The Clasico on a golf course: Barca vs. Real Madrid doesn't lose its fire even in retirement
TARRAGONA, Spain -- An Olympic gold medallist is lost among the trees. Albert Ferrer, founder member of the "Dream Team," winner of five league titles and of the European Cup at Wembley in 1992 -- an exorcism that remains the most emblematic moment in FC Barcelona's entire history -- can't find what he is looking for.
He climbs a small hill, circling through the shade, still trying to work out what happened, trying to gain his bearings when a 69-year-old, white-haired man comes to his assistance, lifting his hat as he arrives. "A gentleman," Ferrer calls him.
Ramon Calderon, once the president of Real Madrid and the man who signed Cristiano Ronaldo -- the man, too, who describes selling Ronaldo as a "historic mistake" -- joins the search. Eventually, they see it. There by a tree, wedged against the wood, is Ferrer's golf ball. Squeezing himself in, gloves hanging out his back pocket, he clips the ball towards the green -- it takes two shots -- where, a few metres away, Calderon is now standing smiling in the sunshine, a club in his hand.
He is winning, too. This round goes to Real Madrid. It is three days before the Clasico, and -- as they do every year -- they're holding a clasico of their own, the rivalry revived. As if it ever really died away. All the chat, all the memories, all the little digs, winding each other up.
It's been 20 years since Ferrer played against the eternal enemy for the last time, before heading to England to join Chelsea, and a decade now since Calderon left the Madrid presidency -- grateful, he once said, to walk away rather than be carried out in a box, so great is the pressure -- but there's something about Madrid-Barcelona that's always there. For all of them. There is a reason they've been brought together: the biggest football match in the world impacts upon them and still gets played out, albeit this time with a ball that's a lot smaller.
Paco Pavon, the man (a kid back then) who gave his name to Madrid's famous galactico policy of "Zidanes and Pavones," recalls his first and his favourite Clasico: a 2-0 win in the European Cup semifinal, with goals from Zidane and Steve McManaman. That was 16 years ago, but he says "there isn't a single day goes by when I don't think about it at some point."
Today, especially. There's nostalgia, and there's also competition: dozens of players embracing and then taking each other on. Talking about what will happen on Sunday: Lionel Messi's injury, Julen Lopetegui's future, Cristiano Ronaldo's exit and where the goals have gone, also where Ousmane Dembele has gone, what happens next, with Calderon saying he is convinced that Jose Mourinho will be back and that there will be fires started at every turn when he is. But talking about what's happening now more. This matters. Madrid vs. Barcelona on a golf course outside Tarragona.
Even years after they stopped playing, it's there. "It marks you, shapes your life," says Dani Garcia Lara.
Dani thinks the last Clasico he was at was when the former Barcelona captain Luis Figo returned to the Camp Nou after his defection to Real Madrid, surely the most acrimonious transfer in history. You might remember it: that was the night a pig's head was thrown at Figo.
"People try to say it's just another game, but it's not," he says. "Everyone's talking about it: your family, your friends, the baker down the road. You see who real players are out there, the personality. The pressure is huge. This might sound daft, but you can feel like you're struggling for air, barely able to breathe. It does something to you. People say: 'Ah, they're made of stone.' B------s. It's something else, unlike anything, anywhere. And it's with you always."
As they chat, one player says that the Clasico isn't the same without Ronaldo and Messi -- for the first time since December 2007 -- and that some of the glamour has gone, even if the game tends to deliver anyway. As for him, and for the rest of them, the truth is that they're not what they were, either. Only, another player insists, they're always what they were. "You never stop being a footballer," he says.
Most of them never stop being competitors, either.
Bumping down the fairway on a buggy ever on the verge of rolling upside down, playing one hole before Ferrer and Calderon, Pavon is up against Gerard Lopez, a Barcelona youth teamer who later made over 100 first-team appearances and became the club's B team manager. His shot has gone a little awry. "That's my problem," he says.
Not far behind, Alfonso Perez is preparing to tee off. Famous for wearing white boots when no one else did, a Spain international who scored that dramatic last-minute winner against Yugoslavia at Euro 2000, Getafe's stadium is named after him -- a Coliseum, no less -- but he played for Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Miguel Angel Nadal is here, too. "The Beast," they used to call him. So is Alexanco, the man who lifted that European Cup at Wembley, the moment that sent the club's then-president heading off for a 5 a.m. swim in the Thames.
There are others from that era, like Julio Salinas; Thomas Christiansen, the Dane who played for Spain and appeared for both sides of the Asturias divide, Sporting Gijon and Real Oviedo, where fans sang his name to the tune of "Brown Girl in The Ring"; even Jesus Angoy, the goalkeeper who became a professional American football kicker, is present.
Across the grass, past the bunkers and through the trees, along the path where the buggies bounce by the clubhouse, there's a padel competition going on, a clasico on the court: fast and aggressive. Like doubles tennis but enclosed within a glass cage.
If the golf is comparatively genteel, this isn't. Inside, trophies await.
"Some of them go a bit far," a European Cup winner grins, glancing back at them as he heads down to the first tee. Ferrer agrees. "That's why I'm playing golf instead," he laughs. "It's a bit more relaxed." Pavon insists that golf is easier on your back, something he should perhaps tell those always pointing the finger at Gareth Bale.
On the padel court, no-one is taking it easy. Santi Ezquerro smashes a great shot, shouting "yes!" and asking whether anyone recorded it. Another former Barcelona player, a youth teamer who was breaking through as the Dream Team won its fourth league title in a row, but whom it seems best not to name now, chases the ball and crashes into the glass, sending it shuddering. He throws his racket down in anger, swearing loudly and thumping the glass. Another former player is soon doing the same, the racket skidding across the sand. He's angry, that's for sure.
It's not supposed to matter who wins, but it does. They just can't help it. By the time the final comes two hours later, sweat flowing freely after two previous rounds, it is clear. Dani, an ex-striker still in ludicrously good shape, is playing with former Spain U-21 manager Luis Milla, once considered the embodiment of the ball-playing midfielder, the predecessor to Pep Guardiola and a man who has just returned to Spain having been coach of Indonesia's national team.
Dani and Luis are quick across the court -- even if Luis says the decade's difference between the two men shows, insisting "they could stick Dani on the pitch on Sunday" -- and clever. They are victorious, too. And so, the trophy is theirs, another win for...
Madrid? Barcelona? Which one is it?
Game over, Luis stretches on the grass, legs out, a grin on his face and a glint in his eye, sitting in the sun and watching while Dani plays another game just because he can. They played, and played properly, but for whom? He's not saying; it doesn't matter, he claims, winking. He can get away with it, too, and he's been trying to for years.
This time, the success and the glory is shared -- almost as if this was set up, the perfect friendly ending. Because, like everyone else here, Dani Garcia Lara and Luis Milla experienced Clasicos from the inside, but they were different. Because Dani García Lara and Luis Milla played for Real Madrid and Barcelona.