It was only when we arrived at the desk of the car rental, just down the road from the terminals of Barcelona Airport last summer, that we learned an international driver’s license was required to drive a car off their lot. With two weeks’ worth of luggage stowed at our feet, I cursed the fine print of the contract where this requirement had been buried. Bernadeane was coming down with a bad head cold. Otto and Suzanne, friends from home, spoke Spanish by virtue of being native Germans. But no amount of Euro – Spanish would change the car rental’s policy.
This was our third day in Barcelona. The day of the soccer match. It was already past noon. We needed to somehow get to Sitges, a beach town 35 kilometers down the coast from Barcelona, find the house we’d rented there for the remaining ten days of our trip (who cared about those), unload our luggage, eat dinner, get refreshed then head back to Barcelona in time for the 8.30 game against Malaga. All with no car, and the uncertain energy of jet-lag. My chances for a pregame nap to be at my best at kickoff were ticking away with each passing moment.
I’d become a sports expat, leaving football, baseball and especially basketball, my first love, for soccer. Loving one sport over another may be like loving one woman over another — purely subjective chemistry. On the other hand, being that lover, one would be a pedant to rationalize away the passion; of such distinctions is life defined.
The brute force of American sports had started to bore me. The big football hits, the big basketball dunks, the big baseball home runs were a common place. And the slack clichés of lazily bombastic American sports announcing had become deadening.
Soccer success blended in much more subtlety. To use the legs for both movement and the essential action of playing the game requires a transcendent kind of coordination – imagine playing basketball while walking on your hands — making it innately balletic.
With soccer came a whole new vernacular, deployed by genetically understated Englishmen, a second language liberated from the familiar.
The field was a pitch, the game a fixture, the cleat a boot, out of bounds was in touch, and on and on. Then there was the colorful stuff: putting the ball between a defenders legs – a nutmeg; intentionally letting the ball run between your own legs to confuse defenders — a dummy; players squabbling – argy bargy. To name just a few.
The endless commercial breaks of televised American sports seemed to take my attention for granted. With no stoppages in play other than halftime, soccer is fluid and largely beyond the obsessive controls of coaches, those mostly miserable parental figures of sport — anxious, righteous, intervening and perpetually disappointed. With no timeouts, soccer coaches can only holler from the side line and make strangely aeronautic hand signals as if guiding airplanes to landing.
The glut of sideline control and analysis on a play-by-play basis that is American football, complete with radioed-in signals, real-time photography, and hundreds of prepared plays provides a study in cultural contrast. The American approach perhaps illustrates our optimism and faith in the ability to engineer positive outcomes, which I appreciate in daily life. However, in the matter of sports, I’ve come to far prefer the free flowing fatalism of soccer – whatever will be will be.
While American sports are dominated by giants, abnormally large human specimens, possessed of extraordinary physical strength, the greatest soccer player of his generation, and of all time, Lionel Messi, who plays for Barcelona, is listed at 5 foot 7, 148 pounds, and carries the nickname La Pulga, the flea. Comparing La Pulga to King James, the nickname for Lebron James, the greatest basketballer of his era, encapsulates my preference perfectly; between overkill and irony, I’ll take irony every time.
Yes, love is not too strong a word for the attraction and electricity, for the satisfaction and disappointment. To consummate this love, I’d travelled to see Football Club de Barcelona play. Of course, there was also the visionary architecture of Gaudi, the fantastic Catalan food, the urban European charms of street and park, the beaches of Sitges, etc. All these I could enjoy now that I was there, but none of them would have gotten me on the plane.
This new language of soccer bore a novel emotional component, a simple, perhaps even childish, fan’s excitement, I’d never experienced before — not for sports teams I’d followed, or rock bands I’d liked, or authors I’d admired. Why it had taken me until my forty-eighth year to get silly-enthused about something, anything, would require an autobiography of over-sensitivity to self and others to answer. I’d just never let go like this. So this trip was a kind of experiment in excitement I was determined to see through.
Deeply troubling then that the one day where things went seriously wrong was the day of the game. We’d burned precious time with the polite but ultimately unyielding car rental manger and were now even further behind schedule. We phoned for a cab, insisting we needed a van to hold the four of us and our luggage. Sure enough, a compact shows up, which we had to send away, time ticking down even more.
It was late August and still hot, and I was sweating in every sense. We’d postponed our summer holiday to accommodate the Spanish soccer league, La Liga. Like a woman who takes her lovers for granted, La Liga announces its dates late, and was prone to changing them with little notice. The schedule had not come out until July. (Such a short lead-time was unheard of for American professional sports.) We’d had to scramble to make arrangements and we were still scrambling. Finally a van arrived, and we were loaded in for the half hour drive to Sitges.
On the coastal highway heading towards Sitges, I told the driver we were going to the game that night, and he pointed out the suburban area where Messi lived, nestled in the hills outside of Barcelona, remarking that Gerard Pique, the team’s most important central defender, and husband of pop singer Shakira, lived in the city center. He advised us that the train was the best way to get to the game.
In Sitges, we found the property management company, and I fretted over time as we signed enough papers, it seemed, to purchase the house, rather than just rent it for ten days. On the advice of the agent, we walked to a nearby market for essentials, such as water, bread and snacks. But Otto and Suzanne became immediately engrossed in the bountiful array of cheeses, smoked Spanish hams and aged salamis. They visited Europe in part to reengage with the diverse, delicious eating that is a daily occurrence on the Continent, but I begrudged them now their browsing time.
How had I become such an impassioned fan of a sport so few in the US care about? My first exposure to soccer came in Jerusalem where we lived in the early 70’s, across from the YMCA, which was then home to the stadium where Beitar Jerusalem, a major power played. I never saw the soccer field. What I witnessed from our apartment window as a four year old, were young men each Saturday seeking to scale the stone wall topped with coiled barbed wire to get into the stadium without paying. They would prop homemade scaling ladders against the wall and up they’d go, until police on horseback came clicking down the street sending them scurrying either up and over the wall or away from it. I thought that competition was soccer.
In Washington DC in the late 70’s, I saw the Diplomats, of the soon to fail North American Soccer League. They had signed the Dutch legend Johan Cruyff, well past his prime, but a wizard still, who I once watched score a goal from near mid field. But this had little impact on my loyalty to the Washington Redskins and passion for playing basketball.
I played soccer in high school, during the basketball off-season, as a know-nothing defender booting the hell out of the ball away from our goal at every opportunity. We played on a rocky field, sloped something like a pinball machine, so that when we were defending the goal at the low end, gravity alone kept the ball coming back our way. It was a Jewish school and we benefited from the oppression abroad, which brought in some talented Iranian and Russian kids, playing at a level I never grasped, as well as an able Israeli here and there.
In 1988 in student housing in Dublin I recall watching, Liverpool, the powerhouse of the day, on TV and being bored. I tuned in to some of the 1994 World Cup, because it was held in the US. But I was still too much in the thrall of Michael Jordan’s return from retirement to really take notice. I remember watching the 1998 World Cup final in a bar in Laguna Beach, in which France, led by the great Zenadine Zidane dominated Brazil, 3-0. Knowing little about soccer, I knew Brazil was supposed to be the best, and was disappointed.
Fast forward to 2002, World Cup South Korea, and the US shocking world power Portugal, with three stunning first half goals, and suddenly I was watching. They held on to win 3-2, a key to advancing to the next round and to my becoming a soccer fan. They would go all the way to the quarterfinals, where they lost a very close match to another soccer giant Germany, in part because a handball in the penalty box, which would have resulted in a penalty kick for the US to win, was not awarded. We were that close to the semifinals.
The picturesque medieval old town of Sitges, much of it closed to automobile traffic, extends from the beach and its promenade uphill as far as the railroad station. Beyond the railroad tracks are found newer buildings and wider streets. About a five-minute taxi ride further into the foothills of the Garraf Massif, the mountain range running along the Catalan coast, we came to the rental house overlooking the hazy blue Mediterranean.
The house was built literally into the cliff, with naked stone making up its back walls. Steep stairs led up from the front door to the living areas furnished Hacienda style. From various terraces, we could see the bell tower of the Church of Bartomeu and Santa Tecla, perched on the headland and then the sea. Up yet another flight of stairs, we came to a most delightful dipping pool, also with a view of the sea.
It was here that we thought to ask the rental agent how we turned on the air conditioning. Because although the cool stone and hilly breeze did provide some relief, it was pretty damn hot. The agent charmingly explained to us that there was no A/C, and furthermore, that it was not required because, indeed, we were not hot.
To my mind, we had no time to quibble about such comforts. By now it was near five. We needed to somehow rest, refresh, eat something and take a taxi back to the train station. Bernie was really suffering with her cold, and I plied her with vitamin C and other remedies as best I could. We were all in the throes of some stage of jetlag. But my companions were all dedicated to my mission and we made the quick turnaround.
Fortunately, a train that stopped at Sitges ran directly to Barcelona Sants, the station closest to the Camp Nou Stadium. In the little Sitges station house, I had one horrible moment of thinking I’d left my wallet in the taxi. Excitement plus exhaustion equaled temporary hysteria. Then if found it stuffed in the wrong compartment of my shoulder bag.
On the train, aware that my animation was becoming as much a source of interest to the others as the game itself, I never the less tried to get them up to speed on the glory that is Football Club de Barcelona. Barcelona didn’t just win, they won with high style, stringing together tens of passes, passing for the sheer pleasure of it, wearing down opposition, then striking with supreme artisan-ship, crafting goals as memorable for their quality, as for the victories they added up to.
I explained to them that we were in a golden era of Barcelona soccer – the Messi Era. I’d first tuned in the 2005 -06 season, Messi’s second in La Liga, when the star was Ronaldinho, the smiling, buck-toothed Brazilian genius who led them to the championship. Barcelona’s eternal enemy is Real Madrid, truly the New York Yankees of soccer, always in the market for an absurdly expensive player signing. When the two play, it’s call El Clasico, and is watched by millions around the world. In one El Clasico that year, Ronaldinho scored twice, the second coming on an unstoppable run down the left wing so elusively artful that the Madrid crowd stood and cheered for him. But Ronaldinho was also a party boy whose game steadily declined after this, taking the team down with him.
In Spain and in Europe at large, little lip service is paid to the virtue of parity. There are no mechanisms such as high draft picks for low performing teams to increase upward mobility. Rather, a feudal hierarchy of soccer nobility dominates, in which smaller clubs serve as feeder systems for their bigger, richer superiors, regularly selling off their top talent to remain viable.
Barcelona is somewhat different in that much of their talent, including Messi, who joined the club’s junior ranks at 13, is homegrown. Their legendary soccer academy, La Masia, which means the farmhouse, because the original main building was once a country residence, produced many of the stars of today. In 2010, the three finalists for the Balloon D’or, recognizing the best player in the world, were all La Masia products, and Barcelona stars: Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Xavi Hernández. This has created a cohesion and commitment to a style of play obsessed with passing and possession of the ball not found at other clubs.
The Camp Nou stadium, the largest soccer stadium in Europe, seating 100,000, which opened in 1957, was in a neighborhood of apartment houses, small bars and restaurants. A dusty little park across the street was redolent with pot. Everywhere Barca fans wore their team jerseys. I’d opted not to wear a team t-shirt, but was thrilled to be among the faithful. A group of American college kids, talking about having been drunk somewhere else, while getting drunk now, threatened to ruin my contact high and I moved away from them quickly.
Walking in the stadium was pure bliss. We were here, we made it, my excitement not only intact, but growing towards absolute giddiness. Then I saw our seats. We’d bought tickets from a broker online, in a good, central lower level section. But they couldn’t specify actual seats at time of purchase because of how the club released tickets for sale to non-members. Now it was clear they were the very worst in the section, all the way back against the stadium wall, far from the field, with the upper deck literally blocking our view of any high balls kicked. I sat and felt my vocabulary of excitement failing inside me.
There were still many open seats much closer to the field and Otto suggested we move down. I hesitated, a guest unsure of my surroundings. But Otto, an intrepid traveler who once drove a car from Munich to India, moved down on his own. After a short while, I mustered myself and joined him, leaving Suzanne and Bernie in the bad seats. These purloined seats were magnificent — I could see the very faces of players warming up — but would we be able to hold them?
The section filled in all around us as the game started, my excitement hanging in the balance. The opponent, Malaga, was a less talented side who played Barcelona tough. Barcelona clicked into its passing game, creating some nifty chances on goal, but their finishing, including that of the great Messi, was subpar. The crowd roared in anticipation of a goal, then quieted when the chance passed, and was most animated in whistling viciously at perceived slights by the referee.
At halftime it was still 0 – 0, and the true ticket holders never claimed our seats. Down the row were the only other open seats in the whole section, and Suzanne and Bernie joined us. If my trip was a soccer pilgrimage, then here was our miracle.
The stars of the game were not the world beating strike-force of Messi, the Brazilian prodigy, Neymar, and Suarez, the Uruguayan sharpshooter with a notorious temper that got him thrown out of the World Cup for biting an opponent (not for the first time). In just the third league game of the season, they were not yet hitting their symphonic high notes.
This day belonged to the midfielders, the energetic and able Serbian Ivan Rakitic, the long-legged, deceptively smooth Spaniard Sergi Busquets, and the sublime Inestia, aptly nicknamed Illusionisto, who simply out-possessed the opponents into submission. In the 73rd minute (out of 90), the tie was broken on an unlikely goal by a player new to the side, the Belgian defender, Thomas Vermaelen. The stadium roared, and I roared with them.
There were the usual incidents of players writhing in pretend pain, despicably unique to soccer, where the con of injury is standard procedure for gaining the referee’s interest. And the early season kinks still needed to be worked out between the masterly front three. But we had our goal, and I had my game.
The Gaudi cathedral, the Sagrada Familia, was also thrilling, I have to admit. The hallowed yet brazenly modern, and in places even comic aesthetic, both without and within was breathtaking. How one artist’s brilliantly idiosyncratic revelation was carried through to such massive and complete fruition was a glory in and of itself.
We also visited the park Gaudi designed, Park Guell, where he resided in a home for almost twenty years. I was shocked to see that this genius of visual brilliance slept in a monk’s cell of a room, with just a twin bed, a large crucifix on the wall, a plain wood wardrobe, and a wooden kneeler for prayer. He never married, and a discrete note mentioned that sometimes a friend, a craftsman who worked on the cathedral, would spend the night.
Barcelona seemed the friendliest, and perhaps happiest, of the major European cities I’ve visited, but the sadness of such acute dissonance between professional fulfillment and personal abnegation stayed with me, as we took in the sights of the Barri Gotic, the Gothic Quarter, the shopping on Passeig de Gracia, the museum of young Picasso, the shops and water front at Sitges, and drank the very good and inexpensive local wine, and ate the delicious and imaginatively homey tappas.
A beloved man who’d radically raised the trajectory of my life had died recently after living a similarly split existence, which no amount of coaxing or demanding could bring together. And I had my own bias toward accomplishment over enjoyment that made it hard to let go. But sport has a way of subverting such weightiness; the more seriously I take it, the more of a respite from actual seriousness it provides. And now, with soccer as a second language, I have the chance to further balance the equation.