Once again, a dream became a reality. I attended a Champions League game, featuring my favorite soccer player in the world: Christiano Ronaldo. For those of you who don't know, the Champions League is an annual tournament between the best club soccer teams in Europe. The format is basically the same as the World Cup, but with club/ pro teams instead of teams representing a country: first there is a group stage, then a knockout stage after that, and eventually a champion is crowned.
I have watched lots of Champion League games on TV, so to be able to attend one in person was truly an incredible experience, and it happened during my first week in Spain. After spending probably too much time looking for tickets, I decided on one that seemed pretty decent, at a fair price, and really close to the field. Then, I needed to go to a local internet cafe/ tech store to actually print it out. The store featured perhaps the slowest computer left on the planet, so what should have been a two minute process took about twenty, but I digress. I had a ticket to a Champions League game!
To get to the game, I used the excellent subway system in Madrid, which took me right to Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. After one line change, and forty five minutes, I was dropped off right in front of the huge stadium. There is always something cool to me about massive sports stadiums right in the middle of a dense urban area, and Berabeu definitely fits into that category.
Not surprisingly, there were dozens of vendor stalls selling pretty much everything you would expect: hats, t shirts, jerseys, memorabilia, and lots and lots of scarves. So many scarves in a variety of colors and options. Several of the streets surrounding the stadium were closed off to traffic, allowing thousands of Real Madrid fans to wander in the middle of the road. I joined all of people in front of the stadium in capturing some photos of the stadium sign. It was a cool feeling to be there live after seeing it on TV so many time.
Then, it was time to make my way inside, so I walked over to Gate 44, which was the entrance for my section. You are allowed to bring in a 500ml bottle of water, which I had, but they take the cap (apparently so I couldn't throw it). So, I had a small bottle of water without a cap, which does not make a very useful container for water in a sports stadium. On my way to my seats, I passed the only tiny food/ beverage vendor in the area, which only sells non-alcoholic beer and a few food items, which was interesting. So, I would not be enjoying any booze at this game. When I eventually got to my seat, I was basically a happy little kid during his/ her first time at Disneyland; wide eyed with a massive smile across my face. The seats themselves, however, are NOT wide, and I would call them 'euro-sized.' These sized seats would not be installed somewhere like Kansas City or Detroit. Just sayin'.
The players were warming up at the time, and I instantly spotted my favorite: Ronaldo. He is either loved or hated (mostly hated), which only makes me like him more. Most rational humans would consider either him or Leo Messi as the top footballers on the planet, with most saying Messi I would think. I stared at the field and surrounding stadium in awe of where I was at that very moment. Then, I inevitably spilled half of the water out of the capless water bottle. Pretty standard stuff for me.
I also learned quickly that, while there is no booze served, you sure as hell are allowed to smoke as many cigarettes as you want. The two gentlemen in front of me had several before the game even started, and their pace never stopped all the way until the end of the game. For those of you keeping track at home: zero beers served, fifty-thousand cigarettes smoked. At least they don't take ALL your vices away at Santiago Bernabeu.
Once the players were done warming up, they headed back to the locker rooms, and the grounds crew watered and stamped down the field a final time before kick off. Then, the players come back out to a whole pomp and circumstance Champions League ceremony that happens before every game. The starting lineups for both teams come out, accompanied by a local youth soccer player. Shakhtar Donetsk (I had to look up the spelling about a dozen times), a team from the Ukrainian Premier League, was the opponent for this game, the first game for both teams in the group stage. So there I was, at a Champions League game, with my favorite player, and it was about to get underway. And it was a freaking awesome moment. It was also my first major soccer game that I have been to, so it made the moment even more special.
During the entire game, there is a section in the upper deck that sings, waves flags, and beats drums the WHOLE time. Anytime something happens (good or bad), it seems like they just can't wait to get back to singing again.
There was also a section reserved for the Ukrainian club, but there appeared to only be one or two people there. Probably not the easiest, or most affordable, trip for most Ukrainians to make these days.
Real Madrid dominated the game, eventually scoring late in the first half for the first goal of the game. Everyone stood up, yelled, cheered, then quickly sat back down and sang more songs.
Unfortunately, there are zero replays in the stadium (there are only two relatively small video screens), so either you see it happen live, or you have to wait until you get home. There is also no clock for extra time, so I didn't know how much time was left in the half (unless I had started a timer on my phone).
Real Madrid took the 1-0 lead into halftime, when nearly everyone queued up to the tiny food/ beverage stand to get a plain bread and meat sandwich. It really seemed like EVERYONE got one of these sandwiches, that had either a meat or cheese (or both) filling. One positive aspect of the crowd not sucking down gallons of beer is that the bathroom lines were incredibly short.
The second half was even more Real Madrid domination. Ronaldo got in on the action, scoring two penalty kicks and a header, giving him three goals in the second half. So, I got to see my favorite player score three goals during my first Champions League game. Incredible is an understatement. Yes, two of those goals were penalties (which are basically very exciting free throws), but I am not complaining.
With a final score of 4-0 Real Madrid, it was a total blowout, equal to a 50-0 win in football or a 30 point win in basketball.
I navigated the insantely crowded metro ride to get home, which was pretty cool to hop on a subway and be home in about 40 mins for $2.
Overall, it was a truly magical and memorable experience. I visited one of the world's premier soccer stadiums, featuring one of the best teams in the world, which employs one of the best players in the world. One of the top things on my list of things to do in Europe had been checked off, and it could not have been more fun.