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Kickin' it in Spain

A quick trip to Barcelona turned into an early Christmas gift

Posted: Monday December 20, 2004 2:52PM; Updated: Monday December 20, 2004 5:18PM
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As I sprinted toward the Nou Camp goal, in the late afternoon Barcelona half-light, I looked over at Ronaldinho and made eye contact. He held the soccer ball under his left foot, his back to the goal. Paolo Maldini was standing just to his side. Hours earlier, Ronaldinho had discovered that he'd finished second in the voting for the best soccer player in Europe, and I think he felt he had something to prove.

He imperceptibly rolled the ball back and forth under his foot, as if he was trying to get a feel for it, and as I got about 25 feet from the goal, Ronaldinho fired a pass toward me. I quickly glanced up at the keeper, then looked back for the ball, which was coming hard from the long-haired Brazilian, perhaps the best ballhandling player in the universe.

But it was a bad pass, rolling behind me. I circled back and corralled it, then turned and shot the ball wide right.

I was in Barcelona last week at the behest of Nike, who was introducing the latest iteration of its Tiempo soccer cleat. As someone who loves watching soccer but never plays, I think the make and style of the cleat is about as important as the type of sock you're wearing. It matters to the players, though, and on this day, Ronaldinho and Paolo Maldini had reported on an off-day to extol the virtues of the Tiempo.

Meanwhile, I wasn't even sure what day it was. My friend Ben and I had flown out of New York on Saturday afternoon, arriving in Barcelona on Sunday morning. After about an hour's rest, we hopped a train to Valencia, a gorgeous three-hour ride down the Spanish coast. In Valencia, we saw last season's La Liga champs hang a 1-0 loss on Numancia. Following the match we headed directly back to Barcelona, arriving just in time for a late dinner -- although it seems all dinners in Barcelona are late.

Monday morning we boarded a shiny bus and headed to Nou Camp, FC Barcelona's home stadium, which holds over 100,000 people. (According to our tour guide, Roger, the team has 90,000 season ticket holders.)

There were probably 50 print reporters and a dozen TV crews, with just three of us from the States. During the question-and-answer session, a Swiss writer asked if music -- specifically Mozart's -- affected Ronaldinho. The question was translated into Spanish, and Ronaldinho gave a long answer about how he's "constantly surrounded by music," and how it's one of the most important things in his life. The reporter, nothing if not dogged, then blurted, "Yes, but how about Mozart!" (No, Ronaldinho said, not so much Mozart.)

Actually, Ronaldinho and Maldini were particularly skillful at answering questions without saying much. As veterans of dealing with the often vicious European press, they both knew better than to say anything even remotely controversial. A few months ago I traveled to Manchester, England, and wrote about how Man U goalkeeper Tim Howard was dealing with being benched. Media outlets across Europe quickly yanked the story out of context. "I've been scapegoat, says Howard," was the headline of one BBC story -- even though he never said that.

So when Maldini was asked what was wrong with Italian side Inter Milan -- which has four wins, no losses and 12 ties -- Maldini simply said, "They're trying very hard." Benign, on purpose. ("Inter trying too hard, Maldini," is surely coming soon.)

After the Q&A sessions, the media was escorted to the visitors' dressing room, where we changed into our Tiempos and basic soccer kits. We then walked through the players' tunnel, past a tiny chapel built into a wall, and out onto the Nou Camp pitch. After a few minutes of kicking balls around, we lined up for a give-and-go drill, which was when Ronaldinho served me with the bad pass.

I shot him a dirty look, and he cracked up, then ran over and slapped me a high five and jokingly punched me on the shoulder ("Ronaldinho assaulted me, says Whitaker"). We snapped some group photos, and about 18 hours later, Ben and I were on a plane back to New York City.

My head's still spinning a bit: 48 hours, 7,652 miles, two world soccer stars. And a terrific Christmas present. Even if I missed my shot at glory.

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Utah Jazz center Aleksandar Radojevic has an ornate, multi-colored tattoo on his chest of what appears to be some sort of 16th century religious icon. I asked him what it was: "It is a saint from Montenegro, a very big saint there, from a monastery in the hills."

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Since it's snowing here in New York as I write this, thought I'd link to a snow-related game: Snowboarding. Don't hit the rocks. Not sure what you're supposed to do about the woman.

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Still looking for that perfect gift for the lady friend in your life? May I suggest the Jahidi White thong, perhaps the first undergarment featuring the Charlotte Bobcats forward/center. Perfect for the woman you never want to see again.

Lang Whitaker is the online editor at SLAM magazine and writes daily at SLAMonline.com. He still maintains that Michael Vick is the most valuable player in the NFL.