On May 4th, I spent most of my day waiting around an airport (and this isn’t meant to be a humblebrag. I feel like there’s a direct correlation between how important a person is and how much time they’re stuck in airports. I’m not important. I’m just some guy who was trying to take a short holiday). It, apparently, was outright pissing rain at my destination, and every 30 minutes, the stewardess would routinely announce that the flight’s been delayed.
With only my cell phone, I tried to follow the second leg of Real Madrid’s Champions League semifinal against Manchester City, but it didn’t take too long to realize Twitter would be the easiest way to know what was going on. My original ETD was methodically booked so I could land and immediately run to a local pub and watch the second half. Two 30 minute delays later and that plan was out the window. I refused to let myself think the weather was an omen.
Disappointment turned to sheer terror when it occurred to me that I’d likely take off sometime in the second half, then that would be it. Without a connection to Twitter in the air, I’d have to live for a few hours knowing that the match had ended and I would have no clue what happened as I glided along at 35,000 feet.
The sky turned slate where I was and rain followed shortly after, and I had begun to accept the sad reality that I wouldn’t get to see a single minute of Madrid’s biggest match of the entire season.
"We’re still waiting on clearance to take off," the stewardess said over the intercom. "Feel free to come by the desk for a free meal voucher." As if being unable to watch the game wasn’t quite sad enough, the offer of a meal voucher as consolation just added insult to injury.
At long last I boarded at about the 80th minute, and amazingly enough, the airplane had TVs! With Fox Sports 1 available! I chucked my carry-on into the overhead bin and glued my eyes to the 8-inch by 6-inch screen on the back of the seat in front of me.
It’s now torrentially down pouring outside, Real are protecting their lead like a turtle reverting into its shell, and I am, as Gabe would say, a spinning orb of pure anxiety. We start to taxi to the runway. Kevin de Bruyne is lining up for his late free kick right outside the Madrid box. He looks down at the ball, then up to the net. The pilot chimes in over the speakers and says something about "heavy turbulence".
At this point I’m not even mentally present — there are so many dangerous things happening around and in front of me that I couldn’t even process them all at once. "I don’t care if this plane crashes just please let Real win this match," is a real thought I had. Kevin de Bruyne’s shot bags the outside of the net, giving the illusion of having scored for a split second, at which point I made a noise that most of the people on the flight probably assumed came from an infant.
The linesman holds up the screen indicating the incoming length of added time, and four interminable minutes later the plane kicks up to speed, and I look out my window into the gray, rainy abyss. I have long forgotten how to breathe at this point.
As the nose of the plane begins to lift off the ground and into the awaiting thunderstorm, the full time whistle goes, and I let out a shriek like a banshee howling at the moors.
It’s unclear to me why we do this to ourselves. To be a fan is to present your heart to a club and beg that they fill it with joy more than they rip it out. The fact that we do this in our spare time, on weekends, is just plain stupid. How many perfectly fine Saturday afternoons have you spent with your arms in the Surrender Cobra, unable to demagnetize your eyes from the screen (or if you’re lucky, in the stands)?
All of this just makes it even more bonkers to me that the club we support gets to play for a Champions League title twice in three years. Statistically, the odds of the club you support being good enough to play top flight football routinely are outstandingly low. For Real Madrid, Champions League qualification is nearly a given, and contending is expected. Ask fans of the Botswana Meat Commission, or Maribor, or AFC Wimbledon, or basically any other plain ole club what they’d give to play for the Champions League final. Hell, even ask Liverpool, AC Milan, Manchester United, or any other fallen giant. While they've been battling for qualification, Madrid have gone to the semifinals six years on the trot.
Nothing good ever comes from high expectations, which has kind of been the magic of this season. Benitez’s dismissal set the stage for another highly unlikely scenario: a club legend gets to take over as manager, with virtually no pressure. In January, this season was a wash in the eyes of many. Now, Zidane has the team threatening for a double. As fans, we’re playing with house money.
So I guess the point of all this is just to enjoy it all. Whether you’re stuck on a plane in a storm, at the pub, at home, or at the stadium, I implore you to settle in and admire the fact that we’re watching something most fans can’t even fathom. It’s amazing. Leicester City’s unbelievable (and I mean that in a literal sense. It’s genuinely difficult to believe that happened) league title and all the accompanying reactions have helped me fall in love with being a football fan all over again.
Extricate yourself from expectations and the need to criticize, and just admire that by the time June rolls around, we’ll have watched our club vie for two of the biggest trophies in Europe. And we get to do it all over again in the fall. That’s pretty rad.