Jamie McGregor describes a surprising trip to El Sardinero.
We're into stoppage time and boos and whistles ring around the stadium as the home fans urge the referee to blow for full time. Their team are down to ten men and hanging on for a point. Another opposition attack is thwarted and the ball pumped forward for the substitute to run onto. But wait a minute. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, the visiting goalkeeper has come charging from his line and he's not going to make it. The substitute's there first and he's lobbed the keeper. The ball hangs in the air for what seems like an eternity before dropping beautifully into the corner of the goal. Euphoria! The fans, players and even president – ignoring all diplomatic protocol – go nuts. Seconds later the final whistle goes and the fans celebrate like they've won the league. I'm one of the first to leave the stadium, the vast majority staying behind to applaud their heroes and as I walk home I wonder if I should go to see my local side more often.
A few days earlier I'd been sitting on a bench on the promenade watching the stylish locals walk their tiny dogs. It was an unusually hot, sunny, February day in the north of Spain. Like most northern Spanish cities, Santander is known for being quite rainy but on a day like this you'd be hard pressed to find a more picturesque place. I was reflecting on my decision to leave Madrid and move here. The conclusion was clear, I wasn't sad to have swapped the hustle, stress, traffic and pollution of the capital for calmness and nature of the north. There was, however, one thing lacking. While most northern Spaniards are known for being strong, proud people, the Cantabrians are, for lack of a better word, boring. Visit Galicia, Asturias or the Basque Country and you'll be bombarded with stories and information about local traditions, history, language and gastronomy. Most foreigners who move there soon get hooked to the intrigue of it all. Come to Cantabria, however, and you'll be hard pressed to find anyone who's that excited to be Cantabrian.
A good way to gauge the difference between the Cantabrians and their northern neighbours is to look at the flags they fly. From where I am sitting on the promenade, I can see three big Spanish flags and not a single Cantabrian one. I challenge you to find me somewhere similar in any of the other northern regions.
In Spain, the flying of flags is one way to reflect the pride of a region. Another way is through the football club. The north of Spain has more than its fair share of intimidating grounds. Anoeta, San Mamés, Reyno de Navarra, El Molinón and La Riazor are grounds that most teams, in particular Real Madrid, don't enjoy visiting. The list of grounds spans from San Sebástian near the French border to La Coruña in the far west. It includes the regions of the Basque Country, Navarra, Asturias and Galicia but skips one place, Cantabria.
El Sardinero is home to Racing Club de Santander, the only Cantabrian club to have ever played in Primera División, and I'm here for tonight's match against Sevilla. It's only my second ever visit to the stadium and the first since I moved here 5 months ago. The last time I was here, a subdued home crowd sat and looked on as Athletic Bilbao beat them 0-2. After visiting Sporting Gijón, Deportivo La Coruña, Osasuna and Athletic Bilbao, my impression of Racing Santander was that the locals had no real passion for the club in much the same way they have no real passion for their region.
After living here five months, this feeling hasn't changed. Santander is one of those places where people have two clubs, the local one and then their big team. In Santander, the big team is almost always Real Madrid. Sympathy for Real Madrid is yet another thing that marks Santanderinos out from the rest of the north. Perhaps they have two teams because Racing have never won anything of any great importance but then again neither have Sporting Gijón or Osasuna. What's more, Racing is a historic team. After being founded in 1913, Racing were one of the founding members of Primera División, a distinction that few clubs can claim.
Back to the stadium and I've decided to give Racing a second chance to impress me. It seems I've picked a good time to come along as there is an air of excitement around the place. The club have just been bought over by a rich Indian businessman and one his first acts was to sack the deeply unpopular Miguel Ángel Portugal and bring back Marcelíno García Toral, the coach who led Racing to the UEFA cup four seasons ago.
The Sardinero only holds around 22,000 but it's filling up pretty well, considering the game doesn't kick off until 22.00 and is live on national TV. Once the action starts the atmosphere seems rather good with the small band of Ultras making quite a bit of noise. They're still nothing on Sporting Gijón or Athletic Bilbao but they're at least making an effort. The mood is helped further by the home side taking a two goal lead early on in the first half. Each goal is greeted by the swirling of scarves to the tune of I will survive.
A red card for Racing followed by an immediate Sevilla goal, brings out the wrath of the home support towards the referee Iturralde González. The chant Itrurralde, hijo de puta, echoes round the stadium as the Sardinero begins to resemble something like an intimidating venue. Unfortunately for the home fans, their tactics don't work as seven minutes before the end, Iturralde awards Sevilla their second penalty of the game. Brazilian international Luis Fabiano makes no mistake from the spot and it seems a point is all Racing will get.
Cue the last minute winner, the crazy celebrations, the very real passion in the faces of fans and my slow coming around to the idea that there might be more to Racing than I thought.
Jamie is site editor for the wonderful Spanishfootball.info, IBWM's favourite Spanish football website.