I've always wondered why companies sponsor sports events.
To the casual eye, it seems like a massive expense; and it is, at least on the surface. That's what's on my mind when Nissan said that they'd like to send me to the 2019 UEFA Champions League Final match in Madrid. I was honored, for sure, but I was a bit skeptical.
What was an automotive writer from a non-football country in Asia supposed to write about Nissan's partnership with the final game of the UCL? The answer would come after spending a few days in the capital of Spain, but the story begins in the air.
As fun as flying to Europe sounds, spending almost a whole day in transit isn't. The flight from Manila to Doha to Madrid is sixteen and a half hours long and winds back the clock 7 hours; no, wait, it's 6 because of DST. On the connection from Qatar, already the landscape of the plane changed. Quite a few guys, Brits I presume, were clad in either red for Liverpool, or white with blue for Tottenham.
There are a lot of expats from England in in the Middle East, and quite a few of them were flying into Spain for the final. UEFA is not a tournament of national football (aka: soccer), but rather a competition of the top tier football clubs (or FCs) in Europe.
The final four teams were Tottenham Hotspur FC (London, UK), AFC Ajax (Amsterdam, Netherlands), FC Barcelona (Barcelona, Spain), and Liverpool FC (Liverpool, UK). The Spurs knocked out Ajax in the semifinal while Liverpool knocked out Barca, setting the stage for an all-English final in Madrid. Hence all the Brits on the plane and some of them, like my seatmate, did not have tickets for this sold-out game. They'll take their chances with the scalpers at stadium or the peripheral events, I've been told.
The moment we landed, we realized just how much football fever has come to Spain. The airport was full of people wearing either white or red. Hotels were full up. We don't have numbers, but beer consumption per capita must have gone up thanks to the many tapas bars full with ladies and lads from the UK.
The city had been redecorated in UEFA colors, and there are pocket events happening in major public squares like Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol. They put up a small football pitch inside Plaza Mayor, together with booths from sponsors like Sony, complete with PlayStations. In Puerta del Sol, you can find a stage for performers, a Heineken bar with free-flowing beer (as evidenced by the many inebriated fans stumbling around), a merchandise store with very long lines, and the Nissan booth where you can test your football skills on a 360-degree challenge.
Nissan had been a sponsor of the UEFA Champions League for the last 5 seasons, but this year is special: they're making a big push for electric vehicles. It's not surprising given that Nissan does have the number one EV in the world in the Leaf. Together with the eNV200, a compact van also running on pure electricity, they lent 363 vehicles to UEFA to shuttle people around, hence the many Leafs and eNV200s running around the city.
The next day, we actually took a few Leafs around for a drive outside of the city. This would be the first time we've had our hands on a left-hand drive example of the 40 kilowatt-hour version of the Leaf, the same (or similar) version that we will get in the Philippine market sometime in 2020. We got a good feel for the vehicle and you'll get to read more about it in a feature in the next few days, but for now, we can say that the biggest advantage it has is that it's a very fun and practical everyday car, and not a mere science experiment. Once Nissan gets it to the Philippines, we think it will reshape the way we think about automobiles in the market, especially in the city. The one I was really looking to try out in the future, however, was the NISMO version of the Leaf.
Come game time, every one in our small group of Filipinos in Madrid really didn't know what to expect from a UEFA final with the exception of one: his name is Phil, and he plays with the Philippine Azkals. But we didn't need a Younghusband's knowledge of the game to appreciate the football fever around us. The moment we marched into the stadium that was filled to capacity with almost 68,000 fans, we were in awe.
Interestingly enough, Spain's capital is home to the top two ranked teams in UEFA: Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, respectively. Neither were able to make it past the Round of 16 elimination stages though. I can only imagine what the stadium and the city would have been like if one of those two teams made it into the final, but there's very something different about an all-British UCL final.
To our right were the supporters of Tottenham, all clad in white and/or blue. To our left were the fans of Liverpool, turning their side of the stadium into a sea of red. All of them flew here from their towns or wherever in the world they were located. All of them had flags or banners of their respective clubs. All of them sang their club songs: You'll Never Walk Alone and Allez Allez Allez for Liverpool and Glory Glory for Tottenham. You can't help but be in awe at what you just walked into.
This was the atmosphere brought out by passionate English football fans, something we don't have on our islands. According to Phil, our football isn't anywhere near as supported by the government or by corporations, a sad fact given that Filipino teams can be competitive on a global stage given that height isn't really as big a requirement as quickness, speed and tenacity. In terms of atmosphere and passion, I'm not so sure the local PBA games can compare because they're named after corporations rather than locations, but perhaps the feel of watching UAAP or NCAA college basketball game at Araneta can. Minus the alcohol consumed, of course.
You'll see the entire stadium stand every time the ball gets close to the goal, and you can almost feel an earthquake when that ball goes in. Phil said the game itself was not an excellent one in terms of play, but it was the feel of being there that was getting to us. One of the Nissan executives behind me was livid when we thought the referee missed calling a handball, and was visibly inconsolable at the final whistle when Tottenham went down two goals to nothing. The other Nissan executive beside him was elated, and chanting Liverpool to the top of his lungs that I was worried the beer in his cup would get showered all over us. That's what it feels like to be in a game like this. The raw emotions and the passion clearly goes through all, and we were just glad to have been there to witness Liverpool's sixth UEFA Champions League win.
We were fortunate to have watched the game close enough that a ball could easily have been kicked our way, not that we could keep it even if it did. But it also poses the question: Why is Nissan supplying 363 Leaf and eNV200 vehicles, flying people in from all over the world, and pumping in enough money to give the bean counters in Yokohama an aneurism in order to support a football tournament?
The answer to my question came a day after the game when we made our way back to the Nissan booth over at Puerta del Sol. While the guys were out filming and shooting some photos, I stayed and watched as people lined up to try their hand at Nissan's football lab. A kid came up and tried his foot at the game. He didn't do well and was upset, but in came his dad and they took turns getting the ball into the goals together, and took a snapshot together. That is perhaps the essence of this.
In events like the World Cup, national teams play against other national teams. But nations are very big units, drawing fans from all over their respective countries. In UEFA and the many leagues that make it up, it's all about the clubs, and clubs are tied to a particular city, municipality, or even a community. These are units that are much closer to home because you're cheering for the team that has your town's name, and you're doing it next to people who probably went to the same schools as you, lived on the same block or street as you, sat in the same church as you, or are directly related to you. You're with family, quite literally.
Judging from what we've seen with the passion in the stands at the stadium to this father spending time and bonding with his son inside the Nissan booth, that's exactly who they are connecting with. That's priceless and goes far beyond what Nissan may have spent to have their name shown all across the stadium, and what a sight it is to see.