We use sports to escape from our daily lives: for a short period of time, all the bills, student loans, crashing economies, and stresses of life wash away as we engulf ourselves in the moment. In general, sports are a distraction from the ugly side of life. In general. And, in general, what we saw today allowed us to forget about life for a little while.
Real Madrid CF lost the Spanish Supercup today, as FC Barcelona, buoyed by a brilliant Leo Messi, took their home leg 3-2. This match was a far cry from the defensive shutouts of last April, with Madrid pressing the blaugrana high up the pitch, and racing to attack whenever possible. This is Real Madrid at the beginning of a long, arduous climb to the top of the mountain--a team that looked thoroughly disgraced last year at the Camp Nou appeared completely remade today.
But there was Lionel Messi, the best player in the world, a cheeky, quick, little Argentine who seems to do nothing but score: he proved today, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he is the best player in the world. He put a struggling Barcelona team on his back, providing an assist and two goals; he was the only person who stood between Real Madrid and the least important title of the year.
The match unfolded in classic dramatic fashion: a stunning first act culminated with a dramatic climax that set up the second act, which slowly built to a roaring fire. Messi set Andrés Iniesta, Spain's World Cup hero, up for a one-on-one with Iker Casillas, Spain's other World Cup Hero; the prematurely-balding, yet brilliant little Spaniard won the battle against Madrid's guardian saint. 1-0 in the fifteenth minute.
It took Madrid only a few minutes to equalize, when Karim Benzema's rocket-cross ricocheted off a few legs to a lunging Cristiano Ronaldo. 1-1 in the 20th minute. And then everything seemed to lull, as the two teams attacked each other relentlessly.
Then, on the stroke of halftime, the little Argentine struck again, nabbing a ricocheting ball in the area, and slotting it past a diving Casillas once again. 2-1, and it looked like the bell was beginning to toll for Real Madrid.But the royal whites clawed back in the second half, dominating the match for long stretches, but failing time and time again to capitalize on their superiority. Both Sergio Ramos--who looked reborn in this match, all the way back to the brilliant player he used to be--and Karim Benzema missed wide-open shots on goal.
Madrid's full-court press, Mourinho's answer to the tiki-taka, was paying dividends: Barça still had possession, but were forced to play from much deeper than they ever had. Their diagonal through-balls which are so devastating at 30 or 40 yards away from goal were suddenly much less effective at 50 or 60. Madrid's defense were shutting down spaces, tracking forwards, and winning the ball in midfield; their attackers were slicing forward with the same intensity that they used in their press.
And then, suddenly, just as the game seemed to be over, Madrid struck. A bouncing ball in the area seemed to paralyze a tired blaugrana defense; Sami Khedira dropped it to Benzema, and this time the Frenchman didn't miss. 2-2, and in the 81st minute, Madrid looked to be the better side.
But "La Pulga" would not be denied, and just like in any great drama, he smashed in the climactic goal in the 87th minute, after a rare failure from Madrid's defense. 3-2, and finally the game was over.
Except it wasn't. Up until this point, the match had played out poetically, with the teams exchanging jabs and attacks--the beautiful ebb and flow that comes with high-paced attacking football. Madrid had failed to make the most of their chances (with both Mesut Özil and Cristiano Ronaldo shooting wide and hitting the crossbar, respectively), and Barcelona hadn't. This was supposed to be the final line, the "angle" that all good journalists look for.
But sometimes real life has to butt its head into our fantasies. Marcelo, who substituted Khedira in the 45th minute, and was greeted to the pitch (and throughout the half) with chants of "Mono!" ("Monkey!"), dropped a disgusting scissor-tackle on Barça's newest galáctico, Cesc Fábregas. He was immediately sent off, and for good reason--it was the type of tackle that seems designed to tear an opponent's Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL).
This tackle, probably driven by the combination of the frustration of losing a match he felt Madrid deserved to win and anger at the disgusting racist chants emanating from the Nou Camp, set off a chain of events that would see David Villa punch Mesut Özil in the face, the skinny little German react so furiously that he had to be restrained by authority, José Mourinho poke Barça's bench coach in the eye, then get subsequently punched in the head for it (deservedly so), and the referee hand out three red cards (to Marcelo, Villa and Özil). It was a disgusting, embarrassing scene, that left both teams' images tarnished.
But it went farther than that. It not only overshadowed the great series that we had all just witnessed (and the resurgent Real Madrid that emerged from it), it cast both teams, and all of Spanish soccer generally, in a terrible, disgusting, disgraceful light. The racist chants from both fanbases cannot be tolerated--if I were the commissioner the LFP/RFEF, I would place a ban on both the Bernabéu and the Camp Nou for each teams' subsequent home matches. In the coming days, Josh and I will examine racism in Spanish soccer in depth, because what we saw during these matches merits further exploration.
The brawl itself left Mourinho embarrassed and disgraced, David Villa's image tarnished, Marcelo's already problematic persona dreadfully damaged, and both teams humiliated. It was a disgusting, horrifying end to a beautiful match, and a beautiful series; it will dominate the headlines for the next few days because it should.
Whenever real life barges into our sport-fantasies we're horrified. This epic Supercopa clash made us privy to the best, and the worst of Spanish soccer in particular, and sports in general. As a Real Madrid fan, I'm excited for what certainly will be a brilliant, exciting season; as a Spanish soccer fan, I'm embarrassed, and disgusted.
But sometimes, and I think this will be one of those cases, the embarrassment, humiliation, and disgrace that comes whenever real life barges in on sports spurs a frank, honest discussion about what we're doing wrong. Let's hope we can talk this through without the vitriol and rhetoric that has come to characterize both sides--we need to for the good of Spanish soccer, and of these teams we support so passionately.