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SMC Soccer Student-Athlete Experiences Spanish Culture
Release: Wednesday 02/17/2014 
by SMC Athletics

By Justin Howard

As a student-athlete for the past four years at Saint Mary’s, I have been given many opportunities to develop, grow, and learn through soccer as well as earning a great education. However, never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be given the opportunity to travel to Spain and earn academic credit for it.

This dream to continue to develop, grow, and learn became a reality when I took advantage of the opportunity to travel during the month of January.  Through Saint Mary’s Jan Term program, I was able to participate in a course called Exploring Cultural Metamorphoses through Spanish History, Art, and Architecture, taught by Professors Frances Sweeney and Sally Stampp.  The class traveled to nine different cities, including Madrid, Segovia, Toledo, Sevilla, Jerez de la Frontera, Italica, Barcelona, and Figueres. 

In addition to learning about and exploring Spanish history, art and architecture, each student was assigned the task to become an “expert” on a topic of interest.  Being that soccer is one of my greatest passions, I decided to research and become a so-called “expert” on El Clasico, the match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid.  Throughout my research, I discovered that the matchup between these two teams is more than a soccer rival; it is a fight for regional pride and a time to prove political differences. 

From the moment I was accepted into the course, my goal was to attend a La Liga match in Spain.  One of the things we learned throughout the course was that in order to understand Spanish culture, we must experience it firsthand. 

On our very first day in Madrid, the class was lucky enough to purchase tickets for a matchup between Real Madrid and Celta de Vigo.  Despite the nine-hour time change and exhaustion from 13 hours of travel, I was not going to pass up a chance to see a true Spanish soccer game. 

After figuring out how to use the metro and which direction we needed to travel, I came face to face with Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, one of the most famous futbol stadiums in the world.  Our group of 20 students from SMC added to the 85,000 loyal fans that were in attendance that night. 

Watching international soccer stars like Christiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Ángel di María, Pepe, Xabi Alonso, and Gareth Bale perform for Real Madrid in person was both unreal and an unforgettable experience.  Although I have seen them play numerous times on television, watching their skill and speed of play within the loud, fan-crazed stadium showed me just how talented they truly are.  The experience was complete when Real Madrid ended up winning 3-0 with goals coming from Benzema and Ronaldo, who scored two.  

Plaza EspanaAfter a week in Madrid, our journey took us to our next big city - Sevilla.  Upon entering a new city and region, we determined that each area of Spain offers something uniquely different.  While our days in Madrid were filled with studying art at the Museo del Prado, the Reina Sofia, and Museo Sorolla, our time in Sevilla was filled with experiencing traditional Spanish pastimes. 

Southern Spain has been called “True Spain” because of its rich traditions such as bullfighting, flamenco and authentic tapas restaurants.  Sticking with the realization that one must be a part of Spanish culture to understand it, our class attended a nighttime flamenco show, toured a bullfighting ring and ate an endless amount of tapas and croquettes at several local restaurants.  The stories behind the art of flamenco and bullfighting and the authentic cuisine all play a role in defining the culture of Spain. O

Our travels for the month concluded in Barcelona.  Barcelona is a unique city that is filled with the famous architect Antoni Gaudi’s Art Nouveau inspired structures.  Some of his major architectural feats we studied included La Sagrada Familia, Casa Batllo, La Casa Mila and Park Guell.

Justin at Camp NouIn addition to the incredible architecture, Barcelona is home to arguably one of the greatest soccer teams in the world, FC Barcelona, as well as one of the greatest forwards to ever play the game, Lionel Messi. The week we were in Barcelona, the team was away for two games.  So, unfortunately we did not get to see them play.  However, this did not stop me from making my way out to Camp Nou, FC Barcelona’s stadium, to take a tour and be a part of the “Camp Nou Experience.” 

This interactive tour leads you into the trophy room and throughout, what seemed to be, the Messi Museum.  The Messi Museum contained his three Golden Boots and four Ballon de Oro’s, which are awarded to the best footballer of the year.  After passing through FC Barcelona’s awards and trophies, the experience leads you through the visiting locker room, the press room, the team chapel and out onto the perfectly manicured pitch.  Stepping onto the field where some of the best players make history, looking out at the 100,000 seats and feeling the pride within the stadium walls was the perfect way to end my journey as an athlete and the perfect way to end my month abroad. 

From the art in Madrid, the rich history and traditions in Sevilla and the breathtaking architecture in Barcelona, my Jan Term in Spain was a remarkable experience that I will cherish forever.