Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, La Liga, Saturday 13th January
Real Madrid 0 Villarreal 1 (Fornals)
“All units code in. Yellow Leader, standing by”.
“Yellow Eight, standing by”.
“Yellow Nine, standing by”.
“Yellow One, standing by”.
“All units, The Death Star has a structural weakness. Such is its carefree abandon it attacking others, its defence is left exposed. Their left flank in particular, while dangerous, is ridiculously under-barricaded. They are not prepared for an attack, as they perceive it as suicide. We must be balanced: heroic in-goal, disciplined and deep in defence and clinical on the counter. Their goalkeeper is nearly two metres wide, so you’ll have to use proteined torpedoes to get past. Remember, we have Carlos (Chew) Bacca up front. Use him; he’s a beast. Any questions?”
“Look at the size of that thing! Won’t it just blow us out of the sky?”
“It’s impossible, even for a computer!”
“It’s not impossible; their attack is not as good as it looks. They have an over-reliance on the number 7 gun, which is misfiring dreadfully. Its overconfidence is its weakness. May The Force be with you”
A wise woman once said to me “family’s like fish – lovely for a bit but then it starts to go off and stink the place out.” Real Madrid have had, more or less, the same first-choice starting XI for several years. It has been a well-oiled machine for some time, but that lubricant is drying up and the friction on the pitch could be generating enough heat to burn Zidane.
Once proudly royal, the regality of the club is receding and a discreet senility is creeping in. Some of the concrete seems to have the structural integrity of Gareth Bale’s body and the fans on the bottom two tiers of the stands were drenched, embers of passion smouldering on but never igniting.
In short, IT WAS ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT! “Wait, what?”, as the Youth of Today start sentences. That’s right, it was an incredible experience in a colossal stadium watching an outstanding game of football that was, at times, analogous to the heavily armoured gladiator chasing his nearly naked foe in The Life of Brian. Some of the control; the passing; the defending, had me moaning with almost intra-coital satisfaction. Not even Jabba the Hutt to my right or the Dingle Village Idiot to my left could dampen my enthusiasm, let alone the Biblical rains.
Getting There, Tickets and Accommodation.
The reason I’ve done so few Spanish matches before now is two-fold: flight prices, which is really an effect of the second reason, lateness of confirmation of kick-off times. The scarcity of away fans in Spanish stadia can surely be partially attributed to this, whether it’s seen as culturally normal or not. Therefore, when the opportunity came to go to Madrid for a reasonable price, it had to be grasped. Not so big a problem if you can do Friday to Tuesday, guaranteeing you’ll be in the town for the fixture and flights are much cheaper, but us teachers don’t have that luxury.
Flights through a Belgian travel agent, called Tripair, were 68€ return from Brussels to Madrid with Iberia. This was about half of what Iberia were wanting to book with them directly. Good old Skyscanner pulled through. Flights were packed both ways.
Getting tickets for Real Madrid is easy enough, through their website, https://www.realmadrid.com/en/tickets. Patience is required however, as tickets typically only go on sale ten days before the match. Unless, of course, you want VIP corporate tickets. They are all that is offered by the club in the weeks running up to the match, making you think the match is sold out and some must turn to agencies or resale sites. Don’t! Just keep an eye on the website and get them quick once they go on sale, as the cheaper seats sell out more quickly.
The pricing structure seems simple: you pay more to be closer to the pitch, or in the middle. My ticket, at 50€, was in the Lateral Este, which is the stand that is slightly different from the rest. Thankfully, the roof extended well over my head, keeping me dry (and warm, due to ridiculous suspended heaters) in spite of the deluge.
The ticket itself gave me a little chuckle, as it seemed I had my own “vomitory”, casting up images of Roman Rivers of Bile, where one de-debauches (or maybe, as two negative together make a positive, “bauches”? Language is beautiful.) oneself. In fairness, the height could induce a vomitory reaction in those with even the slightest spin of vertigo.
The stadium is easily reached from Madrid-Barajas Airport. The line 8 metro goes directly from Terminal 4 (there’s another stop for T1, T2 and T3) to Nuevos Ministerios, which is only one stop from, and an easy walk to, the Bernabeu, in the north of the city. A 3€ supplement is added to the metro ticket for airport travel. The metro system itself is great: relatively quiet and trains running very frequently.
One word of warning: if you haven’t done your research properly before you go (like me, on this occasion) do not fall into the trap of thinking that “M” and “S” (not the shop) indicated metropolitan or suburban rail. “M” and “S” are the collective names from clusters of gates in the Non-Schengen Terminal, T4S. I took the little shuttle to this terminal, looking for the metro, only to see customs and border guards and no obvious way out. I said, in what I’m sure was actually Italian, that I was looking for the metro to Madrid, and had to take a staff exit down to the platform, to take the little shuttle back to Terminal 4, to look for the metro again. The guy looked at me like I was a prize Dufus. He was right.
For those interested, the signpost for the metro at the airport says “Metro”. I know. Got to wonder how I’d get on in Korea.
My hotel was sourced via booking.com and was near Metro Tetuan, The Funway Academic Resort, about fifteen minutes walk from the Bernabeu. This end of Madrid is generally much cheaper than anything around Gran Via, Sol or Retiro. This room cost me 50€ for the night, had its own shower and toilet and a bed suspended from thin wires hanging from the ceiling, that could be raised or lowered as necessary. It was pretty good, considering how expensive other options were.
I walked around Madrid a lot the day after the game, when the weather had cleared up. It’s generally a good town for the pedestrian, and is full of things to see. My tip for the top is 100 Montaditos. A recommendation from a student, most of the food is snack based and it’s dirt cheap. After the game on the Saturday, I had two small sandwiches, tortilla, fries with melted cheese and a large draft beer (500ml) for under 7€. Ridiculous. I watched Deportivo La Coruna v Valencia on the TV in there while I was at it. You go to the bar and order and they call your name over a PA once it’s ready. For no logical reason, this panics me a little, and, just like in Starbucks, I always give a false name. Maybe because I don’t like my given name, maybe because I’m obtuse. I don’t know. Anyway, after successfully ordering in clearly non-Native Spanish, she asked me my name (it took me to goes to grasp this). I then responded, almost like a Tourette’s sufferer, “Juan.”
“Si, Juan.” Juan Kerr was what I was. I have previous with this kind of thing, elevating social clumsiness to new levels.
Estadio Santiago Bernabéu
There are some stadia that wow you from the outside. I’m thinking the Allianz Arena in Munich, Olympiastadion in Berlin or the San Siro. You can stand outside those and be impressed. To be honest, the Bernabeu only scores moderately in this respect. It has the towers in the corners, similar to the San Siro, but they look like budget alternatives. Parts of it look like a shopping mall in a deprived area that has seen better days. This really surprised me. I expected something more superficial, more marketable via photography, more impressive.
The number of Spanish flags hanging from nearby apartments was noticeable, if not unexpected. It reminded me of what Belgium was like in 2014 during the World Cup. This was, however, more of a defiant togetherness than the celebratory one in Belgium. There are, nonetheless, political parallels. As Forrest Gump so eloquently put it, that’s all I have to say about that.
After entering through the gates, there are signs for the various “vomitoria”. Bags are allowed, although they are searched, as are cameras. So began the climb up to the top. I entered at the same time as some group of around eight guys, speaking Dutch, and one of them was a 150kg hippo. I could have taken this as my pre-match entertainment, watching him gasp for oxygen as he hauled his trailing arse up four flights of stairs, but I’m a nicer person these days. Anyway, I was far too excited.
The moment when you get to the top is surreal. The view as you catch sight of the pitch seems almost artificial, it’s so impressive. The steward described to me where my seat was. Just as well, because they have the most bizarre numbering system. My seat was number 6, but it was next to 4 and 8. My row was even numbers only. The numbers on the row nearest the entrance were odd. If I had been going with a friend and I’d bought two tickets I thought were next to each other and they had numbers 4 and 6 on them, I’d be disappointed. Still, this is their system.
Another thing that really surprised me was how sparsely situated and poorly stocked the refreshment stands were. A couple of types of baguette, alcohol free beer, water and juice was about it. And I had to go two floors down for it. Incidentally, the toilet situation is chronic as well. Three tiers of stands at that entrance served by one toilet, on the 2nd floor, with about 10 urinals and 4 seats, in a stadium this size? However, there really is hardly any concourse space in the Lateral Este stand.
So back up I plodded to my seat, with a cheese baguette and an incredible view. The Bernabeu has that Instagrammable factor that attracts more of a fleeting fan – the type who’s more interested in the photos of themselves with Ronaldo in the background than the game itself (says the guy who takes pictures of, and writes about, football stadia). People who were “not really that into football”, but it was a cool thing to do. That’s not a criticism, just an observation.
The three other stands are slightly higher, but less well covered, so I’d inadvertently picked a great seat. A huge number of people left it until the last minute before taking their seats. I postulated a couple of reasons for this: the inability to buy a beer in the ground, when there are loads of bars in the vicinity of the stadium and the inclement weather. The seats have really good legroom, which is all the more surprising given the severe verticality of the stands.
Where Beer Angels will come to your seat in fill your cup in other European Stadia, in Madrid, they come with Coca-Cola and Popcorn. Watching couples buying industrial volumes of Coke and buckets of popcorn, with “Shape of You” and “Despacito” booming in the background just annoyed me. It’s probably irrational, and I’m the visitor, but that kind of Pseudo-American Industrialised nothingness makes me die a little inside. All that was missing was the selfie-screen, where people can go and see themselves taking pictures of themselves on a big screen. Conformity and vanity sell. It’s the cultural equivalent of a Wetherspoon’s at 8pm on a Friday.
The pre-match “Hala Madrid” song is a little dirge-like. Kudos to the White Army behind the goal in the Fondo Sur – they were doing their utmost to get the place rocking, but sometimes fan enthusiasm is water soluble.
Real Madrid v Villarreal
The match really was a thing of beauty, and both teams made it such. Key stats include Real Madrid having 28 shots on goal, including 11 from Ronaldo, much to the increasing frustration of the 63000 crowd. Villarreal also had 10 themselves. Their goalkeeper, Asenjo, was outstanding and made some fortunate and some unbelievable saves; seven in total. However, trying to describe the match using numbers is like saying Dali painted clocks.
The quality of passing, from both sides, was sublime. Modric is a wonderful footballer, and was at the centre of all good things Madrid did. Their weakest link on the day was Ronaldo. The Portuguese Narcissus worked hard and was defensively effective. He also jumps exceptionally well in the middle. Nevertheless, he squandered several opportunities with his masturbatory shooting when the pass was a much better option. He’d make great Kylo Ren.
Bacca led the line well for the visitors, and really should have scored. If he had a little more pace, he would be the complete centre-forward, even if he is a former Brugge player. When the goal finally came, it happened in slow motion, with Fornais lobbing Navas from outside the box after the keeper had saved seconds beforehand. You cannot say it was undeserved: Villarreal were brilliant. Given the almost aquatic nature of the pitch, it seemed fitting that the Yellow Submarine prevailed.
Verdict: It’s not what you expect: a little disappointing in some ways, and breathtaking in others, making it an essential trip.
- Quality of match: *****
- Stadium character: ***
- Stadium atmosphere: ***
- Hospitality: **
- Ease of access: *****
- Things to do around the stadium: *****
- Overall: ****