MADRID — Inside Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, the whistling is so deafening it makes the two men shouting to each other a few meters from me look like silent film actors. The sound often starts off dull, but then it swirls and builds in the tall, five-deck stadium and slaps you like a shrieking, piercing wave—wholly discombobulating to the uninitiated.
In Spain, whistling at a sporting event is roughly equivalent to booing in America. So when the Barcelona players finish warming up and start heading to the locker room before the game, the Real Madrid fans unleash a screeching torrent of whistles. It's directed at the whole Barcelona squad—this is probably the biggest rivalry in any sport in the world—but from my seat in the lower bowl, about 20 rows from the pitch, it feels like Real fans get even louder when Lionel Messi walks by.
When both teams walk back out a few minutes later, Barcelona now in their familiar blue and red and Real in their trademark white, the crowd is singing one of the Real Madrid anthems. That means somewhere between 75,000 and 85,000 people, stacked 150 feet in the air, all bellowing optimism together—powerful enough to make several people in my section rub their arms and point out goose bumps.
Then there are two massive tarps released over the bottom three levels at one end of the stadium. As the tarps stretch out and connect, they reveal a giant temporary mural: an 80-foot Viking, wearing a purple Santa suit with a Real Madrid patch, climbing over a snow-filled depiction of the Bernabeu and towering over a variety of trophies. Over Viking Santa are the words "Blanca Navidad," a holiday twist on the Real Madrid nickname: Los Blancos.
The crowd at the latest edition of El Clasico, this past Saturday, seems so hopeful, which is especially notable since Real Madrid is having such a rough season. Last year, the team won nearly every cup possible, from La Liga to the Champions League. But Barcelona go into the game with an 11-point lead in the La Liga standings. And if Real doesn't win today, the team's chances of back-to-back Spanish league titles are gone, and it will have to work to secure a berth in the next Champions League.
If you have no idea what those things mean, know this: They're a very big deal. Especially in Spain, where it's not rare for infants to get club membership cards before they can walk, and a ridiculous 60 percent of the population admit to missing important family gatherings to watch football, according to a survey reported by the Mirror a couple of years back.
I'm here on a press junket organized by La Liga, with other journalists from the U.S., Asia and Africa, in an attempt to grow the Spanish soccer brand internationally. I jumped at the chance to see for myself all the wonder and magic of El Clasico, the single biggest regular-season game in any sport in the world.
That's not an exaggeration. It's hard to get numbers for the worldwide audience for all sorts of reasons—estimates range from 150 million to 400 million—but the president of the league and director of the television broadcast both stressed to me that more people watch this game than watch the Super Bowl. (If you want to dig into the numbers, check out Benjamin Morris' 2015 piece for fivethirtyeight.com.) I was told the league moved up the kickoff time to 1 p.m. local time in Spain—7 a.m. in New York, 9 p.m. in Tokyo, Japan—in order to attract a larger audience in Asia.
Part of the enthusiasm around the game is the passion of the Spanish fans, and fans around the world, for these two clubs and how they've been able to stay at the top of the game through the decades. Part of it is the fact that both rosters are full of the most famous humans on Earth, including the two best players on the planet—possibly ever—in Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. The combined transfer fees for the lineups total more than $400 million.
Diego Forlan, the retired Uruguayan national who played in La Liga for years and prides himself on his American sports knowledge, told me before the game that this matchup is "like LeBron James versus Kevin Durant plus Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady."
The enthusiasm of the people here makes the Super Bowl feel like the opening of an art show. An hour before kickoff, the streets were packed densely with Real fans, carrying flags and wearing jerseys, hats, scarves, jackets—all bearing the club's insignia. One man was in a big Homer Simpson costume, wearing a Real Madrid uniform, and strangers lined up to take photos with him.
In addition to the club flag, plenty of people also waved the Spanish national flag. Two days earlier, the people of Catalonia, where Barcelona is the capital, held a vote and elected candidates advocating for Catalonian independence. The national flag held aloft in Madrid is both a symbol of Spanish unity and possibly a slap at some Barcelona fans. One man on the sidewalk held a sign that had both the Catalonian flag, the national flag and the word "PAZ" (peace).
There are officers checking bags and running metal detectors at the gates. Dozens more, wearing bright yellow vests, sit with their backs to the field, between the crowd and the bright, white touchlines.
At kickoff, I can't spot a single empty seat on any level of the stadium. There's more singing, more drumbeats from the Real fans. At one end of the field, thousands of "Ultras Sur"—the most extreme fans—are wearing white, without what appears to be a single dissenter. In the corner of the top level, at the other end of the stadium, a few thousand Barcelona fans are also singing and drumming—and for now it's only faintly audible between Real songs, though that will change.
Behind me is a Spanish father and his son, who looks about 12. They both have blue and white Real flags draped over their shoulders and, as I'll find out, the boy has the ability to swear (profusely) in multiple languages. Early on, though, they are both cheery. Real Madrid applies pressure. When Marcelo takes the ball up the middle, the boy yells, with a surprisingly deep, commanding voice, "Marcelo!" When Ronaldo gets a quick touch, the boy yells, "Cristiano!"
And suddenly, less than two minutes in, right in front of me, there's a Real Madrid corner taken by Toni Kroos, a German star of the last World Cup. Brazilian midfielder Casemiro leaps to win the header, and then there's another header—Ronaldo has put the ball in the back of the net!
The stadium rumbles, with scarves, flags and hats flying in every direction. But because the fans here are attentive, and the game moves so fast, most people see the offside flag pretty quickly. There's a collective sigh.
In person, Ronaldo seems even more explosive than on TV, which is saying something. It looks like a real-life version of a video game where only one player on the field has access to the "boost" button. Anywhere he's going, he's instantly there. And any time he's got the ball, fans chant his name.
Real Madrid maintains most of the possession early and launches another attack about 10 minutes in. They work the ball up the far sideline and then into the penalty area. There's a perfectly laid cross toward the penalty spot, right to Ronaldo's feet.
If there's one person in the entire world you want right there, ready to rocket the ball past the keeper, it's this man. Maybe the greatest finisher ever. The five-time Ballon d'Or winner as the world's best player. Real Madrid's all-time leading scorer—a museum upstairs has an amazing interactive display that shows how many goals he's scored with various parts of his body, including one goal attributed to an unspecified "other."
But somehow, as the ball approaches, Ronaldo swings and misses. It goes right through his legs. Like a cartoon. All over the stadium people shake their heads, looking confused. Ronaldo, too, shakes his head.
When Barcelona holds the ball long enough, the boy behind me starts yelling at them, first in Spanish: "Puta!" and "Cabron!" When Kroos loses the ball in the midfield, the kid yells, "S--t!"
And this entire time, the Real Madrid fans are still singing. Song after song. The melodies only break briefly when the tension is too great—like the offside goal or Ronaldo's big whiff—and then, within a second or two, they're going again. The songs also die down a bit when Lionel Messi gets the ball, and the whistling picks up.
Messi is quiet early on. Brazilian midfielder Paulinho takes a few shots, and Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez makes a few harassing runs toward goal, but Sergio Ramos and the Real Madrid defenders fend off everything.
At one point, the ball pops up over the middle, and Messi brings it down with his chest and takes it to his right. He looks like he's controlling the ball with a hidden string, like he's taking two steps for every one of his opponent's. Even simple passes through the middle look beautiful, and it feels like maybe he just sees the game a few seconds ahead of everyone else.
There's almost no injury time in the first half; it breezes by. There's no big halftime show. Most people sit and relax for a moment or run to the bathroom or concession stand, where they serve ham-filled baguettes. In our section, a lot of the crowd retires to the stadium restaurant for a spread that includes all-you-can-drink wine and all-you-can-eat paella and jamon iberico.
The second half goes a totally different way. From the first minute, Barcelona is on the attack—the other journalists on the junket note how lucky we are to have so much of the action at our end of the stadium. Ronaldo goes long stretches without being involved.
In the 53rd minute, Barcelona's Ivan Rakitic carries the ball up the field and slides it to Sergi Roberto, who then crosses it back across the penalty area to Suarez for an easy goal. The Real Madrid fans unleash whistles and a slew of middle fingers at the celebrating Barcelona players. The boy behind me is quiet. His father says something along the lines of: "If you don't get your goals, they'll get theirs."
As the songs pick back up, more fans swing their scarves. But Barcelona is attacking again soon, with Messi dribbling past defenders like they aren't even there. There are gasps from the fans around me, chants from the Barcelona contingent in the corner of the stadium.
Soon, Gareth Bale is warming up for Real Madrid, and there's some renewed sense of hope. But then, before he's brought on, there's a chaotic exchange in front of the Real Madrid goal. It starts with Messi feeding Suarez a perfect ball right behind the defense, and Keylor Navas, the Costa Rican 'keeper, making an unbelievable stop.
But then the ball lands back at the feet of Messi, and it's so chaotic I'm not sure what happens next until a few hours later when I watch the play over and over. The ball is in the net, but the referee says it doesn't count. There's a red card for Real Madrid right back Dani Carvajal for handball and a penalty kick for Messi, who promptly crushes it past Navas.
Messi runs to the corner flag and stands there, posing like a superhero.
The boy behind me yells "F--k you!" to him over and over, and there are even more middle fingers.
Even two goals down and one player short, the Real players don't give up. Bale comes on and has two great scoring chances. But Barcelona is too much. There's a third Barcelona goal in injury time, as many of the fans are already heading to the exits. When I turn around to see the reaction of the father and son, they're gone.
The game is over, and the whistling has ceased. The Bernabeu is quiet, except for the shuffle of feet, the muted conversation and the chanting Barcelona fans on the upper deck, waving their scarves and Catalonian flags and singing to the late-afternoon sun.
Michael J. Mooney is a freelance writer based in Dallas. He also writes for GQ, ESPN The Magazine and Texas Monthly.