Madrid sculpture Felipe royal palace

Is football a part of “hard” power for Madrid?

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First night in Madrid

The first time I visited Madrid I landed with Ryanair at Barajas airport in September 2014. A few months earlier before my first visit in Madrid, the elderly politician Adolfo Suárez had died, to whom today he is titled the airport.

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From the airport, I easily reached my Airbnb accommodation located near the “Urgel” stop on the Line 5 subway. I only changed the subway line a couple of times. The efficient subway service greatly simplified my movements.

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The host welcomed me and took me outside. Since it’s late at that moment, he told me that it’s better to eat something in a nearby bar. He had to walk the dog out and led me to the bar he prefers. In the meantime, he gave me some indications that I would need the next day.

madrid hotel mandarin oriental ritz

In fact, I didn’t prepare my city trip to Madrid well, I only had to spend a full day in the capital and I wanted to visit as much as possible. Thanks to my host’s tips, I would be able to feel satisfied with the trip, so much so that I would understand a fundamental aspect of the city, namely the role of power.

The Power of “Fútbol”

Atlético de Madrid

Power in Madrid is not limited to traditional politics, but includes sport, especially football. The marriage between football and power has characterized the capital since the post-war period. I notice this as I approached the center from my accommodation.

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I crossed the Manzanares, the small river that flows through Madrid and I saw the Vicente Calderón stadium. In the summer of 2014, the Vicente Calderón represented the second most important stadium in the capital, where the Atlético Madrid team was based.

madrid arch tunnel armeria square

A few months earlier the 2013-2014 Champions League final had been played in Lisbon. In the final of the major European football competition, Atlético Madrid faced Real Madrid. For the first time two teams from the same city had faced each other in the final.

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Real Madrid won the Champions League for the tenth time, after a long battle with Atlético. Argentinian Diego “El Cholo” Simeone who is Atlético’s coach had spoken such high-sounding words that they were carved into the stadium itself before the match.

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In fact, outside the stadium I saw the writing “Juega cada partido como si fuera el ultima” (Play each match as it was the last). These words distinguish Diego Simeone, a coach who never likes to give up, just like when he played for the team I supported as a child, F.C. Inter in Milan.

Real Madrid

Real is the main team in Madrid and the most successful in the world. The Champions League was created in 1955 to understand who was stronger among Real, A.C. Milan, English or Hungarian teams.

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Real Madrid made it clear that they were the best because they easily won the first 5 editions of the trophy. Legendary footballers such as the Argentinian Alfredo di Stéfano known as “Saeta Rubia” (blond arrow) and the Hungarian Ferenc Puskás contributed to make the Madrid club famous.

madrid opera sculpture king felipe

The events of Real Madrid are intertwined with those of the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco. The dictator was in fact a Real Madrid fan and may have helped the team on multiple occasions. For example, it is rumored that the dictator intervened to facilitate the transfer of the footballer Alfredo di Stéfano to Real, rather than to the main rivals of the F.C. Barcelona.

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A legendary team needs an equally important enemy, who represents a polar opposite. Real represented the fascist regime and the unity of Spain. Barcelona represented the independence of Catalonia, the region that most opposed fascism and fought for democracy.

madrid real santiago bernabeu stadium

Real Madrid’s center of power is its stadium, the Santiago Bernabeu. My visit to Madrid was too short to arrive anywhere outside the centre. My wife, on the other hand, in one of her many pilgrimages to Madrid had the time to pay it a visit. At that time, one of the coaches I respect most, the Portuguese José Mourinho, was sitting on the bench of Real Madrid.

Other sports

Basketball

Although football is the main passion of the Spaniards, around 2010 Spain was experiencing unprecedented success in many sports. Cyclists like Alberto Contador dominated the streets of the Tour de France. Rafael Nadal established himself as one of the greatest tennis players in history. The national water polo team was among the best in the world and even volleyball was starting to show its competitiveness. Especially basketball had become very important.

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Spain has been lucky enough to raise a generation of phenomena that has lit up the world’s basketball courts. Numerous champions have also made history in the NBA. The brothers Pau and Marc Gasol represented the maximum expression of this movement that won a first world championship in 2006 and a second in 2019.

2014 Basketball World Cup

The 2014 world championships were held in Spain. The final was in Madrid and I was there that night. I certainly couldn’t buy an expensive match ticket at that time. I asked a tourist information center if it was possible to watch the match on a big screen. He pointed out the area of Puerta de Alcalá to me. I went hoping to see a good show, perhaps meeting some fans of the two teams that were about to face each other, the United States and Serbia.

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On the contrary, I found an interesting area, with some panels that told the story of the basketball world championship, some sponsors and some unexciting gadgets. A few dozen people were watching the match on the screen. The game took a turn for granted almost immediately. Serbia dominated the very first minutes.

madrid spain entrance botanic garden

Then the United States reacted thanks to the NBA stars and led the whole game by a large margin. Serbian point guard Miloš Teodosić tried to light up the game with his phenomenal plays, but Stephen Curry and his teammates proved to be stronger.

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I left with the feeling that Spaniards, like Italians, still struggle to like sports other than football. Probably another test is the 1992 Olympics. The main sporting event organized by Spain was held in Barcelona and not in Madrid. If Madrid’s administrators had viewed the Olympics as a crucial event, they would not have let their Catalan rivals organize them.

The center of Madrid

Parque del Buen Retiro

By visiting the center of Madrid, you can get an overview of the influence of political power. Although the entire city is very large, the center of Madrid is quite small, sandwiched between the Royal Palace to the west and the Parque del Buen Retiro (Park of the Pleasant Retreat) to the east.

madrid spain royal palace king

The Royal Palace is surrounded by the grandiose square which also overlooks the Opera House. The area can be easily reached via the “Opera” metro station, where lines 2 and 5 stop. On the south side of the Palace, you can observe the Almudena cathedral. Walking a few hundred meters north, you can reach the Parque de la Montaña which contains the wonderful “Templo de Debod”, an ancient temple donated by Egypt to Spain in 1968.

madrid spain cathedral santa maria

Today the immense Buen Retiro Park, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, is crowded with people who practice all kinds of sports. The park was once home to a royal residence which was destroyed in 1808.

Paseo del Prado

Near the park, there is the Paseo del Prado that is the boulevard that houses the museum. Museum of Prado is one of the most important in the world for its collection of paintings of the Spanish and Flemish tradition. Nearby, there are also the botanical garden and two other important art museums, the “Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia” and the “Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza”.

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I only have time to visit the Prado Museum quickly. So I can’t concentrate too much on the fantastic works contained here this time, so it’s not worth spending the 15 euros of the ticket. I therefore used the opportunity to visit it for free during the last two hours of daily opening. In fact, the museum lets travelers in for free between 6 PM and 8 PM Monday through Saturday and between 5 PM and 7 PM on Sundays.

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I show up at the museum around 4.40 PM on Sunday and the endless line scares me. Fortunately, at 5 PM the ticket office closes and traffic rushes into the building. Here I find a small map that illustrates where the main works are located.

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In the two-hour visit, I can see the main works. On the one hand, free admission is very convenient and allows a person to visit the museum without dwelling too much on those minor works to have a general impression on the whole museum. On the other hand, haste does not allow you to enjoy absolute masterpieces such as “La maja desnuda” by Francisco Goya, “Adam and Eve” by Albrecht Dürer and above all the fascinating “Las Meninas” by Diego Velázquez.

Perhaps the best thing is to visit it once for free to understand what interests us most, and then return calmly by paying the ticket.

The buildings of the political power

In the central streets near the park, is the Congreso de los Diputados (Congress of Deputies), the main chamber of the Spanish parliament. From the royal palace you can reach the Parliament in just 1.5 km by crossing the beautiful Plaza Mayor, the beating heart of the Spanish capital.

madrid spain congress deputies parliament

The other places of power in Madrid are the Moncloa Palace and the Zarzuela Palace. La Moncloa is the prime minister’s residence located just outside the centre. La Zarzuela is instead the royal residence, isolated in a large park on the outskirts of Madrid.

madrid armeria square royal palace

On 23 February 1981, a dramatic clash took place between the palaces of Spanish power, which was only a miracle that it did not turn into a bloodbath. While Parliament distrusted Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez, Colonel Antonio Tejero and his military entered Congress with guns in hand.

madrid spain armeria square palace

The soldiers fired into the air and asked the deputies to lower themselves under their seats. Only three deputies stood up to the military: Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez, his deputy General Gutierrez Mellado and Communist leader Santiago Carrillo.

Anatomy of a moment

Adolfo Suárez

The images of that day forty years ago are still vivid in the hearts of the Spaniards and in the Spanish literature. The writer and journalist Javier Cercas carefully observed the video of the breaking into Parliament to write one of his most famous and exciting books, “The Anatomy of a Moment”, released in 2009.

madrid spain parliament street congress

Javier Cercas recounts the genesis and end of the attempted coup by focusing on the figure of Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez. He describes the prime minister as a narrow-minded and shrewd man who boasted that he had never read a book and had struggled to finish his law studies. At the same time, Suárez had made his political fortune during the fascist dictatorship thanks to his ability to charm people.

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The young King Juan Carlos I came to power after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. The following year, the King appointed his friend Adolfo Suárez as prime minister. The politician used all his bewitching skills to turn the tables, disavowing his past. Within a few years Suárez democratized Spain. The prime minister slowly ousted the king and the army from political governance of the nation and legalized the communist party. The military promised revenge.

King Juan Carlos I

The book fascinates the reader because it analyzes how Adolfo Suárez, a character ready to do anything to achieve fame and personal wealth, played a decisive role in the democratization of Spain. The prime minister enjoyed wide popular support until his personal vices emerged and his reform drive stopped. In the last months of government, Suárez displeased everyone, until he was dismissed on February 23, 1981, with the approval of Parliament, the King and the Catholic Church.

madrid spain carlos street king

That same day, the military attempted a coup to return to managing power through the King. A few minutes after the violent irruption in Parliament, General Alfonso Armada, former secretary general of the King, called the royal family to the Zarzuela palace .

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The general would have liked to speak directly with King Juan Carlos I to ask for the task of entering Parliament and mediating with the coup plotters. Armada wanted to form a government of national unity that would put power back in the hands of the King and favor the military.

Fortunately for Spain, Armada did not speak with the King but with the new general secretary of the sovereign. The secretary sensed his predecessor’s intentions and convinced Juan Carlos to act differently. During the night, the King appeared on television to condemn the coup plotters, who surrendered. Today Spain is a nation of extraordinary democratic strength.

Written by Enrico, Translated by Hua and Photos from Hua


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