Friday, October 24, 2008

Atletico Madrid V Liverpool

Joel Rookwood



European football’s governing body illustrated its latest managerial blunder last week, with another thoughtless and untimely intervention. The latest club to feel the wrath of UEFA were Atletico Madrid. The Spanish outfit were found guilty of a number of offences during the visit of Marseille in the early stages of this season’s Champions League. These included but were not limited to the club’s alleged inappropriate treatment of the visiting team’s playing staff, together with the overzealous tactics of the Madridleno police in the away section. The footage obtained and subsequently beamed around the globe via the usual media networks admittedly provides damming evidence regarding the latter misdemeanour. However, the absurdly late response to the misconduct threatened to serve as little more than another example of UEFA’s inconsistency and incompetence, together with their ongoing disdain for Liverpool fans.

To deal briefly with each accusation in reverse order, I begin firstly with Liverpool, whose supporters are not exactly in favour with the continent’s chief football personnel. This is largely due to their misbehaviour leading up to the 2007 Champions League final in Athens. Although Liverpool fans shoulder some of the responsibility for the events in Greece, UEFA refused to accept any blame for choosing to stage that game in an athletics arena, rather than a football ground (something they have a habit of doing, as we saw in Istanbul two years earlier). In addition, the significance of the perceived injustice of UEFA’s ticketing policies denied many supporters the opportunity to see the 2007 final. As writer Kevin Sampson argued: “Sound familiar, this? The final was to be held at an old, inadequate athletics stadium with checkpoints instead of turnstiles. It had been built for spectators, who observe and applaud, rather than fans, who are, well, fanatical.” And the contempt continues. Just days before Atletico Madrid’s next home game in this season’s competition, UEFA announced that the match was to be played “at least 300km from Madrid” by way of punishment. And the opponents in that first game? Why Liverpool, of course.



Secondly, as no explanation or subsequent detail was offered in this strange directive, staff and supporters from both teams were left wondering where they would be traveling for the group D showdown. To further illustrate their incompetence, the ambiguous ruling was then overturned just four days before the game was due to take place. UEFA effectively admitted the blunder by postponing the punishment until Atletico’s next home game against PSV. Thirdly, although the organization appears fraught with inconsistencies, the irregularity of the messages UEFA send through their decision making is the most concerning. In recent seasons Italy and Rome in particular has proven to be one of the most dangerous locations for traveling football fans. So where did they decide to host this years Champions League final? That would be Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, of course. I only hope the combination of teams who make it to this year’s final does not add further explosive ingredients to what is already a potentially disastrous mix.

After the draw had been made for the 2008-2009 group stage, 4000 or so Liverpool fans booked flights for what was the club’s first competitive fixture in the world famous footballing city. Yet in the days leading up to the match, fans were left clueless as to where the game was to be held. The rumor mill began to accelerate in the intervening period, as message boards and radio and television channels began to openly contemplate the possible substitute venues. Seville was out of the equation as a UEFA Cup match was scheduled in the city the following night, and the competition’s organizers do not permit European matches on consecutive nights in the same city (which to give credit where it’s due, is a sensible policy). Zaragoza’s ground was considered too small, and the likes of La Coruna and Barcelona were thought to be too far away. The obvious venue therefore seemed to be Valencia’s Estadio Mestalla. I was due to fly in to Valencia, and having calculated the distance, knew it to be around 340km from the capital. The selected distance, which at first seemed to have been pulled out of the sky, all started to seem a little convenient. And this was not lost on the hoards of intuitive Liverpudlians intent on making the journey. Before the ink was dry on UEFA’s indistinct initial press release, some Scousers began to re-direct their travel plans for Valencia. Flights, hire cars and hotel rooms were booked, as the traveling Kop awaited the announcement of what many perceived to be a definite replacement venue. Within three days UEFA were kind enough to make and communicate a final decision, yet the details were leaked by Atletico officials to the Spanish football daily, Marca. It wasn’t until this stage that UEFA’s u-turn became apparent, and what away to find out.



Whilst the Spanish club were in no doubt that the ruling had fallen in their favour, the Liverpool fans were less convinced. Plans had to be re-scheduled once again. But for those of us who have already seen Liverpool play in Valencia, the decision was not wholly unpopular. But Liverpool fans are always unperturbed by organizational inadequacies, and so on the day before and the day of the game, supporters in their thousands set off for Madrid. As usual UEFA’s concerns (which on this occasion were apparently focused on “the safety of supporters”) proved to be unfounded. For the city of Madrid together with its very own “people’s club” proved to be the perfect hosts. All over the city we were warmly welcomed by people passionate about their football. They might not have illustrated the fanaticism of some of their rivals, notably the duo from Seville, but nevertheless the people of Madrid clearly love their football. And the Madridleno public recognised the quality and tradition provided by Liverpool.

Due appreciation was afforded to the Liverpool team, managed by Madrid born Rafael Benitez and featuring fellow countrymen Xavi Alonso, Pepe Reina, Albert Riera and Alvaro Arbeloa. Of course the notable absentee from the Liverpool squad was Atletico idol Fernando Torres. Torres had been injured whilst on international duty the previous week, to the frustration of the player, his manager and colleagues, and not to mention the adoring Liverpool fans. Atletico supporters were also clearly disappointed to have been denied the opportunity to express their ongoing affection for the lad they called El Nino. I first saw Torres play in 2004, as his hatrick for Atletico was enough to overcome hosts Athletic Bilbao. His genius was clear to see then, as the whole crowd stood and applauded him. Since his arrival at Anfield fourteen months ago, Torres has blossomed into Europe’s best marksmen. But for the visit to Madrid we were to be denied his services, which would on reflection would certainly have made all the difference.



Benitez’s team dominated the match, but despite taking the lead though Robbie Keane on fourteen minutes, lacked the firepower and quality to supplement the tally. The inevitable then occurred, as the home side equalised through Simao seven minutes from time, thus earning a point their performance just about warranted. Liverpool were made to rue miss chances and absent forwards, but in truth, our minds were firmly fixed on the visit to Chelsea this weekend. The tactical changes illustrated through the manager’s substitutions were clear evidence of that. And despite leaving the leadership of Group D wide open as a consequence, most Liverpool fans were not too disappointed by the result. At long last, priorities at Anfield are beginning to tilt towards the title.

After the game the usual temporary containment of the away supporters provided opportunities for a love-in with the thousands of locals who chose to remain behind. Scarves were swapped by fans keen to formulate and illustrate a mutual respect between the two cities. Both sets of fans raucously booed the playing of the UEFA anthem before the match, and on the final whistle, were united again in singing the name of each other’s team, with the players warming down in the background. Outside the festival of respect continued as the Atletico fans lined the streets to clap us out, which only enhanced the volume of the Scouse support. We took it in turns to sing songs about Fernando Torres, as the fiesta spread across the vicinity. The palm of my hand now aches from all the high-fives I exchanged with our humble hosts. But of course this is a side to fandom UEFA never see.

1 comment:

The Soccer Blogger said...

Nightmare decision by UEFA, as usual. I mean look at what happened in Athens, there organisation nearly turned that into another disaster. Then to wait until only a week before the game to announce that decision just beggars believe!
I wrote a little article about it to, if you're interested:
UEFA Create Havoc For Liverpool Fans
Great result at Chelski though!
Cheers