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Two countries that are a must-visit for any football lover

Spain and Portugal are the mecca for those who consider football religion

brunch Updated: Dec 11, 2017 17:24 IST
Saubhadra Chatterji
Saubhadra Chatterji
Hindustan Times
Christiano Ronaldo,Pestana CR7,Spain and Portugal
Boys play beach football in Spain(Shutterstock)

The last time I sought an autograph was when I went uninvited to a Rahat Fateh Ali Khan concert at an Aurangzeb Road bungalow. Merrily soaked in free-flowing Glenfiddich, I went to the backstage. In my toota-foota Urdu, I requested for a signature and handed over a pen and paper.

In the middle of a galaxy of VIP admirers, Khan sahib scrawled for a few seconds. Then complained, “Yeh pen toh kaam nahi karta ji!”

I stopped scouting for autographs. I quit Glenfiddich, too.Now, as I stand in front of a reception desk in a downtown Lisbon hotel, there’s an urge to break that vow.

A new goal

The iconic tapas bar in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor that celebrates bullfights (Saubhadra Chatterji)

For, I see a limited-edition football signed by none other than Christiano Ronaldo at the desk and it could be mine. I have to tell the hotel manager that he is my hero and that I’ve a booking at Pestana CR7 because he is the co-owner of the property.

Although the hotel staff didn’t check us in for the next six hours, I am thrilled about my prized possession.

“There can’t be a better beginning than this,” I tell my wife as we keep the football in a locker and walk down the beautiful cobblestone streets of Lisbon’s Baixa area. Behind us, the sun has just greeted Portugal’s original hero – Vasco da Gama. He is sitting happily atop a triumphal arch and watching ships pass by the Tagus river.

The Portuguese love Lisbon’s drink Ginjinha so much that if they taste any food, they’ll say it tastes like Ginjinha!

There’s a nip in the air and I’m loving it. A crowd has already gathered at the famous Santa Justa elevator. It takes you to higher ridges of Lisbon and at night, offers a breathtaking view of the city.

We are headed to Café Beira Gare. The traditional joint offers a sumptuous Portuguese breakfast. Nearby, a hole-in-the-wall bar sells Ginjinha – Lisbon’s favourite drink. The Portuguese love this sour drink – made from berries, sugar, cinnamon and brandy – so much that if they love the taste of any food they would say, it tastes like Ginhinja!

The historic funicular network connects Bairro Alto with downtown Lisbon (Saubhadra Chatterji)

My wife, meanwhile, delves into the Rick Steves’ guidebook like a student whose exam starts in a few minutes. I notice the only beggar in this small yet picturesque square. A closer look reveals his dress, with pieces of torn cloth randomly stitched, is actually a Benfica football club jersey. An even closer look reveals the beggar is also wearing a cutout of Christiano Ronaldo near his chest!

It takes me an entire afternoon’s survey in the fabled Alfama district to realise that for Portugal’s aam admi, CR7 is certainly a legend but not exactly the local hero.

Alfama is like Chandni Chowk on an undulating terrain. The cramped lanes are like living rooms of the community life. Old women wait in front of their houses to sell home-brewed Ginjinha. There are goal posts marked on the walls wherever there’s a patch of flat land.

I feel like a religious minority in Madrid because amid red-white striped jerseys, I’m wearing a Barca T-shirt

And throughout this working-class neighbourhood, the red Benfica flags hang from tiny balconies, broken windows or damp walls.

“Ronaldo is awesome but we feel more connected to our club. It is the working class’ club,” said Alexio, the owner-cum-cook of a small café, serving us Bacalhau (cod) and Sagres beer.

To meet millions of Alexios, just cross the border: It’s Spain. I had always been excited about visiting Espana because, just like me, the Spaniards take their siesta very seriously. In Seville, I am so happy to find almost every shop shutting down for three hours in the afternoon. The streets suddenly become less crowded.

Full volley

The tomb of Vasco da Gama travelled from Kochi to Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon (Saubhadra Chatterji)

But in this afternoon in Madrid, I feel for the first time like a religious minority.

Religious because in Spain, football is not a game, but religion. Men and women of all ages have flocked together to see the match. And minority because in this sea of red-white striped jerseys, I’m one of the few chaps wearing a Barca T-shirt.

My wife, my friend Arko and me are in a metro, headed for the country’s newest football stadium – Wanda Metropolitano – to watch a Barcelona-Atletico Madrid match.

Arko proclaims his unconditional love for Messi, then buys an Athletico Madrid T-shirt in the city’s biggest departmental store, El Corte Inglés at Puerta del Sol. The shop has dedicated one of its four buildings to sports goods – with an entire floor only selling football merchandise.

Ruchira announces she will not trade her designer dress with any club jersey. I feel more alienated. These are tense times in Spain. A section of the politicians in Catalonia wants independence and the rest of Spain has dismissed the demand. Protests are everywhere. But I’m sure politics won’t cast a shadow over football.

I am proved wrong

Girls play football at a plaza in Tavira, Portugal (Saubhadra Chatterji)

The Barcelona team hits the field and a packed stadium bursts in slogans. No club flags but thousands of bright red and yellow flags of Spain shimmer under floodlights. The stadium turns into a Ramlila Ground of protests.

Special treatment is reserved for Gerard Piqué, the lanky defender. Apparently, he had supported the cause of a separate state and Madrilenos are unhappy. It looks like the fate of the country depends on the game!

The match begins. Within a few minutes Lionel Messi gets the ball. He dribbles past three defenders in a row and in no time he’s in Atlético Madrid’s penalty box.

There’s a pin-drop silence in the VIP stands. Messi misses the goal by a whisker. There’s a collective sigh of relief. Strangers look at each other and smile.

Portugal’s oldest Ginjinha shop in Lisbon (Saubhadra Chatterji)

“I can bet that they smiled more in appreciation of Messi’s skills than saving a goal,” I tell Neal Burney, a sports buff from the Basque region.

“Quite possible. He is too good. The only reason we hate Messi is because he doesn’t play for our clubs,” he smacks of regional pride.

A month later, Neal is in Delhi and we again chat about football: “Wanda is a great stadium,” I say.

“But the best one is in my city. Bilbao,” Neal retorts. And his eyes shine.Siesta unites Spain. Football divides it.

The Brunch insider’s view
  • In Lisbon, sample authentic Portuguese meals at Ti Natércia like shredded codfish with béchamel or shredded codfish with eggs and potatoes. (Source: Lonely Planet)
  • Shop for trinkets, antiques, vinyl records and other things at El Rastro flea market, the Sunday flea market in Madrid. (Source: TripAdvisor)
  • For a bohemian Raval ambience, visit Bar Marsella, the oldest bar in Barcelona.(Source: Condé Nast Traveller)

From HT Brunch, December 10, 2017

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