Importance of sport on display

Carl Ehrlich, second from right, with his teammates. Carl Ehrlich

Editor's note: Carl Ehrlich, who was the captain of the 2009 Harvard football team, is in Spain to play football. He'll chronicle his experiences on and off the field for ESPNBoston.com. Today we learn about his "celebrity" status in Valencia.

It's 6:45 p.m. and, already running late, my roommates and I are pleading with Jason to pick a shirt already. If Jason (who, at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, is a physical anomaly) played football half as slow as he got dressed, he would get cut from my high school team.

Granted, if there was ever a night to worry about your outfit, tonight is it. Tonight, after all, is the Anuario del Deporte Valenciano.

This event, in Valencia, is like the White House Correspondents Dinner and the ESPY's rolled into one. Star athletes, high profile politicians, local celebrities; anyone who is anyone makes the guest list.

Apparently, I'm anyone.

The Anuario has everything you would expect out of your typical awards ceremony. Red carpet, swarms of photographers, walruses, adoring fans. Wait, walruses?

What sets the Anuario apart from other award ceremonies is that it is held at the Valencian Oceanografic. For those of you behind on your marine infrastructure, the Oceanografic is the largest aquarium in Europe. It may also be home to the largest walrus in Europe, who was roughly the same size, and who produced the same sound as, the offensive linemen I fell on last weekend.

(Firebats update: My suspension -- described in last week's diary -- was lifted, or postponed, or possibly never existed. All I know is that the morning of our last game, our team's president told me he "did his job," and that I could play. I proceeded to do mine and the Firebats beat the Madrid Osos 58-14).

Proving themselves equally indifferent to both English and Spanish greetings, the walruses delay us even more than Jason's fashion crisis. By the time we sneak into the main auditorium, all seating is taken, the lights are dimmed, and the MCs are ready to present.

Lighting? Check. Microphones? Loud and clear. Shark tank background? Huh?!

Ten feet behind the podium is a massive fish tank with two or three sharks swimming around. Granted, they are hardly Jaws, but big enough that I wouldn't want to share a tank with them.

The Anuario starts with a procession of 6- to 8-year-olds, each dressed as an athlete from a different Valencian team. Thanks to some unfortunate choreographing, though, our miniature Firebat actually skips into position. The Firebats are visibly disappointed by this. If there's no crying in baseball, there is certainly no skipping in football.

Answering stock questions from the audience, the atletitas give a brief history of the Valencian sports scene, about half of which I understand. Periodically, one of these kids gets to illustrate his sport. The ballerina gives a brief curtsey, the Formula One driver takes his car for a quick spin, and the horseback rider even rides a fake horse around the stage.

The whole time, I'm waiting for the Valencian swimmer to show us some freestyle in the shark tank.

The next part of the presentation involves interaction between the mini-athletes and their grown equivalents. First, the mini-motocross rider gets a chance to show his bike to Julian Simon, the world champion 125 cc moto-racer. (Note: Proving his amateurism, the mini-driver actually forgets to turn his bike off during their conversation and spends five minutes blowing fumes directly in the face of the swimmer.) Next, a girl gets to play soccer against a star on the national team.

During all this, I turn to Voncarie Owens, "VO", the other American on the Firebats, and ask him what he would do if he got the ball against our mini-teammate. "No mercy," he tells me coldly.

I don't like the kid's odds, and am relieved when this part of the show ends.

By the time the awards presentation begins VO and I are worn out from standing up and head off to find a place to sit. Five minutes later we're on a staircase overlooking the stage, and nodding off back to back a la Bubba and Forrest Gump in the mud of Vietnam.

Getting back to our translator (and strong safety), we're given enough translation to understand that Luis Aragones, the man currently receiving an award, is a soccer god in Spain. Under his guidance, the Spanish national team won the most recent European championship.

"Bill Bellichick on steroids," is how he's described to me.

To wrap up the ceremony, the president of the state delivers (what I gauge from audience reaction) a terrific speech. VO and I may or may not have missed part of it because of a premature appetizer sighting.

While much of the presentation is lost in translation, the significance of the event and the importance that sport plays in this city is abundantly clear. Especially the importance of soccer.

Our most celebrity-esque moment of the night actually comes because of soccer. After taking our group photo, a crowd of people begins gathering around VO and asking for pictures. After a five touchdown performance last week, I am happy to see him getting the attention he deserves. This kind of popularity, especially in Valencia, seems too good to be true.

And that's because it was. Apparently, the crowd had VO confused for Miguel, a famous defenseman for the Valencian Football Club.

Humbled by our faux-celebrity status, we grab our gift bags (free wine!), finish our drinks and head back past the walruses on the way to practice.