¡Reyes de Europa!

If there’s any word to describe the UEFA Champions League Final between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, it would be: INTENSE. It wasn’t the most beautiful of games, but it had that mounting tension that every final should have from the moment the first whistle blew.

An error from Iker Casillas allowed Godin to score in the 36th minute, and in the dying minutes of regulation time, that’s when you start to think, “Surely, we did not build up for La Decima with just this?” Atleti were too good in closing down spaces, with the midfield unable to supply the balls, and BBC largely shut down.

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But faith will bring us La Decima. In the form of a Sergio Ramos header in the 93rd minute.

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What a season it has been for Sergio Ramos. Undoubtedly his best yet. Undoubtedly his most important header.

Mucho animo, as they would say. It was as if he pumped life back into this Real Madrid team, who knew momentum swung their way in extra time.

Then the goals came. From Bale, from Marcelo, and icing on top of the cake, a cleanly scored penalty by Cristiano Ronaldo.

At last, La Decima is ours. What an incredible feeling. I’ll be telling my grandkids one day that I was able to witness for myself a portion of Real Madrid’s journey to their 10th European Cup.

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We’re going to Lisbon!

The German Theory still holds. On their way to capturing the Champions League trophy, Real Madrid had to beat at least one Germany team. Going back into the not-so-distant future, the men in white under Jose Mourinho were eliminated by Bayern Munich (ah, the ghosts of botched penalties) and Borussia Dortmund.

It’s funny how scripts in football just always manage to pit you against your biggest demons. It could be Murphy’s Law in place or it could just be a way to acquit yourself. For Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo, it had to be the latter. Both men scored two goals apiece against Bayern Munich—acquitting themselves nicely of the botched penalties from two years back—and more importantly, booking a ticket for Real Madrid to the Champions League final in Lisbon.

Guess what? Real Madrid had to beat Schalke, Dortmund, and Bayern on the road to the final.

It may be 1/2 the destiny waiting to unfold. After all, the formidable opponent is a hungry, attacking Atletico Madrid side. Ah, as my friend Chica remarked, todos los campeones estan hecho en Madrid. There’s a part of me that would have wanted Chelsea to be in the final, if only for the drama and mind games that will ensue, but parked buses never make for great finals. Besides, all there is to it will just be the football within 90 minutes of play in the Portuguese capital.

In any case, it was a Sergio Ramos Celebration Day yesterday. Two headers merit two crazy football fans in this corner of the world to proudly don their Sergio Ramos shirts.

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Oh, and this was also a glorious post-match photo, in all its off-centered glory.

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The only downside? Xabi will miss the final. He has been on yellow card alert prior to the 2nd leg of the semifinal, and unfortunately, he got booked in the game. Darn it, nine years after Istanbul, and he misses out on Lisbon.

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¡Somos campeones de la Copa del Rey!

No Cristiano Ronaldo, no Marcelo, no Alvaro Arbeloa, no Jese Rodriguez, no Sami Khedira.

Surely, it was time for heroes to step up—and Gareth Bale did.

His 84th minute goal, outpacing Barcelona defender Marc Bartra (who scored the equalizer to Angel di Maria’s opener), was the clearest display of the Welshman’s value to this Madrid team.

Not only that, but Real Madrid truly outplayed and outclassed Barcelona tonight. This was truly a well-deserved win.

If only I could be in Cibeles right now.

(Now to wait and see if Sergio drops the cup from the top of the bus.)

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Spain Diary: A Filipina football fan’s journey

This post chronicles all the football-related adventures I  had in Spain. Originally posted here. Grateful to have made all these into reality, and looking forward for more of these in the coming years.

The end of another calendar year calls for a lookback on some of the finest moments in sport for the past twelve months. This isn’t one of those enumerated recap stories, but a series of stories for a football fan who found herself in Spain—one of the best places on earth to be at for some football action.

Barcelona: An Unlikely Experience
The city of Barcelona bursts with color with the architectural marvels of Gaudí, and in many apartment buildings, the Senyera hangs proudly over balconies—a reminder of the Catalan’s deep sense of pride and nationalism.

One other signifier of such pride and nationalism is the blue and deep red shirt of FC Barcelona, which could be found in kiosks and shops throughout the city, along with every FC Barcelona trinket imaginable—from postcards with players’ faces to FCB alarm clocks.

I found myself in the quiet neighborhood of Les Corts in the northwestern part of Barcelona one Monday morning, thinking that tens and thousands of Culés would be making the same 20-minute walk from the Metro station to Camp Nou, their songs and expectations for a win filling the streets.

As someone with a corazon blanco, the FC Barcelona Experience at Camp Nou is the unlikeliest of starts in experiencing Spanish football for myself. Leo Messi and company greet me with their Qatar Airways advertisement at the main entrance.

After getting my audio guide and going past a Joan Miró poster of FC Barcelona’s 75th anniversary, I make my way through the mixed zone and press room, the away team locker room, and onto the pitch, dwarfed by “Mes Que Un Club” formed by the opposite stand. If I were a player of the visiting team, I would understand why Camp Nou is intimidating—it was as if you were the tiniest bean in the middle of a gigantic bowl.

Perhaps the best view of any match at Camp Nou would be at the press box, situated at the topmost tier, just above the VIP seats. The press box is a deck that protrudes from a portion of the topmost tier, equipped with monitors, but with no glass panes looking onto the pitch, enabling any sports reporter to fully absorb the atmosphere during a match.

What I found most fascinating, however, was the FC Barcelona museum, which was well curated with memorabilia since the founding of the club and multiple interactive stations for visitors to relive some of the club’s defining victories. Fans can also listen to the club’s anthem and read along the lyrics in different languages—including Tagalog!

The museum also pays homage to its current squad, with a section dedicated to the Qatar Airways sponsorship and a corner for Leo Messi’s Golden Balls and Golden Boots.

As someone with a strong dislike for FC Barcelona, I did not expect that this visit to Camp Nou would be a good experience, but I was pleasantly surprised. The club understands and underscores its universal appeal, turning it into an effective marketing campaign—not just in the sponsorship department, but in creating a cohesive narrative for a stadium and museum tour for all football fans to appreciate.

Camp Nou facade Mes que un club The Leo Messi Corner

Sevilla: Passion for the Game
It was el derbi Sevillano on my last night in Sevilla, with Sevilla FC looking to further dominate Real Betis.

As early as three hours before the match, bars leading toward Nervión were already crowded with fans. I usually have dinners at Nervión Plaza, a commercial center right next to the Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, and on my last night, it was a sea of red. Outside, some fans decided to light flares, and the local police cavalry have closed off main intersections leading to the stadium.

I thought to myself, “Thank god, I’m wearing red,” in an attempt to blend in and snap some photos of the festivities. Sevilla beat Betis 4-0, and even then, Sevilla fans would have wanted a five-goal treat from their team.

What Sevilla impressed upon me was that the city has an earthy passion, garnished by its flair for the dramatic, as evidenced by its love affairs for flamenco, bullfighting, and yes, football.

Sevilla fans were loud and rowdy, but they sure did know how to have fun and show how fans during a derby live it up. For someone from the other side of the world with a fledgling local league, it is quite a tall order to wish for the same kind of passion for the game and the local football club to become part of the culture over the short- to medium-term.

Until then, there are experiences like the Sevilla derby to remind me of such fantastic fan atmospheres.

Sevilla fans light flares at Plaza Nervion

Madrid: A Pilgrimage and a Night of Magic
When one is in Europe, one must not miss a European night.

It was one of the coldest Wednesday nights in November in Madrid when Real Madrid hosted Galatasaray for their UEFA Champions League group stage match. Stepping out of the Santiago Bernabeu Metro station, it took a while to figure out which gate to claim our tickets and run up the steps onto the third tier of the East Stand.

I was out of breath when I got to my seat, but the immediate reward was that of a large sign on the pitch with the word, “Hindi kayo nag-iisa, Pilipinas.” Indeed, the calls throughout Spain to help the people affected by Typhoon Yolanda have reminded me of just how much the world is with the Philippines at a time of great need—the world of football included.

When the Champions League anthem blared and the players filed behind the large sign, I thought, “This is it. This is my dream come true.” Indeed, there is nothing quite like a European night in one of the cathedrals of football.

The atmosphere at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu was simply phenomenal. As the tiers on all sides of the stadium are vertically stacked, the Bernabeu presents a rather forbidding atmosphere to visiting teams.

The Madrid faithful had their flags and banners, their drumbeats and chants. On this particular night, cardboard cutouts of Cristiano Ronaldo’s face were distributed, to be put up during the 7th and 77th minutes. There was also a large banner that called for the Ballon d’Or to be given to Madrid’s #7.

The only downer? Cristiano Ronaldo was injured and not included in the line-up.

That did not spoil the night for me as much as Sergio Ramos getting red carded in the 27th minute (“I did not travel halfway across the world to see get sent off so early, Sergio!”). I cheered for the goals of Gareth Bale, Angel di Maria, Alvaro Arbeloa, and Isco. My heart swelled when Xabi Alonso was finally substituted in the 60th minute. Finally, I was able to see the maestro in person, stamping the tempo of the game, proving to be most influential in the midfield.

90 minutes flew by so fast, and when Real Madrid’s players stepped off the pitch after a 4-1 victory and the crowds started filing out, I stayed glued to my seat, just taking everything in. A sense of calmness replaced the raucous cheers.

It will be a while before I could experience another night like this.

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Three days later, I found myself once again at the Santiago Bernabeu for the stadium tour. It started with a trek to the topmost tier for a panoramic view of the stadium, before going to the museum.

No club does it prouder than Real Madrid, with the nine European Cups taking centerstage in a long hallway that displays memorabilia through the years, including membership cards from the 1900s, replica shirts, players’ boots, and the Copa del Rey that Sergio Ramos broke.

On the opposite wall, a series of flat screens show some of the club’s most memorable goals, set against an operatic musical background.

The tour also includes stops at the VIP area, the technical area, and the media room. The highlight of the tour, however, would definitely have to be the home team’s locker room—which was quite a surprise to me that it was accessible to the public. Yes, it did smell like sweat and feet.

This is perhaps the closest you could get to your current football heroes or obsessions, not counting the unlikely chance you’ll cross paths with them anywhere in Madrid or staking out in Valdebebas.

I left the Bernabeu for the last time in this trip with a better sense of Real Madrid’s élan. It’s not so much a victory-at-all-costs mentality, but a victory-with-flair attitude, just as how the Spanish capital would do it.

Just as every Spanish city has something unique in store for the weary traveler, so too do they offer varying experiences for the football crazy traveller. These are the football highlights of my 2013—and possibly, of some other year in the near future.

9 European Cups View from Fondo Norte Where CR7 undresses

Catching up!

I hadn’t had the chance to update this space in the last month, for one reason or another. Sadly enough, it does take a torrential downpour to make one pause and take a different writing route. Or a brain break.

So much has happened in the past few weeks, and I always think work should be a matter of thriving, not just surviving. That said, I am sharing the output from my latest trip in Sulu: Pathways to Peace. Quite excited for a couple of projects being cooked under the TEN Moves banner—and we should be able to see it come October or November. Glad to be in a space that allows me to do both profit and non-profit work—is there a graduate degree for this?

Ah, graduate degrees, you are a different plan altogether.

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The new football season has started, and I’m glad my teams secured opening day wins. Liverpool won 1-0 over Stoke, thanks to a Daniel Sturridge goal (I take back everything I said about this guy when he was in Chelsea—he is all red now), but the real opening day hero was Simon Mignolet, who saved a penalty and a rebound to keep Stoke scoreless. I must admit it feels different not to have Pepe Reina on goal anymore, but hey, we need to move forward and upward from a dismal season.

Who do I love watching in red though? Philippe Coutinho. Absolute class during the pre-season, and he just moves silkily. Plus points for not being afraid to take on someone NOT his own size.

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On another Premier League note, it sucks big time that FOX Sports/Star Sports lost the bid to air the matches here in the Philippines (hello guys, how about trying harder on your bid?!). The network that won the rights to air in the Philippines is beIN Sport, which—ta-da!—is not even carried by any local cable provider. Yeah, that’s so smart.

On the La Liga front, Real Madrid opened their campaign with a 2-1 win over Real Betis, with goals from Karim Benzema and my new favorite, Isco. Kid is just a smart player. Here he is, man-loving with Alvaro Morata:

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Coutinho, Isco—I am sensing a pattern here.

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Rains still not letting up, which means:

1) We are still inadequately prepared for these calamities.

2) We need to demand from government proper allocation of their funding for public welfare and development.

3) We need to hold accountable all lowest forms of crocodiles and pigs masking as legislators for funds channeled to personal gain.

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Clear Dream Match 2 on Saturday—so, are we letting Fabio Cannavaro play on a lake?!

 

Just give Sergio Ramos a hug.

Real Madrid’s remontada campaign fell short of one goal as the men in white lost 4-3 on aggregate in their semifinal match against Borussia Dortmund (hey, I like this team—I’d prefer them to win the Champions League versus whichever FCB team they’ll face in the final!). The vuelta of the semifinals saw a hungry Madrid team, attacking relentlessly in the first and last 15 minutes of the match… which may have well been the reason why they fell short.

Moreover, props to Jurgen Klopp’s men for effectively stifling Xabi Alonso—now you know who is key to Real Madrid’s victories apart from Cristiano Ronaldo. Apart from these two, Mesut Ozil was also largely ineffective. That said, you’ve got the likes of Luka Modric, Michael Essien, and Sergio Ramos stepping up.

Poor Sergio was inconsolable after. All I can say is, one year after being the butt of jokes for that missed penalty that saw Madrid bow out to Bayern Munich, he has been the hero of sorts, scoring a late second goal for Madrid. Throw at him all the yellow and red cards, but I’m damn proud that he’s stepped up in the captain’s role.

It’s been quite an emotional rollercoaster ride, and La Decima will have to wait for another year. In the meantime, here’s to the Copa del Rey final.

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Decimating Barcelona, once more.

Karim Benzema opened the scoring well into the first few minutes of the game, which was eventually cancelled out by Leo Messi’s fine individual skill in the 18th minute. Despite having the shakiest of games (someone caught in a siesta stupor?), Sergio Ramos managed to net a header off Luka Modric’s cross at the 82nd minute, sealing Real Madrid’s back-to-back wins over Barcelona in a span of five days.

Say what you want about possession, but it was Real Madrid that played with more purpose. Cristiano was a super substitute, having a couple of very close chances to get his name on the board. Jose Callejon was scrappy, and Alvaro Morata, in his first start in a Clásico, was simply superb—well worth the 90 minutes that the boy was on the pitch. (Cantera power!)

You can say that it was probably the game that mattered less for Real Madrid, but hey, any effort to close the gap in the Liga, as well as get on a psychological high prior to a Champions League match, is well worth the fight.

And I totally feel like Pepe here.

Decimating Barcelona.

Amidst the crazy week that was, I found time to catch the Copa del Rey semifinal between Barcelona and Real Madrid. The ida of this match up saw both teams draw 1-1 at the Bernabeu, and the vuelta had both teams playing not just for a spot at the final, but for pride and then some.

I suppose waking up at 4 a .m. was well worth it, when the final score at Camp Nou read 1-3, in favor of Madrid. The goals came from a Cristiano Ronaldo brace (one from the penalty spot and one cleanly slotting it in after Pinto blocked Angel DiMaria’s shot, only to bounce straight to our #7) and a powerful header from Raphael Varane—this kid is definitely Madrid’s future: a rock in defense, containing Leo Messi, and powerful in front of the goal. Jordi Alba netted for Barcelona at the 89th minute, which was hardly any consolation.

One other thing to note about this match: Madrid’s defense showed up. If he had played like this all the time, then there should not have been a gaping difference in points between these rivals.

As for Real Madrid, this win should boost the team’s confidence coming into the Liga match with Barcelona tonight at the Bernabeu, and more importantly, to get some much needed goals when they face Manchester United at Old Trafford next week.

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As an added treat, here’s the video on the re-opening of the Adidas store at the Bernabeu. Xabi the Actor. Hehe.

And here’s a Nivea Men ad, starring Sergio Ramos in a leading role, and Marcelo, Gonzalo Higuain, and Alvaro Arbeloa in supporting roles.

 

Quite an awesome football week!

This week is one for the books when it comes to football, simply because there’s just too many of the awesome to report on.

One. Steven Gerrard reached 100 caps for England. Here he is with 100 school kids, posing for photos. Too adorable.

Two. Zlatan Ibrahimovic didn’t just score a world-class goal. It was out of this world. Proof:

Three. Spain thrashed Panama, and we have Sergio Ramos contributing to the goalscoring thanks to this awesome free kick. Just a few more attempts, and mi hombre is on his way of becoming a free kick specialist!

Four. The Azkals won over the Lions! Quite an inspired second half from the boys—and boy, oh boy, Ed Sacapaño was just one huge wall against Singapore! My thoughts on it here. (P.S. No more drama and politicking please in the NT—time to have a win-at-all-cost mentality!)

Five. Liverpool beat Wigan at Anfield 3-0, thanks to a Luis Suarez brace and a Jose Enrique goal. Gotta love the Suarez-Sterling partnership, and Jose Enrique finally at his best. Now this is the Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers that I’ve been waiting to see! (Also, Everton, Chelsea, and Manchester United lost this weekend—what joy!)

Six. Real Madrid beat Athletic Bilbao (I do like this Basque team though), 5-1, anchored by inspired performances from Karim Benzema and Mesut Özil.

Quick round-up, September-October 2012 version.

I apologize for the lack of updates lately. Work has been hella crazy and my writing requirements have been endless. I have been watching and writing about football whenever I can for the last two months. Still, some quick updates are in order.

On the rivalries: Liverpool lost to Manchester United 2-1 at home. Boo. Real Madrid drew 2-2 with Barcelona at Camp Nou. I’ll take that.

Por fin, a win: Liverpool finally bagged their first home win of the season, winning 1-0 versus Reading. A Raheem Sterling goal at that. The future is bright.

On the home front: The Azkals have finally ended a 99-year wait (as if we all waited that long!) for silverware, winning the Peace Cup. My thoughts on that here.

I also had the privilege of sitting down with Demitrius Omphroy and got to know his life story (to date). I don’t say this about a lot of people, but here’s someone I genuinely like and respect. Here‘s my take on him.

That’s it for now, flying off to Bangkok once again tomorrow.