Monday, May 30, 2011

La Liga: Uno numero

Messi magic enthralled the world at the Wembley on May 28 as the mercurial striker once again lead Barcelona to victory, this time around in the prestigious UEFA Champions League final, confirming the status of (Spanish) La Liga as premier among European leagues. Football 
is truly a different ball game as compared to other sport and little else compares to watching the best in action LIVE! Here's sharing my recent experience of witnessing action of 
Spanish league 'futbol' and its growing popularity in India

V-a-l-e-n-c-i-a, V-a-l-e-n-c-i-a! The chant would reach a crescendo and then dip to a hush. Its cadence had the harmony of conducted orchestra. In a way, it was being orchestrated, by two sets of eleven men on a green field chasing a white ball. Every move of theirs was akin to the conductor’s baton, and every move produced a piece of music, both on field, where each action had the grace of a band of instrumentalists, and off-field in the spectator stands, where cheers and chants synchronised in perfect chorus.

I was at the Mestella Stadium in coastal Valencia, absorbed in watching a Premier Division match of the Spanish professional football league, usually referred to as La Liga, one of the most exciting sport leagues globally. With its dauntingly-steep terraced seating arrangement accommodating a capacity crowd of 55,000, the Mestella—home turf of Valencia Club de Futbol—is acknowledged for whipping up an electrifying
atmosphere unmatchable in all Europe. I was a witness to that stimulating ambience on the Sunday when home team Valencia took on Villareal. It was a crucial tie, where a win for Valencia would strengthen its hold on the all-important third place in the Spanish league, giving the team a direct entry into the qualifying round of next season’s UEFA Champions League, Europe’s uno numero tournament played by its top soccer clubs.

The European spectator, I’d heard, takes his soccer seriously and is a keen observer of field play. And so it was. Around me was a capacity crowd completely clued into the action and watching every move with an intensity associated with a chess tourney! Their reactions were perfectly timed: whether it was the resounding cheering when a team made brilliant moves to reach the goal post and mange to score; the chanting to
encourage their players; or jeering when they felt the referee had goofed. That night it was advantage home-team, and Valencia trounced Villareal 5-0. Watching the goal feast live spelled delight for my group of fellow travellers and I, who had turned Valencia loyalists almost immediately upon taking seats inside the stadium. Our local guide Miguel, a proud Valencian, didn’t need to prod us to support his side; the fervour of the
followers of the game having converted us into fans, and over the next few days in Spain we were scouting around for Valencia souvenirs! It goes without saying, a soccer match experience when touring the country is highly recommended.

I was pleasantly surprised at the level of crowd concentration, which came as quite a contrast to all my previous experiences of being part of live sporting action, usually cricket, in India, where typically the majority is a carefree, star (read cricketer)-stuck spectator. Of what I’ve seen, the Calcutta fan comes closest to his European counterpart for the gravitas he attaches to any game he watches. I felt it is the power-packed performance in all of 90 minutes that instills such passion into the crowd. It’s not for nothing that football is called ‘the beautiful game’ When players are on song, the moves are lyrical and a high quality show will always elicit a response of similar caliber.

In India we lack such performances, the reason only big ticket events draw the crowds. Even the country’s most popular sport had to repackage itself as a slam-bang T-20 format to get the crowd coming in, even as the once-celebrated league-format Ranji Trophy event languishes. In contrast European league soccer is intense-paced and over the past few years gained immense viewership across India. The yet largely-urbane trend started in the metros with uber sport bars and cafes installing plasma screens to telecast sporting action, and it spread to other cities as cafĂ© culture grew. Stars of European leagues in Spain, Italy, Germany etc have developed a relatively sizeable fan-following and it’s all set to grow with sport channels constantly beaming live action.

 And it’s not restricted to gender. A Delhi-based colleague on the Spain trip eagerly picked up Real Madrid memorabilia for her 14-year-old daughter when we visited its home ground, the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, considered a ‘pilgrimage place’ in Madrid. Incidentally, the spectacular achievement of the club makes a visit here truly special for a sport buff; and I felt had the security at the stadium not been tough, the ground would have been bereft of turf, with ardent fans wanting to take a bit of the grass along! Another highlight of the stadium is its chic eatery, the Realcafe Bernabeu that allows a ringside view of the stadium, albeit only on non-match days. It serves fusion and Mediterranean cuisine at surprisingly affordable prices and also an assortment of quality wines. Food apart, the scrumptious highlight remains the unrestricted sight of the stadium and visualizing the euphoria when packed. The Real Museum is another glittering gallery of achievements to walk through.

The contest among Spanish clubs is fierce and so is fan allegiance. But on May 28, when Manchester United took on Barcelona in the 2011 edition of the Champions League final at the Wembley, all Spanish inter-club rivalry was put on hold to support only one name…Barcelona! And miles away, in many cities of India, cheering fans donned T-shirts of the teams and watched two sets of eleven men chase the white ball to net goal after goal (3-1) to lift the prestigious trophy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow...Brinda...very nicely written.
The article has taken me back to stadium.