On my way to watch last week’s Spain-France World Cup qualifying match, I thought about my friend James and shook my head with a chuckle. Dear old James. Poor chap is afflicted with the most absurd superstitions when it comes to sporting events. You probably know the type. If his team loses, it was because he was there. Or maybe because of something he did. Or something he didn’t do. Who knows where he got the idea he could jinx sporting events? I don’t pretend to understand the man and besides, that’s up to his therapist to figure out, not me.
The day of the game, I had planned to head down to the nearest dollar store to buy a knockoff La Roja shirt, but I was going alone since none of my friends wanted to part with the 60 Euros for a ticket, so in the end I didn’t bother. Still, I thought I’d look in my closet for something red to wear to show some spirit. There were two options. One T-shirt with the Montreal Canadiens logo and another one with an image of SpongeBob Squarepants above with the words “I drink like a sponge” written in Spanish. (A friend insisted we both buy one after a recent trip to Asturias–SpongeBob is popular in Asturias, but why he chose that particular shirt, I can’t imagine.) But SpongeBob was beneath the dignity of the occasion, and I’m more of a Toronto Maple Leaf’s fan, so I just grabbed the first shirt in the drawer and headed out the door. That’s when I thought of James. He would have worn red if he were in my place. Hehe. Such a joy not to be afflicted by these feeble notions.
As I got closer to the stadium, I had to switch metro lines. Half the people who were waiting for the second train were wearing red. Two businessmen in front of me pulled out official Spanish team jerseys from their briefcases and stretched them on over their shirts and ties. When the train arrived at Pirámides, the nearest station to the stadium, it seemed like the entire train spilled out onto the platform. Almost everyone was wearing something red, and some were dressed head-to-toe in red, with Spanish flags draped around their necks like capes. There was no need to guess which exit to take, all I had to do was follow the crowd. Actually, it would have been hard to do otherwise. The masses carried me along like a twig floating on a river of red shirts.
As we poured out into the street, the sidewalks leading to the stadium were lined with stalls selling all manner of red garments. Shirts, hats, scarves, flags, banners, even socks and underwear. The atmosphere was electric. I’d never missed one of La Roja’s games on TV, but now I was about to watch them play live for the first time. That’s when I realized something. Not only was the shirt I was wearing not red, it was blue. Not just blue, but bleu, as in the color and the nickname of the French National team. Merd! How could I let this happen?!
Not that there was really anything to worry about, though. Nobody thought France had a chance of beating Spain, not even the French. We’re talking about the reigning World and European champs here. The best team in football–some say of all time. Matthew Futterman, in the Wall Street Journal, argued that not only are they the best football team ever, but they’re the best team of any kind in the history of sport.
I never miss an opportunity to send these kinds of links to James because ever since I moved to Spain five years ago, he has developed the irritating habit of cheering for any team that plays against Spain. Of course I don’t succumb to his primitive and clumsy attempts to bait me, but he’s got some very wonky notions when it comes to football. Whenever I even use the word football he tries to correct me, saying ‘soccer,’ to which I say, Why is American football called football when they don’t use a ball and they don’t use their feet? To give you an idea of what I have to deal with, he called the Euro 2012 championship match between Spain and Italy “a close game.” Yes, the one Spain won 4-0, which was the biggest winning margin in a championship game ever. “Aside from the score,” he said to me, “just watching the game it looked like it could have gone either way.” Amazing. His ignorance of the game is near perfect in its completeness. It would drive me crazy if it weren’t for the fact, as I’ve mentioned, that I don’t let it get to me. No sir. Water off a duck’s back.
The first half of the game was all Spain, as usual. Xabi Alonso captained the defensive midfield with calm and assurance, and on the attack, Xavi fed passes to Iniesta and Silva with his trademark, sublime creativity. Possession was at least 75 percent Spain’s in the first half, which was not surprising. Things were going as planned. A goal was coming any time, for sure, and then it did, thanks to Sergio Ramos. Sitting in the high tribune seats, wearing my blue polo shirt, I felt relieved.
The second half, however, was a lot more worrying. France’s Ribery was a constant danger on the left flank. Benzema also threatened. Spain’s defence, without Puyol and Pique due to prior injuries, was not at its best and when Arbeloa got injured in minute 50 it only made things worse. Spain’s goaltender got a lot more work than usual. There had already been a France goal ruled offside that actually should have been allowed. And then Cesc Fabregas missed a penalty shot. Why was Cesc taking the penalty instead of Alonso? WTF? There were all sorts of strange things going on. I could almost hear James’s fiendish chants, Allez les Bleu!, Allez les Bleu!, trying to put a trans-continental hex on the game. Bastard.
James’s childish witchcraft aside, Spain didn’t quite seem themselves. I looked up nervously at the clock. I just wanted it to be over now. Finally, the 90th minute came and the referee awarded three minutes of extra time. One minute of extra time passed, then the second minute. As the third minute ticked down to the final seconds, I breathed a sigh of relief. Spain had won the game! So much for jinxes. To think it even crossed my mind.
Just as the referee lifted his whistle to call time (this is true, you can see it here), at that very instant, one of Spain’s substitute defenders made a horrendous error, the only bad touch of the entire game. To everyone’s surprise, suddenly France had the ball with an open field ahead of them–Sacrebleu!–and the referee decided to allow one more play. Ribery danced down the left side of the field, lifted a perfect cross and Giroud scored with a header. And just like that, in the absolute very last second of the game, the victory was snatched away. The stadium fell silent, except for a small section of seats in the nosebleeds that went wild.
If James were in my shoes, he’d probably blame the blue polo shirt. Poor chap. Naturally, being made of much sterner stuff, I put it down to a simple coincidence. But next time I think I’ll wear red. Just for the hell of it, you understand.