Real Madrid Real Theater…

Life is a moment. An experience of the now. In memory, we incorporate the past. In anticipation, we incorporate the future. Nevertheless, we are constantly restrained in the moment that is now.

Time is momentum. The planets revolve through space, compelled by forces mysterious and constant. Even the rocks and mountains are shaped by the unremitting force of physical reality.

In this sense, there is no choice. Men and women have no control, our existence is governed by forces we cannot contravene.

We can’t change the law of physics, we can’t leave our present moment.

Our unique gift is this, we can harness the forces and we can control the moment.

And most splendidly, on occasion, our moments collide.

Dramatically.

Nowhere have I been, more absorbed in drama, than Madrid.

The city is both grandiose and squalid in shameless conspicuity.

On my second day there, from a spot just off Calle Bailén, I looked out across a ravine at one of the most memorably spectacular vistas I have ever experienced. Across the ravine was the magnificent Catedral de la Almudena in the foreground, and the snow capped peaks of Sierra de Guadarrama in the background. To my left, in a pleasant but graffiti speckled park, was an ostentatious, open sided, stone, garden shelter, inside which, was a bed. One might have considered this a particularly audacious act of fly tipping, if it weren’t for the fact, that in the bed, was a man. Apparently, finding no other suitable accommodation, he’d taken his bed and set up residence in this stone gazebo. Being on my own, speaking next to no Spanish, and not being one to disturb a man’s afternoon siesta, I avoided him.

Even so, the drama that permeates the city stalked me. On my way out of the park, I was confronted by a stray dog, which to begin with, I imagined was owned by the man in the bed. It remains unclear who actually owned the dog but what quickly became apparent was the man trying to catch it, blocking one exit to the park, and another dog, tied up, blocking the only other port of egress from this growing menagerie of oddity. Both dogs barked at me and the man spoke to me in Spanish I didn’t understand. He may have been enlisting my help or warning me as to the danger of the animal, which, truth be told, didn’t appear especially vicious. However, given my natural caution regarding any animal with teeth, it was an animal I remained eager to avoid. Therefore, I did what any self respecting Englishman with a healthy respect for canines and no Spanish would do, I went and sat on a wall until the immediate danger had passed.

Once safely out of the park, I wandered further down into the ravine. From half way down, one can look up and see the Cathedral, look out and see the mountains, or look down and see what appears to be some kind of squalid, open air commune situated on the flat roof of an abandoned municipal building. Everything about it is dramatic. The opulence and grandeur of human creativity and endeavor, the astonishing magnificence of nature and the wretched deprivation of human poverty, all obvious with nothing more than a slight tilt of the head.

This is Madrid.

It bears mentioning here that Madrid is a twenty-four hour city, it buzzes and hums constantly, only New York, in my experience, settles less. The constant sense of simmering energy only serves to heighten the theatrical feel of the place.

On my first evening in Madrid, I had gone to sleep at about 3am as the city continued to buzz around me. At about 7am, I heard a crack outside the apartment, then a clamour of voices speaking in Spanish, gradually the voices got louder and increased in the intensity of their volume and aggressiveness. My blinds were closed and I didn’t want to open them, both because it would have been obvious that I was watching and because I was not yet of a mind to get up. Presently, I heard a bone crunching and flesh squelching sound. Followed, immediately, by a guttural grunt. “Someone’s been stabbed”, I thought, “or maybe punched”. I lay there for a beat, considering what to do. I heard the sound again. I got up. I went to the kitchen, because there, the blind was open. There was clearly some kind of tussle going on outside, with a few bystanders lingering. I went back to the bedroom, opened the blind, stepped out onto the balcony and saw below me, what can only be described as a brawl. I could see at least six men locked in a grasping, rolling, stalemate, with various other individuals involved in satellite battles surrounding the main melee, including one individual who seemed only interested in battling every inanimate object that he encountered, he was winning. There was a pretty, blonde lady, who appeared to be associated with the establishment across the street, being urged from involving herself in the fight by a man holding a can. A minute or two later, police with batons came charging down the street towards the melee. Several of the participants fled, several others were caught. The officers didn’t seem especially interested in catching those who fled but were notably enthusiastic in manhandling those that were caught. Within ten minutes the street had returned to it’s usual simmering ambiance.

Later when I got up, I looked out at the establishment across the street. It is, ostensibly, a kebab shop, and no doubt, they do sell some kebabs. Strangely though, for a kebab shop, there was a man who appeared to be patrolling outside. Behind him, spray painted on the wall, was some Spanish graffiti, roughly translated into English as, “Of the silent existence?”. The theatrics surrounding this Kebab shop persisted throughout my time in Madrid. One night, I saw a man push, very forcefully, a lady who moments before had been kissing him. A man came to the door of the kebab shop and let her in, the first man then followed her in whilst shouting loudly. Another night, one of the men from the aforementioned brawl was walking his dog past the shop, when another man, coming in the opposite direction, appeared to ask him something. This led to some angry gesticulation and shouting from the first man and the second man walking away quite sheepishly. All week, there were men who would go in and check over their shoulders with an air of vigilance and suspicion that seems excessive for the ordering a doner kebab.

It seems entirely natural that this city, with all its beauty and grandeur, complacency and poverty, passion and theatrics would be represented by a football club such as Real Madrid. And entirely natural that they would have a proletarian football club such as Atletico to theatrically juxtapose against the grandiosity of the regal club.

Real Madrid is a drama, a constantly unfolding soap opera. The Santiago Bernabéu is a spectacular monument to architectural flamboyance, an amphitheater where the main event is played out. Real are the kind of club that would spend an extra 10 million euro on a player out of sheer extravagance, a club who would drive up a transfer target’s price, purely for the notoriety. They are a show, and the public expect to be entertained. This idea permeates every observable aspect of the club. In the newspapers there is always a controversy, who’s in favour, who’s out. Whilst I was there, Gareth Bale and Iker Casillas were the villains of the act. Inside the stadium, Casillas, the long time, one time hero, evoked the most tumultuous response as his name was announced. Whistles from his adversaries, cheers from his advocates. To describe it as pantomime would diminish the earnestness of the audience but it had an element of the pantomime to it. There is always the buzz, the hype, who will they acquire to add to their collection of stars? On which rare gem will they lavish their vast mountains of cash next? The arena holds 81,044, it was nearly full when I was there. It is like no other football ground I’ve been to. There is an area high above the goal at one end where the fan club are situated. They probably number 3,000 to 5,000 and they sing, and they chant, and they wave their flags, they are some of the most intense fans I’ve witnessed. The rest of the stadium is full and it buzzes and chatters and at the most intense moments it shouts and whistles, I’ve never heard such loud, shrill, whistling, as when Bale was refused a free kick by the referee at the end of the first half, but it behaves obviously differently to the fan club. It feels like the majority are spectators, observers, they are there to absorb the performance, an interactive audience, but definitely an audience. The fan club are part of the performance. There was a moment in the second half, which was quite unique, when the fan club shouted something (I couldn’t decipher) and the rest of the stadium shouted back the established response, creating this interactive call and response between 75,000 people, in which everybody understood their roles. All football clubs want to win, but in Madrid, it’s not enough to win, you have to perform, and I suspect the spectacle may often be of higher priority than the winning. I can see why a manager such as Jose Mourinho would be both loved and despised. How he could be desired and courted and espoused and then acrimoniously divorced. He’s a man who stirs drama, who courts conflict. He would be the perfect manager for a moment, the latest obsession, until, eventually, they would tire of his on-field pragmatism, they would grow restless and demand to be entertained. Then, he would become the villain of the piece, and he would play it perfectly, until, ultimately, the conflict climaxed in his final dramatic demise. It’s a grand show, all of it, and the people love it.

At the center of it all, is one man, the star, the obvious sovereign of this Royal club. It’s clear, without it being entirely obvious why it is clear, that all eyes look to him. He’s different, he warms up differently. He warms up dramatically. He wears black tracksuit bottoms as everyone else is wearing shorts. In breaks, he talks, they listen. He moves gracefully and proudly. He moves regally. To those who dislike him, he moves haughtily, even arrogantly, but few of those are here. Here he is King and these are his subjects. It seems silly to even mention his name, everyone knows who he is. He is Cristiano. His shirt is embossed, “Ronaldo 7”. His boots are adorned with the imprimatur, “CR7”. But here he is, simply, Cristiano. In fact, that feels somehow incomplete, here when people speak his name, it sounds, implicitly, more like, “Cristiano!” He needs no other name, but he demands an exclamation mark. He is a man born to be King. A man, divinely appointed, to be King here. It was natural. The most spectacular footballer in the world, bought by this most extravagant of clubs, for the most money ever paid, to be their crown jewel and sovereign leader.

I was present for the game against Deportivo La Coruna. Within minutes, he had pulled off two sensational pieces of skill, an over head kick, and an elastico nutmeg. He had dazzled with step overs of breathtaking speed and crashed a left footed shot from 20 yards against the cross bar. The effectiveness of such things can be debated, the spectacle is undeniable. There are other stars in this show, of course. Bale’s speed is astonishing. More than once, I thought it impossible that he reach the ball before an opponent and more than once he got there almost before I had chance to think it. In possession, Toni Kroos is one of the most efficient footballers that I have ever seen, he makes decisions on the ball quicker and more effectively than anyone I’ve seen. More impressive than Sergio Busquets, more impressive than Xavi Hernandez. Isco is no doubt quickly becoming a crowd favorite, he moves around the pitch almost unnoticed and then, quickly and eagerly, springs into action with sudden bursts of activity that range from tenacious tackles, to slick dribbles, to quick one twos, to incisive passes, and on this particular day, he curled a right footed shot from the left edge of the penalty area and twenty five yards out, into the far corner, to give Real Madrid the lead.

Cristiano stands out from them all. He conducts himself theatrically. In everything he does, he stands out. Every time something goes wrong, a mini tantrum or a defiant stance follows. In the second half, Bale stands over a free-kick. Ronaldo instructs Kroos to go over, presumably, to take it. Kroos hesitates, but he dare not defy Cristiano and starts to move across. Bale waves him away. Kroos, slightly confused, ambles back to his position. Even in this, there’s drama and intrigue. In terms of talent, Bale is Ronaldo’s closest rival, he’s younger but he’s not especially popular and he doesn’t always seem to fit well with his team mates, he could, one day, be king, but as of now, he’s a mere pretender to the throne. Bale wants the free kick, Ronaldo doesn’t appear to, yet for some reason doesn’t feel Bale should have it either, we don’t know why. Disagreements over free kicks happen all the time, but in Madrid, it feels significant, it feels Machiavellian or Shakespearean, it feels like there’s something simmering. It could be nothing. It could be Madrid.

Late in the second half, Cristiano is yet to score. It’s been five games since he last scored. A free kick has been given. All eyes are on him. He stands statuesque, poised. The stance of an icon. The body of Apollo. The arena is compelled by the spectacle. The tension builds. In anticipation the audience shift in their seats, an awed murmur fills the air. This scene has played hundreds of times before, dozens of times something breathtaking followed.

Seventy five thousand people are held in dramatic quiescence as their moments collide.

Maybe we can’t change the law of physics and maybe we can’t leave our present moment.

But right now, the implausible seems plausible.

Cristiano Ronaldo Commands The Moment.

Dramatically.

N.B. The game ended 2-0. In Madrid, it may not matter. Ronaldo registered an assist for the second goal, scored by Benzema. BBC has attendance at 68,500.

Super Bowl Serendipity

This isn’t a Super Bowl review as such, nor a response to anything in particular. I’ve just been thinking about the relative careers of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and the greatness they’ve exhibited and it led me to something else.

Brady and Manning, over the course of their respective careers, have been virtual clones statistically. Manning has higher totals in everything, but on a rate basis they are essentially equal across every meaningful offensive category. They are, by any measure, great quarterbacks. They are, arguably, the two best ever, and many people contend that one of them is the best ever. That argument, it seems to me, always comes down to three things; who you like best, how much you value playoff/Super Bowl success and which one did the more remarkable thing more recently.

I can’t choose between them. If there was a Super Bowl for my soul, I’d be happy with either and absolutely terrified if Satan had the other guy.

Here’s the thing though, Peyton Manning was drafted with the first overall pick, Tom Brady was drafted with the one hundred and ninety-ninth. Multitudes thought Peyton Manning was going to be a great NFL quarterback. Few thought Tom Brady was going to be an NFL quarterback.

I don’t believe Bill Belichick and the Patriots sat in their draft room thinking Tom Brady was going to be an all time great quarterback. If they did, I doubt they would have left him on the board until the sixth round. But I believe they saw something, a spark, an attitude, an aptitude that they liked, something they could work with and so they picked him. And then they worked with him.

Bill Belichick studies football, he studies football players, he finds players with obscure talent and finds ways to develop and illuminate it. He found Brady and he helped develop him. Brady is a great quarterback, it isn’t fair to say otherwise, as some people implicitly do when they ask if he’s just a product of Belichick’s coaching. Tom Brady is great in his own right, because of his own talent and attitude and hard work, but Belichick uncovered that talent and developed it when many others wouldn’t have and didn’t.

Belichick is a great coach in the same way Peyton Manning is a great quarterback. They were both destined for greatness. They had luck along the way, no doubt. I don’t believe you can be great without it. Belichick was the son of a scout, Peyton was the son of a quarterback, that gives you a head start to begin with. But from the moment they set foot in the NFL, only the most severe of calamities were going to stop them from achieving greatness.

Brady still needed a break, he needed a coach who saw his potential and could kinesthize it. He also needed an opportunity, which he got when Drew Bledsoe got injured. He didn’t necessarily need Belichick, there may have been other coaches who would have seen his greatness and coached him to it, but he got Bill Belichick. I don’t think he could have done better.

Had Cleveland, with the 183rd pick of that 2000 draft, taken Tom Brady instead of Spergon Wynn, I think Belichick would have still found his Brady. Somewhere, sometime. Maybe it would have been Bledsoe, maybe a guy like Ben Roethlisberger, maybe someone else now lost to anonymity. I find it interesting that of all 7th round Quarterbacks taken in the last 20 drafts, the best is quite possibly Matt Cassel, another quarterback drafted by Belichick and who, incidentally, had his best year under the guidance of Belichick. It doesn’t matter who it was, Belichick was going to find a quarterback. Would it have been a first ballot Hall of Famer like Tom Brady? Maybe not. But he would have found someone his teams could win with.

Tom Brady is a great, hard working, talented, football player.

Bill Belichick coaches hard working, talented football players to be the greatest they can be.

They found each other. That’s not luck. That’s serendipity.