Stadiums are a lot more than giant concrete walls encasing expansive greens. They are a sight — of success and sighs, of sweat and blood, of trials and triumphs. They are a theatre — of the absurd and asinine, of precision and poise.

They are arenas where human capabilities mock human limitations. Breeding grounds of brilliance, they are a sight to love and behold. Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid is all that, and then some more.

It's the beating heart of the city that fawns over football.

It's not their only identity,  but it could well be the most important one.

The Spanish capital takes immense pride in its football, and not without reason. The city derby against Atletico is almost always a sellout, and the steady rise of neighbourhood clubs, such as Rayo Vallecano, Getafe and Leganes, over the years has contributed to the sport becoming intrinsic to the city's culture.

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Image from Wikimedia Commons

That said, there is hardly any in-your-face manifestation of football love. Stores selling club merchandise blend seamlessly with high-street fashion, and one would struggle to come across a hoarding boasting of the city's love for the game. Football-themed restaurants are conspicuous by their absence, the street graffiti doesn't talk about the game, and no roads or squares are named after footballers either.

However, talk to any local and they will go to great lengths to tell you how much they love the game, without as much as saying it. The four million residents of the city are a friendly lot, and their warmth multiplies manifold at the slightest mention of football. They would quietly point at Cristiano Ronaldo's favourite restaurant or David Beckham's erstwhile apartment, but such is the deeply rooted presence of football, that there really is no great need for chest-thumping.

In a city that likes to brand itself as the football capital of the world, the game, unsurprisingly, continues to be the ideal conversation-starter — the elixir that drives the city and defines its moods.

"You can tell who won the football match the previous night by simply walking around the city the next morning," says Monica, a Real Madrid fan who hails from the northern part of the country. A career and opportunities first brought her to Madrid and then took her to New York, but she returned to the Spanish capital about six years ago, because "there is no place quite like Madrid".

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Image from Agence France-Presse

For a neutral observer, the football phenomenon here might come across as an interesting mix of things; a busy metropolis almost always finds a way to talk football while ensuring the distinction between banter and bluster is never blurred. All this while, the city moves at its pace; it is a place that starts early and sleeps early.

All that, however briefly, changes when Real Madrid play at home. Traffic peaks early, especially around Avenida de Concha (the area where Santiago Bernabeu stands), bars do brisk business, and makeshift stalls selling teams' scarves and souvenirs appear organically near the stadium gates. The conversations are still muted though, considering all the action unfolding around.

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It is the El Clasico that truly leaves the metropolis on the edge. The 117-year rivalry between Madrid and Barcelona, Spain's two biggest cities, has a cult following across the globe, and their contests are generally among the most viewed matches across platforms. The usual hectic build-up apart, something abstract, even surreal, takes over the city during Clasicos. An air of urgency swirls gently over Madrid before coming down as a tornado to consume the landscape in a vortex of footballing ecstasy.

Last weekend, as one half of the world gently snoozed off into late-night comforts, a few chosen men lined up in the teeming Bernabeu to play war, minus the shooting. More on that later, though, for it's imperative to recognise the towering magnificence of the stadium itself.

Located in the centre of the city, the first sight of Bernabeu hits one with its sheer enormity.

The arching stands and the neat, rectangular roof designed to contain the sound and vibrations, the 85,000 seats painted blue and white, the giant lights and gleaming grass give it a spiritual feel. That's when the realisation hits you — that you're in the space where the likes of Alfredo di Stefano, Iker Casillas, and Ronaldo once traversed.

What, however, lends life to Bernabeu's style are the Madridistas — the fans. On match days, they arrive in half-drunk herds. They chant, rant, cuss, and curse. More than the supporters, they are the very character of Bernabeu and Madrid itself. It does not come as a surprise then that in a 16th-century city that is filled with museums and art galleries, the 72-year-old football ground is among the most visited structures. And like most healthy relationships, this one, between the club and its fans, is reciprocal in nature.

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Two days before Clasico and a day after their 3-0 loss to Barcelona in the second-leg Copa del Rey semi-final at Bernabeu, the stadium was a centre of furtive activities. From Puerta 57, the fine-dining restaurant in the stadium that overlooks the field of play, one could see the staff carefully manicuring the grass even as another team cleaned the seating area. The giant screens were tested, the sprinklers were scrutinised, and the goalposts wore a fresh coating of white.

However, despite the looming Clasico, the Bernabeu made sure the fans were the centre of its attention. The stadium remained open to the visitors on regular time, and basic courtesies, such as not testing the PA systems or refraining from fumigation while the visitors were around, were taken care of. Think of the heavy-handedness that stadiums in India reserve for fans and journalists, and the contrast becomes incredibly flagrant.

The Real Madrid museum claims it received about 13,00,000 visitors last year, and it is hard to contest that claim.

Located within the imposing stadium building, the facility is a repository of knowledge and the veritable pilgrimage for the Madrid faithful. It's a place where science marries history to create a lasting, psychedelic impression. Strolling through the digital walk-throughs, one can read about the club's journey, from Madrid Football Club (1902) to ruling the footballing stratosphere over the years.

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Image from Wikimedia Commons

Footballing jewels and artefacts dot the wall, as do boots of past masters, clippings from newspapers, and rare, iconic photographs. To ensure the experience is interactive, the museum has a section where fans can listen to the sounds of the stadium — recorded fan chants, commentators' excitement, fans' roars, boos, cheers, jeers. All one needs to do is to put an ear to the end of a trumpet, and the transformation to the live, throbbing stadium is instant.

The trophy cabinet, as one would expect, is giant. Besides housing the host of Spanish wins, it also has the replica of the Champions League trophy; the original is kept safely in the Real Madrid office and is not open to outsiders. Visitors can also tour the dressing rooms, tunnel, team dugouts, and press conference areas.

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Image from Wikimedia Commons

"The Real Madrid museum receives an average footfall of 1500 every day, which makes it among the most visited museums in the city," informs Carlos, a 19-year-old guide. A self-confessed Real fanatic, this student of Tourism is living his boyhood dream of walking the breadth of Real's impressive history, while rubbing shoulders with the club's present and past masters.

"Earlier, I used to be in awe of all these players, but now that I have seen them in person so many times, I just let them be. I have also met a number of former Real players, and all of them have been really nice. I have always been a Real fan, so the motivation to work never runs out," he says.

Last Saturday, the stadium came to life again. In fact, one could sense the excitement brewing over the entire week. If Barcelona's Copa del Rey win was a sign of things to come, the Madridistas did well to play it down.

"It is not that political... it is more media hype," says Monica. Easy to say that, especially when the opposition has blanked you three seasons in a row. It would soon become four losses on the bounce with a jaded home team struggling for the finishing touches. That, however, did little to silence the raucous home crowd. As promised by the locals, the fans arrived high and hearty. They began to congregate at the arterial roads at least a couple of hours before the kick-off, and patiently lined up in the designated areas as the clock ticked away.

The riot police were in attendance too, their horse-riding personnel serving as suitable selfie partners. The bars lining the Bernabeu were out of space, and public drinking continued unabated. Beer flowed freely, as did vain boasts.

Debates raged over Real's chances and Barcelona's class as Madrid, for once, dropped its subtlety and submitted itself to the fervour.

Spotting Barcelona fans in the overwhelming sea of Real's scarf-wielding fanatics was a task, until one bumped into a group sporting Barcelona shirts.

Mexico's Artemio Melina and his bunch of friends — all IT professionals in the US — had travelled from New York to watch the Clasico, thanks largely to the charms of Lionel Messi.

"I just love him [Messi]. Watching him play is unreal, man. This is our first trip to the Bernabeu, and frankly, it is a bit strange to see so few Barca fans here. Still, from having watched no Clasicos live up until last week to watching two this week alone (including the Copa de Rey semi-final) means we can have no complaints," said Melina.

Thirty minutes before the start, the gates opened and the queues began to move. After security check, we were on the first floor, overlooking the field of play. Real Madrid trained on the far end, in front of the stands reserved for fans that had come dressed in distinct white club jerseys. Selfies, panorama shots, and status updates on social media continued seamlessly when a huge roar went up around the stadium. FC Barcelona hopped on the pristine greens, led by Messi.

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Stephen, a truck driver from Manchester and a Red Devils fan, eagerly drew the attention of his partner towards the Argentine master. "Watch out for him," he mumbled, before flashing his phone to capture the Barcelona stars. The admiration, though, was only momentary, as the crowd soon began to boo the visiting team. The proverbial 12th man was in action, trying to intimidate the opposition. The booing increased with every Barcelona miss or a fumble, and stopped only when the teams lined up for the start.

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Special treatment was reserved for Barcelona defender Gerard Pique, who has never made a pretence of his Catalonian pride. Right from the time his name was announced in the starting line-up, to each time he touched the ball, the catcalls and jeering continued unrestricted. Pique, obviously aware of his standing among the fans but unaffected nevertheless, blocked a number of attacks to rub it in.

Messi, though, was looked at in better light. The fans' grudging admiration for him was apparent, and they openly gloated about his value for LaLiga, especially after the departure of his great rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, to Serie A side Juventus.

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"What can you say of Messi, he is just so good! I wish he doesn't play today due to some minor injury or health issue, because once he gets going, it is just impossible to stop him," Monica chipped in.

Ivan Rakitic's 26th-minute strike, however, changed matters. Messi, whose fan following cuts across teams, clubs and nations, was subjected to constant verbal assault from the stands as the fans got behind the home team.

The chants of 'Hala Madrid' were replaced by 'Puto Barca' and 'Puto Messi', and his confrontation with Sergio Ramos at the stroke of half-time only intensified the sledging. As the teams trooped back to the dressing room at the break, more abuse was thrown Barca's way.

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Madrid missed their chances in the second half too, but at no stage did the fans give up. By this time, their objective had clearly shifted from cheering Madrid to trolling Barca. The sneering never stopped barring the few moments when Messi had the ball.

At brief, bewildering moments as those, a sudden hush enveloped the ground as Madrid fans — torn between the sheer beauty of Messi's footwork and the menace it meant for their team — threw their hands in disbelief.

One such moment was when in a fluid, deceptive move, Messi nutmegged Casemiro in the Madrid half. It looked the usual business, but the unadulterated matter-of-factness of the move and the ability to pull it off under intense pressure from the surrounding defenders was enough to silence 85,000 people. Real fans gasped, and later let go a collective sigh of relief as the move didn't yield much. Few clapped in disbelief, others looked heavenwards, to abort a potential goal.

Stephan turned to his partner with an all-knowing smile and said, "Told ya, he is some player."

The roller coaster ride continued with every (real and potential) corner, foul, move, and shot on goal. However, as minutes ticked away, Real fans realised that the absence of an impact player had done them in, again. Their century-old loyalty though, refused to budge. "Puto Barca," they shouted, till their throats ran hoarse and the final whistle was blown.

The match ended in a 1-0 loss for the home side, but the fans had no complaints. "It's okay; it's football, nobody died," Monica said, trying her best to downplay the loss.

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The Barca fans, as is the norm at Bernabeu, were asked to exit after the entire stadium was cleared of Real supporters to avoid any unsavoury incident, but a few scuffles were reported anyway at the exit. That apart, the theatre of Bernabeau and the clockwork precision that typifies its operations, the thought the stadium invests in its visitors by way of ramps for the wheelchair-bound, complimentary WiFi, hassle-free crowd management, and most significantly, the sight of two top football teams in action more than made up for an intense day.

The Barca players, while heading to their dressing room, lined up in front of Real stands and flexed their biceps. That, and the eventual scoreline, one feels, were an ideal response to the ceaseless abuse they had coped all night. 'Puto Barca,' the fans hurled one last time, and went home smiling and drunk.

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