It started out simply enough.
A trip for old friends to visit a central(ish) location to meet and catch up on life. The three friends had grown up in Harare, but the vagaries of life saw one making his way from Thailand, another inbound from South Africa and the last one from England.
The country was agreed – Spain. The city – Valencia. The occasion – the annual Falles festival. A complete description of the Falles would take up a whole blog post on its own, but this, this, this and this give a small taste of what it entails.
So far, so good. Meeting up in a new city, experiencing a bit of local food, culture and enjoying a festival sounded like a great idea. But, hold on just a minute there – why settle for great when the trip could become awesome? All three friends are football lovers – one Liverpool and two Arsenal supporters – so why not watch a Valencia game at the famous Mestalla stadium in between all the festivalling? Quick look at the La Liga fixture list and Valencia is playing away that weekend. Damn.
But hold up, flights are initially landing in Madrid before the friends head off to Valencia – let’s see if Real or Atleti are playing at home. Result! Real Madrid are playing Levante at home the day after we all arrive. The plan begins to take shape….
So the trip has been elevated from great to awesome, but how about upgrading to legendary status? There are Champions League games on during that week as well. Another look at the upcoming games and guess what – Arsenal are playing away in Monaco in what could be a do-or-die knockout game. (The Liverpool supporter has little input in this part of the discussion.) Monaco is only an hour away from Barcelona, which is only 300 km from Valencia – an upgraded plan is formed….
Real Madrid – Levante (Santiago Bernabeu Stadium)
We know that we need to collect our tickets by 2000hrs at the latest, and working backwards we calculate we have plenty of time. So we spend Sunday afternoon eating, walking the Madrid streets and killing time until the game. In our excitement at exploring we lost track of time and we suddenly realise we have to get moving or else we won’t have tickets. We eventually get out the metro station and we have an 11 minute walk to get to the ticket office before it closes.
The walk turns into a half-jog and then a full-out sprint. We arrive at the ticket office with one minute to spare, sweating bullets and gasping for air.
But most importantly we now have the tickets. Game on.
A bit of time to take in the sights.
Enough time for an obligatory “we are about to go in” photo
The Bernabeu is massive – a huge stadium echoing with noise of tens of thousands of supporters, even if it’s not full to capacity for tonight’s game. We’ve got our oxygen masks on as we’re up in the nosebleeds, but the view of the pitch is absolutely perfect and even without binoculars we can instantly identify the Real Madrid players by their running style during the warm up; or Cristiano Ronaldo’s case, by the way he is doing his own thing apart from the rest of the team – sauntering about doing his personal warm up.
The Real Madrid anthem “Hala Madrid” blares out over the speaker system and I’m enjoying this part. It’s not delivered with the same sort of passion and emotion as “You’ll never walk alone” delivered by the Kop end, but nevertheless I feel like running onto the pitch and donning the Real Madrid colours.
The game itself was decent without being spectacular. The home team never really got out of second gear. Real Madrid eased to a 2-0 win courtesy of two Gareth Bale goals (his first since January), but the final result should have been 5 or 6 with Cristiano Ronaldo failing to convert a couple of gilt-edged chances. This Madrid team had seemed to be very unbalanced in midfield during their last couple of games, but with Luca Modric back after a long injury layoff the team seemed to play a lot better with the Croatian in the team.
First game down, and we’d seen a couple of goals although Real Madrid didn’t look at their predatory best in this encounter and our opinion is they’d have to raise their game in the upcoming clasico.
Monaco – Arsenal (Stade Louis II)
We seemed to have developed a habit of planning our travel times well (in theory) but the execution seemed to be somewhat problematic. We’d arrived in Monaco in plenty of time, but then spent a frustrating amount of time (a) locating our accommodation and (b) trying to get into the flat itself as our innkeeper was off-site.
We eventually got into the flat, dropped our bags and immediately headed out to the stadium. Our taxi driver from the station told us it was about a 45 minute walk to the stadium, but a local we asked for directions told us to catch the bus instead. Good advice as it turned out – we made to the stadium in plenty of time.
Monaco has a population of around 36,000 people and the stadium capacity is approximately 18,500 which means that half the principality’s population can fit in the ground!
It was interesting having come from the Bernabeu (capacity 81,000) to the Stade Louis – our seats were about 5 rows from the bottom and we were up close and personal to the teams on the pitch.
We had bought tickets in the Monaco section of the ground and could see (and hear) the Arsenal fans diagonally opposite us in full voice. We’d been warned not to wear Arsenal colours or to draw unnecessary attention to ourselves as certain sections of the Monaco support would not take kindly to such action. The warnings seemed to have been totally ignored by one brother in our party as he proceeded to (a) take off his jacket (revealing his Arsenal shirt) and (b) loudly and with much gusto deliver an expletive-filled commentary on the Arsenal team, the referee’s (non) performance and all the action generally.
The game itself was Arsenal-esque – plenty of chances created, plenty of chances spurned, goals scored, but not enough goals for the Gunners to progress; the problem was the first leg at home where Arsenal capitulated and conceded 3 goals. Monaco seemed happy to sit back and try to hit Arsenal on the counterattack. I personally thought that the much-maligned Mesut Ozil had a fantastic game, and the great thing about live football is that one can watch individual players (as opposed to the camera that follows the ball on TV) and see the movement off the ball. This is Ozil’s best quality – the ability to find pockets of space in between defenders and distribute the ball. I also saw up close and personal the ridiculous work rate of Alexis Sanchez – it is unbelievable to watch.
Second game down, and our football tour was over (for now). We had been lucky to watch two games and see 4 goals in total. A bitter pill for the Arsenal supporters among us to swallow, but we were all in agreement that there is nothing better than watching live football.
Now to start planning the next stadiums to visit….