The day had started innocuously enough. I woke up and smiled at my woman and child, who guard over my sleep every night from a neat frame on my bedside table, right next to Dani Pandes, a seven-inch tall black-and-white teddy bear with the Barça crest stitched to his belly that I had picked up at the stadium less than a week before. Ho ho ho, my new room in a relatively humble working class neighborhood of l’Hospitalet, not Barcelona, is nothing if not homely. I greeted both my family and Dani with a cheery good morning but all three just stared at me in return, which I considered somewhat off-putting. No matter, I would refuse to let myself drift into negativity.
I went to the market and came back with two baguettes and 150 grams of blue cheese, which, together with the brie, eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms and parsley made for an arsenal with which any self-respecting breakfast aficionado would feel ready to face the morning, although I have to say that if the clock had already crept past one in the afternoon by the time I sat down to eat, it was early. I digress. The point is that somewhere between waking up and my first meal of the day I just knew. Come nightfall we would be Victorious. We would force the ball down the throats of these nazi swine to score goals that would make grown men weep with unbridled joy like the spirit of a teenage girl trapped in the hairy body of a middle-aged bartender.
Don’t ask me how I knew, that is irrelevant. Somebody told me that what really mattered was not why I felt that we would win, but whether or not my prophecies tended to fulfill themselves, which was a fair question, the answer to which I have forgotten. We live in interesting times, in the oriental sense of the word, and good answers to good questions are not always coherent. What is important is that we remain True, and I honestly believed that we would cruelly bludgeon to death these hounds from hell like a heartless bastard with a duffle bag full of unwanted puppies. My feeling was boldened when I found out that our opponents would miss not only Diego Costa, but Arda Turan as well. Those are arguably Atletico Madrid’s two best players, Bubba, so how do you like them mattresses?
The rest of the afternoon was spent performing assorted tasks and chores, all of which were too mundane to bother you with in this space. I had acquiesced to my new roommate’s request to watch the game in a bar together, something which I had serious misgivings over. Not the bar, of course, which, provided that they are cheap, which my roommate, let’s call him Giorgi, had most definitely promised me it would be, are fine establishments at which to scream and cuss and cheer at your favorite football team. No, my misgivings were centered entirely on Giorgi himself. For one, he is Bulgarian, which I must admit is not a crime per se, but I just so happen to question the moral fiber of any Bulgarian that lives in Barcelona and does not like Hristo Stoichkov. Worse, however, is that he had previously told me he was not much into football. Generally I am not one to question a person’s likes or dislikes, but whenever I stumble upon a man who tells me of his disinterest of the beautiful game, the thoughts that ensue to consume my mind are “Who is this man?” and “Why does he exist?” I now realize that I should have gone with my instincts and declined his invitation, but since at that moment in time he assured me that he would introduce me to his Spanish and Catalan friends, and I am, after all, new in this city of art and deception, I decided to accept. I may be a Foreigner but I am not Rude, and anyone who might tell you otherwise is a lying sack of manure and deserves to be castrated with barbed wire.
I continued to ignore the signs. We live at a ten-minute walk from the Camp Nou, but the bar was the other way and, not wanting to spend money on the subway, we set out on foot in the direction of Plaça de Espanya. Fair enough, I don’t mind walking and the weather was agreeable. During the next twenty minutes my mind was mostly on football-related matters, with half an ear focused on my Bulgarian companion’s constant blabbering about his professed love for his apparently soon to be legalized drug of choice. That didn’t bother me in the slightest, though what I did find mildly alarming was the confession that he could not hold his liquor. Nevertheless, I was in a good mood, as usual when eagerly anticipating a big match. There is something special about Champions League nights, or at least once the tournament has entered into the knock-out stages, and seeing so many culers sporting blaugrana gear while walking the street made me all the merrier.
We arrived at the bar in a timely fashion, with five minutes to spare before the match would start. Enough for quick introductions, during which my name created quite a lot of confusion and I was repeatedly asked whether there existed a Spanish equivalent. The answer, of course, is No. I don’t do equivalents. I only have one name and if you don’t like it, don’t call me. I am not your Chinese waitress who can barely speak your language but still goes by Helena. To a casual observer that might appear like a certain unwillingness to integrate, but I assure you that is far from the case. If you lose yourself, you are a Nobody, and a Nobody can never be good to anybody. To the delight of the group, I spent the remaining minutes before the game conversing in Catalan. They were astonished that I spoke their language better after three weeks in Barcelona than others who have been here a lifetime. Personally I am of the opinion that that says more about those others than about myself.
After ordering a round of San Miguels (that’s Spanish for Budweiser) I was soon forced to turn my back on my new found friends. Our players were getting ready to kick off a football match, one I knew that we would win. I faced the TV and I took a sip of my beer. It was already poured into a glass, and this is important because Helena had given me a bottle and I don’t remember pouring it. It tasted odd, but then I find European beer tastes odd regardless. I swear by the South American beers I have gladly gotten used to over the years. They are Refreshing, an important quality when you live in temperatures of well into the hundreds and a humidity that makes your toes feel like a pack of baby rats in a hot tub.
Back to the game, which started well, with Leo Messi cutting from the right flank towards the middle before unleashing a dangerous shot that sailed over the goal. Anyone who can do something better than anyone else is a natural friend of mine, and even more so if we share a first name (now there’s an equivalent for you, Bubba). Yes Siree, we were in for a lot of Fun that night, except for the lone Atletico supporter in the bar who was about to suffer the longest ninety minutes of his life. He was about to experience Tears and Humiliation after playing a Barça team that was supremely talented and fully motivated. If only he knew what I knew. I confidently took another sip of my beer.
I believe it was at that moment I saw bright yellow spots flashing from the corner of my eyes. I held on to the table. Had I been standing I would have crashed on the floor. Not that it made any difference. I felt like I had hit my head without remembering and all that happened after was dark and twisted. I vaguely recall a missile that sent both our crossbar and my heart trembling. Who doesn’t matter, but I it could have been Adrian. In a reality previously unknown, David Villa worked his butt off for every ball, winning being the purpose of each cell in his body. His cross was headed back across the goal mouth, and Koke, a hybrid monster with the body of a panther and the head of a poisonous toad volleyed the ball into our net.
Somebody must have spiked my drink. I glanced around for a suspect, only to see Doubt and Frustration filling the room, with the exception of two: Julio, the colchonero, a grown man with the look on his face of a fifteen year old boy in the midst of losing his virginity, and Giorgi, my roommate, completely uninterested in the game and playing Candy Crush on his cell phone. I kicked him below the kneecap and urged him to pay attention.
My head was spinning. What was to come was a trip I was only half-prepared for. Blurry visions of red, white and blue swirled over the pitch like an American dream turned nightmare in the Calderon. From its stands millions of voices were baying for blaugrana blood, and they entered the bar through the television speakers. Whenever we had the ball we were surrounded by two to four crocodiles snapping at our ankles and tearing at our limbs. They were everywhere and the pressure was terrible. I had to order another beer just to calm my nerves. Pinto played long balls forward, where midgets stood no chance against Spartan titans. The only space on the pitch was behind our defense, and it was repeatedly exploited by greedheads that knew of no bounds. Ye Gods, they’re trying to break our crossbar! Our coach paced the sidelines with the expression of a helpless father whose children had been inducted by Charles Manson.
Maybe we would turn things around in the second half. And maybe I had been drugged. I asked Helena for another San Miguel just to make sure, and told her to keep them coming. People who lack my expertise might believe this strategy to be counterproductive, but I knew better. If I had ingested a mind-altering substance I was going to flush it out, no matter how much alcohol it would take. Maybe we were all under the influence of the same psychedelic downer. It was a weird scene, and Julio didn’t help. He kept singing “Olé, olé, el Cholo, Simeone” and for some reason no one shut him up. I banged my fists on the table and stared at him hard when the second half started.
It did not get any better. Few people understand the implications of getting caught in the System and those that do are too traumatized to put it in words. Most culers are romantic at heart, and there is no tribe I’d rather join, but the System has no mercy for souls like you and I. Once it has you in its clutches, there is no escape.
In the end I felt relief when it was over. All of us did. Barcelona had fought for all that was Fair and Beautiful in a world that is Cold and Cruel, but they did so without strength against a bunker that was filled with zombie robots bent on destruction. We were zero hundred in fifty fifty challenges. If there was a hope in hell we would score, our hearts were a couple of levels below that scorching place of permanent residence. It was depressing. It was also Reality and one that we had to come to terms with, one way or another. Some were upset and disgusted. I personally could not bear to think about the consequences of this Loss. Not yet. It was too soon, and I was certain of only one thing:
The next day I would wake up with a terrible hangover.