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So there I was minding my own business, happy in my little footie life following Manchester United and the English Premier League, and having a grand old time getting to know the game. For the most part, I remained blissfully unaware of the world's other major leagues except when it was impossible to ignore them, in competitions such as the European Champions League. Sure I knew that Barcelona and Real Madrid had won a bunch of European trophies, but that had to be in the old days, or due to some fluke factor, right? I mean, there's no way that the football outside of the EPL could be any good, was there...?
My first brief introduction to La Liga football actually occurred when David Beckham left the Manchester United fold to join Real Madrid in 2003. The news initially hit me hard. Even though I knew Becks and SAF had a falling out (or maybe a flying shoe), it still hurt me as a United fan to see Beckham leave. The long searching passes, the bending free kicks and the Spice Girls' WAG show all gone in one fail swoop. Bummer. I searched in vain for Real games on US television, but 2003 might as well have been another lifetime ago when it came to watching european soccer here in the States. Rarely available in the US, and even more seldom seen in my house, Becks disappeared into the netherworld of La Liga, a strange and fantastical place that appeared to exist only in my imagination and in the agate type of the International Herald Tribune Sports page. My enthusiasm quickly waned, and my loss was softened by the emergence in the next season of a certain Cristiano Ronaldo -- there was a new #7 in town, and I quickly forgot about the old one (sorry, Becks).
Flash forward several years to another morning of major disappointment. This time, though, it was the news that the one and same Cristiano Ronaldo was leaving Manchester United to play for Real Madrid, and this time the departure was based on choice not necessity. I felt sucker punched. Wasn't this the guy who had scored 42 goals for us a season ago? How would we replace him? And, as importantly, how would I see the joyful dancing across the field, the sheer speed, loping strides, and swerving free kicks that were Cristiano Ronaldo? (Somehow i've conveniently forgotten the fanciful dives and artful writhing that were also Cristiano Ronaldo). My once fervent search for La Liga football seemed destined to come back to the fore. After all, if Beckham and now Ronaldo had been seduced by the dream of playing for Real Madrid, what was I missing? And could I hold out?
I tried to watch Real, and did so on several occasions. This time, too, it was much easier to find them on the tube, thanks to GOLTV in particular. Barca games were also readily available. I was too angry, though, to care much for Barca due to United's loss to them in the 2009 Champions League final, and despite watching Real on multiple occasions, I was never able to sit still for a whole game. Something just didn't click. Real never felt right for me: too much Galacticos, too little chemistry. Kinda like the Yanks circa 1985.
But then came a fateful family trip. Inspired by Chef Jose Andres cooking Spanish food on PBS ("Jose Andres' Made In Spain"; http://www.josemadeinspain.com/), and and Gwinny, Bitty, Mario and Claudia roadtripping through the Iberian Peninsula (ironically, also on PBS) in "Spain: On the Road Again" (http://www.spainontheroadagain.com/), I decided to go to Madrid in person with my one of my daughters last February. (Incidentally, both series make for great television and are highly recommended. If they don't make you want to jump in the kitchen and start cooking, they will, at the very least, make you want to jump in the kitchen and open up a nice bottle of Rioja to help you kick back and enjoy the spanish countryside flowing by). Although Real was out of town during our trip, and I had no idea that Getafe played in Madrid (actually I didn't even know that Getafe existed, to be completely honest), I did some quick searching on the internet and found that Atletico Madrid were in town while we were there (okay, so we actually planned the trip around the soccer game, but let's not be picky).
And thus the opportunity presented itself: in order to get "smart" on Atleti, and actually know who we were going to see, I decided to watch a game or two (okay, maybe 5 or 10 is more accurate) in advance of the trip. Sure, it meant having to watch an extra football game each week, but there are some things in life you just have to do if you want to get ahead.
I knew Diego Forlan, of course -- why, he was an ex-Red! Although his time in Manchester proved largely unfruitful, his name will forever be sung around Old Trafford (United's stadium) due to the 2002 brace he scored against arch-rival Liverpool. And Kun Aguero, Diego Maradonna's diminutive son-in-law and Forlan's deadly strike partner, quickly grew on me. The kid had some moves.
But who was this guy Reyes? He played for Arsenal? Why'd they let him go? He's good! And Simao? I knew he played on the Portuguese national team, but I had no idea what a player he actually was. And what about this Ujfalusi character? Looks like a hippie, but man can he cross the ball. DeGea? Isn't he a bit young to be starting between the sticks? Maybe, but the kid is unreal -- an acrobat in goal. These guys were capable of some serious football. And fun to watch.
And then it happened. Atleti polished off Barcelona right in front of my unbelieving eyes during our visit to the Vincente Calderon, as the stadium rocked back and forth underneath the adoring crowd. I went to Madrid and fell in love. I couldn't help myself, actually. Atleti played great football, really artful stuff, and handed Barcelona its only La Liga loss of the season. And I came back and just had to watch their season continue. Despite faltering domestically, Atleti played great European football last year and won a major title (more on this in a later column).
And it dawned on me: I loved La Liga almost as much as the EPL. It had become my dirty little secret, admitted only to close friends and no one else. It would never replace the EPL, but I began to think of it more like a mistress. The football was good, even great at times, and the players were fresh and exciting. ESPN's Phil Ball got it spot on in his great piece That La Liga Stuff -- this is a league to love.
And watch. Alot. And that's farlieonfootie for September 24.