Black and white jerseys sway gently from the merchandise-filled huts of street vendors. The premiere football (soccer, or fútbol in Spanish) franchise of Spain’s capital, Real Madrid, is proudly represented and promoted throughout the city’s bustling street corners and sidewalks.
On match days, the team’s centrally-located Santiago Bernabeú Stadium comes alive with the energy of the 115-year-old franchise’s loyal following. Real Madrid’s prestige is backed by 12 European Cup (Champions) league trophies – more than any other club for European football’s highest honor – a division-leading 33 La Liga titles in Spain, and a football-loving fan base intrinsically tied to the continent’s most popular sport.
While most fans stay forever linked to the team they were born into following, Madrid native Óscar Lázaro made the switch from a loyalty to crosstown rival Atlético Madrid, to a fondness for Real.
“We lost our season tickets as they were rotated for other fans. As I stopped going to the (Atlético’s) stadium and Real Madrid signed up some of the best players in the world, known as the “galacticos,” I changed my team to see the likes of (Cristiano) Ronaldo, (Luis) Figo, (David) Beckham, and (Michael) Owen.”
If you happen to visit Madrid when home a game is on tap, many would say it’s a can’t-miss spectacle for sports fans and non-fans alike.
“That stadium is full weekend after weekend regardless of who they play,” said Madrid-based sports and entertainment marketing consultant Eña Ossa. “When people come here, they make it a point to go see the team. It’s a bucket list thing.”
For those more familiar with the U.S. sports scene, perhaps a reference to ‘America’s favorite pastime’ will help give a better idea.
“It’s like going to Boston and not going to Fenway,” added Ossa, referring to the Red Sox American Major League Baseball tradition.
But when it comes to Madrileños’ connection to ‘fútbol,’ one in which fanhood is seemingly genetic in nature, spectators across the globe have also developed a burning passion for the team.
“You see Asians at the stadium, you can see people from India…people from all over. When there are team events like player signings, it’s usually foreign people that fill them up,” Ossa explained.
When players are signed, some teams like Real Madrid make it an event to be enjoyed by fans. For starters, they typically take place during the summer, when regular season matches aren’t even in play. Several thousand adoring fans fill a section of Santiago Bernabéu, where their newly-acquired footballer is introduced, sporting the famous black and white.
My first time in Madrid was not during fútbol season. But a sports fan myself, I felt similar to those tourists cheering on the new additions, hungry to take in the ‘Real’ experience. So, I found another option — visit the place the team collectively calls “home.”
That meant a full tour of Santiago Bernabéu, which can be experienced daily, even on Sundays and most holidays. A neat introduction to the experience was walking past a parade of massive tour buses parked near the ticket counter which, like their occupants, had traveled from all over the place.
Kits, or uniforms, of decades past and an extensive trophy collection – some of the silverware standing taller than the young fans admiring them – widened my eyes upon first walking inside. From the overwhelming information in the interactive digital screens, to the palpable spirit of tradition within the various videos shown, there was a lot to absorb.
Surrounded by hundreds of other visitors, I saw the field from three different views, beginning at the top, and ending with a stroll on the well-manicured lawn. The experience really felt intimate when I set foot in the locker room, which had the players’ lockers personalized and an up-close view of what game day is like behind-the-scenes.
One part of the tour that really stuck out to me was when 15 other visitors and I loaded onto a big van, which was intended to mimic the team bus. Videos started playing in each of the window panes, mimicking the game day experience of the players as fans cheer them on throughout their entrance and exit from the stadium.
While these sites and entertainment don’t quite leave one feeling that the team facilities are lacking, the club seems intent on continually adding to the image it’s built.
Eña Ossa agrees, and though not a native of Spain nor a self-proclaimed fan of Real, she still holds the team in very high regard.
“They understand that marketing is important. They understand that visually, they have to be stunning because they’re one of the few true brands as a brand. Atlético Madrid…whatever they do for the next ten years, they’re still not a brand. They’re just a moment.”
No one can say for sure what the next ten years will hold for any team. But while in most critics’ minds, Real may have already established itself as more than just a ‘moment,’ they won’t be found resting on any laurels. And it’s you, the visitor, who can indulge in what comes of that drive.
This past November, team president Florentino Perez excitedly spoke of plans for a €400 million ($466 million) stadium renovation.
“This stadium will act as an economic and touristic invigorator and will contribute to strengthening the image of our city. This plan will also improve the whole area around the stadium. We will have the best stadium and we are doing it for Real Madrid, our fans and this city,” Perez told fans and media.
The project has been years in the making due to disagreements between the team and the city. But negotiations were, for the most part, settled this past May. If all goes according to plan, the club will boast a retractable roof, 3,000 refurbished seats, and a number of other flashy upgrades by the start of the 2020-2021 season.
As the ball keeps on rolling in Madrid, a long and special tradition backs it up. That’s something in which I hope you can also someday partake!
Tour cost: Adults: €25 ($29.14) Children: €18 ($21)
Tour hours: Monday – Saturday, 10am – 9:30pm, Sundays/most holidays 1030am – 630pm. Note: shorter hours on match days
Tour phone number: +34 91 398 43 70
Stadium address: Paseo de Castellana, 142, 28036 Madrid, Spain; Metro Santiago Bernabéu
Ticket office 10, beside Gate 7