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How to enjoy a match at the Santiago Bernabeu (part I)

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Guide to make the most out of the experience

Real Madrid CF v RC Celta de Vigo - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Are you planning to visit the Santiago Bernabeu anytime soon? Well, you should. Even in its less intense days, it’s an amazing experience. Every Madridista must go there and catch a match at least once in their lifetimes, so if you do, here’s a list of things you should take into consideration in terms of etiquette, and a few tricks to make the most out of your visit.

1) Enjoy the pre-match: subway, bus or taxis will get you close enough, as the stadium is quite central and has plenty of accesses. So let’s get to the important stuff: there’s a few places to have a beer or a soft drink before entering into the temple, and other few that perhaps you should avoid. In the list of the former, there’s a few bars in the Concha Espina and Paseo de la Habana streets that offer cold beers and bocadillos (the Spanish sandwich made of French bread and a variety of fillings, of which tortilla and jamón are the top selling ones). By all means you should buy your bocadillo to go and take it into the stadium. You’ll feel quite left out if you don’t have one to eat during halftime. There’s even an Argentinean place which sells empanadas, but that hasn’t caught up with the regulars yet. If you want something slightly more upscale, the Jose Luis in Rafael Salgado should do the trick.

Among the places you should not visit, avoid the bars where the ultras generally meet, especially if you go to a high-risk match, such a Madrid – Barcelona or a Madrid – Atleti (at some point I’ll explain why I almost never use clasico or very rarely use derby, but I digress). Ultras meet in two or three very cheap watering holes at the Marceliano Santamaria street: “Drakkar”, “El 7 Blanco” (The white seven, in honour to Juanito), “Sherwood” or “La Fontanería”. All those are best avoided. Granted, the Real Madrid ultras currently are at their historic lows in terms of both numbers and trouble, but you never know with these people.

2) Wear appropriate clothes. When I started going to the stadium in the late 80s, certain sections were extremely formal. I remember we used to make fun of people wearing team gear – “do they think they’ve made the coach’s list?”, “we could use that tall guy as a centre-back”, etc --, as it was quite rare to see someone dressed up as a footballer. That is obviously long gone, and now you can wear almost whatever you want. That said, if you go to the more expensive tickets – 1st amphiteatre or more expensive, although this applies even more if you go to the VIP boxes – expect a very formal crowd and dress accordingly formal if you don’t want to feel out of place. In the Presidential Box – Florentino’s one – you have to wear suit and tie. And, by the way, the stadium has an outstanding heating system; if temperature is higher than 5 celsius, you’ll be fine with a sweater inside the stadium, but obviously not outside of it.

3) Get your pipas: many regulars eat sunflower seeds (pipas in Spanish) throughout the match. They’ve developed such a skill that it’s amazing to watch them eat at a shocking pace. I’m no fan, and the piperos (pipas eaters) have become poster boys for what is most criticized of the Bernabeu fans: a fickle bunch that is only happy with victory at any price, and that boos any player if they misplace one pass. But I have to admit that the pipas are probably one of the most characteristics parts of the Bernabeu liturgy, so go for it. You can buy them in jumbo-sized bags in the stands outside the stadium, in Concha Espina street.

Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei Unveils This Year’s Unilever Installation At The Tate Modern
Ai Weiwei is also a pipero
Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

4) Check your ticket before you enter the stadium: pay attention to the gate / tower through which you should get in. Moving around the stadium is easy, but the perimeter is long, and you may arrive late to your seat if you don’t plan in advance. Mind you, socios don’t like late fans. If your ticket displays access through one of the towers, that means that you’ll have to walk more than with any other ticket until you reach your seat, so again, plan in advance and arrive at least 45 minutes early. Last season, additional checks started a few metres away from the entrance to the towers, so you will need that extra 15 min. For seats not accessed through the towers, it’s uncanny how fast you get there. I’ll be shocked if you’re not shocked.

5) Get your almohadilla: if you arrive early enough and have managed to get seats in one of the expensive sections (2nd amphitheater or lower), you will see club employees offering almohadillas (small cushions to use under your butt). At one euro each, they’re a cheap and great tradition. On top of its comfort, if the team plays terribly you can throw them on the pitch to show your wrath. I know that the white handkerchiefs is probably a better known way to display disapproval at the Bernabeu, but the fact is that the “lluvia de almohadillas” – small cushions’ storm – is a once in a lifetime experience and thus only reserved for especially bad performances.

6) Other people will be late, just try not to be you: plenty of advantages if you’re on time, or even better, a few minutes early. For instance, you can see the team warm up, which is always fun, especially if Marcelo or Modric feel like showing off with their ball skills. You can also see the opening video, which still gives me goosebumps, and I’ve seen it hundreds of times in its different versions. If there’s a tifo, you’ll see it or be a part of it as well. And, of course, you won’t piss off your seat neighbours by making them move to let you pass — the space is tight. That is the first step to have an enjoyable match. Be warned: five minutes before kick off, there’s usually plenty of empty seats, as people cut it really close, but two minutes into the match, the Bernabeu is already full. It never ceases to amaze me how fast that happens.

Real Madrid CF v Valencia CF - La Liga
Don’t recommend risking a last minute buy, but who knows
Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

7) Check that you’re in the correct seat: the numbers are sometimes confusingly similar between sectors and vomitories, so look at them carefully. There’s nothing a socio loves more than kicking someone out of his/her seat before the match starts. I personally pray that there’s some lost soul there every time I walk down the stairs of my sector.

8) Move around to a better seat if it’s a low-attendance match. Before we get to this, let me tell you that most tickets in the Bernabeu offer a fantastic view of the pitch: it looks a lot higher from the inside than from the outside, and in fact it is, as the pitch is several meters below street level, but it’s built so steep that the view is always magnificent.

As good as visibility usually is, things can always improve, right? When I first started going to matches, you could jump over a couple of fences and go from a 1.000 pesetas ticket (6 euros) in the stands to a 10.000 one (60 euros) in the main tribune. Things have obviously changed since then, but you can still move around in your own level to find a better view. That means that if you are in either of the ends (North or South), you can walk back to the corridors and keep going around the stadium until you find a more centered view of the pitch if you so prefer. However, remember to do this after the fifth minute of the match or in the second half, and you’ll avoid being kicked out of the seat by a socio delayed by traffic (see previous point).

9) Boo the visiting team if Real Madrid does not attack towards the North End on the first half. Every single Real Madrid skipper since I can remember favours attacking North in the first half and South in the second. The South End’s goal is the lucky one, the one in which the UEFA comebacks happened, the one all socios believe will bring victory. That is why the team always warms up in the South End goal, to occupy that space before kickoff. Therefore, if Ramos wins the coin toss, he chooses to attack North and leaves the ball to the opposition. If the opposition wins the toss and, as it’s usually the case, they ask for the ball, the skipper again chooses to attack towards the North End. However, a few teams know this and enjoy throwing Real Madrid off their favourite routine: Atlético de Madrid and Real Sociedad, when they win the toss, choose to attack towards the North End rather than the ball. When I started going to the Bernabeu, this generated a tremendous amount of sound from the crowd, and plenty of insults towards the opposition’s skipper. Now less and less people know this , so if you see the sides changings sides and you boo, you’ll have earned the respect of the most knowledgeable socios around you.

Real Madrid CF v Real Sociedad - La Liga
Real Sociedad, always trying to break our lucky routine
Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

10) Do not smoke, please: I say this even though smoking is still allowed at the stadium. This embarrasses me so much that I can’t explain it. Other clubs defend their players when they evade taxes, which is absolutely pathetic, so I’m very proud of my team not doing so when our players are the ones using fiscal tax havens. However, those other clubs do not allow smoking in their stadia, and I can’t think of a reason why ours does. I went with my pregnant wife a few months ago and it was impossible to avoid the smoke, as plenty of surrounding fans were puffing. So please, do not join them. It feels like we’re back in the dark ages...

(To be continued with the halftime and 2nd half recommendations)