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Saturday, July 05, 2008

Som Campeons*

Som Campeons*

*(We are champions!) A text message I was sent in Valenciano after Spain defeated Germany to win the Eurocopa.

Pase lo Que Pase, España Siempre
--From the start I thought that this motto for the Spanish national football team was rather defeatist.

By default I became a Spanish football fan the day I arrived here in Valencia a little over one and a half years ago. I adopted Valencia Club de Fútbol and the Spanish national team as my own, with all of the ups and downs that come with being a sports fan. During my first year I watched as Valencia CF made it to the semi-finals of the Champions League only to be eliminated by Chelsea here in Valencia after we had fought them to a draw at their home stadium of Stamford Bridge. In the following season Valencia was ignominiously eliminated in the group stage of the Champions League and was looking at a pretty grim season in the Spanish league. Spain managed to beat Getafe in the final of the Copa del Rey, a tournament played within the Spanish league during the season. Valencia had a bad season this year but not all was lost as the Copa del Rey title ensures that they at least have a spot in next season's UEFA tournament (sort of a step below the Champions League). Spain had to push aside Barcelona to get into the final of the Copa del Rey and that victory was one of the sweetest games I have ever savored—at least as far as my professional club is concerned.

While I have been satisfied with the modest success of Valencia CF, the Spanish national team has been on an absolute terror since I had moved to Valencia. Spain won its qualifying group to enter the 2008 Eurocopa finals held in Switzerland and Austria. The Spanish team, known as La Selección, carries a heavy contingent of Valencia CF stars. Once in the tournament, held every four years between the World Cup, Spain managed to win easily all three of their games in the group stage, with Valencia CF forward, David Villa, scoring a hat trick in the first match against Russia. In the semi-final round Spain was paired with the current World Cup champions, Italy.

Spain had not defeated the Italian team in competitive play in 88 years. The game ended in a 0-0 draw and neither team scored during the 30 minutes of extra time. It would go into penalty kicks in which the two teams alternate taking five kicks from the penalty mark. Whoever leads after five kicks wins, if it is still a draw, the first team to lead wins. Spain and Valencia CF have not had the best of luck when games end in penalties. In the 2000-2001 Champions League final, Valencia CF lost in penalty kicks to FC Bayern Munich, a bitter defeat still felt here. Spain lost to England on penalty kicks in the quarter-finals of the 1996 Eurocopa. In the 2002 World Cup, Spain lost to Korea on penalties in the quarter-finals (although they beat Ireland on penalties to get to that game). Italy, on the other hand, is known for coming out ahead in penalty shoot-outs and had beat France on penalties to win the 2006 World Cup title.

Gianluigi Buffon, who plays for Juventus in the professional season, is considered by many to be the best in the world. Iker Casillas, the superstar goalkeeper for Real Madrid, is also thought to be one of the better players at this position. Buffon had blocked a penalty kick in Italy's game with Romania to keep their tournament hopes alive. If you were a betting type person the odds seemed stacked against Spain. In an earlier semi-final match the Croatian squad had come completely unraveled when it went into a penalty shoot-out with Turkey. You could see fear and resignation written all over the face of the first Croat player to make his attempt which he missed badly. David Villa was the first player to take a kick. He approached the ball with a confidence bordering on arrogance. He made his shot easily. In the end, Iker Casillas was able to save two goals to Buffon's one and Spain would move on to take on Russia in the semi-finals.

Spain had already trounced Russia 4-1 in the group stage but Russia looked like a completely different team coming off their victory over Holland, one of the heavy favorites to win it all. Not only did Spain beat Russia again but they gave them another hiding, 3-0. Now Spain had to play Germany in the final match to be held in Vienna. I had already mentioned that I was going to host the final at my place for all of the football hooligans in my circle. Sitting at a bar after Spain's victory over Russia, someone mentioned that we should drive to Madrid on Sunday to watch the final at the Plaza de Colón where tens of thousands of fans had been watching all the previous games. Big crowds aren't really my thing but I couldn't pass up an opportunity to see a bit Madrid again. Besides, I was just about the biggest Spanish supporter of all the people I have met here so far. I was also the most optimistic about their chances from the very beginning since I wasn't saddled with the years of heartbreak like the average Spanish fan.

Madrid Bound

The drive between Valencia and Madrid isn't the most spectacular three hours of driving, but the views seem to go on for thousands of square miles in some parts. There is the odd castle, the occasional village cathedral, and lots and lots of agriculture—mostly olive trees and vineyards, although it seems impossibly dry and hot for grapes. You definitely know that you are driving through Spain as this section of road looks like every travel poster you have ever seen for La Mancha. I got a big kick out of my friend's GPS system that talked to him in a rather sexy Spanish female voice. I wonder if they use the comforting voice of a woman so as not to offend the normal male's obdurate refusal to admit when we are lost? I wonder if she's single?

Through a friend's recommendation we stayed at Hostal Naranco on Calle de la Puebla 6, 2° near the Gran Vía metro. We paid 16€ each for two huge rooms with bathrooms. I have paid over 100€ for a similar room. I had never stayed in a hostel before and I just always thought that they were crappy and only patronized by junkies.

Evidently, this section of Madrid is a gay neighborhood. I didn't really notice. The night after the game, the comedy television news program Intermedio did interviews with gay dudes about who they thought was the best looking player on the Spanish team and one of the guys they spoke with was standing about a block from our hostel. “It's a small world, gay people are everywhere, get used to it,” I think is the message here.

But we weren't here for the room (or a tolerance workshop) so we ditched our stuff and started off towards the Plaza de Colón. We had been delayed by a horrific traffic jam just outside of Valencia so we arrived only about two and a half hours before the game. This meant that we only had time for a quick bite to eat while we jumped into the flow of people heading towards Plaza de Colón. The mob consisted of almost equal parts drunk boys screaming football chants and great-looking young women—and a few odd foreigners, one of whom was wearing his Spanish team jersey.

We got to the square an hour before the game and immediately decided that it would be a shitty spot to watch the match, that's if you could even get close enough to one of the big screens to see anything. The viewing spots were woefully inadequate to accommodate the huge crowds that had been showing up to watch all the games. There were no screens outside of the interior of the square where most of the fans were smashed together. We decided to fall back and find a bar nearby—easier said than done as this area is just about the least bar-friendly neighborhood I have ever seen in Spain. If you want a to buy a Gucci bag or an Armani suit you are in luck, just don't try to buy a beer.

We finally found a place and it was more crowded, smoky, and suffocating that the Plaza. Two people in our group were steadfast in their desire to watch the game from the square so we headed back. Along the way we stopped into a completely overwhelmed convenience store that looked like it was being looted by people wearing Spanish national colors. The mob was actually well-behaved and the checkout lines were orderly and fast. The problem was there wasn't any cold beer. Nothing like a piss-warm Mahou beer on a hot summer evening, I always say. People weren't even waiting to get to the cash register before they consumed their purchases. I popped a warm beer and toasted the coming Spanish victory.

We muscled our way into the outer ring of the Square and I was able to see half of the screen from one direction and the other half on the opposite side. The game began with a huge roar from the crowd. It was on!

I got a kick out of everything people had brought to the square to eat and drink. Every sort of beer, wine, liquor combination was on hand. Lots of kids were drinking huge, one liter cups of sangria. The young guys standing right behind us had a bag of cheese doodles as big as a pillow. It looked like a comedy prop right out of Pee Wee's Playhouse. At one point they seemed to have tired of this snack option and when I turned around I saw that someone had stepped on it, ripping the bag open at the bottom. When I looked at it a bit later I noticed that a box of cheap sangria had turned over, mixing with the cheese doodles making a mess that would soon dwarf the Exxon Valdes oil spill. One of the guys in our group stepped in the goo and he looked every bit as pathetic as those poor, oil-drenched sea birds along the Alaska coast. The Brits call cheese doodles cheezy-what-its, which sounds pretty funny but not as funny as seeing a Brit's shoe completely covered in crappy sangria and cheezy-what-its.

From where we were standing our view of the screen was being blocked constantly by people waving flags or a girl getting up on someone's shoulders. This inspired improvisational chants from those whose views were being blocked. ¡Hijo de puta, que te caes por el culo! (Hey asshole, please fall on your ass). It was hilarious when the person on the receiving end of the chant finally realized they were the target. They would turn around and then meekly slide out of view. At one point two young guys climbed up on a hedge and completely blocked everyone's view in our section. They seemed resistant to the chants so I took it upon myself to wade on up and ask them to please get down.

I asked them very politely if they could move. They basically told me to fuck off and this was their spot. Without losing my temper I explained that they were blocking the view of about 100 people behind them yet they still held their ground, or perch, on the hedge. One of them began to raise his voice to me and I called him an asshole (gilipolla). I told them that I was going back to where I was standing and if I had to come back to tell them to get down, I wouldn't be talking any more, if they knew what I meant. I think they did. Sometimes people just need someone to remind them of their manners. I started heading back to my group and they got down after a short, face-saving interval. I was the hero of the mob. That is until Torres scored his brilliant, run-completely-around-your-defender-and beat-Lehman-to-the-ball goal.

The crowd reacted like no other crowd I have ever been a part of. Everyone who could, shook up a beer and sprayed it into the air which I thought was really immature and inconsiderate until I did it myself, and then I thought it was pretty funny. Everyone was drenched and loving it. Torres, who had a marvelous year at Liverpool scoring 29 goals, had yet to really come alive in this Eurocopa. I had been telling everyone to watch out for him because he was going to bust loose in this final. Luckily, he didn't need to bust loose. Spain was able to keep Germany scoreless and his one goal was enough. In six games Spain had only been scored on twice. While Spain's Iker Casillas is now considered the best goalkeeper in the game, he could have sat in a lawn chair for most of the Eurocopa because the rest of the Spanish defense was absolutely stifling.

The after-game revelry was riotous spontaneity, pure and simple. If there was a fountain, people swan in it; if there was a statue, people climbed it; if there was a bar, people entered, used the bathroom, ordered a quick shot, and left (OK, at least we did that a couple of times). Our group had an informal competition to see who could instigate the most football chants among the mob. My deep tenor chant of EEEEEE-KEEER (Iker Casilllas) never failed to get people going. A popular chant in the mob was “Yo soy español, español, español (I am Spanish).” I didn't really feel comfortable with that one as my citizenship status is merely honorary at this point. Chanting that I am an illegal alien who happens to be a fanatic supporter of the Spanish national squad just doesn't have a nice ring to it in Spanish.

Madrid will probably never be this insane ever again, even when they win the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. What happened in Madrid was the release of several decades of pessimism, defeatism, and self-doubt. What brought Spain out of this funk was a team of players too young to have any doubt about their abilities. Spanish fans maintained a sense of very guarded optimism after the first victory in the Eurocopa. Spain had disappointed too many times in the past for people to get too carried away. The players were another story. From the start they displayed a sense of confidence and belief in the team that carried them all the way to the end, and perhaps further if you are looking at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

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