June 2, 2011
Providence, Rhode Island
It’s not often the sound of police sirens makes you cheer.
A crowd of red-jerseyed football fans stood shoulder to shoulder along the Retracta-Belt crowd control barriers, growing feverish as the lights of the approaching motorcade danced off the buildings around us. They held flags, notebooks, posters and babies, anxiously awaiting the imminent arrival of their heroes—the World Cup champion Spain National Football Team.
I took my place among them—strategically next to a child, of course—and watched anxiously as the first motorcycle unit took the corner and swerved into the horseshoe-style driveway. Behind the officer two emerald green Peter Pan buses negotiated the turn and made their approach, the first stopping on the curb a few yards from the welcoming committee.
The young boy next to me twirled a mini soccer ball in his hands and bounced on his toes, looking through the giant windshield at the passengers stirring within. I asked him who he was waiting for, the name on the back of his jersey already giving away the answer.
“Iniesta,” he said. “He is the best.”
I nodded. The diminutive but brilliant midfielder was a priority target of mine as well.
A moment later the door swung open and the crowd erupted as if a goal had just been scored. On the heels of the coaching staff the players emerged in their practice kits. Ramos. Silva. Torres. Villa. The impossibly star-studded team acknowledged the fans but few stopped. Those that did signed one or two in random locations nowhere near me. I was seeing the best soccer team in the world up close and in person and, looking down at the unadorned 11×14 team photo in my hands, I was disappointed.
The Spanish star had nearly slipped by me. He paused and sent an expressionless look my way that didn’t communicate his intentions one way or another. Then he stepped forward, took the silver paint pen from my hand and scribbled his name across the photo. GOOOOOAAAAAALLLL!!!!!
Later, a smaller group of fans (and graphers) waited in the lobby for players to return from a team meal in an upstairs hotel function room. Security was surprisingly tame and I took a quiet seat in a corner. Less than an hour later, a handful of the footballers began to trickle down—each doing his best to avoid the swarming fans calling for photos and signatures. Most notably, Xabi Alonso and two teammates jumped off the escalator into a full sprint, weaving around bystanders, jetting out the front door into the night.
Not long after, Gerard Pique powerwalked through the lobby toward a bank of elevators on the far side, ignoring the clingy fans without taking his eyes off his destination. I didn’t bother moving from my seat. Manager Vicente del Bosque made the same trek, waving off requests on the way to the lifts. But then he stopped. One grapher had positioned himself directly in his path and del Bosque took his pen. Soon, everyone in the lobby was crowded around the 60-year old man as he signed away.
I was faced with a dilemma. My 11×14 was perfectly signed by Iniesta—runner up to Lionel Messi in last year’s FIFA Ballon d’Or player of the year award—which should have been enough for me to go home thrilled. I had a few seconds to decide whether to add a World Cup-winning manager, albeit a man I knew nothing about and would really only enhance my photo if I added several more players (i.e., something that more resembled a team-signed item). But I was optimistic my night wasn’t over and the bandwagon effect took hold of me. I should have gone with my gut. Del Basque took my pen and signed to the immediate left of Iniesta, finishing his signature a hair away from the “I” in the first signature. I couldn’t believe it. Ever have someone sit right next to you on an empty bus? This felt worse.
I was more determined than ever to add signatures, hoping it would add balance to the piece. Unfortunately, we saw no players over the next hour and I started to get the all-too-common series of texts from my wife: Are you almost done? I left your dinner in the fridge… When are you coming home?… I’m going to bed. Drive safely.
Thinking some of the athletes had headed off to enjoy the evening through other exits, I parked myself outside, hoping to catch them upon their return. At around 10:45 p.m. a small group returned but upon closer inspection they were just members of the coaching staff in warm-up gear. As I retreated a young man asked me to stop and take a picture for him. I grabbed his iPhone and watched as he sidled up next to a handsome, well-dressed man in his 40s who had returned with the coaches. I snapped the picture and returned it to the shaky hand of the fan who was gushing about the experience. I asked him who the man in the suit was.
“Fernando Hierro. One of the greatest players for Real Madrid and Spain.”
I asked him if I should get his autograph. “Oh yes! Go!” he exclaimed.
Back in the lobby, a small group of diehards remained and were mobbing Hierro. The former star could move only a foot or two before a new fan handed off a camera and threw an arm around him. At that point I was resigned to the fact that my photo would be a collage rather than the team-signed item I originally had in mind. Clearly, Hierro didn’t fit directly into the World Cup celebration, but I figured better to get a legend than pass on the opportunity. In retrospect, I could have just got a picture taken but I was still steaming about the signature placement on the photo and wanted to add more names. (What would you have done in this scenario?)
After Hierro had accommodated each person’s request, I asked a young man if he knew if any of the players were still out.
“Just Xabi Alonso. You know where he is, right?”
I shook my head.
“Murphy’s—the bar around the corner,” he said, pointing toward the front entrance.
The night air was cooling and I still had an hour drive ahead of me. I positioned myself on a corner, giving myself a view of the hotel doors and the street ahead where I expected Alonso and two unknown teammates to emerge at any moment.
At 11:20 p.m. three lanky silhouettes came into view, moving closer at a rapid pace. They were sprinting—just as they left. A couple of Spain fans about forty yards ahead of me tried to flag them down but they breezed past and made the turn toward the hotel. I pulled out my photo and moved to intercept the first two players in the horseshoe-shaped driveway but they just laughed, not breaking stride as they disappeared into the hotel. I spun and made a beeline toward the doors, but the last footballer was already by me, passing the valet stand.
“Xabi, please! I’ve been waiting so long!” (A plea of this magnitude is atypical behavior for me and I’m not exactly proud of it.)
He stopped and turned, nodding that he understood. Jogging in place, like a runner waiting for a walk signal to turn, he grabbed my pen and placed a quick dot on the photo then scrawled his graph. I thanked him and he took off after his pals. After inspecting the results, what I thought was the dot over the “I” in Xabi was actually his way of marking his place in the photo.
My night was finally over. Would I have been better off bailing after getting Iniesta? Probably. But the story would have also ended there, and that is a risk I’ll rarely ever take.