Before coming to Spain, our family primarily followed football and baseball. We enjoyed soccer, mostly because our daughter plays it. And of course, we were aware of famous names such as David Beckham, Mia Hamm and Pele.
However, nothing quite prepared us for the obsession the Spanish have with soccer (or futbol in Spain). Sure, Spanish people play other sports. In fact, basketball is popular and a lot of kids play tennis. But, futbol trumps everything, and all the country’s resources go toward supporting it. For Spanish boys, futbol skills are cultivated early. They can rise through the ranks of the club teams to maybe one day reach the Spanish pinnacle: La Liga.
To say that people here are dedicated to their soccer teams is an understatement. If you are a Barcelona fan, you will absolutely despise Real Madrid. Christiano Reynaldo, Madrid’s showboat star player, got suspended early in the season for taking off his shirt to flex his muscles for the crowd. While Lionel Messi, the star of Barcelona’s team, is known for his work ethic and teamwork. The two represent different sides of the game: skill and acting. You haven’t seen a performance until you’ve seen a La Liga player writhing around in “pain” to get a penalty called. As a spectator, this takes a while to get used to.
Futbol is the common language that breaks down the barriers between being an expat and being a Spaniard. Supporting the same team always brings an immediate camaraderie. We can talk to neighbors, repair men, taxi drivers, waiters and friends about the upcoming games. Even though American sports can be intense, they all take place within an individual season. Soccer is year-round, with a two-month break. So, every Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday from August through May, La Liga games are part of the national language.
Valencia, where we live, has had an excellent season this year, so Valencian fans are very excited. Each town has a major stadium with stadium tours and team museums. The stadiums don’t sell much food or extras. People are there to see the game. Big crowds of fans have special cheers, and there is a lot of smoking and singing in the stands. Game times aren’t announced until two weeks before each game, so people rush to buy tickets as soon as the times are released.
You may ask why a relatively clueless soccer enjoyer has become a stats quoting, futbol-watching super-fan? There are two main reasons. When our family arrived in Spain, we decided to try to jump into the culture by participating in La Liga fantasy soccer, sponsored by La Liga. We did research and learned about players until we could tell you who the best players were on each team. It was also something we could do together as a family to try to understand our new country. Now that our Spanish is better, we pick up futbol commentary all the time on the radio and in conversation. It has become a gateway to language and friendships.
The second reason is Lionel Messi. Spain has Messi fever, and it’s hard not to jump on board. He is truly one of the best players to play the game, and it seems that every kid wears his jersey. His life size or bigger picture is everywhere. When Barcelona was trying to separate from Spain, one of the main concerns for many people was that Messi wouldn’t be in La Liga any more. Perhaps this caused many separatists to think twice.
For Christmas this year, we got our son a present that he will remember forever. We bought him tickets to see Messi play in Barcelona. It felt historic – seeing one of the greatest players of all time play in Barcelona while it is still a part of Spain. And, Messi did not disappoint. He scored two goals – par for the course for him. Watching futbol and our time in Spain will always go hand-in-hand for me. In fact, I may have become a La Liga fan for life. Even though our time here will end, this is one thing that will keep us connected, with Spain and as a family.