Friday, July 2, 2010

The Boys Get Hit By Fireworks: Madrid and the End

Madrilenos are crazy. That's just my impression, but I could be a little biased from the fact that I watched Spain-Portugal outside the Bernabeu, Real Madrid's stadium and home of the laxest security checks on the planet. Although every cop was careful to make sure the caps were removed from our water bottles, they let in enough fireworks and explosives to rival any good 4th of July show. Periodically during the match, someone would toss a lit firecracker on the ground at our feet, and everyone would scurry away and form a giant ring around it until it went off. On the way out of the stadium, someone set off a firework that produced a bunch of shrapnel--kind of like a Claymore, but without the power to, you know, kill us--and it hit me and Sam in the legs. Luckily, we made it home OK--it was really just more shocking than anything else, but the story gives you an idea of what Spain was like.


The crowd outside the Bernabeu for Spain-Portugal.

So to reiterate, Madrilenos are crazy. Madrid is a city that only sleeps during the afternoon and is full of activity during every other time of the day. True to form, we rolled into our hostel in Madrid at 2:30 PM and promptly ate an extended restaurant meal and took a major siesta, missing the entire England-Germany match. The first thing you notice about Madrid is the heat--at least, that's the first thing I noticed coming directly from Scandanavia. It's a really stifling, dry heat that makes it impossible to do anything outdoors between the hours of 11 AM and 5 PM without getting all sweaty. Even sleeping next to an open window in a hostel with a fan blowing directly on you becomes uncomfortable because of this always-prevalent menace. It's kind of like during the first week of school in August in a non-AC dorm in Claremont, CA--if you don't know what I'm talking about firsthand, use your imagination and understand that it's really, really hot.

Still, if the biggest complaint about a place is that it's occasionally too warm and sunny and you can't do much during the afternoon because everybody naps, that still sounds like a pretty good place to me. And Madrid certainly is an awesome city, one that was tons of fun and that I wish we had more time in. After we woke up from our siestas (around 6 PM, I think), we decided to explore the city on foot and find a place to watch the upcoming Argentina-Mexico game. We spent an hour or so wandering through some of the bigger plazas and most of Madrid's shopping district. Our hostel was right in the middle of a major pedestrian shopping avenue, a location which had its pluses and minuses--on the plus side, the streets were always filled with people; on the minus side, you have to walk some distance before you can find affordable food. Anyway, we wound up watching the game in a tiny little Spanish restaurant (it seated maybe 30 people, tops) with a single TV. The owner/waiter was an older gentleman, the kind of person you might describe as "dignified," but when Mirman explained that we were traveling around Europe to watch soccer, his face lit up with joy and he was extremely nice to us for the rest of the night. As far as the match went, I thought Argentina looked great, although Mexico deserved a better scoreline--if you take away Argentina's offside goal and if one of Mexico's total screamer shots finds the back of the net, it's a totally different game. Watching the game with the Spaniards was a pretty unique experience--to our left at dinner was a group of middle-aged Spanish women, and to our right was a young couple. They all talked to us at some point in the friendly way that you chat with someone who is conspicuously out of place. Nobody was really invested in the game, so we all just cheered for good plays (although I was pulling for Argentina because watching Messi, Tevez, and especially Maradona is always a treat).

In the morning, we jogged to the Parque del Retiro to do a much-needed morning run/workout routine. The park is sprawling, on the same scale as what I imagine Central Park would be like, and shirtlessness is not just permissible, it's encouraged. Naturally, we embraced the concept of "sol afuera, armas afuera" (sun's out, guns out) and did our workouts sin camiseta for the rest of the trip. It was like Venice Beach, but with manicured lawns instead of sand and skinny Spanish guys instead of meatheads.


The park is gorgeous, too.

We had planned to visit Madrid's two big art galleries--the Reina Sofia and the Prado--during our time there. Because of their schedules, we had to do the Reina Sofia first, which was fine by me because I like modern stuff like Picasso and Dali much more than old-school guys who just painted different variations of the same Bible stories (I know that's a gross oversimplification, but it does feel like that sometimes. At the Prado, I probably saw ten different versions of The Adoration of the Magi, and even though I know that each artist used different techniques and styles to paint his own interpretation, it's still basically like hearing the same story told ten different ways. I mean, if you asked Shakespeare, Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Stephen King, and Dan Brown to write different versions of Huckleberry Finn, no doubt you'd get some pretty awesome stuff. But if you do this over and over, you'd probably get sick of the basic story. That's how I feel about old-school Bible art. End of rant). So the Reina Sofia was really enjoyable, mainly because they had so much crazy stuff like Dali (see below) and Picasso. A huge chunk of the museum that surrounded the painting Guernica was actually devoted to the Spanish Civil War, which really brought me back to senior year English class and For Whom the Bell Tolls.


Dali is awesome.

After the museum, we went back to the park to relax, only to find that the place was literally filled with Spanish couples just lying in the grass making out. While this underlines how awesome of a country Spain is, it also brings up a point that I've been meaning to make throughout the trip about the differences between Europe and America in terms of PDA: basically, in Europe, PDA is out of control. Everyone in America knows that one couple that can't let go of each other--literally, they aren't not touching each other for more than a few minutes at a time. When they're walking in public it's always with at least one arm around the other person, and when they're not making out they're kissing each other on the lips, neck, whatever. In America, these people (usually young, often in their first real relationship) draw the attention of passers-by, usually in a negative context. They might be heckled or told to "get a room already." In Europe, everyone is that couple. Even in a group of all guys or all girls (a rare sight) the amount of physical contact and arm-draping is astonishing--it puts Jordanian shabab, some of the most bro-tastic people on the planet, to shame. I think that open PDA, more than anything, is where Europe gets its reputation as a sexually liberal place where there are no rules. But the funny thing is that, contrary to what Jason Segal's character says in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, there are plenty of rules--most of the people draped across each other in public places like the Parque del Retiro are actually in relationships, and are just showing it off. It's not like the couples in the park switch up makeout partners every 20 minutes. Anyway, Spain was by far the most egregious of countries when it came to PDA, although London was close. Actually, in London it seemed like most of the girls were clinging to their guys and not vice versa.

Distracting PDA notwithstanding, we spent about an hour in the park before the bugs began to get to us and we headed back to the hostel. We headed to a major pub district to watch Brazil-Chile, and I managed to eat red meat (a delicious Argentinian-style steak) for the third meal in a row before cutting back in the final two days. Brazil looked great in their match, although Kaka's constant bitching at the refs when he was already on a yellow made me a little worried. Still, I think the Chile game was Brazil's best performance of the tournament--they certainly didn't play at that level against the Netherlands three days later. We took it easy after the match, knowing that Spain was playing Portugal the next day and that we would need a good night's sleep and a siesta if we were going to keep up with Spanish fans.

I'm going to fast-forward through our morning workout and the Prado and get right to the good stuff: the match. We left our hostel at 6:30 for the 8:30 match wearing the Spanish swag we had just purchased (Mirman bought a real jersey, I bought a knockoff shirt by a company called "Formula Toro") and carrying two bags full of kebab sandwiches, a bottle of Famous Grouse, and two flasks to put it in. I felt like I was back in Jordan. We had planned to take the Metro to the Bernabeu (the stadium actually has its own subway stop, which makes a whole lot of sense given that 100,000 people have to get in and out of there every time Real Madrid plays a home game), but as it turned out the Metro workers had chosen this weekend to strike in favor of better working conditions and higher wages or some other BS. I don't know the first thing about Spanish unions or working conditions on the Metro or whether the strike is justified, but I do know that it was terribly unlucky for us because the only thing that could take us to the Bernabeu were our feet or a horribly overcrowded city bus. For the trip up, we chose to cram onto the bus with probably 100+ people all headed to the stadium, which was an experience that made me appreciate deodorant that much more. We got out and found ourselves in the middle of a giant street party. We had seen people in Spain jerseys drinking on the median as far as two bus stations back, presumably making their way to the game. Everybody was converging on the stadium, blowing air horns, whistles, beating drums, singing, etc. If that place had StadiumPulse, it would be off the charts. We bought a couple bottles of water, which turned out to be a pitifully inadequate amount given the heat, the constant yelling, and the fact that our kebab sandwiches were by far the worst meal on the trip if not in the history of food. I climbed a tree just before kickoff to take a panorama video of the crowd and snap some photos (like the one at the top of this post). One interesting observation is that Madrilenos hate Cristiano Ronaldo even though he plays for Real Madrid. I wish I had been quicker with the camera, but when he was introduced, everyone pointed at least one middle finger at the screen. That says a lot about Ronaldo--he's the A-rod of soccer and such a fanny merchant that even his club fans turn against him.

So if you didn't watch the game, Spain won, in dramatic fashion. I left at halftime to purchase some water because we were on the verge of death by dehydration, and wound up going on a small adventure to do so. Using my very basic Spanish, I managed to find a vending machine selling water for .40 euros instead of the 2 euros vendors were charging outside the stadium. I promptly bought 10 bottles and convinced a woman to give me one of her plastic shopping bags to carry them in. I was begging with one of the security guards to let me back in the stadium (I even offered him a bottle at one point) when David Villa snuck through and finished. The crowd exploded, I looked at the guard pleadingly, he looked at me, and he waved me through with all of the water. I sprinted back through the crowd to celebrate with Dan, Sam, and Mirman, hugging some random Spaniards along the way. It was pure jubilation, and as Spain hung on and closed out the match everyone spilled into the main street. The crowd was big enough to bring six lanes of traffic to a standstill, and some guys were using their Spanish flags to play Toro with oncoming cars. The whole scene was completely surreal, and thinking that it was just the result of a Round of 16 win is scary--imagine what it was like for the quarterfinals, or what it would be like for the final. Firecrackers were going off every couple of minutes, and we wound up walking all the way back to the hostel (probably a couple of miles), spending most of the time with Spanish high school kids. One thing I learned in Spain is that, when called upon, I can bring back my Spanish, most of which I forgot in order to learn Arabic. I seriously wonder now if I can be trilingual, or if re-learning Spanish would just push Arabic out of my head. We'll see.

The next morning, the gang began to break up when Sam left for the airport at 7 AM. Everything began winding down at this point--Dan and Zack began preparing to meet their families, and I began packing to go back to the US. We went for a run in the morning at the Royal Palace and the attached gardens, which were absolutely incredible. They had the kind of grass that makes me want to learn to play golf--the center was a perfectly groomed 300-yard stretch that would make a sweet fairway. We all had to do separate things in the afternoon, so I went to a bodega that the guy at the hostel said was the best in Madrid and picked out a couple of bottles of wine as gifts. I know very little about wine, and the salesperson at the bodega spoke very little English, so we'll see how that worked out in due time.

Dan, Zack, and I spent the last night feasting (we went to two restaurants and did deals where you got a multiple-course meal and a pitcher of sangria) and smoking the Nicaraguan cigars Dan had brought. We sat by the fountain in a nearby plaza and did a few hours of people-watching, reflected on the trip and talked about a lot of big stuff, stuff that's probably beyond the scope of this blog (I'd much rather stick to my forte of travel recaps and tasteless jokes). Unfortunately, the heat, the sangria, and the cigars left everyone feeling a little sick and we called it a relatively early night at 1 AM. The next morning, we went our separate ways--Dan to Grenada at 7 AM, me to the airport at 10 AM, and Mirman to stay another night in the hostel with three random Asian guys who brought matching anime pillows (no, you can't make this stuff up). Overall, it was an awesome trip, and the stuff I've written about here is really just the tip of the iceberg. It's frustrating because I want to tell every little story, but even now that I'm home I don't really have the time and when I was still traveling I barely had time to get the basics on paper. Still, most stories are better told in person and if you ever want to hear every detail, you know where to find me.

The U.S. Loss and What It Means for American Soccer

So the US lost. Not badly, not undeservedly, we just lost. We didn't show up to play, gave up two fluke goals, and squandered a very winnable game and one of the best chances America has ever had to go deep in a World Cup. Calling the US game a heartbreaker would be disingenuous, though, in light of what happened to Ghana in their next match. I never thought I would feel sorry for Ghana after all the shit luck and time-wasting hijinks they pulled in extra time, but their exit had to have been the most painful of any team in the Cup so far. Still, I'm not disappointed with America's performance overall. We overachieved against England, struggled against Slovenia, had some gutsy play by Donovan, Dempsey, and Howard, and ultimately probably got just as far as anyone would have predicted before the Cup.

I watched the US-Ghana game from a pub in Denmark. Most of the crowd was pulling for Ghana because of the whole "they're the last team from Africa at an African World Cup" thing. This is some BS logic, and really irked me when the Danes employed it since most of them were actually for the Netherlands after Denmark had lost two days earlier, and the US game was meaningless to them. Seriously, either pick a side or don't, but cheer hard and don't use some half-assed African solidarity argument to tell me why you're rooting against America. Anyway, the result of the game, combined with the stress of extra time, combined with the beer, combined with the fact that I literally got one hour of sleep made me an extremely tired and unhappy camper for our flight to Madrid the next morning. Our flight was delayed twice for a total of two hours, most of which I spent napping. When it was time to finally board, our plane had no air circulation and was about 75˚F, which promptly sent me into a flop-sweat that made sleep impossible. I spent most of the flight in the kind of half-conscious state that you get into when you're really tired in class--heavy eyelids, falling asleep forward and then snapping your head back up, half-dreaming, etc. In short, not a terribly enjoyable experience. I was happy when we finally got to our hostel in Madrid and took a siesta.

Before describing my experience in Madrid, I'd like to spend the rest of this post ranting about American sportswriters and their utter failure to cover the World Cup in an intelligent way. I didn't realize this when I was in Europe, but the same tired "is soccer catching on in the US?" argument is currently being rehashed in the American sports media. For example, I Googled "US-Ghana" to find the date of the match. One of the first results I got was an article in the Wall Street Journal by Allen Barra, who argues that

"Soccer is the world's most popular sport, but rather in the same way that one might call rice the world's most popular food. In many places, it's all that's available or that most people can afford. In fact, in terms of soccer supremacy, we may as well call the World Cup the Western Europe-South American Cup, since the only seven countries ever to win it have been from those two continents."

Really? This is the stupidest thing I've seen in print since I read Glenn Beck's Common Sense. Barra argues that soccer is popular among countries with no other athletic options, and then, in the next sentence, that it is dominated by Western European teams. Think about that for a second. You don't think the highly developed nations of Western Europe--which have widespread access to international TV, local development leagues for the NFL and NBA, youth leagues for a huge variety of sports (including obscure stuff like handball that Europeans really love but Americans have barely heard of), and some of the greatest Olympic athletes in history--you don't think that they have options? For that matter, what about well-developed Argentina, which sent guys like Manu Ginobili to the NBA and (famously) beat the US in basketball during the 2004 Olympics? People in these countries have options, and they choose to play soccer because it is awesome. Slowly, Americans are learning that the sport is awesome, too, and we have slowly begun to develop and export soccer talent. Guys like Barra, who proclaim that America will never be dominant in soccer as long as its best athletes go to the NBA or NFL, miss the point: we can win at more than one thing at a time. Look at the Olympics, where hundreds of our athletes won medals in extremely diverse fields. We had the best medley relay team in the world, but it didn't stop us from also winning basketball, track and field events, etc. Saying that you can't do something is the first step toward not doing it, and we need to ask more of the USMNT in the future, not less.

Barra's negativity toward soccer is echoed by people like Rick Reilly, who used his column space last week to write a ridiculous screed against the vuvuzelas (the horns that are always blowing in the background of Cup matches). What I found interesting was that the biggest thing Reilly--a perpetual complainer if there ever was one--found to bitch about during this World Cup was the horn that fans were using. Sure, it was a crappy recycled column idea from a fading writer--a slightly elevated version of a "SOCCER SUCKS LOLZ" comment on YouTube--but even in 800+ words, Reilly couldn't find any good jokes about the World Cup. Now, this could partially be attributed to the fact that Reilly is fading as a writer (90% of his columns these days are a mashed-up series of one-liner jokes, maybe 5% of which are actually funny), but it may also have something to do with it no longer being cool or edgy for American sports journalists to hate on soccer like they did in the 1990s.

Like it or not, World Cup soccer is awesome and it's here to stay. You might as well enjoy it like many Americans have started to do--at least, if ESPN/ABC's outstanding ratings show anything. For a good example of a sportswriter who embraces this attitude and is actually in touch with the American public, check out Bill Simmons and his take on the World Cup thus far. I'll recap my time in Spain tomorrow; right now, I'm going to bed.