On Monday, Washington DC's FedEx Field and its surrounding areas are deathly quiet, nothing like they were just 38 hours ago when the Spanish National Football Team, and its counterpart from El Salvador, disputed a friendly World Cup 2014 tune up.
Driving slowly around the entire perimeter of the stadium, as the sun plays peak-a-boo with ominous storm clouds, one is struck at the contrast between the weekend's environment and today's. Gone is the omnipresent police (from uniformed to plain clothes, from police cars to the many unmarked ones with filled with secret service types), and Saturday's cheering swarms of red (Spanish) and blue (Salvadorean) clad fans, and the hawkers of all types of paraphernalia.
Today, Elner Villardo, a Salvadorean immigrant, accompanying his cousin to a job interview for work at FedEx Field, told us "Saturday twenty of us made it in. It was my first time in this building. It is beautiful. I got to see Iker Casillas, Andres Iniesta, and Xavi. I never dreamed I would see them in person."
The Spanish team players are world icons now--the likes of Iker, Ramos, Iniesta, Villa, and Pique could be said to have transcended the sport and become media stars, period. No question it is due to the fact that they have made football history with their 2008 Euro win, followed by their 2010 World Cup win, and then their 2012 Euro win. But it is the way they have won--how they play the game--and the humble yet joyful way they have carried themselves while doing so, that has won them fans worldwide. Also, it is basically the same, recognizable, two dozen players who have been doing it all for the past seven years.
Sitting next to me at the press box was a member of the Salvadorean media who agreed to speak openly as long as he was not quoted by name. I pointed to the huge number of blue clad Salvadoran fans in the stands and asked if the attendees would make this feel like a home game for his country's team.
"Not exactly," he said. "In El Salvador, half the country is rooting for Real Madrid, and the other half for Barcelona. The fans here are in blue but they should be in Blaugrana (Barcelona's colors) and Merengue (Real Madrid's whites). They are here to see their heroes, and today those heroes are all wearing red."
When the team came onto the FedEx field for warm ups on Saturday, the assembled crowd applauded as if rock stars had just come on stage. The players made a point of jogging to either side of the field to wave at their fans and as they approached the sidelines the crowd responded by cheering even louder Undoubtedly, many in the stands knew this would be the last time they would see this once in a lifetime generation of football players together.
Prior to the game on Saturday, as I crossed the street from the parking lot to the stadium, I stopped by a group of fans waving Spanish Club banners. Among them was Michael, an eleven year old Maryland Youth Soccer player at the travel soccer club level, who came to the game accompanied by his parents Mike senior and Sabrina Stephens. "Michael is here to see Iker, Villa, and Xavi, but mostly Xavi," said Sabrina. It was an intriguing if savvy choice given the options, and great foreshadowing as it turned out.
Football, if you are to believe the front page of DC's hometown paper The Washington Post (June 8th U.S. soccer is up and down), is simply not gaining fans as expected, and in comparison to those numbers of fans around for the 1994 cup we have not grown much more of a national audience. We simply have not taken to the sport. But at the press box on Saturday, when the half-time the stat sheet was delivered we read that Spain had passed the ball 400 times with an 87% accuracy rate, and a US media colleague to my right kidded, "If they put Xavi in next half he'll beat both numbers by himself."
Minutes later, the reporter covering the game for the Madrid paper El Pais, not wanting to interrupt his impromptu conversation with another reporter, precisely about the growth of the sport in the USA, was forced to turn around when the name of the second half substitute for the Spanish side provoked a deafening roar. Jogging onto the field, and turning his head in apparent amazement at the standing ovation he was receiving, was that famously tall, uber-muscled, long-haired, exuberant, full-body tattooed, pierce-nosed, antic-prone, mega-millionaire, entertainment media darling, rock star of a supernova football god...Xavi.