We Went There: Real Madrid–Manchester United at the Santiago Bernabeu

Mike Hewitt/Getty Images David De Gea

“No hay mas que hablar.” This was the cabdriver’s response to my friend, who upon entering the taxi had given our destination simply as, “Al estadio, por favor.” I laughed to myself as we settled in for the ride, partly because I had spent most of the past two days looking for exactly “this” person — the kind of Madrileno who accepts Real Madrid not merely as a matter of fandom’s course but as axiomatic — an inevitability. The kind of person who knows not only where you’re going probably before you do, but also where you should be going if you’re not already going there. Of course it would be the cabdriver.

There is, of course, more than just one stadium in Madrid. There are many storied bullfighting arenas, venues for basketball and tennis, and the Vicente Calderón — home to Atlético de Madrid — among them. But on Wednesday night, Real Madrid were hosting Manchester United in none of these, and our cabdriver — the quintessential chatty-cabbie-slash-archetypal-Madrileno-slash-paradigmatic-Madridista who was going to solve all of my writerly problems while bringing us to the game at the same time — had just accused my friend of supporting the visiting side. Would he stop the taxi if we gave the wrong answer? Or worse, find the caricatured thousands of ticketless English hooligans (pronounced with a particular Spanish flair) that the tabloids said were roaming the city and set us in their midst? Surely conscious of the enormity of the moment, our evening — and maybe — lives at stake, my friend responded as if in a ghost town standoff in a Western: “Hombre, yo no soy del rojo.” This was, apparently, acceptable. To the Santiago Bernabéu we went.

As Champions League Round of 16 matches go, Manchester United versus Real Madrid is, as English commentators relish saying, “a mouthwatering prospect.” Nos. 1 and 2 on Forbes’s list of The Most Valuable Teams In The World, there would have been little doubt that the weeks preceding would be filled with endless prognostications from the press corps of both respective nations, each of whom think they possess the best league in the world (quite possible, depending on your metric), and each of whom freely shout that opinion, loudest and longest and to whomever will listen (almost certain, by any standard of measurement). There were, and they did. It was, as Madrid manager José Mourinho said, “the game everyone has been waiting for.” Even so, it’s hard to avoid such histrionics, especially when teams with such rich and dramatic — and even personal — histories meet.

If you listen to enough commentary on Fox Soccer, ESPN, the BBC, Sky, ITV, or however you take your soccer in America, you’ll eventually hear someone speak in hushed tones about “those European nights.” Once you’ve managed to shake off the horrors of imagining some 60-year-old Englishman’s illicit holiday in Marbella, you soon realize they’re referring to the Champions League. Watching on television, it’s often hard to tell exactly how deeply ingrained soccer is, even in the cultures with which we most associate it: For every die-hard Ligue 1 fan you meet, there’s another who will clown you for pursuing what seems to them the definition of an anti-intellectual exercise. Not to mention as fans we can’t always hear clearly what’s being sung by the “spirited” crowds at matches. I’ve always wondered what it must be like to experience the buildup to a European soccer match without all of the normal filters I generally frequent and to experience the match not furtively on a laptop in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon, or on an absurdly extended lunch break with Italians whose work schedules seem ever-more flexible than mine. I wanted to know what it would feel like to come home to a match, so to speak — to watch it, after all of the hype and hysteria of the home nation’s press, at the end of a long day. Or, OK, fine: on one of those European nights.

The days, however, I spent seeing if I could find the game, written on people’s faces.

It wasn’t without reservation that I paid the 19 Euros it costs to tour the Santiago Bernabéu. For whatever reason — impatience, a sense of frugality derived from specious economic principles, blatant cowardice — I try to avoid these things at all costs. Despite myself, I actually enjoyed the experience. The “Tour Barnabéu” leaves you largely to your own devices, perhaps to let the “grandeur of the club” sink in on its own. You proceed immediately up Tower B (“Torre B”) to a panoramic view of the stadium’s interior, from which you descend through the stadium’s stairs and concourses into the Real Madrid Museum. This is where the club displays their enormous wealth, history, and success in varying degrees of tastefulness, cultishness, nerdish cataloguing of memorabilia, and genuine awe at their own accomplishment. “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot played as I entered the darkened hallway, but I didn’t stay there long enough to see whether it played for every new entrant. Between floors you can take a picture in front of a green screen, posed with your arms held out to either side, and once you reach the tour’s end — in the Real Madrid adidas Store, of course — you can buy that photo of yourself — except now you’re locked in warm embrace with a beaming Cristiano Ronaldo or Iker Casillas. The choice is yours.

You can also walk down onto the technical area just in front of the two dugouts, sit in those Formula One–style seats that always look so attractive on television, and imagine yourself as Sir Alex Ferguson, haranguing the match’s fourth official for a few minutes of extra time, or José Mourinho retying your scarf just so. (These are things that I did.) Then you can walk down into the visitor’s locker room, showers, toilets (seriously), training area, and the press room before you wind your way up to the store (again: photo, warm embrace). For the most part, I followed two men around who really seemed to know what to do while on a stadium tour: One was a guy with an unmistakable Mancunian accent who wore a furry trapper’s hat for the entirety of the tour and who posed for a picture taken by his two ladyfriends in front of a painted Real Madrid seal with the words “Always Real” prominently featured. The other was a dreadlocked white guy with a 2011-12 striped blue United kit with “CANTONA 7” printed on the back. Neither one stopped to take the green screen picture, which seemed somehow significant. (I didn’t either.) However much fun it was, the tour was a poorly chosen sample for reading into how the city actually felt about the game, no matter how many times I replayed in my mind the way the guy in the furry hat described the ridiculous number of trophies on display (“Absolutely MENTAL”).

Walking around on the morning of the match, it was difficult not to impose my own readings of people’s attire or manner as somehow indicative of their rooting interests — or, indeed, level of interest at all — in the game. The trio of Asian girls in front of El Prado wearing commemorative match scarves — half in black and red, the other in white and gold — seemed interested, though they were too stylish to imagine personalized jerseys layered underneath their patterned waistcoats and fitted blazers. The Serbian father and son a few steps behind them — the son draped with a similar scarf, the father pointing out significant buildings ahead — were also a good bet. But the groups of old Spanish men perambulating at a pace that could scarcely be defined as movement? Are they part of the shadowy cabal of ‘socios’ that are apparently trying to unseat José Mourinho from the Madrid manager’s position? Or are they just out for a morning walk? Are those already dog-eared, well-worn copies of ‘Marca’ and ‘AS’ under their arms? Or would they never be caught dead carrying around such hyperbolic tabloid trash? And can they see my own freshly bought copies peeking from the open pocket of my bag? Am I really that obvious?

This feeling of exposure, of revealing perhaps my own loyalties with a random article of clothing or poorly masked copy of an offending journal took on a more fraught dimension when I encountered a loose phalanx of Englishmen with various manifestations of St. George’s Cross visible on their sleeves and breasts in one of the more intimate central neighborhoods of Madrid. Needing to get past, I calculated whether a hurriedly shouted rendition of “Giggs Will Tear You Apart” would establish either some vaguely defined City of Manchester bona fides (I have no claims to such), or whether launching right into “This is the One” was the right Manc move that would forestall a clattering. “Hey Guys, ‘United ‘Til I Die,’ right?” I did not say this, because it seemed the very definition of tempting fate. Luckily, they proved less Gandalf (“You shall not pass”) than all colorful shades of Bez, even at the relatively early hour. I brushed past without incident.

Watching Spanish sports broadcasts the night before the match is also an awful way to gauge the general public’s feeling. The Spanish pundit’s opinion of the outcome of the game ran a strictly defined gamut between cocksureness (“Of course the best Real Madrid beats the best Manchester United.”) and an acutely reasoned sense of inevitability (“The only team that can defeat Real Madrid is, in the end, Real Madrid. It is only a matter of which Mourinho team shows up.”). It was essentially like watching Bill Swerski’s Superfans enacted by an ancient guild of Spaniards in Armani suits and Windsor knots. Then there is MARCA TV. Six Spaniards in a studio ostensibly discussing the impending match but there is nary a mention of tactics, of potential lineups, of the relative health and form of the players on either team. The entirety of the pregame hour or so I spent watching was devoted to interpreting, by varying degrees of smugness, the sincerity of Mourinho’s press conference statements about Real Madrid, his future with the team (or in England), his relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo, his relative lack of warmth towards the Madridistas as compared to Chelsea or Inter fans before, and his “friendship” with Sir Alex. It was an exercise that equaled the previous night’s boosterism only in negativity — and this from the supposed journalistic arm of the team. The thing I found most difficult to parse was the one gentleman on the far right of the screen who had a framed photograph of a smiling “Mou” (as they call him) alongside a few other trinkets. I couldn’t quite tell if it was placed there ironically or not, but by that point it hardly mattered.

On the way to the stadium, we drove by seemingly thousands of people headed in the opposite direction, perhaps on their way home to watch the game, but perhaps not — people who were also part of the world, but for whom the game was not what they were “waiting for,” according to Mourinho. For a second, you wonder whether it’s all a trick — whether what looks like a sellout on television is really just artfully disguised seating, whether the crowd noise is amplified or piped in over the broadcast, whether anyone actually has time to read the hundreds of thousands of words written about these teams, these games. Then, the people who you are looking for — numbering around 80,000 to 90,000 — appear milling around on the streets outside the Bernabéu, swilling beers that are mockingly called “minis” because they are (American) football-sized things (there is no alcohol sold inside the stadium), the after-work crowd well-dressed for the 1950s in tweed and herringbone and newly bought team scarves draped over shoulders, or totally kitted-out in the event that Mourinho were to look beyond the end of his bench before bringing in a forlorn Kaká. Despite the elegant bedlam outside, people found their seats — each one featuring a white Madrid banner, ready to wave — in relatively orderly fashion, and it wasn’t until I looked up from my notebook just as the familiar trumpet fanfare of the Champions League anthem played that it truly looked like every damn seat in the stadium was filled.

The Bernabéu sits 85,454, and we were seated near the top of its uppermost southern stand, directly above the Madrid ultras and behind the goal that Madrid attacked first. Watching a live soccer game from such a great height, one has the bizarre sense that there are two games going on: The first is happening almost in a vacuum down on the pitch, divorced from whatever is happening in the massive crowd around it. The game seems almost silent, as if on mute in a bar while people talk over the action. Somehow, you expect the players to react more to your shouts simply because you’re there than when you shout at the screen. This I noticed as Danny Welbeck rose to unexpectedly head United in front about 20 minutes into the match. Watching and experiencing 80,000-plus people (give or take a few thousand United fans perched in the opposite corner of the stadium and otherwise scattered throughout) be silent at the same time is an uncanny experience. The goal just happened, and there was nothing anybody could do about it. The man sitting next to my friend, who had until that point been friendly and talkative, retreated deep into his hands, his elbows perched on the safety bar in front of us. Each time I looked over to see how he was doing, his cigarette (there is no smoking in the stadium either) had always been smoked to exactly the same point — neither my friend nor I ever witnessed him light another. The wonders of the Bernabéu.

The second “game within the game” happens when the rhythms of the crowd actually do seem to affect the play on the field. British announcers love to talk about how Old Trafford crowds seem to will the winner or late equalizer into the Stretford End net, but it was only now that I could sense how one might feel that happening. There is palpable tension any time Ronaldo is even anywhere close to the ball, either standing over it for a free kick, running down the wing, or hanging majestically in the air over his good friend Patrice Evra while waiting for a cross, as he did for his dramatic equalizer. Then, the stadium reacts instantly, symphonically, as what thousands had individually envisioned just seconds ago took place right before their very eyes. The rest of the game saw a constant oscillation between these two modes: a collective gasp at a piece of Robin van Persie skill along the sideline; the same for the countless space-creating shifts of weight by Mesut Özil; 80,000 whistles as United tried to build from the back; the sound of a stadium’s hearts in mouths as a deflection from Welbeck trickles wide and a scuffed shot from van Persie is saved along the end line; the Bernabéu’s stirring and classy ovation at the entrance of Ryan Giggs; and the same at a game-saving diving tackle from the Welshman. That the game ended in a tie on a corner that the referee refused to allow left everyone around me feeling slightly unsatisfied, like we had missed something along the way. Not that the game needed a winner either way — the game was exciting enough and this result makes the second leg at Old Trafford all the more intriguing — but the fact that all of these people would just slowly make their way to wherever they called home after collectively singing, shouting, and viciously cursing Wayne Rooney each time he lined up a corner seemed somehow absurd.

My friend and I left the stadium quickly and managed to find another taxi in the direction of home in a record amount of time. Before we got there, we decided to stop at a bar on the way, partly to process what we had just seen. The radio station in our cab played the entirety of Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” for the length of our ride, which, despite being an absolutely incredible song, worked to break whatever spell the evening had conjured. No one on the street outside the bar looked like they knew the score or could tell me how amazing David de Gea’s improvised foot save in the 60th minute was. We walked in and ordered drinks, telling the bartender about from where we’d just come. “Ellos tambien,” he said, gesturing at the man and the woman seated at the bar. Of course — of course — they had just come from the game as well. Why should I have thought any different? And to listen to the woman describe to us in great detail the place that we had just been, how watching tens of thousands of flags waving in unison never fails to impress her no matter how much she forgets that fact, it made the evening seem both alien and familiar at the same — not at all inevitable, but something that is joyously rediscovered time and again

Filed Under: Manchester United, Real Madrid, Soccer, We Went there