Soccer and society: Madrid to Mason

February 18, 2013
George Mason President Angel Cabrera at Real Madrid match in December 2010
George Mason President Angel Cabrera at Real Madrid match in December 2010.

In our latest installment of Soccer and Society, a periodic feature chronicling the intersection of the beautiful game and American life, the Insider sits down with George Mason University President Angel Cabrera, 45, a native of Madrid and lifelong supporter of Real Madrid and Spain’s national team.

A few months ago, as a George Mason board meeting concluded on the Fairfax, Va., campus, university president Angel Cabrera realized he was missing Real Madrid’s Champions League match.

“I asked the president of student government, ‘Where can I watch the game? We’re already halfway through the first half,’” recalled Cabrera, who had served in his post since only the summer.

The student directed him to the Rathskeller at the Student Union.

“I raced across campus, grabbed a beer and watched the game. Now I know where to go.”

Cabrera’s soccer roots run deep. He grew up in the Batan neighborhood of Madrid, the grandson of a Real Madrid club member, or socio. As a schoolboy, he said he attended four or five matches each year, including clasicos against loathsome nemesis FC Barcelona.

“When we were born, we were given a little Real Madrid baby outfit and that was it, no options given. We were all Real fans — always,” he said. The connection was unbreakable, despite the fact his neighborhood sits closer to Estadio Vicente Calderon, home to city rival Atletico Madrid, than to Real’s illustrious Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.

As a boy, Cabrera admired Emilio Butragueño, “The Vulture,” a striker who served more than 10 years with Los Merengues’ first team. Later, he was a fan of Raul, a modern-day legend.

“I have always been attracted to the right personality and not just the technical competence,” he said. “For example, I am not at all a fan of [Cristiano] Ronaldo. The aura around him, I don’t like. I can’t connect with him and [manager] Jose Mourinho.”

If that wasn’t sacrilege, this was: “Although I grew up disliking Barcelona as a good Real Madrid fan, I now find myself torn because I love [Lionel] Messi, I loved [former manager Pep] Guardiola, I love Xavi and [Andres] Iniesta. That was the team I wish Real Madrid had. For the first time in my life, I sympathize with Barcelona and think, ‘What’s wrong with me?!’ ”

In school, Cabrera was a goalkeeper but soon turned his full attention to academics. He was a Fulbright Scholar at Georgia Tech, where he earned his PhD. Before accepting the George Mason position, he was president at Arizona’s highly decorated Thunderbird School of Global Management for eight years.

While in Arizona, a friend invited him to join an over-40 soccer team. “I was in my late 30s and said, ‘No, no, I am too young.’ The day I turned 40, he said, ‘No more excuses, you have to join.’ So I joined. I played defense. Every day I played I got injured. Your mind thinks you are in your teens and your body is not.”

Since arriving in the Washington area, he has struck up a friendship with renowned chef Jose Andres, a fellow Spaniard and a Barcelona supporter. On Twitter, the two needle one another about their allegiances. They unite in their love for Spain’s national team, the reigning World Cup and European champion.

New to campus, Cabrera attended a few soccer matches last fall. The Patriots are a mid-level Division I program, coached by former Columbus Crew boss Greg Andrulis.

“We do have a great population of international students, and that is growing,” he said. “Soccer is this big unifying element that people from different culture appreciate, so just by its nature, as we become more international, soccer will elevate in interest on campus.

“What is neat about soccer is it brings people together. Traditional American sports are very insular — even though they call it the World Series. I can go to any country in the world, say I am from Madrid and immediately strike up a conversation about Real Madrid.”

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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Steven Goff · February 17, 2013