A secret passion of mine is to wander round sporting stadiums on non-match days — an odd hobby I grant you, but one that allows you a little glimpse behind the curtains, a chance to imagine yourself in the changing rooms, on the bench, firing a volley into the top left hand corner from 35 yards out…
So it was that I found myself, on a recent trip to Madrid, inevitably drawn to the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, the home of Real Madrid. Now, I should point out that I am far from being a Madridista, unlike the other 150 or so people in the queue in front of me — I was there in the spirit of the football (perhaps the brand) anthropologist: seeing how this particular tribe congregated, and celebrated together, even when there was no action in imminent prospect.
What motivated them, it appears, was not just the chance to be in the proximity of the heroes — though clearly the number of selfies taken in front of the giant posters of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale et al was huge — but rather the chance to share in, be part of, commune with this greater idea of what Real Madrid stands for.
And boldly, brooking no compromise, what the stadium tour posits, tries to get both believers and non-believers alike to feel, is that the Real Madrid brand is about more than winning — it is about glory.
This starts with the leaflet you get with your ticket: a simple guide to where to go in the stadium and what to see it is not. The language is peppered with superlatives — “Feel your emotions come into play” we are instructed, “The visit will start outstandingly…”, “Spectacular, impressive, unique” — and with much made of the fact that impartial and incorruptible judge FIFA named Madrid the ‘Best Club of the 20th Century’. Turn it over, and there on loving display are all ten European Cups the club has won.
The passion — no, obsession — for this trophy, this particular trophy above all others is given its fullest expression in the Sala Mejor, the Best Club Ever room. It is at one level of the most thrilling branded experiences I have ever been immersed in. There is no aspect of the club — and its pursuit of glory — that has not been considered, refined and put on display: its earliest articles of association, charts showing the evolution of the club crest (it was a lot less fussy before the addition of the crown), boots, old shirts, posters. Individual players’ own achievements — the golden boots, the Ballon d’Ors — are subsumed into the club’s wider story of itself: you might be a galactico, but in the scheme of things, the glory of Madrid matters more. The cabinet with the European Cups has its own tickertape parade, for goodness’s sakes.
And when you turn away from the static displays you’re faced with a High Definition TV wall replays every single moment of footballing greatness the club has ever achieved. When you’re up close to it, even if you’re not a Madrid fan, it’s a struggle not to be swept away by the emotion. I imagine if you are a fan it’s easy to be tipped over the edge.
It’s almost impossible for this level of intensity to be continued, and so it proves as the experience slides back into what we might call the Standard Global Sporting Attempts at Mythmaking — your chance to put your arm around a virtual Sergio Ramos! Watch this flurry of goals again! Find out where Karim Benzema puts on his boots! That said, even I felt just a little like my ten-year-old self when I had my picture taken next to the European Cup that was won in June. Who wouldn’t, an inch away from the fabled Décima? Passing endless vending machines for commemorative coins you could stamp with a club logo of your choosing couldn’t dampen the thrill of standing in that technical area, knowing some of the impossible feats that had happened on the other side of the touchline.
I am writing as if I have been converted, but truly I have not been. Not least because the realities of funding this continued hunting for glory must intrude, and so the brand experience ends, as it must, in the relatively humdrum club shop. Not that that stopped the tills ringing. And here’s one more lesson, if you didn’t know it already: football is global, truly, and you might wish to give your retail staff some basic Mandarin or Cantonese lessons, so as not to miss out on sales. Who knew goalkeeper Keylor Navas’ change strip would be so popular amongst the Chinese tourists heading back to Shanghai?
I left the stadium, bypassing the chance to eat in the club restaurant, and instead marvelling that you can engineer a brand experience that works even for those people who aren’t your fans. It could be a dangerous thing, if all you believed in was winning. Or glory…