Originally written March 2006 (adapted)
There was an interesting moment in the Bernabéu on Sunday evening, sometime around the 30th minute. Cicinho played in a clever diagonal ball from the right, near the half-way line, intending it for Ronaldo to run onto. But the striker saw it too late, thought about it, then decided not to waste his energy on a ball that was running inevitably to the opposition (Depor) defence. As the crowd fidgeted with impatience, several boos began to float into the mild evening air. Madrid were winning 1-0, but Ronnie was still unloved and unwanted. Get thee back to Italy, the boos seemed to say.
A minute later, Ronaldo received a simpler ball in from Beckham, and with a sudden change of body language, from ‘Who cares?’ to ‘I’m still world class, watch this’, the Brazilian proceeded to take on the entire Deportivo defence, shimmying this way, feinting that way, steppin’ over, steppin’ under – the whole repertoire in a two-second burst. Just as he framed to shoot, Coloccini got back and made a desperate tackle, pooping the party and spoiling the potential goal of the season.
But the crowd rose in appreciation. It reminded you suddenly of the truth, of the facts that can be so easily obscured by temporary circumstance. Ronaldo’s got a big belly, he was awful against Arsenal, he said some dumb things beforehand, he’s been awful for most of the season, he wants away…etc. But for one sublime moment, the Brazilian, piqued by the boos, suddenly remembered what it was to be the best forward in the world – Henry who? The Bernabéu remembered as well.
Funny lot, the Madridistas. It was as if they were dying to forgive Ronaldo, like a parent who has been temporarily shocked into disliking his own child. The tension lasts for so long, but you come back round in the end – you need to make up. It’s so much better that way, in the last resort, when all the recrimination has died down. It’s a while since I’ve been to the Bernabow, but every time I’ve been I’ve been struck by the same sensation – that the hardcore there knows its football. They seem to have an uncanny ability to judge a player’s strengths and weaknesses. And they know, for all Ronaldo’s inconsistency and refuelling habits, for all the daft things he has said to the press over the years, that he’s basically been the Number One, and that he can still do the business, given a fit of pique and a reasonably generous defence such as Deportivo’s.
After 78 minutes with his team 3-0 up, manager López Caro cleverly substitutes him for Cassano, thereby gauging to what extent the home crowd has forgiven. Judging by the applause, the forgiveness is total. Whether or not it is unconditional might depend on what happens in the Camp Nou on Saturday night – for hope springs eternal in the breast, of those obsessed with title quest. Barça, resting their main men for the tie against Benfica this week, put out a weakened side at Málaga and drew 0-0 (albeit having a goal controversially disallowed). If Real Madrid were to do the improbable and win in Barcelona, they might be able to start dreaming legitimately of pegging back the eight points that would then separate the two sides. If Barça win, well….thank-you and goodnight.
I was actually high up in the gods in the press box for the game, a wonderfully giddy view from up in the high peaks, looking down almost vertically onto the early spring beige of the Bernabow pitch far below. I was accompanying the excellent Drew Carey, an American writer, actor and comedian who was in Spain to film the week’s build-up to this week’s ‘clásico’ in Barcelona. Travelling down to meet him on the Saturday morning, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and was worried that I might have to politely explain that there was in fact no tradition of cheerleaders or of ‘time-out’ in Spanish ‘soccer’, but my hard-core English football snobbery was well wide of the mark, for he turned out to be most knowledgeable of the game. Not only that, his ‘outsider’s’ view turned up some real gems – some of which could never occur to the more tired European eye.
An hour before the game, with Carey and his camera crew outside the bustling ground, an American tourist had walked up with a mock stagger and greeted the comedian with ‘Man! I cannot believe it! Fucking Drew Carey….maaaan….this is the greatest day of my life! What are you doing here? Maaaaan – wait till I tell my friends! You are my HERO! Can I have a photo?’ to which Carey replied ‘sure’ in his reassuringly affable manner. Up to that point, I’d not quite realised how famous he was. The tourist was clearly stunned.
When he finally floated off in a star-struck daze, Carey suddenly turned panicky. ‘Phil!’ he stammered. ‘How do I get the other guys from the camera team (the ones who did not have press permission) into the match? It’s not fair. Can we buy tickets?’ I assured him that we could, and that I could buy them around the corner, from the ‘taquilla’. Buoyed by this information, Carey dug into his pockets and pulled out an alarming wad of euros, which he proceeded to stick in my shirt pocket. ‘I’ve no fucking idea how much it costs!’ he shouted. ‘Is 1,000 euros enough for the three guys?’ I assured him that it was more than enough, but when I tried to return him a wedge of the notes he refused, issuing his time-honoured phrase ‘whatever-the-fuck’.
When I returned with the three tickets (purchased for less than 200) he greeted me as if I were a magician. ‘Phil! You’re a genius man! In the States, this could not have happened. I love this country!’ he hollered, jumping up and down with child-like enthusiasm, rebutting my attempts to return him the change. ‘Change? You got change? What is this place? Paradise?’
On the previous afternoon, theatrically emerging from the sacred sanctuary of the dressing-rooms into the blazing light of the Bernabéu – the ‘Hala Madrid’ anthem echoing around the empty stadium – we’d scurried along the cinder track and ducked under the perspex roof of the ‘banquillo’ (bench), onto whose blue padded mock-leather many more famous arses have descended. Well, more famous than mine anyway. Drew Carey sat back and stretched out his legs. ‘Man this is the life. This is so comfortable. I cannot believe this. This is Business Class!’ I sat back and dreamed I was the young Raúl, about to go out there and make my home debut, against Atlético Madrid. But I couldn’t move, sunk down into the leather, awaiting the smiling hostess and the complimentary drinks. Drew launched into a rant:
‘This is why they’ve gone down the tubes. It’s obvious. This would never happen in the States. Doesn’t matter how much you’re earning in baseball or American football, you sit your ass down on a hard wooden bench.’ ‘It’s kind of symbolic, I offered.’ Drew’s point was a good one, as was the further suggestion that if he were the president, the first thing he would do would be to restore the wooden benches and bring back some sort of authenticity to the whole scene. It seemed a fair point. How anybody could prepare for a game in such a pampered environment seemed hard to fathom.
But joking aside, the tension between Real Madrid as an institution, as a concept – and Real Madrid as just eleven players out on a football pitch, seems forever on the agenda as you make your way around the gleaming stadium, then on through the newly-furbished museum with its pompous self-glorification and the shameless statistical barrage of its historical greatness. Look on my Works, Ye Mighty, and despair – it seems to say. Don’t let the three years without a trophy fool you just yet, the display implies. And indeed, watching the team strut their stuff on Sunday, relatively unmolested by anything resembling a real challenge by a curiously muted Deportivo, you could see that the galáctico idea wasn’t necessarily a bad one, and that the Beckhams, Ronaldos, Zidanes and company, shorn for a while of all the circus that surrounds them, are in fact not marketing puppets at all, but wonderful footballers, capable of things that it is truly a privilege to witness at close quarters, given the occasional chance.
As Van Morrison wisely remarked. ‘Why can’t it always be like this?’ That’s not an easy one to answer. It was also a privilege to be with Carey at close quarters, as he turned out to be a genuinely funny and humane guy. I wasn’t expecting him to be. Indeed, as he invited me to the clásico for the coming weekend, I politely declined, informing him that I would be working in Berlin. ‘Berlin? Fuck Berlin!’ he insisted. ‘Come on man – we’ll have a great time!’ But I knew that it was better to cut it there and then. We stayed vaguely in touch and he e-mailed me that he’d read one of my books, but super-famous folks have lots of fish to fry. I didn’t expect to stay best buddies forever.
And that following Saturday night – I hope he caught a glimpse of the bench at the Camp Nou. Business or Tourist Class? It might have made all the difference.