Several televisions were set up inside McDonald’s. As customers stood in line, they followed the action on the screen, sometimes cursing, sometimes cheering results. Commuters riding trains conversed with total strangers, reliving the previous day’s events and speculating about later matches. Businesses closed early, providing employees the opportunity to get home in time for the start of the evening’s games.
The year was 1982 and Spain was afflicted with football fever. The nation, hosting its first World Cup, welcomed teams and fans from around the world. Games were played daily in cities throughout the country. Football was the topic of every conversation.
We arrived in Madrid in mid-June, as the opening round drew to a close. We were at the midpoint of a six-week post-college backpacking tour of Europe. By the time we reached Spain, my three traveling companions and I had walked dozens of miles through Holland, Germany, Austria, Italy and Greece. We had been to places only previously imagined, and absorbed what the world had to offer with the relentless enthusiasm of the young. Still, after three weeks of trains, buses and hikes, our energy was dissipating. We were exhausted.
We booked rooms in a pension, a private home which catered to students, providing shelter, hygiene and some nourishment, all for a fraction of the cost of a hotel. We had stayed at many such establishments during our trip, struggling to communicate with families who extended their hospitality and worked hard to make us feel welcome.
The Madrid pension was located on the third floor of an apartment building near the center of town. Our hosts were a family of four: husband and wife in their mid-forties, teen son, and a much younger boy, perhaps four years of age. They welcomed us enthusiastically and led us to our rooms, each of which slept two and shared an adjoining bathroom.
On our trip from the train station, we had witnessed the excitement that reverberated through the city. Our arrival in Madrid in the midst of the World Cup was incidental; we had never consciously decided to partake in the event. Still, we were happy to be there at a time that would enhance our travel experience. We intended to take advantage of this unexpected opportunity – as soon as we got some sleep.
After settling into my room, I lowered the window shade to block the mid-morning sun, placed my head on the pillow and fell asleep. A few minutes later, I was awakened by a noise from the hall: a loud thud, followed immediately by a muffled, indecipherable shout. I sat up and listened closely, trying to determine the source of the noise, which was repeated almost immediately. I inched towards the room’s door and cracked it open slightly, just enough to allow me to look down the hall.
The four-year-old boy kicked a ball against the far wall, jumped into the air, and yelled “Goal!” That explained the thud and the shout. Like the rest of the country, my young host had caught football fever and was celebrating the moment in his own, unique manner. I closed the door quietly, returned to my bed, and placed the pillow over my head, barely obscuring the sounds of the child’s excitement.
Spain advanced to the second round of the tournament that year, before a loss to West Germany and a draw with England relegated it to also-ran status. Spain, the defending European champion, and the pre-tournament favorite to win in 2010, has never won the World Cup. I suspect that the team’s less than stellar showing in this year’s opening round had its fans fearing that its winless streak would continue. However, after victories over Portugal, Paraguay and powerhouse Germany, the team heads into the final game a prohibitive favorite to finally bring home the title.
Through it all, I think back to the child kicking the ball against the wall in 1982 and wonder whether the boy, now an adult, is following this year’s action with the same unbridled passion he then possessed. And I wonder whether he, perhaps now himself a father, listens to the sounds of his own son as he jubilantly kicks a ball and erupts into spontaneous shouts of celebration that will forever echo in the halls of distant memory.