This is not an article about soccer – don’t worry. Rather, this as an opportunity to recognize and explore the importance of making Spanish a part of your life – not just something you do once a week in your class. This is crucial for attaining fluency and I highlight below the exact path one should take to easily achieve that which may otherwise seem impossible.
 
The date is May 6th, 2009. FC Barcelona have just arrived in London to take on Chelsea in the 2nd leg of the UEFA Champions League semi-final. It’s the biggest stage in the world for club soccer yet this season, and most resembles Game 6 of the World Series or the NFL Conference Championships. The whole world is watching.
 
On this particular evening, Barcelona is fielding a lineup that consists almost entirely of players who grew up playing together as children in Barcelona’s famous La Masia training academy. Valdes, Busquets, Piqué, Messi, Xavi, Iniesta… Anyone who’s paid even moderate attention to world soccer over the last decade knows these names well. And just to give you an idea of the quality we’re talking if you haven’t, three of those players I mentioned -Messi, Iniesta, and Xavi- would finish as the top three players in the world just a year later in the 2010 FIFA rankings -an astonishing fact when considering that these players were being compared against every other soccer player on the planet, happened to grow up together, and all played on the same team.
 
Chelsea was no team to scoff at themselves this evening, fielding the likes of players such as Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack, John Terry, and Petr Cech – all of whom will likely go down as some of the best to ever play in England. These were no average players and this was no ordinary night in London.

 
Just eight days prior, Chelsea had made the trek to the Catalan capital of Barcelona for the first leg of the semi-final, only to end that match in a 0-0 tie. This meant that on this particular evening in London, Barcelona would advance to the final with either a win OR a non-scoreless tie due to UEFA’s away-goals rule. Chelsea would advance only with a win.
 
Halfway across the world, it was 2:45pm and a young man had just left running from Spanish class to grab a seat at the only bar he knew in Cincinnati that showed soccer games. The match was seconds away from starting and, after nagging at the bartender for what seemed like an eternity, she finally found the right channel. Years prior, he’d fallen in love with this sport as a result of this Barcelona team, attracted by -among so much else- the fact that they had seemingly built a team out of childhood friends. This, in a world of teams who were soullessly forking out hundreds of millions of dollars to throw teams together for the sole sake of winning trophies, was unprecedented. Furthermore, this Barcelona team had become known for an extraordinarily attractive style of play known as tiki-taka, marked by one-touch, effortless passing between teammates in often very tight spaces. His anticipation was high despite none of the crotchety old drunks next to him sharing his excitement.
And then it was show time.
 
After a slow start marked by Barcelona’s monopoly on ball possession (again, a trademark result of the tiki-taka), things got going in the ninth minute. Chelsea’s Ghanaian midfielder Michael Essien latched onto a ball falling his way after a misguided defensive clearance and, from about 25 yards out, volleyed it into the top left corner of Barcelona’s goal. Els Culers (a funny Catalan term (meaning “butts”) referring to players and fans of FC Barcelona) were left head-in-hand and the stunning goal was ultimately voted one of FIFA’s goals of the year. Furthermore, it seemingly had Chelsea all but booked for an appearance in the Champion’s League final in Rome just a month later.

To worsen matters for Barcelona, their French left back, Eric Abidal, was shown a red card in the 66th minute after taking down Chelsea’s Nicolas Anelka just outside of the penalty area. The Spaniards were down to ten players and any hope of walking out of Stamford Bridge winners had seemingly vanished. Chelsea continued pressing through the 90th minute, with several attempts on goal and a wealth of missed calls by the referee that would have resulted in nearly unmistakable opportunities.

Then came stoppage time – the additional time added at the end of regulation if the referee perceives there to have been “dead time” during the match (think: players writhing on the ground from “injuries” – this is their punishment for that). On this particular evening, three minutes was the magic number and it was all that Barcelona had left in their season.

Then came Andrés Iniesta – Spain’s humble, majestic, and beloved child.

1:30 into stoppage time, after a threatening attack by Chelsea was sputtered out by a last-ditch slide tackle from center back Gerard Piqué, Iniesta began tirelessly dribbling the ball all the way up to midfield, only to have it tackled away and to find himself face first in the turf. As he stood back up, he found that his childhood pal, Xavi, had gotten the ball back and sent a perfect pass to Brazilian Dani Alves, who was making his way down the right wing. Alves found a yard of space and sent a dangerous cross into Chelsea’s penalty area, only to have it headed across goal and near the touch line by a Chelsea defender. After a failed clearance by another defender, Lionel Messi recovered the ball near the top of the area, but couldn’t find a shot.

It was in that moment that he saw Andrés Iniesta making an open run towards the top of the penalty area.

He passed the ball to Andrés, who must have known that it was now or never. It was 2:09 into stoppage time and there were only 51 seconds left in Barcelona’s season.

That’s when all of London seemingly grew quiet for one unforgettable moment.

Iniesta put his laces to the ball, one touch, and sent it into the upper right corner of Chelsea’s goal.

The Spanish commentator lost it.

Off came Iniesta’s iconic #8 jersey, spinning it in the air as his teammates uncontrollably tackled him into a corner of the field.

Coach Pep Guardiola abandoned his clipboard and ran the length of the field to dive into the pile with his players.

The camera flashed to Michael Essien, who appeared to be in disbelief that the greatest goal of his life would count for nothing more than a consolation prize.

And as sure as the match ended 1-1, Barcelona went on to Rome a month later to defeat Manchester United 2-0 in the final. What has come to be know as the greatest team in history was beginning to leave its mark on the record books.

And incredibly, just a year later, Iniesta would score a goal that would leave his goal against Chelsea in a distant second place in terms of career accomplishments for Spanish soccer. In the 117th minute of extra time in the World Cup final, Iniesta went 1-on-1 with the Dutch goalkeeper and buried the World Cup winner into the back of the net, bringing Spain and their National Team the World Cup trophy for the first time in history.

What’s interesting is that these goals are not what define these victories or Spanish soccer. While started at FC Barcelona, the Spanish National Team also adopted a patient, beautiful style of play that in so many ways reflects their tranquil, easy-going way of life. Furthermore, Andrés Iniesta represents such an interesting puzzle piece on a much higher level than fútbol, having been born near Madrid and recruited by Barcelona at a very young age. He has since become one of the most iconic players in Spanish soccer. And if you know anything about Spanish politics or the social/historic dilemma between Madrid and Barcelona as cities and people, you know how unheard of it is to have anyone at all so proudly and humbly represent Madrid, Barcelona, and Spain.

In the meanwhile, the young man sitting in the bar that day -who spilled his Coke and had the whole bar wondering why he suddenly began jumping and pounding the table in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon- sits writing you this article today as a Spanish teacher and fluent Spanish speaker. And while it may appear on the surface that the above story and my position in life have no apparent connection, that couldn’t be any further from the truth. Every student of Spanish must find a way to make Spanish a part of their life. For me, one way was Spanish soccer. Ever since those formative years leading up to Iniesta’s goal, I’m the guy who will stop on the side of the road to watch a pickup game at the park near my house for hours on end… I’ve played in leagues between living in Cincinnati and Spain weekly for the last decade… my friends, on more than one occasion, haven’t been able to pull me away from a game of FIFA on a Friday night. On top of all of that, I can safely say that there’s not a term in Spanish related to soccer that I don’t know well.

Although you may never find the magic in moments like the one I’ve described above, I implore you to find yours. Spanish film? Comics? Sewing circles? Just make sure you really love it.

And if you do happen to find the magic in moments like Iniesta’s, I hope to catch you around some time for some tiki-taka and golazos.