It was actually Real Madrid’s basketball team who provoked the first cheer of the evening, on the night that the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu opened its doors once again.
560 days after Vinícius and Mariano fired Real Madrid to a Clásico victory on the rainy Sunday night of 1st March 2020, Madridistas were back in the stands of their home ground in the sticky heat of a late summer Sunday. Around half an hour before the LaLiga clash with Celta Vigo kicked off, as the sun set and the shadows began to lengthen, the first cheer went up. “Ladies and gentlemen, the final score in the Spanish Basketball Super Cup is Barcelona 83, Real Madrid 88! We are superchampions of Spain!” At that point, Taio Cruz’s ‘Dynamite’ started playing over the sound system as the crowd of 19,874 threw their hands up in the air, wanting to let go and celebrate and live their lives.
That’s what they’d wanted for a year and a half. To live their lives. For some supporters, going to see Real Madrid every fortnight was their life until, suddenly and without warning, that was taken away. On Tuesday 10th March 2020, it had been announced that any sporting events in Spain in the subsequent two weeks would be taking place behind closed doors, as COVID-19 choked the country into submission. Until that afternoon, many Real Madrid fans had already been looking forward to what was going to be a rare Friday night fixture, a match against Eibar at the Bernabéu on 13th March. But, that event never took place.
Or, at least, when Los Blancos finally did meet the Basque side three months later than planned, it was at the Estadio Di Stéfano in Valdebebas, which suddenly became the first team’s home for the rest of 2019/20 and for all of 2020/21. The Bernabéu, meanwhile, became a logistics space for the distribution of sanitary material, while construction work for Florentino Pérez’s mega stadium redevelopment project was also brought forward. The stage where the world’s best players strut their stuff was no longer lit up by floodlights. Instead, the shadows of cranes were cast across a lonely 105m x 68m space.
Until this weekend, that is. Only last week did the turf return, installed quickly and efficiently while the remaining construction materials were covered up by official club tarpaulin. That blocked off most of the lower tier, but every other section of the roofless stadium had supporters who’d heeded the clarion call for this Matchday 4 fixture. From the reduced grada de animación to Zinedine Zidane, Madridistas of all kinds were there for this homecoming party, beeping through the turnstiles with the same childlike enthusiasm of a kid running towards their stocking on Christmas morning.
Before the festivities, though, came the silence. Football had been away from the Bernabéu for 560 days and it could wait one more minute, as the entire stadium reflected on the passing of all the Real Madrid fans who’d lost their lives as a result of the pandemic, including former president Lorenzo Sanz. Rarely has there been a moment of reflection as poignant.
Then, came the action. This 5-2 victory, as well as being one of the most entertaining matches of football in some time, was also a rollercoaster of emotions for those in the stands. There were grumbles at the poor defending for the Celta Vigo goals. There was a first call and response goal celebration in 18 months, as Benzema fired in the first equaliser. There were whistles for the referees as they left the pitch at half time. There were hugs, with each other and with the goalscorer himself, as Vinícius put Real Madrid ahead. There was anticipation in the air as Eduardo Camavinga started warming up and then a round of applause for the youngster as he came on for his debut. There were chants of “Modrić, Modrić” as the Croatian created the chance for Camavinga’s goal and then a rapturous standing ovation as the Ballon d’Or winner was substituted off. There was one final delight as Benzema completed his hat-trick from the penalty spot, sending the thousands of supporters spilling out into the city centre streets with smiles on their faces.
The night really couldn’t have gone much better for Real Madrid, other than the fact that not everybody was there. And, with so many blue seats visible, that fact was unescapable.
Thousands more would have liked to attend, and will eventually be back, but weren’t able to return on Sunday because of the restrictions. Others will never sit in their Bernabéu seats again, with the pandemic and the virus making the March 2020 Clásico their last ever football match. Macabrely, many fans still don’t know which category their neighbouring season ticket holders have fallen into.
Others did come across familiar faces at the Bernabéu on Sunday night, as acquaintances who are only acquaintances because of Real Madrid were reunited. These are the various fans who come together, following their muscle memory, to share the same pre-match bars or rituals or rows of seats inside the ground, before going their separate ways again in Spain’s busy capital once the full-time whistle sounds. They were reunited. When the street vendors are allowed to return too, there will be yet further moments like this.
Because, we are returning to normality. Sunday night against Celta Vigo was a big step towards saying that we’re back. More than the goals, the passes, the saves or the dribbles, Sunday night was about the fact that thousands of people were there to see it. The Bernabéu was used for football again. The way it should be.