Washington to Paris to Barcelona. Thus began a somewhat epic vuelta a España (amidst the Giro d’Italia) by train and bus through Valencia, Madrid, Bilbao, San Sebastián, and Pamplona. And Vila-real, of course.
We arrived in Valencia in time for the hosts’ 4-0 thrashing of Osasuna at Mestalla, but the local taxistas were understandably underwhelmed by Los Che in 2012-13. Interesting to hear the frustration with the club’s transfer policy, losing David Villa, David Silva, and Juan Mata without obtaining adequate replacements over the past few seasons. From an outsider’s perspective, however, you might cast a wider net to blame club mismanagement, the failed Nou Mestalla project, and complicity by Bankia and the provincial government. To each his own.
Villarreal hosted Elche in the noon kickoff on Sunday, so we took the regional train mid-morning to the town of 50,000 inhabitants. Thousands of ilicitano supporters made the trip, so we were outnumbered on the hour-plus ride in the direction of Castellón. But credit the Elche fans for good behavior amidst a raucous post-match celebration. And almost to a man, every Elche supporter expressed a desire to return next season for the same fixture in the Primera: ojalá.
We arrived at the Vila-real train station to a surprise: an impromptu greeting party featuring our loyal supporter Robin and Belgian penya Els Flamencs Grocs, also in town for the match. It was not the last time I would be confused with A-lister Ravi, whom local fans recognized from his appearances on radio announcer Javi Mata’s local show. With spirits buoyed and cobwebs shaken of jetlag, we hopped into Robin’s car for the surprisingly winding ride to El Madrigal.
Vila-real appears a sleepy town on most days, but the pre-match festivities stretch for many blocks. Yellow jerseys abound on the backs of locals, and the grua (municipal towing authority) earns its pay thanks to parking restrictions. We got out in the official lot -- full on Primera match days, but empty when we arrived around 10:30 am -- and sat for a coffee in front of El Madrigal. After a mild spending spree at the club store, we were ready to enjoy the match.
The Agrupación de Penyas (APV) took over from there -- wonderful people. They welcomed us to their club office around the corner from El Madrigal, loaded us up with beverages, and invited us to "sit" in their section for the match. With a boisterous group of horn blowers and drummers in tow, we arrived at El Madrigal just in time for kickoff.
Part 2 on the match to follow.