|Angel di Maria finds the back of the net.|
Although I played soccer in my youth and have remained a fan of the game long thereafter, my experience with the professional game had always been limited to the English Premier League wrap up shows played on ESPN at 5:30am on Saturday mornings. Or at least that was the case until our recent Mardi Gras vacation when luck would have it that Real Madrid hosted Racing Santander during our stay in the Spanish capitol. Almost immediately after we booked our flights last summer, I checked the Real Madrid schedule and penciled it in on our itinerary. But a combination of procrastination and website confusion prevented us from securing tickets until our arrival in Spain, when we soon found out that two side-by-side tickets were impossible to be bought via the web. And instead of taking a chance on scalping tickets shortly before kickoff, after lunch we hopped the metro heading north to Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, where we were able to secure two side-by-side mid-level tickets behind one of the goals for face value.
With approximately 4 hours till kickoff and no desire to make the trek back into the city, we decided to kill time around the stadium. After a search for a recommended restaurant lead us to a shuttered store front, we made a quick pass through the logo shop for a team scarf and a onesie for the nephew (unfortunately there was no onesie available in my size). The next 3 hours were spent at a tavern just across the street from the stadium where we consumed an unhealthy number of bottles of Estrella and rubbed elbows with locals drinking rum and coke and gin and tonic from tall slender plastic glasses filled with exactly 3 ice cubes, no more and no less. Imagine Allegro's before a Saints game, except with far less hair gel, no Ying Yang twins blasting from the speakers, and no pre-formed frozen burgers on the grill.
Instead, there is jamón. The omnipresent cured leg of pig hangs in almost every bar and restaurant in Spain. I had witnessed first hand the undying devotion to jamón on previous visits, and the fanatical devotion to fútbol is evident to anyone who saw video footage of the nationwide celebrations which took place after Spain won the World Cup in 2010. I could never say which laid claim to the title of Spain's true love, until that game at Bernabéu when I discovered that the only thing that the Spanish love more than fútbol or jamón is eating jamón while at a fútbol game.
We should have gotten the hint from hundreds (literally) of cellophane wrapped bocadillos which were stacked behind the counter of that no name bar across the street from Bernabéu. An hour before game time, the jamón bocadillos were all sold out, even though no one in the bar seemed to be eating. The tardy purchasers to either tortilla or queso bocadillos. Luckily for us, The Folks Singer snagged one of the last jamón bocadillos before the sell out and stuffed it inside her purse.
Once we finally made it inside the stadium, we were faced with two serious disappointments. First, the only beer available was Mahou Sin, as in "sin alcohol" or "no alcohol." That was a shocker. Next, the concession stands were all sold out of jamón. The ref had not blown the first whistle more than 10 minutes earlier, and they were already out of jamón. How could this be?
Fast forward to halftime. The Whites have a comfortable 2-0 lead and seem to be toying with the overmatched Racing Santander squad, when suddenly the world's largest outdoor picnic party breaks out. You see, Real Madrid fans focus squarely on the game between the first and final whistles, but when halftime rolls around it's all about the jamón. Everywhere we turned, someone was tearing open foil or plastic wrap and munching down on a ham sandwich. It was like one giant jamórgasm. Now we knew where all those bocadillos disappeared to earlier.
When the halftime whistle blew at Azteca Stadium last night, I smiled to myself in memory of that night at Bernabéu, wondering if the Mexican fans were all chowing down on tacos al pastor or tortas filled with barbacoa. Perhaps one day, fans in New Orleans will hold the world's largest muffuletta halftime picnic. I hope that I am there to join in, and I really hope that they are serving something other than non-alcoholic beer.