Winning over one of the madridistas
I was born into a family of Real Madrid supporters. My mother's father, Joaquín, was a socio for as long as I can remember. My father's father, Eduardo, not only rooted for Real Madrid but also detested Catalans. In my early years, the vast majority of my closest friends were also Real Madrid fans, with very few exceptions.
With such a background of family and friends, the thought of supporting any other team never crossed my mind. In 1982 I watched my first football match live at the Santiago Bernabéu (where else?), as Real Madrid played Ujpest Dosza in a Cup Winners' Cup tie. On a cold October night, Real Madrid prevailed, and would eventually go on to lose the tournament's final against an Aberdeen side coached by one Alex Ferguson.
In my adolescent years I often attended matches at the Bernabéu. As soon as I could afford it I became a socio and bought season tickets. This nurturing of the Real Madrid creed and its liturgy almost inevitably led to the hatred of all things Barcelona. The most exciting matches at the stadium were the "derbis" (never called "clásicos" back then) against the Catalans, a mixture of sporting rivalry and political competition that created an unparalleled atmosphere in the stadium.
Once Barcelona appeared on the pitch, we loved to hate them, and chose our targets carefully: at the Bernabéu, Julio Salinas was never allowed to forget his glaring miss vs. Italy in the 1994 World Cup; Hristo Stoitchkov was booed beyond belief; Luis Enrique, the blaugrana phase of Luis Figo's career, and Andoni Zubizarreta were also among our favourite villains to scream at. However, Josep Guardiola always commanded a great deal of respect among us madridistas.
Leaving aside his exceptional elegance on the pitch, Pep made his first impact on my short-sighted football beliefs after one of the best matches I can remember. In September 1993, Atlético de Madrid played Barcelona at the Nou Camp. The match had just started and Romário de Souza scored an amazing goal. Before I knew it I was hooked by the fantastic dynamism of that Barcelona side.
Guardiola was interviewed after that match. When asked whether Barcelona's offensive approach was too reckless, he answered: "We play to win, so we take risks. And I just can't imagine Real Madrid playing this way". Barca's attitude on the pitch was something premeditated and non-negotiable, and Pep was their foremost representative.
In fact, that Barcelona team changed the way I watched football. I started to enjoy the game played well, although that didn't alter my allegiances: I still wanted our dull Benito Floro side to beat the so-called 'Dream Team', no matter how. In the following years my admiration for Guardiola kept growing despite the bitter end of his career as a player and Pep's public appearances in the media were inspirational and entertaining whenever he spoke about football.
His appointment as Barça's gaffer last May was as suggestive as it was risky. Guardiola had no real coaching experience, but possessed a deep knowledge of the club and the right vision to leverage a handful of fantastic players. During the season I watched in painful delight each football lecture Barcelona gave on the pitch. Then we got to the point where the Catalans had pocketed both domestic titles and were going to play for the treble against Manchester United.
If I had grown fonder of Barça's brand of football over the years, that was not the case among my Real Madrid friends. Their opinion was unanimous: they wanted Barcelona to suffer an ignominious defeat. The best place to watch that happen would be at an English bar, so that they could root for "oonuit" (the Spanish media way of pronouncing United) in a friendly atmosphere. We chose a well-known pub that was already packed with English expats when we arrived, much to my friends' joy.
The opening ceremony, apparently taken out of "Asterix and the laurel wreath", was finishing. The teams were introduced and we got our first surprise of the evening: the pub cheered Barcelona's entrance. Most patrons were Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea fans who were following my friends' rational and wanted their arch rivals to lose. In the group next to us only Barry, a Gunner from Islington, was rooting for United: "You should support your countrymen, mate," was his reasoning.
At this point I had not yet decided who I would root for: the attacking flair of my domestic adversaries, or their conspicuously dressed-in-white opposition. A foul on Carles Puyol in the third minute cleared all my doubts. Barry stood up and screamed: "(expletive) off, you Spanish fairy!" If it came down to it, I would have to support my countrymen indeed.
The match started with United looking the hungrier side, until Samuel Eto'o ended his barren spell in the tenth minute. He had been looking like a poor man's Andy Cole for a solid month, but took advantage of his first one-on-one chance and scored with ease. I celebrated discretely and got a few stares from my friends.
The next 15 minutes were balanced, with no clear chances. Then the real Barcelona started to play: they got hold of the ball and put together a marvellous string of almost 50 passes that finished with a free kick taken by Xavi Hernández. The Englishmen supporting Barça were brimming with excitement, in anticipation of an easy win.
From that point until half-time, United barely saw the ball. Guardiola had positioned Lionel Messi in one of those "hole" roles instead of his usual right flank spot, similarly to the Madrid match. The Argentine, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta kept possession easily and controlled the midfield, although they were strangely soft in the final third.
Just when we expected United to come out strong after the break, Barcelona overwhelmed them with three glorious opportunities in just five minutes. "Good omen, they're wasting chances!" said the optimistic Barry. Then Xavi hit the post. "Great omen!" screamed Barry. But he was wrong. United were still chasing shadows, and a few minutes later Barcelona scored their second, after Xavi's umpteenth pinpoint pass this season was met by Messi (the shortest player on the pitch, no less) with an emphatic header. "This is awful, they're just too good", said Barry. "They are the best team and you know it", I told my friends. No response from a depressed bunch of vikingos.
The match finished and we decided to dash. Barcelona had just won the first Spanish treble in grand style, so there was definitely no reason for a few madridistas to stick around celebrating. We left as a few dozen Englishmen applauded Puyol holding the Cup, a surreal sight indeed.
"Now Florentino has to do something really big", uttered one of my mates. He will, but the impact is unclear. Guardiola is now reaping the rewards of an approach that started 20 years ago and today permeates all of Barcelona's youth teams.
It will be hard for Real Madrid to replicate that with a bunch of marquee signings. With the right motivation, the Catalans have everything to keep winning for a long time. I am just glad to be able to enjoy their brand of football and celebrate with them, even if it's only their international victories. Thanks, Pep.. and Barry.