Buenos Dias, Orlando! I am so glad that the Orlando vs. Portland match is not happening until 8pm Sunday night because I'll be able to clear Customs and make it to the match after my red-eye flight from Frankfurt. My plane back home leaves at dawn Sunday morning, Orlando time, and it should be about 5:30pm by the time I'm able to leave the airport and head to the Citrus Bowl.
Some might say it's not the most prudent way of spending part of a five-digit Florida Lottery windfall from a ticket that almost hit the jackpot, but I decided to take a few days off work and make a soccer pilgrimage to Camp Nou in Barcelona to see "El Clasico" in person this weekend. And with some transit logistics I worked out with a private car company to get from the stadium to the airport, I was able to find a connecting flight to Frankfurt and a non-stop back to Orlando that will let me take in our match on Sunday night as well.
On Thursday night as I strolled through the streets of Barcelona near the famous and hallowed grounds of the stadium, I was feeling a little hungry. I decided to try my luck and see if I could find a table for one at one of the local eateries. Da Paolo on Avenue de Madrid had been recommended as a good Italian restaurant, so I decided to check it out. I thought I was going to have a nice quiet meal and then go strolling through the streets some more as the Barcelona nightlife really began to hit its full stride, but something happened at dinner that sent me straight back to my hotel and to the computer, because I may have uncovered the biggest scoop in global futbol in the last fifty years--and all by complete happenstance.
I was seated at a table near an empty corner booth--the kind with the single curved bench that allows a group to sit around the table--and about ten minutes later as I was buttering some delicious Italian bread, I saw three gentlemen enter the establishment. They stood out because of the fact that they were trying so hard to be unrecognizable. All of them wore long trench coats, fedoras, dark glasses, and what looked to me like fake wigs and mustaches. The wigs and mustaches made them look like men past their middle years, with salt-and-pepper hair and graying whiskers, but they walked with the gait of younger and more athletic men than their appearance would lead a casual observer to believe.
I know little Spanish and even less Portuguese (I have not studied any of Brazil's native tongue, but I have spent some time around Brazilian colleagues and friends to pick up a few words), but it was clear the three men were speaking in a mix of English, Spanish and Portuguese, which led me to believe that they did not all share a native tongue. When they sat down, three smart phones came out, and my ears perked up at the mention of a name that I heard one of them say, "Rikki." Over the past eighteen months or so I've become so accustomed to hear Coach Heath use that name to talk about our Orlando City MLS Captain, Kaka, that I automatically start paying attention when someone says the name nearby. I guess it's a sort of blogger's "sixth sense" that begins to kick in when you think you might be hearing something about a topic that you think about so often, as I think about our beloved soccer club.
It was clear the three men were excitedly talking about something, and soon I realized that one of them was reading or paraphrasing a message he had received on his phone. The jist of it was that someone named "Rikki" had sent him a message, apparently inspired by a report in an American sports news outlet quoting LeBron James. Recently, James mused in an interview about "putting the band back together" as it were, and wishing that he could find a way to get himself, Dwayne Wade, and Carmelo Anthony all in the same city on the same team to play together more often than just during the occasional US National Team friendly game and the Olympic basketball tournament.
As I listened further, it was clear that this "Rikki" had reached out to all three of the men in the booth, and they were discussing, with all the enthusiasm of excited schoolboys, how perhaps they could fulfill a dream along with their fourth friend that would all let them spend time together. "Sheet!" one of them finally said, dropping his fist on the table with a thud. "Thees ees the only way! LeBron and Carmelo have the Olympicos... we cannot even have that!"
I looked over toward the booth, trying to appear casual about it, but you can imagine my astonishment when the man sitting closest to me took a drink of his water, only to have his fake mustache stick to the glass. All three men had their sunglasses off in the darkened restaurant, and when the man turned toward me to grab the mustache from the glass, I saw those unmistakable deep set eyes, and it was all I could do to keep from choking on my beer. I was looking straight into the face of Lionel Messi!
The man beside Messi threw his head back and laughed at the fact that his friend had lost part of his disguise, and the warm brown eyes and boyish grin of the man could only ever belong to one man--the unmistakable Neymar da Silva Santos Junior. The third man in the booth, sitting across from the other two, broke into a grin as well, and even with his mustache in place, the high cheek bones, strong nose, and matinee idol good looks could only belong to one man: Cristiano Ronaldo. I covered my gaping mouth with one hand and set my beer down before I dropped it, stunned to see three of the world's most amazing athletes sitting not ten feet from me.
Messi quickly grabbed his fake mustache while he tried to cover the lower part of his face with one of his hands, but I could see his cheeks redden a bit as he saw me staring right at him. He pointed to my purple Orlando City home kit that I was wearing and he waved me over with two fingers. "Vengas aqui, Orlando City," he said.
The man didn't have to ask twice. I am very lucky that no patrons or servers were trying to walk between our tables at the time because I would have sent either them or myself sprawling as I leaped from my seat to join the three men at their table. In my halting Spanish and their broken English the three confided that indeed they had all received messages from Kaka musing about the possibility of forming the most elite lineup in global soccer history by coming to play together with him, Cyle Larin, Brek Shea, and the rest of the club in Orlando. "Es imposible," I protested when I realized what they were contemplating. "M-L-S no tiene el dinero!" I pointed out.
"Bah!" Messi said dismissively. Waving a finger around the table he continued, "Tenemos todo el dinero por la vida," he said. "We want fun! Disney World!" he said.
"Universal!" Ronaldo added, nodding.
"Daytona 500!" Neymar said excitedly, lending credence to my personal belief that motor sports and futbol are the twin passions of every Brazilian.
Over the next two hours, I shared a meal and got autographs that I will treasure forever from the three icons of global sport. And because I was traveling on found money, I even convinced them to let me pick up the tab for all of our dinners, which worked out to be about 200 Euros since none of them were drinking anything but water within 48 hours of an important match.
They shared lots of stories--most of which I couldn't understand--and I could never tell if the three of them had been convinced by our Captain that Orlando should indeed be the home for the most amazing lineup of club soccer that any city had ever experienced. But I did learn that all three men consider purple their favorite color, and that they all thought the Orlando City kit looked good, even on me! So, my fellow Orlando City fans, I think we may have reasons to be encouraged.
And of course, everyone should feel encouraged today--encouraged to share this story and share a smile with everyone you meet. Because you must remember this post is going live on a very special day...
Happy April Fool's Day, 2016!