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World Cup: What it's like to watch Spain in a Madrid bar


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Considering I was visiting one of the most football-crazy cities in the world in Madrid, home to 13-time European champions Real Madrid and current Europa League holders Atletico Madrid, I have to say I was very restrained during my holiday regarding football and the World Cup. 

We even arrived during the first England match, so I missed Harry Kane's late heroics as I scoffed churros and chocolate in the setting sun. 

Partly, this was because I actually wanted a break from all the transfer furore and only wanted to afford myself a brief check of the headlines and scores a couple of times each day, but more pertinently, it was due to my girlfriend.

Although she is absolutely lovely, she has just one flaw - she doesn't like football at all. Or rather, just doesn't get it. When I was giddily getting excited about seeing Estadio Santiago Bernabeu and rattling off numerous facts about Madrid's two sides, as well as giving a brief overview of El Classico, she was somewhere between rolling her eyes and dozing off.

So, imagine my surprise when she agreed to watch a World Cup game with me! Conveniently, our holiday was dissected by Spain vs. Iran and the idea of watching drunk Spaniards chanting and cheering, whilst downing sangria and scoffing tapas presumably seemed exciting.

More likely, the latter reasons persuaded her. But as we sat down in a lovely bar in Madrid, crammed between hoardes of fans chanting Espana and chittering about their line-up decisions, I saw her even crack a small smile. One order of tapas later and a large glass of sangria suitably quaffed and the game had kicked off. 

In truth, Spain dominated the match from the first minute, but never really created clear chances. There was a nervous tension bubbling under the cheers and chanting- Isco was very popular, probably because of his connection to La Real, but his one-touch play and movement was superb.

But even still, the fans' cheering and hollering began to simmer down as the minutes ticked away, save brief cries of outrage against the referee and Iranian players for perceived negative tactics and some combatative fouling.

It was quite ironic to hear one of them say that Diego Costa was receiving particularly bad treatment, considering the fact he almost constantly dished this out to Premier League defenders during his Chelsea days. 

Half time arrived and the bar once again moved into action with the speed and precision of a well-drilled machine. Tapas was distributed to the waiting tables, rounds of beer and wine were divied out to those who ordered it and one or two punters who either had seen enough, or fancied getting some fresh air headed off.

What surprised me, however, was how few people moved. The conversation, which had been a near constant hum during the first half turned up to maximum with fans chanting and singing national songs and chants. Although it wasn't a designated World Cup fanzone- indeed that was in the Central Plaza- it certainly made enough noise for it.

I think this was because the fans were nervous after only drawing their opening game against Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal. Another draw would have been disastrous and although Spain had dominated the passing and possession, the Iranian keeper had barely needed to make a save.

My girlfriend asked a few quizical questions, mainly about the identity of Spanish players and wondered why everyone was so excited even though they hadn't seen a goal yet. The second half couldn't come soon enough for the gathered crowd. 

But it started in much the same fashion. Iran had solid lines and retreated into a sturdy compact shape, daring Spain to try and break them down. There was a distinct lack of pace in the Spanish set-up; as wonderful as Iniesta, Silva and Isco are, they don't have the dynamic thrust and drive that Spain used to have in abudance from David Villa, Fernando Torres and even Pedro Rodriguez. The natives were getting restless and some angry boos began to emerge from some of the less sober fans. 

It did all change in fortuitous circumstances. The ball was played forward by Silva into Diego Costa and at once, you almost heard about five hundred sharp intakes of breath, followed by frustration as Costa's touch took the ball slightly away. The defender stepped in confidently to clear, and the frustration looked set to continue. At least, that was what I expected. Instead, the ball was cannoned against Costa's leg and spun away almost apologetically into the corner of the net, leaving the keeper motionless.

A loud cheer of GOL! washed around the room as drinks spilled, fans jumping and screaming, some embracing one another. My girlfriend commented the goal was strange and she was right. But, you have to be in those kind of positions to score and Costa did exactly that - the hallmark of a world class centre forward. 

But if that goal was meant to galvanise Spain and roar them to a comfortable win by three or four goals, it didn't succeed in doing so. Feeling a burning sense of injustice, Iran started to commit more players forward, playing longer passes to the talismanic Sardar Azmoun who did remarkably well to win second balls.

Iniesta, wonderful though he is had started to tire and although his passing was still there, his legs had gone. Despite his connections to public enemy No. 1, FC Barcelona, Madridstas still rose to applaud and some shouted Iniesta's name when he was brought off. Despite the fierce rivalry at club level, he is clearly a national hero and I was surprised at how strong the reception was. It was like being at a real game. 

However, the best bit of drama was yet to arrive. Iran won a free kick midway through the Spanish half and packed the box. A floated delivery found a defender at the back stick and he dispatched it past David De Gea. Pure silence. That is all you heard in Madrid in that moment, save a couple of angry profanities by the increasingly inebriated swathe of fans in the bar.

But hope was at hand. A VAR review is used for every single goal and Spain was saved by an offside. The entire bar erupted like they had at the goal, but this time it was more out of relief than jubilation. I resisted the urge to celebrate the Iranian goal, probably because it would have got myself and my girlfriend thrown out on the street as a minimum response. 

By this point, she was flagging. The Spanish fans had become predictably tense, getting frustrated at the lack of substitutes and then convincing one another that the wrong player was being substituted on when they did make a change.

Iran continued to launch an aerial bombardment and Spain's backline didn't always look sure, with De Gea making one excellent save. A lot of fans nodded in approval at this, but some wanted him dropped after his blunder against Portugal and simply looked impassive.

Iran won a late throw-in and looked to be preparing to launch it into the box, but Milad Mohammadi's ridiculous attempt at showboating wasted vital seconds and the chance was gone. Another large cheer, once again full of relief, but Spain's World Cup campaign was back on track, having been briefly jeopardised by the goalless first half. 

I loved the entire experience. The Spanish fans are so passionate and noisy, it feels like a real match. Every string of passes is greeted with purrs of approval, every heavy tackle is responded to with disgust and outrage.

For a nation still smarting from their embarrassing 2014 World Cup campaign,  it is clear Russia 2018 meant a lot to them. 

As for my girlfriend, I think she enjoyed her exercise in people-watching, even if she didn't enjoy the match. Overall, I think we both agreed it was a great experience - helped of course by healthy portions of sangria and tapas thoughout. 

Media Credit - Wikipedia Commons. FIFA. 

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