The trip of a lifetime
It started with a click of a button which all seemed rather too easy. After dreaming of simply going to watch a game, any game at the Santiago Bernabéu, booking a ticket for arguably one of the biggest games in the world "El Gran Clásico" should have been a little more dramatic I felt. Instead, here I was in August 2005 reserving my place in history with an overpriced ticket found on a travel website.
The sun had set by now and I asked several people in what was quite frankly awful broken Spanish: "Dónde está el Santiago Bernabéu?" It was the only phrase I had memorised from my phrasebook and they helpfully pointed the way. Walking through Madrid's business district I began to tire and wondered how a stadium of that size could be on this road?
But then turning a corner it was suddenly upon me and I stopped dead in my tracks. Its huge stature was lit up in the darkness and labelled at the top with name and 1902 - 2002, the founding year and centenary year. A huge smile spread across my face but by now it was completely shut so I could do nothing but walk round it.
In the car park a film crew was shooting a scene with a kid in a sports car, a scene I later recognised in the film Goal 2 in which the central character is signed up to play by Madrid themselves.
Further on, the Real Madrid coach stood empty while a couple of Barcelona fans posed for pictures next to it with their middle fingers stuck up and with pants pulled down pretending to crap on it. I let them pass before posing for my own pictures and whilst leaving I spied Guillem Balague, the Sky Sports Spanish pundit strolling by yapping on his phone. It seemed everyone was in town preparing for the big game.
The day of the match arrived and early morning I rushed to buy a Spanish sports paper from one of the local street kiosks, not that I understood a word of Spanish then, but to commemorate the occasion of course.
Getting ready I already felt a sense of loss. In a few hours time the game would be over and my dream would have come and gone ever so quickly. Nevertheless, dressed in white with my Real Madrid scarf perfectly positioned I set off for the stadium. Walking down the busy city centre streets on a Saturday afternoon people turned to look at those en-route to the game. On the packed tube I spied a Norwegian family who had also made the trip for the game.
Emerging from station the sound immediately hit me. There was constant drumming and the crowds were blaring klaxons as thousands descended upon this corner of Madrid creating a carnival atmosphere.
Pushing my way through the crowds I watched a tall Spaniard wrangling with three Japanese tourists over a price for three tickets to the match. His height and fast talking in English was a little intimidating but the young Japanese woman was not to be outdone and stood her ground in negotiations. I strained my ears to hear the final amount they agreed to and found she had not got a bad deal at all, only 1000 euros for three tickets. I have heard that touts sell for a lot more on the eve of the game with prices into the thousands for a single ticket. She did well for herself, assuming the tickets were genuine.
I never found out as I was distracted by a red flare going up into the night sky. In a cordoned off street facing the stadium, behind several police vans and countless police officers lay the Barcelona supporters. So well hidden were they that the only way to make their presence known was to release flares and of course sing anti Madrid songs which sent up a loud cry back of anti Barcelona chants.
I slipped into a nearby food shop which was overflowing with people when I heard a huge roar outside. I began to walk towards to the door to investigate when I heard two tourists talking. "What is that?" One asked. "The coach is here" came the reply. "The Barcelona coach? "No, Real Madrid". I took this as my cue and bolted for the door emerging just in time to see the coach pass by with thousands cheering them on and shouting words of encouragement. I grabbed my camera desperate to get a picture and snapped away but in the darkness hardly anything was visible.
Entering the stadium I had a sinking feeling that I would be turned away, that my ticket would not be valid because this was too good to be true. But I walked through the barriers and I was in. Climbing a flight of stairs to a higher stand, I walked through to a scene I have seen on television every weekend, the vibrant green of the pitch and blue of the seats, sparkling under the floodlights. I am here.
Victor Valdes emerged first and began to warm up with a colleague to a chorus of boos and whistling. Perhaps the pressure was too much, he flapped on a cross and let the ball into the net, to huge cheers by the crowd.
Both teams emerge and I was bursting with excitement. Later when the game kicked off the atmosphere was tense. Two grannies sitting to one side of me talked endlessly during the game and shouted obscenities while on my other side a woman seemed terrified, "Jesus Jesus!" she shouted, covering her face whenever the ball got anywhere near Iker Casillas and spent the rest of the time biting her nails.
Madrid seemed hopeless. Robinho looked like a scrawny little boy struggling to play as a striker and with the defence struggling as usual it wasn't long before Samel Eto'o hit the back of the net. As he reeled away pounding his chest, satisfied having scored against his ex-club the fear of the Madrid fans was palpable. Everything fell quiet save for the "Ultra Sur", Madrid's hardcore fans who kept singing.
It would be ok I told myself, Real can come back, there is plenty of time. But it only got worse. Ronaldinho ripped through Madrid's defence and made it two. My dream was fast turning into a nightmare. Surely it could not get worse, surely we could get at least a goal back? Making a mockery of Madrid, Ronaldinho made an almost identical run and got his second goal. The stadium stood up to applaud him, I didn't. I couldn't, I was rooted to my seat in disbelief.
The grannies talked at an even faster pace and spat obscenities, this time at their own players while the woman to my left went completely silent and buried her face in her hands. A fight broke out between two middle-aged, well dressed men a few rows back and one of them stomped off home dejected. I was dumbstruck.
The players scurried off at the final whistle to furious whistling and the waving of hankies. Only David Beckham walked to the centre of the pitch and applauded the fans who in turn applauded his courage for facing them.
Meanwhile I scurried back to the hotel. The next morning when I awoke, the reality of what had happened hit me. I lay in bed in my darkened room cringing with embarrassment at the result.
That game in 2005 seemed to signify Barca's dominance and is heralded as an all-time low for Real Madrid (just my luck I guess) but it was also a turning point for both teams.
Madrid's manager Vanderlei Luxemburgo lasted barely two weeks after the result but the game had not only sounded his death knell, it also signalled the end of an era for Real Madrid. A few months later the President Florentino Pérez quit the post and elections were called for the summer. The Galactico era was over but with the end of one era comes the start of another. Madrid underwent huge changes and their upward spiral began, domestically at least. They secured two league titles back to back while Barca won nothing.
Despite the fact that Barca are lauded in Europe they have not won a domestic title in two years and with Madrid launching a huge fightback in the second half of this season to cut a 12 point lead down to just four, this weekends big game will prove decisive in the hunt for the title. So I can safely say I did witness a part of history, just a different kind to the one I wanted.