You could hear the roar of the tens of thousands of fans and the banging of the plastic seats from outside Saputo Stadium as the richest soccer club in the world stepped onto the pitch.
The stadium played host to Spanish giants Real Madrid — valued at US$4.2 billion — for a 90-minute public practice Wednesday evening. Players like Eden Hazard, Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Marcelo and Thibaut Courtois took part in the session. Fan favourite Sergio Ramos did not participate, but he signed autographs for fans young and old. Proceeds from the practice will go toward the Montreal Impact Foundation.
Tickets were available for $20, but sold out hours before practice. Lineups before the practice stretched as far out as mere feet from Viau métro, keeping people waiting as long as 30 minutes. Some fans without tickets even tried to watch from outside the stadium. But some didn’t mind the craziness.
“It’s my day off, so I don’t mind to (wait). Patience,” said Dennis Contreras. “I met some people that have been in front of the (Ritz-Carlton) hotel for the whole week waiting just to have an autograph. Now that I have the chance to see them at least play with a ball, why not?”
“It’s really a dream come true,” said Frank Chea, a Montrealer via France who has been a fan of the team since elementary school. “In Europe, it’s a religion to watch soccer. I never get to see the actual players when I’ve been there. Now, to see them here in Montreal, it’s pretty crazy.”
The fans who piled into the stadium were in full voice, cheering for their favourite players and yelling “Zizou!” at the top of their lungs for manager and Real Madrid legend Zinedine Zidane. From players stretching on the field and playing in a scrimmage, to playing casual crossbar challenges, the spectators did their best to provide an atmosphere as close to a live match as possible.
Once practice ended, the players walked off the field to sign autographs before retreating into the tunnel toward the locker room. All the while, fans gave them a standing ovation.
Real Madrid is in town to prepare for a pre-season tournament, the International Champions Cup, based in the United States. The team has been practising at Centre Nutrilait since July 9 and will continue to practise there until Friday, meaning the Impact is practising at their home field.
“It changes a lot of things,” Impact midfielder Shamit Shome said at practice. “Like our pre-training routines, our post-training routines. We don’t really have a gym here, so we’re on our own for going to the gym.”
The Real Madrid practice came days after the Impact posted their first sold-out game of the season, a 2-0 loss to Toronto FC Saturday night. Some fans in attendance Wednesday said they had attended Impact games at the same venue, but remarked the atmosphere didn’t come close to what Real Madrid provides.
“There’s a big difference (between) Impact and Real Madrid,” Contreras said. “The players, the status, the story of the club. Everything.”
Fans from a wide variety of cultures, backgrounds and places were on hand for the practice. While Montreal has long earned its reputation as a hockey city, the night proved that a practice featuring one of the most historic clubs in the world could bring people out.
“I know Montreal is not a soccer city, but most of the people here come from different countries,” Youssef Tazi said. “Soccer is still the No. 1 game — not hockey, not baseball.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019