitude. And there are small hints and symbolic gestures that are visible, even from a TV in a Madrid bar or a San Diego pub. The Barcelona team captain, Carles Puyol, wears a Catalán flag armband with his uniform, and he takes it off, waves it around and kisses it, when something good happens on the field. The armband that was worn in a previous match with Real Madrid was given away as a cherished souvenir on the team’s website. The captain position itself is generally reserved only for Catalán players. The team manager, Pep Guardiola, has a long history in both Catalonia and FC Barcelona. The FC Barcelona emblem itself is rich in meaning and history.
I do not identify with any notion of oppression, and I don’t speak Catalán. I live in Madrid, and my Spanish experience has, thus far, been framed in the context of this city. And I still find the whole rivalry a bit mystifying. While many of the players and staff of FC Barcelona have a strong connection to Catalán culture (Pep Guardiola, Puyol, Bojan…etc..), there are many key players on Barcelona’s side that are as Catalonian as my cat (and I don’t even have a cat). As in other sports, they seem to just play for their team and are suddenly rabid zealots for the uniform they wear. Or maybe they simply have chosen the team that offered to pay them the most, and the paycheck is their inspiration. The best I can do, having only been here for 7 months, is to characterize the rivalry as a two high-level sports teams that happen to be from places with a lot of political history with each other. Today, it seems that few people who I associate with will launch into a rant about Franco’s regime when asked “which team do you support?, so it is safe to cheer for FC Barcelona while living in Madrid without getting your ass kicked (as long as you don’t run through a Madrid bar waving a Barça scarf in people’s faces when Messi scores a goal).
One can be indifferent to team favorites, or claim ignorance to football in general, or hate the very idea of any sport, but it is not possible to be a fan of both of these teams. I have often supported Real Madrid in their previous matches with other teams for the mere reason that I want to see them to play Barcelona. The plain fact is that sometimes it is fun to watch high-level sports competition. And when my friends and I gather with beers to watch a highly anticipated game, I find that happy, sentimental feeling that I had when I’d sit down with my dad in the fall and watch the World Series. We would arbitrarily pick sides, and whatever our relationship at the time, through the adversity of adolescence, we could always talk with each other through the medium of baseball. Professional sports sometimes does expose, in my opinion, the latent, and ugly human propensity of taking sides, of behavior akin to nationalism, over-zealous patriotism and prejudice. But, as with many things in our lives, sometimes one just needs to relax and enjoy something without becoming a fanatic. Using a slightly adjusted slice of advice from my grandma, I only get drunk in moderation.
Today, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona play the first of four games against each other in just 18 days, a rare number of occurrences in such a short period of time. It’s like Mohammed Ali and George Foreman fighting 137 rounds, or five Super Bowls in a month. A feast for football fans. Since their first meeting in 1902, Real Madrid have won 85 times, and Barcelona have won 82 times. They have drawn 42 times. Real Madrid lost the last match 5 – 0, and they are probably really pissed off. But both teams have consistently demonstrated that they are two of the best in Europe. Neither of the two teams’ best players, Leo Messi for Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo for Real Madrid, have scored a goal against the other. Both teams are fighting for a title in the Spanish King’s Cup, the Champions League and the Spanish League.
So, at the risk of betraying my Madrileño friends in my partiality, I have to choose, and I’ll be cheering and supporting with reserved fervor, for the team that I began supporting long before I came to Madrid. If you don’t hear from me at this time next week, call the police.