Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Real Madrid.
A day after touching down in Salt Lake City, the most successful soccer club in European history made its official entrance here Tuesday. Madrid held two practices at Rice-Eccles Stadium one in the morning and one at night as part of its altitude-training week and participated in a press conference at the Grand America Hotel.
"What a week of soccer we are about to have in Salt Lake City," RSL owner Dave Checketts said at the press conference, "and how pleased I am to welcome to Salt Lake the members of Real Madrid. . . . It really is a dream come true."
Real Salt Lake will meet Real Madrid in an exhibition game Saturday evening. A handful of tickets remain available for the contest, which begins at 7:30 p.m.
"We want to thank everybody for the warm welcome we've had here in Salt Lake City," Real Madrid captain Raul Gonzalez said. "We understand that there have been a lot of tickets sold for this game, and we expect a sellout for this game."
Madrid will be in Seattle for an exhibition with D.C. United tonight. It will then return to Salt Lake to train for two days before taking on RSL.
Checketts' vision for the friendly match began when he first visited Real Madrid's facilities. Nearly 24 months later, he has delivered one of the biggest sports teams on the planet to this city.
"They're an institution, not just in Madrid but throughout Europe," said Checketts. "They are feared. They are loathed.
They are respected. They are like the Yankees are here. They manage to get just about everybody they want. So there's a fair amount of the soccer world that cheers for them to lose."
Real Madrid's roster is headlined by international superstar David Beckham, but it's also filled with many other stars.
Like the Yankees, Real Madrid has an illustrious history. Madrid has won the Champions League Europe's version of the Super Bowl a record nine times. It has also won 29 Spanish League titles and 17 Spanish Cup titles.
"We take great pride in wearing a Real Madrid shirt," said Gonzalez, who is the all-time leading scorer in Spanish National Team history. "It's a very important institution, (because) of the history of the club and the importance of the club. It's also a great pride to play in the Santiago Bernabeu, which is a phenomenal facility. And the crowds there and the atmosphere there is second to none. And when the team travels to places such as Salt Lake City, we are received very well."
Despite its illustrious history, things haven't gone well lately. Since winning its last major trophy in 2003, Madrid's massive throng of fans has endured numerous coaching changes and a number of frustrations.
The latest to try and fix Real Madrid is Italian coach Fabio Capello, whose distinguished career includes a stint with Madrid back in the late '90s.
"The results in the past haven't been what we wanted, but we've had a change in leadership in our team in Fabio Capello," said Gonzalez. "We will continue to work hard to make sure we get the results we believe we require as the club we are."
Real Madrid, which always makes big summer signings, has already bought three players during the current European transfer window. It signed Fabio Cannavaro, who captained Italy to the 2006 World Cup title, and Emerson from Juventus. Capello coached both players at Juventus until a match-fixing scandal rocked Juventus and the rest of Italian soccer.
Madrid's other signing was prolific striker Ruud van Nistelrooy from Manchester United.Expectations will be sky-high for those players throughout their tenure at Real Madrid.
ENDLINES:Raul and teammate Roberto Carlos sat next to each other with a single microphone during Tuesday's press conference. Throughout the 30-minute event, each player spent time playfully pushing the microphone in front of the other . . . RSL chief executive Dean Howes said Tuesday the team is donating 500 tickets to youth players in Utah and Salt Lake County. . . . Checketts thought Saturday's match would've already sold out, but he expects Rice-Eccles Stadium to be at capacity by the time the match begins. He said the fact that RSL didn't allow fans to purchase single-game tickets for a long time is probably to blame. . . . Rumors endlessly circulate throughout the U.S. soccer community about the possibility of European stars, including Beckham, ending their careers in MLS. Asked about whether he would one day be interested, Gonzalez responded: "I think that's a possibility that us as players will look at."
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