Real Madrid vs Real Sociedad
Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Liga BBVA, January 31st 201
It’s now a little over three years since the pub conversation that brought about Lost Boyos. In its early days, the theme of blog was Welsh footballers who were earning, (or had earned) a living playing or coaching abroad. In the 36 months since our look at Craig Davies’ brief time with Hellas Verona, life and other things have meant less time to focus on expatriate footballers and other Welsh football matters and our small corner of the internet has instead become a place to chronicle our adventures in groundhopping. The change was evolution, not revolution, but that did not stop one reader- our own mother- from trying to break the fraternal bond holding the blog together with talk of ‘hijacking’ and ‘loss of essence.’ (Only joking, mam.)
Until this past weekend, that early blog and what Lost Boyos has now become had never overlapped. We’ve had posts featuring Welsh players on foreign soil, but those were about Swansea away in Europe (in Krasnodar and Malmo) and a guest post on Wales away in Andorra. Neither Matt nor I had seen a Welsh footballer, playing for a foreign club, on foreign soil.
I had tried. While Rhys Weston was playing for Sabah Rhinos in Malaysia’s second-tier, I abandoned my wife in a Kuching hotel to take in the Borneo derby against Sarawak. The ex-Cardiff man unfortunately missed the game through injury and that’s as close as we had previously come.
From title of the post, it probably won’t come as a shock to learn that the player aligning the Lost Boyo stars is Gareth Bale. Seeing Wales’s best player, still the world’s most expensive, in the white shirt of the world’s best team was exactly what I needed to lift me out of my groundhopping funk. My post about a visit to Bayonne’s Stade Didier Deschamps began with the confession that I would be cutting back on visits to Real Sociedad’s Anoeta to see more of the Basque Country and the surrounding parts of Spain. Well, I’d fallen off that particular wagon early and hard. In the past two weeks, I have seen all three of David Moyes’ men’s home fixtures (including being in attendance for what has probably become the internet’s most watched video of a man eating crisps).
With Cristiano Ronaldo suspended and Bale injury-free, there was little chance of this turning out like that Friday night in Kuching (although the Portuguese would be joining Weston and my all-time football idol Roberto Baggio as famous Lost Boyo no-shows). Without the world’s best player it was ‘Time for Bale’ according to one Marca columnist. Despite scoring in his last three league games, the man who, with each goal, gives his trademarked heart to the crowd hadn’t been getting much love in return; he was briefly jeered by the home fans in a 3-0 win over Espanyol and more than half of those answering a poll speculating about his future said they would happily accept a Manchester United record bid to take him back to the Premier League.
I wasn’t entirely escaping Real Sociedad, though; the txuri-urdin were the visitors to the soon-to-be Abu Dhabi Santiago Bernabeu. Bale’s first goal of the season had come in Madrid’s 4-2 defeat at Anoeta. Since then, Real Madrid have been crowned World Club Cup champions and come within one game of equalling the world record for consecutive victories. That morning’s Marca, however, also revealed an surprising statistic to suggest my current hometown club might not be leaving the capital empty-handed; while at Chelsea and Everton respectively, Carlo Ancelotti never once managed to defeat Moyes in six meetings. All of this, plus the all important decision on what to wear, gave me much to ponder on the five-hour train journey from San Sebastián.
The Asian Cup Final was also being played and I was following the action via Twitter. As it was after midday by the time South Korea had been defeated, I consoled myself with a couple of cans of Cruzcampo from the buffet car. They were polished off by the time the train finally pulled into Madrid’s Chamartin Station. The Bernabeu was just a few short subway stops away and with about an hour until kick-off, I was stood in front of one of the world’s most famous grounds.
The Nuevo Estadio Chamartin opened in 1947, adopting the name of former player, coach, and president Santiago Bernabeu in 1955. As well as being the home of Real Madrid and sometimes hosting Spanish international matches, four European Cup/Champions League finals, a European Championships final and a World Cup final have all taken place on its turf.
This was my second visit, but first to see a game. A variety of languages were being spoken around the endless scarf and knock-off replica stalls, and lots of selfies were being taken. I headed around to where my gate was located, stopping in the three-storey club shop en route. There was row upon row of jerseys and all manner of merchandise. Some young Korean women were entranced, no doubt engaging in a little retail therapy to get over the loss to Australia.
Up and up and up I went, before finally reaching entrance 414-E. I picked up my now customary non-alcoholic beer and took in the spectacular stadium from a seat high above the halfway line. The stadium was slow to fill, but once it had club hymns were belted out with gusto. The only quiet was the minute’s silence to pay respects to a Real Sociedad fan who had tragically died in a traffic accident driving to the game.
In the end, I opted for a neutral Welsh shirt- as much an homage to the unifying force of John Benjamin Toshack as to Bale- and while watching both teams warm up from my high perch, my loyalties felt pretty split. When Real Sociedad scored after 50 seconds, Aritz Elustondo heading in a corner at the far post, I was preparing myself for 89 nervous minutes similar to those I had experienced seeing them defeat Barcelona (when they had also scored from an early corner). Those preparations didn’t last long. James Rodriguez headed an equaliser on three minutes and Carlos Vela was an early injury casualty. By the end of a first half dominated by Madrid, Sergio Ramos had given the home side the lead.
There was to be no easing up in the second half, either. Karim Benzema grabbed the headlines for his two second-half goals- the latter, a first-time curler from the edge, was one of the best I’ve witnessed in the flesh- but it was Isco who I enjoyed watching most. I had a smile on my face every time he touched the ball, and rarely did nothing come from his jinking runs and clever passes.
But what of Bale. I kept a keen eye on him and got excited each time he had the ball at his feet, but it was to be an odd afternoon for the Welshman. Although denied space to use his explosive pace by Moyes’ defensive set-up, Bale was still able to have an impact. Three headed chances- two wide, one cleared on the line- went close. There were a pair of neat back-heeled passes and one burst of speed that ended with the assist for Benzema’s first. For the all the good moments, however, it’s the bad ones that will linger in the memory for most of the crowd. James was teed up for a tap-in, but Bale took the ball from under the Colombian’s feet and proceeded to miss the open goal. He worked hard to give himself a late one-on-one, but shot at Rulli, and there was further frustration from the home fans when he tried to shoot through a crowd rather than retain possession in the final minute. Once again, the world’s most expensive was whistled by pockets of his own fans.
Buy what fans they are. They were noticeably as difficult to please as the media likes to report them to be, with Asier Illarramendi, various Real Sociedad players and the referee all experiencing their ire, despite their team looking comfortable for 89 of the 90 minutes. But they also support their team in great voice. The scarf-twirling, flag-waving section high up in the south stand make more than enough noise to compensate for tourists like me and all the other hangers-on that the modern superclub attracts.
Trying to find a bathroom on the way out of the massive stadium proved difficult, but it wasn’t too long before I was checking in at my youth hostel (emphasis on youth). Their organised pub crawl was starting a bit late for an old-timer like me, but fortunately I had arranged a much earlier meeting with an old friend from Seoul for dinner and drinks. The night in La Latina proved to be as enjoyable as the afternoon had been. It was strange to take pleasure in watching a team I’ve seen so often and come to really like get taken apart, but when teams are as good as this Real Madrid team, it would be stranger still not to enjoy them.
GOOD: excellent stadium; excellent players; that Benzema goal; the joy of Isco; seeing Gareth Bale play for Real Madrid;
BAD: no Cristiano Ronaldo; not many bathrooms in the Bernabeu; more whistles for Bale; seeing Real Sociedad play poorly and lose heavily