x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Barcelona-Real Madrid, the world is watching

The recent clasicos have showed us Lionel Messi making sympathetic figures out of world-class defenders, and it has tethered distant corners of the world.

Fans all over the globe watched Barcelona take on Real Madrid in the Champions League.
Fans all over the globe watched Barcelona take on Real Madrid in the Champions League.

So the quadruple el clasico has not soared football-wise. It probably will fasten itself to memory banks only as a scheduling oddity and tabloid novelty. It has taken a great manager in Jose Mourinho and rendered him temporarily buffoonish. It has swum in ugliness, even if we always do overstate the lasting damage of football ugliness.

On the upside, though, it has showed us Lionel Messi making sympathetic figures out of world-class defenders, and it has tethered distant corners of the world, reminding that a species with usable hands and opposable thumbs coalesces around one game that forbids their use.

It is one eccentric world, and so from the top of South America to the heart of the Caribbean through the recent weeks, three football matches made the world seem shrunken.

On the Saturday of the first Spanish compulsion of springtime, April 16, Real Madrid and visiting Barcelona scrapped toward 1-1 in the league at night in Madrid, and around the curve of the Earth a former colony gawked in mid-afternoon. Roars and half-roars blared from cafes and restaurants along the big boulevards of Bogota, Colombia, enough that you might have presumed the score something like 5-4.

Pockets of the whole continent did likewise, save perhaps for the ancient turtles in the Galapagos.

Even though Colombia has its own football league, the businesses with big-screen televisions made clear the focus, decorating themselves in a far-flung country's garb. Some stapled Real and Barca shirts around their front doors. Some drew and coloured them upon advertising chalkboards. All packed in customers.

One fast-food establishment in an outdoor mall grew inundated with a blob of about 40 people as if the food might be some sort of must.

Instead, nobody ate and everybody stood glued to a trusty old television for added time.

Is it reasonable for a country such as Spain to harbour a league in which suspense barely flickers because two mastodons tower above all else?

Sure, why not, if the two giants can tug the tenor of a Saturday 8,000 kilometres away.

By the ensuing Wednesday in a shopping mall, though, people went about their errands. The Copa del Rey final from Valencia did not emanate from anywhere on any floor. It had played from the radio of a taxi, but not inside. Maybe a distant match cannot impede a distant workday.

Or maybe it can. Just outside the mall and across the street, upon a large screen facing outward from an outdoor cafe, Ronaldo and Messi and Ramos and Puyol et al streamed across the grass, while tables proved unavailable and Colombians massed three-deep on the pavement eyeballing the 105th minute. If there was not necessarily passion in that large crowd, there absolutely was curiosity.

Ronaldo scored, Real won, Mourinho looked exhilarated and the trophy shone in the Spanish night. The world had watched again, reminding that sport-wise, the Spain of the 2010s does have itself a moment.

As for whether that moment could reach all the way into a holiday beach up in the Dominican Republic ...

The clouds had come in along the Boca Chica beach on the Wednesday afternoon of the first leg of the Real-Barca Champions League semi-final, but a few still swam in the glassy water and the music still pumped from along the shore. Speedboat rentals sagged, but people still sat at tables amid the many open air restaurants.

None, apparently, watched football. True, this country might favour American baseball, to which it has exported an outsized share of stars. It might favour even the National Basketball Association, whose play-offs aired visibly each night. Yet along the bustling slice of southern coast, vendors tried to sell sunglasses and DVDs while holidaymakers at tables insisted upon conversing with each other, oblivious to football.

On the plus side, they did miss an eyesore of a first half.

But then, where the sand narrows and the water almost walks right into the restaurants, there they were, about 20 souls, tucked into the back of a rustic lounge with New Zealand flags, a television beaming Spain right into the Caribbean until around the 70th minute when the match remained goalless and the screen went black and some words appeared indicating poor reception, as if anyone required confirmation.

So they sat on through the nothingness for a few minutes until the green of the Bernabeu returned and Messi wrought two bits of magic, the second trumping even the first. You would not call these witnesses boisterous or ebullient, but you would call them earthlings.