Friday, September 21, 2012


"You're going where?"
"But we've got an ISO inspection at work on Tuesday and the kids've got swimming"

A door slams.

There are city breaks and there are City breaks and this one fell conclusively, unforgettably into Category Two. If Cruzcampo did football away trips to foreign lands, you imagine it might look a little like this. Include climate, setting, time spent idly chatting to friends, smells, sights and sounds of a great world capital and add to it a Champions League encounter between daft old City and the Spanish Royal Family that had just about everything, and you would be right in thinking we left Madrid more or less as we found it: elation might have turned into deflation but we were definitely still pinching ourselves.

Madrid is a place that likes to take itself seriously. The boulevards are impossibly wide and stuffed with honking traffic. The women, impossibly symmetrical and, after a tough summer, an unfathomably deep coconut brown, wear the dismissive manner of human beings who have spent too many years looking in the mirror: They know they are beautiful. You look at them. They know that you are looking at them. They don't flinch. You wipe away a tear. They strut on. Men wearing suits as crisp as freshly rolled cigars stand laughing into mobile phones in a way only pricy lawyers can carry off. Everybody looks impossibly healthy. You daren't cough, in case you are carried away for being unfit for purpose.

Healthy. And haughty. You do not find this frozen splendour in the cosmopolitan streets of Barcelona, even less so the happy clappy calle of Valencia and Sevilla. Capital cities are prone to this kind of thing and so it is with Madrid. There must be a slight risk that a place that becomes so keen on what it is, will eventually try to eat itself. Real Madrid Club de Fútbol, José Mourinho their able, thrusting manager, the immaculately coiffed President Florentino Perez plus their towering Portuguese icon to the cosmetics industry all surely know a little of the phenomenon themselves.

During the last few years, we of the occasionally combed hair brigade have had the pleasure of visiting the cowfields of Denmark, the port lodges of the Douro and the slate-grey streets of Gelsenkirchen, so let us not quibble. Sitting on the fringes of the great rectangular Plaza Mayor, a site of coronations, public celebrations and executions, felt just fine. As the ranks of traveling Blues filtered into its welcoming embrace for a knock-around with a yellow beachball, we wondered which of the three we had come all this way for. As it turned out, we would be the lucky recipients of all three, one after the other, but in completely the wrong order.....

Chris considers drinking Mike's pint but realises there's plenty for all
The attraction of Plaza Mayor and its slightly more prosaic neighbour Puerta del Sol is the absence of vehicles, a constant feature of the grand boulevards that cut this great city into regular slices. Here at last was relative peace and quiet, a place where the chat was cheap and the beer expensive. There was even a statue of Mike Channon on one of his horses in the square's centre. More at home in a Habsburgian Spanish plaza it would have been impossible to feel.

"This calamares is a bit sloppy. Do you want some?"
"It's wet and cold.I don't want it "
Enter small shuffling Peruvian.

"Waiter, three more beers please"

The Museo del Jamon, made famous for its moody appearance in Pedro Almodóvar’s film Carne Trémula was the chosen spot, with its glistening cañas and droopy calamares a satisfying enough accompaniment to the excited chat of Grown Up Football Tournaments and our possible role (roll ) in them. It has an unfeasibly wide range of sliced pork, pickled pork and pork in other shapes and stages of development. This undoubtedly is what drove Chris to order chips.

"Patatas bravas a bit tasteless aren't they?"
"You have them then"
"Where's the spicy sauce?"
"Waiter..."  ...-"er ah more beer?" ... "Spot on, mate!"

As with all gourmet tours, the main dish was to be eaten across town in a rather more majestic establishment. We embarked for a sweaty and noisy half an hour meet and greet on the city's overheated metro system, enjoying the warm crush so much, we strayed onto the blue line (inevitable subliminal attraction I suppose), and were too late for an unprovoked baton charge on City fans on the Castellano by a bored group of the local constabulary. We settled instead for our own assault on a series of stuffed bars near the great towering walls of the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu itself.

Friendly locals were happy to chew the fat, one well dressed gent magnanimously offering us Ronaldo if City could push Aguero and Tevez in the other direction. How we laughed into our hastily arranged lines of mini spicy sausages. How our chuckles provoked bubbles in the top of our glasses of Mahou (and a white SuperMario moustache in my case). Cristiano Ronaldo, you see, my friend, has been in our pockets for many a long year, oh yes! You can keep him and your floppy haired Marcelos, your hook-nosed Modrics.and your Professor Pat Pending Di Marias. We're just fine as we are. Does this sausage taste off to you? Must be me.

On a stained napkin, the rejected sausages started taking shape: they assembled in a no-frills 4.4.0 (there were eight sausages, so no attack today): Kompany there, solid with Lescott, Zaba and Kolarov (the one with the end bitten off) outside, nice and steady, no faffing about.... Fine, now who's eaten Nasri?

The walk to tier four of the Bernabéu is best partaken when in full control of your faculties, comprising as it does a couple of thousand greasy steps in a spiral of ill-defined light and sudden exhilarating shadow. Thankfully, the elixir of giddy optimism emanating from every pore made the climb bearable and stops were made on the ascent to genuflect, reorganise simmering tendons and bellow a few crude truths about just who was the best team in the land and all the world. At the summit, if the climb had not already taken your breath away, that crucial first glimpse of the green turf certainly did. You could see Lake Titikaka from up there and the very top of the Taj Mahal.

Yaya, Yaya, Yaya, Yaya... that was our stop, wasn't it?

Up you go

Like everything else we had witnessed in Madrid thus far, the Bernabéu spread itself loquaciously in front of us, a gigantic cement block monument to self confidence, grandeur and prestige. It said, look at me, hold your gaze and tell me I'm not magnificent. I guess at this point if anyone had panned the away end with a camera, viewers would have been treated to row upon row of pasty foreigners with eyes like ten pence pieces, mouths open and wet, a kind of transfixed awe on our faces. It might have made interesting television, especially with the bons mots of Clyde Tediously to bring it all to life. Meantime, I was beginning to dribble.

What can you do.

What we did was start singing: a medley of songs aired at Sincil Bank and Meadow Lane now rang out loud and clear in the self-styled Cathedral of World Football. We are really here etc.but only just clinging onto reality at this stage.

Amongst all the unbridled jollity of the occasion, it had gone unnoticed that Roberto had played a little trick on us. Not one, in fact, but three. Three tricks, of varying sizes. The 19 year old rookie Nastasic would come in for Lescott, who, of our two giant pillars in central defence, had been the one slightly less off-form so far this season. Who's that, asked someone as the teams warmed up. "Its not Javi Garcia, he's over there," I burbled back squinting, with the confidence of a man asked to identify a strangely perky wading bird from a position half way up a tree three hundred yards across a salt marsh, who answers with the words "it's a duck?". That climb was beginning to get its own back.

Mancini was not done with us yet, though. Maicon, still sporting the wide-eyed glare of a man asked to make his English Premier League debut at the Britannia Stadium, was in too. The same Maicon given the county two-step by Gareth Bale two years ago, provoking a landslide of newspaper articles wishing him well in his next career. On the left, to complete the Defence Most Unlikely was little Clichy. So used are we now to seeing the lothario Kolarov sidle out for Champions League matches, it is something of a surprise when his ambling, shorts-falling-down figure does not appear. So, there it stood. Our defence for Real Madrid away would be Maicon-Kompany-Nastasic-Clichy. Mourinho tried to make us feel a little less uncomfortable by dismissing the opinionated Sergio Ramos to the bench, replaced by their own version of a trembling teenager, the French kid Varane. The thyroidal Ozil was also missing, replaced by Michael Essien. Yes, that Michael Essien. Things were becoming quite confused.

We were grateful at least for the small mercies of Marcello's identifiable flop-perm and the giant figure of Yaya flapping his arms in the centre circle. At last some semblance of normality in this pre-game fug. Barry and Garcia were there too, giving us the tasty possibility of seeing Yaya in his stormtrooper role. Cristiano started sensibly, opting for the slicked down look, side parting, cropped eyebrows, moodily aggressive body language. Perhaps the 2nd half would herald a platform for his fluffy bouffant or the remote, dead eyes of the sad professional. Maybe his tormented little body would be thrown to the floor. "nooooooo!". Smack, smack, thump, thump. We would just have to wait and see.

A whirl of feet and screeching in my ears like I'm in a wind tunnel. Roaring from our end, parping, tooting from theirs. A vuvuzela or a cuckoo, I'm not sure, but we've started. It is soon evident Roberto's defence -whether strong, bendy or foolhardy - will be given an examination of medical intricacy. Shots are pinging in from all angles. Ronaldo alone has four in the first four minutes. I am not clear about Real's formation at this stage, such is the roaring in my ears, but they definitely have more men on the pitch than us. By half time 71,000 people have seen Real produce 15 shots towards our trembling goal. Joe Hart has saved impeccably the few that were actually on target. In the crowd a distressing scenario is developing as Florentino Perez, all post-holiday smarm, glad-hands Rafa Nadal, Butragueño chats to new City head honcho Soriano in affable Spanish and, a few rows in front, alternative ambassador William John Gallagher, replete in shiny black leather rain jacket and giant shades, gives it Big Burnage in the expensive seats. A diplomatic incident is only meters away.

The second half is proof that you should never doubt whether to follow City abroad or not. All hell breaks loose and it doesn't calm down again until we are back in our hotel beds.

"Bloody squid's repeating on me"
"Told you to leave it"
 "Don't waste good food, mam always said"
 "Not good advice that"
Within 10 minutes around the hour mark, we are treated to a rash of substitutions. I don't know what Light the Blue Touch Paper is in Spanish, but that is the effect. The confused Essien gives way to Ozil and Modric will shortly replace the workmanlike Khedira. The Real subs, whose appearance of two inexperienced window fitters in an Abbot and Costello sketch should not lull anybody into a false sense of security, get ready to enter the fray. Abbot comes on, but there's a hitch with Costello who resumes puttying duties on the sidelines. Meantime, we already have Kolarov who has been on since Nasri pulled up in the 24th minute with a scorched hamstring) and we are about to have Dzeko and Zabaleta. First the Bosnian replaces Silva, who is given a noisy ovation from the inaptly named Real fans.Some seem a little perplexed that such a good Spanish player has somehow found himself on the wrong side.

Look at me, drink me in, you'll never see anything like this in Birmingham

Ignoring the obvious scenario, City choose the 68th minute to take the lead. As yet another thundering run from Yaya takes him through the middle like a mine sweeper, we hang suspended in air and time. He has four players in his wake. They look like the tins carried behind a newly weds' car, bobbing and tumbling as the Ivorian sweeps through the gears. The ball is going left. Dzeko has matched his run and is available in space. We stay in mid air.

That roaring is in my ears again. Calamares bubbles are everywhere. The ball has been transferred to the grassy patch just in front of Dzeko's hungry strides. The Bosnian tank has Arbeloa and Khedira climbing into his shorts from behind. He doesn't notice and fires past Casillas. Khedira slumps off whilst we re-enact the Great Fandango on the 4th tier. I am off the ground, as is the person I am hugging, a solid teenager with gravy on his chin. There is a strange smell of burning. We both return to earth at the same time and resume bouncing around the steps. When I face back to the pitch, he has gone but I still have the pocket off his t-shirt in my hand. The roaring has been replaced by high pitched squealing, like a kettle going off.

Before we know it Yaya is once again thundering clear, towing more debris and flotsam behind him. Nothing can stop him but an act of God or an earth tremor. In the end it's his own lack of accuracy. The ball hits the side-netting. This is close to unbearable. Two nil up at the Bernabéu. Don't even go there.

There is delirium all around now. An atmosphere of lightly sugared lunacy is effecting balance, sight, speech. Something similar happens 60 metres down, as Zabaleta finally enters the fray waving his arms and starts galloping around like he wants a word with Modric about the part in the sketch with the piano. But that's Laurel + Hardy. This is Abbot and Costello. Suddenly, Marcelo's hair is cutting in from the left. It flies past Kompany with disturbing ease and has a clear sight of goal. The ball kicks off Javi Garcia's boot and flies into the net. Oh my. Oh hell. Oh no.

I have located the source of the high pitched kettle sound. It is the noise made by Zabaleta's arms whirling around in a frenzied state. He misses a ball in front of goal by millimetres then is chopped down near the touchline. A freekick now with Kolarov loping across to have a sniff at it. I think for a moment it is a shame Balotelli is not here to squabble over who takes it, have a smoke, shrug a bit. It's just what the game is missing. Kolarov it is who whips in one of his left foot curlers. It goes past 16 pairs of boots, waves goodbye to Xabi Alonso's shoe laces and enters the net behind Casillas' right hand. Time for the Funky Chicken. Rude not to. I take the opportunity to give the young kid his pocket back. He looks a bit sheepish. I shout it was all my fault and if we win I will buy him a full cosmonaut outfit, any colour he wants. An argument breaks out about why he has a t-shirt with a pocket anyway. Suddenly there is another roar. Another goal. I'm still facing the wrong way. From Benzema. When did he come on? The place is heaving off its shackles and trying to turn a somersault. My stomach goes from volcanic to ice station zebra in 5 seconds. I can feel the twenty degree temperature drop in my guts.

Pandemonium and carnage. Horror and nervousness. Sand and sawdust. The clock is still ticking still ticking still ticking. Ronaldo now, appearing down the left, jinks past Zabaleta and his now redundant piano, shoots low. Somehow Kompany manages to duck under it despite it being only hip height. The thing does that Ronaldo trajectory, just like the beachball in Plaza Mayor all those hours ago and dips alarmingly under Joe Hart's left arm. All our squid have come home to ink us at the same time. Ronaldo does his knee flex, neck vein celebration, as Mourinho resplendent in Pedro del Hierro light grey suit, does a skiddy ten metres into the pitch. 2000 euro suit ruined. I hope his mum is watching back in Setubal
"What do you mean you've gone through the knees on that already? 2000 euros that cost!". 
The match finishes and before we have a chance to salute our boys in grey and black, a line of fidgety robocops appear as if out of a bottle. Barring the way, they twitch and fizz until one of our number gets too close and is beaten on the head and shoulders. The guy has been watching too many back to back episodes of Cagney and Lacey, but has obviously not read the translated version of the Hillsborough Report. I take his picture, half expecting to be clouted too. City have just finished an epic match and these guys are full in our faces just waiting for an excuse to lay into us. An absolute disgrace. I speak a couple of garbled bits of Spanish to him and he flickers again.

We have a sing song to the empty stadium. The night is waiting outside.

The next morning's Marca, a sort of journalistic marriage of an eleven year old's Real Madrid scrapbook and early 70s Pravda, proves that I had in fact dreamed it after all. I read through the City players' marks out of ten after this epic struggle that has taken champions Real to the very wire and wonder if I really exist:

Hart -7; Maicon-3; Kompany - 2; Nastasic -3; Clichy - 5.5; Javi Garcia - 4, Barry - 2 (that's TWO out of TEN); Nasri - 3; Silva (Spaniard warning) - 6; Tevez - 6.5; Kolarov - 6; Dzeko - 6; Zabaleta (put the kettle on) -6; Yaya - 7.5
Just for good measure they give Mancini a 3 as well, and City get three out of ten too. "Tanto para tan poca coisa" says Guilleme Ballagué realistically in AS (pronounced "ass"), whilst Tomas Roncero, who may or may not snore loudly at night in the room next to his mother, says "El Madrid es eterno". The whole world, it seems, does revolve around these people after all. Only Yaya - named "El Dandy" by Marca, escapes the rasping tongue of Spanish criticism.

Back in the Plaza Mayor, the kid's beachball sits atop a spike on the railings protecting the statue of Equestrian Micky Channon. The air has long gone, as have the singing hordes but there are still metaphors to inflate.

There goes the suit

Hasta luego, Real Madrid, see you in Manchester for the rematch. 


  1. What are you doing eating calamari in Madrid? That’s a meat town. As a rule, I don’t think it’s wise to eat seafood so far from the sea. You’re asking for trouble. Certainly true for molluscs and crustraceans and generally for cephalapods. (Your probably would have got away with the fish.) And no doubt the beer helped. I also think the Spanish papers are consistently hard markers, but they weren’t that far off the mark, and I’m still amazed we almost won it. Not necessarily by playing badly as a team (we were definitely worth more than the sum or our parts) but we showed pretty well absolutely nothing individually, except for Hart, and the reason why he starred (besides his undoubted talent) was because we gave them so much time and room to batter him. It’s one thing defending deep, but we did not try nearly hard enough to stop them getting shots off. Plus there were some serious individual failures. Poor Vinnie, by far his worst performance for us. So out of character. Was he overawed or just nervous with a debutant on one side of him and the unfamiliar Maicon on the other? And we looked so disorganised at the back in the last 15 minutes. I would have thought beforehand that 3-2 at the Bernabeau was not a bad non-result but despite the excitement and the drama of the occasion, I just want to forget that game.

    1. Well, I had spaghetti vongole in Venice once and that nearly killed me. I'll be taking a packed lunch to Ajax.

  2. That’s a pity. There’s a cheap n cheery traditional restaruant north of the central station, off one of the streets east of Damrak called the workers cafe, or something like that in Dutch, that does a great chicken cordon bleu mit chips and vegies. I’m not suggesting you will never get sick eating seafood near the sea -- I once got laid up for three days after eating ceviche on the beach in Baha Mexico -- but as a general rule you are better off staying off it a ways inland. Fish people know fish, and are less likely to let it go a day too long than a meat head. If you are also going to Dortmund I suggest you try the traditional Westfalian speciality of their local-style blood sausage (with extra fat) and mashed potato with apple. I had it at a touristy place near the main square and it was bloody fantastic.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Hutspot in Amsterdam? Can't go too far wrong with a slab of bubble and squeak.


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