LAS VEGAS — Before the mass of humanity gathered around Allegiant Stadium on Saturday night could come into focus, the faint beats of drums filled the air. Then the faint repetition of the chants, which eventually crescendoed to a peak outside the gates. And then the smell of a flare, a burning odor competing with the delicious aromas of street vendors, came wafting across parking lots. Spotted in the distance was the purple smoke from that flare, a sign that it was hoisted by a Real Madrid fan.
It didn’t take long to figure out that this wasn’t going to be a typical crowd for a sporting event — an exhibition game, at that, as part of their preseason training — played on American soil.
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“It was a beautiful experience for all the supporters of Real Madrid and Barcelona having it here,” Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti told ESPN. “The stadium is fantastic and the atmosphere too. So, we’re really happy to be here.”
The scene outside Allegiant Stadium for Saturday night’s El Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona, two of the most famous clubs on the planet, rivaled that of any major game in the country across any sport. It was a marriage of what Americans know and love about sports. It had the jovial energy of an NCAA tournament crowd filing in for March Madness. It sounded like the most heated rivalries in college football inside. It had the tension of a Game 7 for the fans who never get to see their clubs in person.
Yet, it didn’t matter. It was a “friendly,” part of both club’s US tour and just the second classic to be played in America. Almost 62,000 people descended on Allegiant Stadium to get a chance to see their teams up close against each other in one of the most famed matches in soccer, and Ancelotti made sure to point out that the atmosphere was definitely different than a classic in Spain. “The Bernabeu was our house,” he said. “So, different but was exciting.”
If someone wasn’t wearing a blue and red Barcelona jersey, they were wearing a white Real Madrid kit. There wasn’t much in between. One woman had an American flag draped on her back like a flag, but in general, there was a hard line for the fan bases. You either were for Real Madrid or Barca.
As Saturday morning emerged from yet another summer Friday night in Vegas, the Strip came alive with fans of both sides. Up and down the Strip from Resorts World to New York, New York and beyond, there was a shirt, a jersey, a hat — or all three — of either club. Families matched each other. Groups of young men each sported a different player’s jersey. Older fans broke out the classic kits. Street hawkers sold flags and ribbons from both sides, making their way down Las Vegas Boulevard as security kept kicking them off corners.
In the hours leading up to the match, throngs of Barcelona and Real Madrid fans crossed the Hacienda Avenue bridge, walking from the Strip over I-15 to the stadium. The fans all but marched, divided by their loyalties, their chants, cheers and songs competing, making their presence — and arrival — known to, well, everyone. Another mass of soccer-loving humanity walked down alongside Dean Martin Drive, cars inching forward, past food vendors and more street hawkers selling jerseys and shirts, clamoring for their attention.
Everyone got there early, and few didn’t take the opportunity to watch their clubs warm up. A half-hour before kickoff, the fans were mostly packed, banners and flags waving, more chants and cheers echoing throughout the two-year-old stadium.
In the moments before kickoff, the field empty as both sides made their final preparations in their respective locker rooms, the noise level got loud and remained there until both teams emerged. From then on, it was a battle of the lungs. Each fan base tried to out-yell the other with chants and cheers. Whenever a shot was taken, everyone slid to the edge of their seats and reacted as if it was a game-winning moment.
One moment that brought both sets of fans together was the actions of Barcelona’s Gerard Pique: Every time he touched the ball, an apparent reaction to his split from pop superstar Shakira, going as far as chanting the singer’s name.
the evening even included a proposal in the stands at halftime, to which she said yes; someone blasted an air horn in celebration.
For the fans inside Allegiant Stadium, Saturday night was a celebration. It was a chance to see a game, see the players they love, and experience in person the clubs they obsess over. they didn’t treat it as an exhibition; for the 60,000-plus in attendance, it was as important a classic as there could be. (Barca would win 1-0 on Raphinha’s first goal for the club since moving this summer from Leeds United.)
“It’s always important to play a classic,” Barcelona defender Jordi Alba said. “It’s a very special match and the atmosphere was spectacular with fans from both sides.
“We felt the love from the stands, and it’s a pleasure to play these games with this great atmosphere.”