Saturday, November 23, 2002

Tonight is the big game and all of Spain is gearing up for it. In possibly the biggest rivalry in the world in club football, Real Madrid comes to Barcelona tonight. The game is only on pay TV so we're going to have to go down to the bar to see it and jam in there with everybody else. The etiquette is that you can show up early, like a couple of hours early, and get a table, but you are obligated, more or less, to start buying drinks and keep them coming. You can wait a few minutes between drinks, and they don't have to be alcoholic. If you show up late, about game time, you'll have to stand in the aisles and at the back. Etiquette prohibits blocking the view of those seated. You also have to buy drinks, of course. They don't change the prices on game nights, so each Coke or beer or cup of coffee will only cost you a buck or a buck and a half, as usual. It's great business for the bar owners; this is all totally illegal, of course. They're not allowed to publicly exhibit pay-TV programming. No one ever enforces it, though; in fact, you'll see cops in the bars watching the game. (That's actually a good thing, since the bar becomes a small, crowded space with a lot of people whose emotions are flying and who have been drinking all evening. That's where the cops need to be; there's nobody on the streets anyway, since everyone is watching the game.)

You can't predict what's going to happen since both teams' players get so pumped up for the game. The stadium, the Camp Nou, is packed with 108,000 fans screaming for blood. They especially want Figo's blood, since he played for Barça for many years and then suddenly jumped to Madrid for more money after promising eternal fidelity to the Barça and its colors. They'll want Ronaldo's, too, though he won't get nearly as much abuse as Figo. Ronaldo only played with FC Barcelona for one year and if was obvious that he was a hired gun--his play was brilliant but he didn't pretend that his emotions toward the Barça were the same as those of the fans. They don't feel nearly as betrayed by Ronaldo. He's just a mercenary in their eyes. When Figo came to the Camp Nou for the first time as a Madrid player two years ago, they virtually booed him off the field. He refused to (or was ordered not to) take the corner kicks from the right side, which is normally his job because he's the right wingman, because he or somebody was afraid they'd lynch him if he got that close to them. One of the local sports papers printed up phony 10,000 peseta notes with Figo's picture on the front instead of the King's and the Barça fans showered the field with them, like confetti. Then, last year, Figo didn't play when Madrid came to Barcelona.

This year he's going to play, though. So is Raúl, who is nursing nagging injuries and isn't in top form, and Ronaldo. Zidane is out, though, as is Hierro. Both Barcelona and Madrid have suspect defenses, and Fernando Navarro's suspension won't help Barça out. Van Gaal, Barça's coach, will substitute Gabri as a central defenseman for Navarro; Gabri is a good, utilitarian player who is a good defender for a midfielder but a bad defender for a defenseman. Luis Enrique is still out, injured, for Barcelona, and Barça could use him since he's the team leader on the field. He's a former Real Madrid player who considers himself shabbily treated by that club and its fans and jumped to Barça when his contract ran out about five years ago. He hates Madrid and they hate him. When he plays in Madrid they chant "¡Luis Enrique, tu padre es Amunike!" Amunike was a Nigerian player with the Barça a couple of years back. I imagine the more brainless and racist Madrid fans find this very funny.

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